Deborah Harkness believes the pages of centuries-old manuscripts are enchanted.
Like clues to a mystery, they hold the key to unraveling the chronology, ambitions, failures and successes of those who lived before us. And where records of their pursuits sometimes lead to dead ends, Harkness finds fuel for fiction.
Take “Ashmole 782,” the enigmatic manuscript that became the jumping-off point for A Discovery of Witches (Viking Adult, 2011) and Shadow of Night (Viking Adult, 2012), the first two installments of her uber-successful All Souls Trilogy. “Ashmole 782” does in fact exist outside of Harkness’ fictional world, though its whereabouts are currently unknown.
“Ashmole 782” was originally donated to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University in 1858 as part of chemist and bibliophile Elias Ashmole’s extensive book, coin and natural object collection. It was designated “Object 782” in the collection and bore the description: “Anthropologia, or a treatis containing a short description of Man in two parts: the first Anatomical, the second Psychological.” Harkness surmises that the manuscript was lost due to an incorrect catalogue entry or shelving error.
Harkness, professor of history at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, breathes life into the mysterious text by filling in gaps in the historical record through the magic of fiction — one of the great perks of being a writer, according to the scholar.
“I get to go where the historian’s craft would force me to stop because there’s no evidence,” she said. “As a novelist I get to say, ‘OK, imagine this is what’s happening.’ ”
In the series, Harkness casts “Ashmole 782” in a central role, imagining what magic it may contain. Set in the present day, the manuscript brings together the characters Diana Bishop and Matthew Clairmont in the majestic, gothic Bodleian Library.
In A Discovery of Witches, Bishop, a historian and witch who has rejected her deep, Salem, Mass., roots, encounters the enchanted manuscript during the course of her research into alchemy texts:
… I reached out, touching the brown leather. A mild shock made me withdraw my fingers quickly, but not quickly enough. The tingling traveled up my arms, lifting my skin into tiny goose pimples … Shaken by my response, I stepped away from the library table. Even at a safe distance, this manuscript was challenging me — threatening the walls I’d erected to separate my career as a scholar from my birthright as the last of the Bishop witches.
In Bishop’s world, witches, vampires and daemons (spelled as such in allusion to the Greek word for genius) walk among the oblivious regular folk, and the re-emergence of “Ashmole 782” — previously lost for centuries — sets the supernatural world into an uproar.
However, Bishop — unaware of the manuscript’s significance and upset because she knows it is magical — unceremoniously returns it to the stacks. Then the frightening but handsome 1,500-year-old vampire Clairmont appears and clues her in: Ashmole 782 may hold the key to explaining why supernatural creatures exist — and why they are dying out. So begins their search to reclaim the elusive manuscript, which has once again disappeared.
Harkness clearly has fun fusing history and storytelling. Peppered throughout the two books are plot points and characters with true historical origins.
For instance, the Clairmont character in the trilogy is based on Matthew Roydon, a 16th-century English poet and friend of playwright Christopher Marlowe. Harkness studied Roydon as a master’s student at Northwestern University while researching her thesis on the poem “The Shadow of Night” by George Chapman. Chapman dedicated the poem to Roydon, whom Harkness described as a very strange, mysterious character.
“He was a spy for the queen, yet we don’t have firm information on where or when he died,” she said. “He was mentioned in Marlowe’s accidental death inquest, but nobody knows where he was buried. It was as if he vanished.”
Resurrecting Roydon in her trilogy, the reference is unveiled for good when — spoiler alert — Clairmont goes by the name Roydon in Shadow of Night.
“At the very beginning, when I was thinking about what vampires would be like in my world, I thought they would be a total pain like Matthew Roydon,” Harkness said. “Spotlight-adjacent but never actually in the spotlight long enough that you could get to know them.”
A historian of science and magic of early modern Europe, the period from 1400 to 1700, Harkness has made the remarkable leap to bestselling fiction writer. O, The Oprah Magazine included A Discovery of Witches on its “15 Books to Watch for in February 2011” list, and it landed in the No. 2 spot on The New York Times bestseller list. The second installment, Shadow of Night, did even better, hitting The New York Times bestseller list at No 1. Together, the books have been translated into more than 36 languages.
As a historian, Harkness’ research focuses on how scholars studied the natural world from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment and Renaissance, up to the 18th century. This was the time of witch-hunts, when there was no distinction between magic and science.
Her fictional work fittingly mirrors that dynamic.
“People in the early modern period genuinely believed that supernatural creatures lived among them because they had different ideas about the world and how it worked,” Harkness said. “Very educated people believed it was completely possible to have supernatural powers.”
Her two previous works of nonfiction examine 16th-century scientists. The first, John Dee’s Conversations With Angels: Cabala, Alchemy and the End of Nature (Cambridge University Press, 1999) features a title character who makes an appearance in Shadow of Night. Harkness followed that up with The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (Yale University Press, 2007).
But it was the recent explosion of vampire and witch lore in pop culture that got Harkness thinking: What if supernatural creatures do, in fact, exist as her research subjects believed, and if they did, what would they do for a living?
“What inspired me was to try and think about how I could write a fairytale for grown-ups that was about these fantastic creatures living among us,” Harkness said.
“I explain the world from inside their communities,” she continued. “I think in that way it’s an approach that would make sense to other historians of science because what we do is study the systematic ways the people in the past looked at the world and their place in it.”
Harkness is currently on sabbatical to complete the final installment of the All Souls Trilogy. Though she works mainly at her Los Angeles-area home, she will write anywhere and everywhere: “I’ve written on the Doheny Library steps with my laptop; I’ve written in the library café, in my office, at home, hotel rooms, on the train between London and Paris — you name it.”
In case the muse strikes, she always carries with her a laptop and small notebook. However, sometimes she’s not in the position to use them. During a long car ride on Interstate 5, she was caught off guard and was forced to be resourceful.
“Driving is wonderful because your mind floats,” she sad. “I had to pull off to get a coffee, and I ended up with this stack of McDonald’s napkins with bits and pieces of ideas for Shadow of Night on them.”
Harkness doesn’t usually go through an intense research phase prior to writing each book since much of the historical information exists in her head. However, she made special trips to visit the cities she writes about in her books.
“I lived in a tiny, tiny village in the Auvergne in France,” Harkness said. “There were about 25 residents and goats. I really got as close as I could get to what it would be like to live in a village in the Auvergne in the 16th century.”
She also spent time in Prague, a central location in Shadow of Night.
“I had never been to Prague and there was no way I could actually write about somebody’s experience without visiting it myself,” she said. “Walking, listening to the sounds, feeling the air, the wind as it comes off of the river. It’s that intangible experience, the sensory detail, that I hope is what makes the book feel real for my readers.”
She was already familiar with Oxford and London — two cities she lived in as an undergraduate studying abroad and later as a Fulbright fellow. Harkness, who grew up in suburban Philadelphia, is the older of two children born to an American father, a sales manager in a paint shop, and an English mother, a secretary.
Her books have garnered her swarms of dedicated fans, whom she personally interacts with on social media. And as creativity breeds creativity, her fans have produced their own All Souls items: jewelry with story-inspired charms, knitting patterns incorporating the book jacket design and Pinterest boards collecting images of narrative details and locales.
“It’s amazing to inspire not just people’s curiosity and their empathy but also their creativity,” Harkness said.
On her Facebook discussion forum, fans have begun formulating dream casts for the All Souls Trilogy movies in the works. Warner Bros. picked up the film rights to A Discovery of Witches in 2011. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Auburn is currently adapting the novel for the silver screen. One musician fan wrote a suggested theme song for the film.
Even amid this adventure, Harkness is excited to return to teaching at USC Dornsife in the fall and get her students fired up about history.
“I really want to continue to find ways to make my students’ learning historically rigorous and sound but also inspiring and exciting,” she said.