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Friday, February 18, 2011

Deborah Harkness at Barnes & Noble

Deborah Harkness speaking at Barnes & Noble

You would have to live under a rock not to have heard of the Harry Potter and Twilight books. Although written for teens and tweens, those books also found a big adult audience. That fact was not lost on history professor Deborah Harkness, who, while stuck in Puerto Vallarta on vacation during torrential rain, went to a bookstore and noticed all of the vampire and witch books lining the shelves.

This led her to write  A Discovery of Witches a novel about witches, vampires, and daemons interacting with humans. She spoke at Barnes & Noble 86th St. in NYC on February 16th to an enthusiastic crowd.

She said she is frequently asked why she wrote a novel, since she is a history professor. She said that is was not a decision to write, it was an accident. While looking at the those books in the bookstore, she began to wonder why vampires, witches and daemons exist, and where do they work? They can't all be private investigators.

She asked us to imagine that they exist in our world, and she laughingly said that many people have come to her saying that they believe their bosses may be witches or vampires. She described the four groups in her novel.
1. Humans- who have the unique power to ignore what's going on around them.
2. Vampires- whom she says are not immortal. They are physically strong, lead lonely lives and she believes they work mostly as scientists or investment bankers. (The audience laughed at that.)
3. Witches- are guardians of tradition. They have supernatural powers, and are keen observers of human nature. They gravitate toward such professions as anthropologists, sociologists and librarians.
4. Daemons- are guiding spirits in Greek mythology, geniuses in Roman mythology. The Christian tradition dropped the "a", and they became associated with devils and evil. Daemons are creative, and walk a true line between madness and genius.  They are usually "rock stars or serial killers". (More laughter from the audience.)

In the novel, Diana Bishop is a witch who tries to live a 'normal' life as a history professor studying at Oxford University in England. While researching in the Bodleian Library (where Harkness herself studied so much she claimed that "if a speck of dust moved, I would know it"), Diana comes across a missing manuscript with magical powers. When the underground world of witches, daemons and vampires hear about her discovery, they surface to get this magical book.

Diana falls in love with Matthew Hopkins, a vampire with an extensive wine collection. Apparently, vampires have super taste buds, so they collect and taste wine. Harness herself writes a wine blog, Good Wine Under $20, so she adds her love and knowledge of wine to the story. She read a scene from the book, one where Diana and Matthew have their first dinner date.

Harness says "hopefully, I've written a fairy tale for adults", and describes the moral of the story as "the importance of accepting who you are uniquely meant to be in this world." Her talk was very interesting, and I liked that she had a prepared presentation in addition to a short reading, yet she appeared to speak off the cuff. Her experience as a professor came through here.

I have not read any Harry Potter or Twilight or seen any of the movies, so I am surprised that I am looking forward to reading this book. I have heard nothing but positive things about it, and it debuted at #2 on the NY Times Bestseller List. My review will be up soon.


  1. Darn! I wish I had known about this. Great write-up.

  2. You would have loved it! I know this is your genre, but I have not read any vampire books, and Deborah convinced me to read her book. It's terrific so far.