Horsham native Deborah Harkness makes a case for it with her popular All Souls Trilogy.
By Naila Francis
An abiding interest in magic may seem unusual for someone who’s made a career of researching the scientific and historical.
But ask Deborah Harkness if she believes in magic and the University of Southern California professor’s yes is unequivocal.
She’ll even attest witches and vampires are real, too.
The Horsham native is, after all, the author of the celebrated All Souls Trilogy, which follows the tale of Diana Bishop, an historian and reluctant witch, who falls in love with 1,500-year-old vampire and geneticist Matthew Clairmont as they search for an enchanted manuscript.
“I was fascinated by the modern preoccupation with all these supernatural beings, with elves and witches and shape-shifters. We’re pretty scientific and we think of ourselves as being relatively immune to that kind of thing, so why are they so fascinating?” muses Harkness, whose final installment in the series, “The Book of Life” — the follow-up to 2012’s “Shadow of Night” — was published by Viking July 15.
“I started thinking if I want them to be real, what would they be like? Where would they live? What would they do for work? How would they date?
“I took classic elements of vampire and witch stories and tried to reimagine them and took away the stuff that doesn’t make sense and thought what would make it possible for these characters to exist.”
Harkness, a history professor at USC in Los Angeles, also drew from her own experience discovering a lost manuscript while completing her dissertation.
She was at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, which is also where her protagonist first opens a bewitched book, when she came across a manuscript, “Aldaraia,” owned by John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s astrologer. For centuries, no one had been able to find the mysterious book, which the mathematician and alchemist had mentioned during conversations he’d reportedly been having with angels in the 1570s and ’80s, using a crystal ball.
Ashmole 782, the mystical manuscript at the center of the All Souls Trilogy — and a real-life lost document penned by English antiquarian and scholar Elias Ashmole — has its roots in her unexpected find.
“As my imaginary characters started to walk around and talk to each other, the book became a source of tension not only between those two individuals but between all kinds of different creatures sharing the earth, and wondering about their place in the world and who they are and why they are here,” says Harkness, who will appear Tuesday at the Free Library of Philadelphia as part of its author series.
The books may sound like a familiar entry in the fantasy genre that exploded with the popularity of the Harry Potter and “Twilight” series — neither of which she’s read — but this is cerebral adult fiction.
Harkness’ deft blend of the scholarly and supernatural has been captivating reviewers since the release of the trilogy’s first novel, “A Discovery of Witches,” in 2011.
Yet before she plunged herself into her tales of epic time-travel adventure, the only writing the Hatboro-Horsham High School graduate had done was nonfiction. Her historical works include the books “The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution” and “John Dee’s Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature.”
“I had no plans to write a novel,” says Harkness. “I can’t explain in a rational way what happened. I just had a set of questions about what if these people existed. It was kind of a wonderful accident.”
A 2006 detour into blogging also opened the door for a different kind of writing than what she’d been used to. In 1997, Harkness got a teaching job at the University of California at Davis, near Napa and Sonoma. When she later moved to Los Angeles, her yearning for the conversations she’d had with her colleagues in the viticulture and enology department inspired the launch of her award-winning blog, Good Wine Under $20.
“It was probably an important step on the journey because it was writing for a wider audience,” she says. “When you write academic nonfiction for other historians, it’s sort of an inside conversation. But writing about wine for anybody on the Internet who happens to stumble upon you, it’s very different and you try to make it as open and nonintimidating and accessible as possible.”
She doesn’t profess to an enduring love of writing but does come to the craft with a deep affinity for books, one she traces back to elementary school and in particular, her librarian, Kay Wersler.
“She let me read above my grade level whenever I needed to. I quickly outgrew the ‘Billy and Blaze’ books. She pushed me over to the fiction section — ‘The Witch of Blackbird Pond’ and ‘Nancy Drew.’ She’s the one who put the books in my hand and kept me reading,” says Harkness. “This trilogy is in part a love letter to books and libraries and an expression of how important these things are to the world and to the world’s future. I think we’ve started taking books for granted ….
“They don’t just fall out of the atmosphere, even if modern technology can make it seem like that. You don’t want to take something like that for granted because it’s a dangerous moment when you do.”
Wersler is one of two hometown heroes. Harkness, whose parents, Jack and Olive, still live in Horsham, credits Saul Flieder, her high school history teacher, with influencing her career choice.
“I still try to teach up to his standards,” she says. “He has so much passion as a teacher. I would not be an historian if it was not for him.”
Yet it wasn’t until she took a college course on magic that she gained an appreciation for science as a method for asking and understanding fundamental questions about the world and our place in it — and magic as the technology once used to answer them.
“The course turned out to be a lot about science and a lot about alchemy. I was terrible at science, but one day, the professor asked, ‘How do you know what you think you know?’ I think the top of my head lifted off. … That was my introduction to the history of science.”
But the All Souls Trilogy spans more than the intersection of science, history and alchemy.
In trotting out her cast of fantastic creatures, Harkness is also confronting issues of race and sexuality — and the human tendency to label, or categorize, what is different as dangerous or undesirable.
“Really, human beings are the ones who make 98 percent of the monsters up. We identify people around us who aren’t like us, who we don’t understand, and we put their differences into sharp relief and focus on them and dehumanize them,” she says.
“It’s a very human tendency, but we have to try to do better. We have to be more understanding.”
– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer