Wednesday, November 21, 2012

RA in a day 2012: Luncheon Speaker Deborah Harkness

Luncheon Speaker: Deborah Harkness

Deborah Harkness, author of the bestselling novels, A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night, was a great speaker: passionate, funny, interesting – you can tell she teaches! She enthralled us with background information about her novels, including the fact that Ashmole 782 is a real manuscript, and it is really missing. She told us “it’s the only alchemical manuscript I ever called up and wasn’t able to get.” Matthew Roydon is also a real historical figure, and she herself is most similar to Emily, not Diana (as many people often assume). She talked about how her students, who she sees at a time of great change in their lives, influenced her portrayal of Diana: “I teach a lot of talented young people who are desperately afraid of their own power.”

Deborah also told us about how the idea for the novels was born: she was on vacation with her parents, recovering from academic responsibilities that left her out of touch with pop culture. When she spotted a copy of Breaking Dawn in the airport bookshop, her parents had to explain the series to her. Her first thought was “what do vampires do for a living?” She mused that they would want a career with some longevity, but not in proximity to, say, blood. So, a geneticist might be an idea… Similarly, a witch would make a good historian, for example. She also outlined the structure of the series: while the first book was set in the present day, the second was more historical fiction, and the third will have more science-fiction aspects to it (she hinted about genetics).

Finally, Deborah talked about using her newfound fame and fortune for good: she observed that the ability to “have an opinion” was cool. “No one cares about what a history professor thinks about libraries,” she explained, referring to media coverage of library closures in the US and UK,” but now that I’m a novelist, well, yes, thank you for asking, I have a lot of opinions about that!” She made a room full of librarians happy when she told us of her early literary influences (including The Witch of Blackbird Pond, one of my childhood favourites), and the quality time she spent in libraries as a child. “I’m here talking to you,” she told us, “because you were here for me when I was little.”

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