Deborah Harkness views books as tools, not artifacts

Deborah Harkness
Deborah Harkness

Witchcraft has been good to Deborah Harkness. Her All Souls trilogy, about the adventures of a modern-day witch and vampire, has been an international bestseller, with more than 2 million copies of the novels sold. The first book in the series, “A Discovery of Witches,” has been adapted into a television series that will premiere on Sundance Now early next year. The University of Southern California history professor’s new book, “Time’s Convert,” finds vampires grappling with the demands of love and their supernatural lives. 

BOOKS: What are you reading recently?

HARKNESS: My most fertile reading time is when I have just finished a project and haven’t started another. I binge read and surf around bookstores. I went to Hatchards bookshop in London and got a haul of books. I also downloaded more on my Kindle.


BOOKS: What was in the haul and downloads?

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HARKNESS: I downloaded and read “Rest” by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. It’s about how essential rest is to creativity and productivity. He talks about great figures like Charles Darwin and creative writers. They didn’t write for nine hours a day. They had three hours of amazing productivity followed by long walks. I started taking 20-minute naps. 

BOOKS: What else are you reading?

HARKNESS: I’m also reading poetry. I’m entranced by Amanda Lovelace’s work. She wrote two wonderful books, “The Princess Saves Herself in This One” and “The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One.” You can feel your heart opening because she says things that you thought only you felt. 

BOOKS: Did you buy any novels?


HARKNESS: I got “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman. It’s an intense, intriguing story. You know she’s not fine, though she’s weirdly fine. You go through the whole book trying to figure out what has happened to Eleanor. 

BOOKS: How would you describe yourself as a reader?

HARKNESS: I am mostly drawn to nonfiction. In my Hatchards haul I have “The Epic Voyages of Maud Berridge: The Seafaring Diaries of a Victorian Lady,” “Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain” by Brian A. Catlos, and “Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages” by Jack Hartnell. I can’t wait to read Tristan Gooley’s “How to Read Water: Clues and Patterns From Puddles to the Sea” and “Wild Signs and Star Paths: The Keys to our Lost Sixth Sense.” It’s about our loss of how to read nature. With nonfiction, I can always find some kind of kernel of inspiration and find a path to follow. 

BOOKS: Are there books on the history of witches that you would recommend for a general audience?

HARKNESS: I think you can learn a lot from primary sources. “The Penguin Book of Witches,” which is edited by novelist Katherine Howe, is a wonderful compilation of primary sources about witchcraft. There are also excellent histories. One is “The Devil in the Shape of a Woman” by Carol F. Karlsen, which looks at how gender and misogyny fueled witchcraft allegations, especially in Colonial New England.


BOOKS: Have you changed as a reader over time?

‘My most fertile reading time is when I have just finished a project.’

HARKNESS: I don’t think so. I still love series and big, chunky books. I absolutely love Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series and the Lymond Chronicles. They are so detailed. My undergrad honor thesis adviser gave me those after I finished my thesis. They took up my entire summer. 

BOOKS: Do you collect books?

HARKNESS: No. Books are tools for me. They are not artifacts. I like taking them in the bathtub. I take them in the car.

BOOKS: Are you hard on books?

HARKNESS: I prefer to say they are well loved. Isaac Newton would bend down the pages all the way to point to the passage he wanted to go back to. Newton is still ahead of me on abusing his books.

BOOKS: What will you read next? 

HARKNESS: The next thing in my pile is the book I want to write next. I think having done all this wonderful, fertile bingeing it’s time to figure that out.

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