Deb Harkness did a whirlwind Time’s Convert paperback book release this spring. Here’s what she said at Mount Holyoke.
Deb Harkness did a four-stop book tour to promote the Time’s Convert paperback book release. No sloucher she, Deb decided to give a different talk at each of the four stops. We caught her at the first stop, Hooker Auditorium at her alma mater, Mount Holyoke College. Here’s what she had to say on the power of tradition and inspiration in the room where she, fittingly, once took geology.
Deb opened by referencing one of the questions she’s most often asked: what inspired her to write A Discovery of Witches. “People think it’s something that happens that triggers off a grand explosion,” she said. She then launched into a familiar tale. She was in the Puerto Vallarto airport waiting out a storm when she noticed a wall of books on vampires and began wondering why we’re still fascinated by those creatures. “I could see why people in the 16th century could,” she said, “but I couldn’t see why people believe today. That moment of wondering opened up a storehouse of impressions and ideas.”
From there, Deb talked about the first moment in life when she was truly inspired. She was 13 and she opened Seventeen magazine as she — and every other teenage girl of a certain era — did every month. In it was a photo of a woman sitting in front of a leaded window in the Williston Memorial Library on the Mount Holyoke campus. “I had never heard of Mount Holyoke but I ripped it out and put it on my bulletin board,” she said. “I wanted to be her.”
Fast forward to college application time. One of the pieces of Mount Holyoke admissions literature featured — wait for it — that same picture. Deb’s parents didn’t go to college and in the Philadelphia area where she grew up, most people who went to college went to Penn State. But her parents brought her to the Five-College area. “I get to Mount Holyoke library looking for the window,” she said. “I walked into that reading room and thought I’m home. I dreamed about getting locked in.”
While at Mount Holyoke, Deb took a class with Harold Garrett-Goodyear who famously asked, “How do you know what you think you know?” “That was the moment I became an intellectual historian,” she said. She became fascinated with wondering why people believe what they think they believe.
Deb took two years off before graduate school. During that time, she started doing family research with her father. This was before the internet when people had to actually seek real documents. They discovered that her father’s family had been kicked out of Scotland in 1684 after creating “a fair amount of trouble.” She also learned that two of her ancestors are buried outside of Amherst, Mass. just down the road from — you guessed it — Hadley.
“I discovered all sorts of weird ways in which I had come home when I got to Mount Holyoke,” she said, including the existence of a Harkness Road in Pelham, Mass. “I got to know western Massachusetts so when it came time to write about how Marcus became a vampire and how his mate would become a vampire, I knew the Five-College area and Pelham would be involved.”
Just how much the past played into Deb’s creative present was clear after she read a section from Time’s Convert that took place in April 1875. At one point Marcus juggles a pail of fish and opens the door to Buckland’s surgery. “Every word of those pages came from somewhere,” Deb said, ticking off the moment she was with her father in a dusty record office, to the purple fish and even how Hadley was famous for having geese run wild in the streets.
“I wanted to shed light on what it was like to live in this part of the world in the American Revolution,” she said, noting the war had a huge impact outside the places typically referenced such as Boston or Philadelphia. “The men were gone, the women and children were left to manage, to run farms,” she said. And Western Massachusetts residents were not thrilled with some of the laws post-election. (See Shays’ Rebellion down the road in Northampton, Massachusetts.) “I believe the past is meaningful to the present,” she said. “We humans don’t always learn from our mistakes.”
“So from 13 to 17 to 21 to Puerto Vallarta,” she said, “A window in Seventeen magazine was responsible for bringing us here.”
After her talk, Deb took questions from the audience.
Q: Which character is more tight-lipped to you?
A: “It sounds schizophrenic to talk about characters these ways,” she said, before noting that she can be at Trader Joe’s or washing dishes and “someone pops in.” Phillipe plays it closest to the vest. “It’s a slow reveal with him,” she said before adding, “but it’s not like Ysabeau is a great font of information either.” Of course their reticence makes sense on some levels, Deb said, since they’re the oldest and have the most stories to tell. “Matthew is actually all kinds of stingy with information.”
Q: When will we get Gallowglass’ book?
A: The short answer is yes one is coming, but she’s not sure when. “The first step is research,” Harkness said, noting she sailed around Ireland and Scotland to get a better feel for his life. “It was the only way to see the world the way he sees the world.” People need to hang tight because it’s likely a few more years away. “I need to research Scottish Gaelic mercenaries. It’s not in my wheelhouse as a historian.”
Q: Are vampires really changing?
A: “Devolution will come out more when the twins are older.”
Q: As a professor how do you make time to be a novelist too?
A: “It’s all smoke and mirrors. Life sometimes feels out of control. Writing is the first thing I do. I get up and write. Then I answer e-mail, which is the death knell. Then it’s hard to write creatively. All that works if you’re passionate about it. It has to be the kind of thing that you can’t help yourself.”
Q: How far out in the twins’ lives is in your head?
A: “All the way. I know who they marry, their careers, their children. I have to have narrative control. As a writer I need an endpoint.”
Q: Gallowglass has a mate????? This was asked because Deb referenced this in her most recent monthly e-blast.
A: “If I didn’t know that I couldn’t write what already has been written about Gallowglass.”
Q: How much Diana Bishop is in Deborah Harkness?
A: “No more than Benjamin. Every character is me in some way, shape or form. To write a character in a convincing way some part of you has to go in and give it that animating spark. And at the same time I am none of them.”
Q: What scene are you most excited to see brought to life on screen?
A: When Diana walks out in London for the first time. “To see Elizabethan London come to life is a big bucket list item.”
Amen to that.