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Deborah Harkness: The dual lives of a fantasy writer

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You have a huge following from your novel A Discovery of Witches, but you’re also a history professor at the University of Southern California. How do you make time for your students and your fans?

I feel like I have a much bigger classroom now. The world of scholarship is much more measured in its appreciation and also its criticism than the world of popular literature. I have not had anybody fling their arms around me and say, ”I just loved your book on [Elizabethan court astrologer] John Dee!” But that does happen in the world of fiction because it touches people’s emotions. This is all pretty exciting for a middle-aged college professor.

Your series has been called the Twilight or Harry Potter for adults. Are your books geared specifically toward grown-ups?

I teach 18- to 21-year-olds — the Harry Potter generation. They grew up as voracious readers, reading books in this exploding genre. But at some point, I would love for them to give Umberto Eco or A.S. Byatt a try. I hope A Discovery of Witches will serve as a kind of stepping-stone.

How did you conceive of the world in these books, where witches, vampires, and demons live among humans?

It all began with a set of ”logical” questions. How would a world work in which there really were these creatures? If they went to college, what would their majors be? My niece was very much caught up in the vampire craze for young adults, and she thought having a vampire boyfriend would be a cool thing. What do you do on a first date? The more I thought about it, the more fun I had imagining what you’d serve a vampire for dinner.

A lot of research goes into your novels. I like to imagine you reading in an old British library, just like your heroine Diana.

That’s where I do my research! Once the grades are in, I’m bound for London. My most frequented libraries are the Bodleian, the British Library, and the Guildhall Library. Actually, for Shadow of Night, I dug up a box full of old yellow index cards that I took notes on for my dissertation on John Dee. I did that research in the Bodleian in 1992, so when it came time to write [about him for] this book, I was like, ”Man, I already have notes on that!”

As a scholar, are you ever tempted to include too much history in novels?

All the time! You always have 75 file tubs full of research, and only half of one makes it into the book. As a historian, I love every little detail, but whole long passages about wood paneling and journeys on horseback and every stop at every inn had to go out the window. I decided the history in the books should be like spice in a soup — a little went a long way. Like cilantro.

What’s the status on the Discovery of Witches movie?

We’re in script development. Warner Brothers hired David Auburn, the Pulitzer- and Tony award-winning writer of Proof, to do the adaptation. Anybody brave enough to take a 600-page book and turn it into a 120-page screenplay has nothing but my admiration and respect.

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