Interview with Deborah Harkness

Deborah Harkness at All Souls Con
© Bishop-Clairmont Archives

It’s during 2019 summer, whereas they were shooting A Discovery of Witches season 2 in Cardiff and while writing the mysterious book 5 of All Souls, Deborah Harkness was kind enough to answer to Isabelle NG’s questions for all the French fans.

This exclusive French interview is the first done since 2012 !  

Bishop-Clairmont Archives are very proud to share this exclusive content with all our readers !

How do you deal with the busy schedule of these next months, between your presence on the set, writing the following books, promoting Time’s Convert and even being at the All Souls Con ?

take vitamins—and I meditate, walk, and write as much as I can to stay grounded

About France and the World of All Souls

I read in a 2012 interview  you explained you chose to set your story abroad to enable your students to imagine the world outside the USA.

Why did you chose France to establish the powerful De Clermont family, and especially the Auvergne which is not the most famous nor glamorous region of our country ?

I chose the Auvergne because it was the center of the medieval world in many ways.

The de Clermonts love to be at the center of things! Once I was writing much more about the castle in Shadow of Night, I needed to travel to the  region and spent many weeks there. I fell in love with
the Auvergne then, and carry those memories with me. I find the landscape is very much like Matthew—intriguing, a bit mysterious, a bit forbidding.

About the Castles

As you explained, your inspiration for Sept Tours isn’t the “modern” Sept Tours Castle in Touraine but the more medieval one of Pontgibeaud, Château Dauphin. Les Revenants are inspired by the impressive Montbrun castle, Les Anges Déchus from Le Sailhant Castle … These are all medieval fortresses with very specific atmospheres.

How did you choose them?

For all of my books, I do a lot of research. This is very enjoyable when it comes to “house hunting” for the characters. Who wouldn’t like to imagine an infinite budget and then find the house that best fits them? In each case, I went through the available options of surviving castles and fortresses in specific regions, and then let the characters guide me to which one would fit each individual best.

In the TV Show, the rustic and quite rough Auvergne has been replaced by the wonderful Italian countryside of Monselice. I really like the Monselice castle which is so aesthetic on screen and fit really well with the adaptation work of the production. I can imagine it might have been easier filming there being also in Venice but it changed somehow my perception of the Sept Tours atmosphere. And being French, I can’t really completely believe I’m in Auvergne with such a different countryside or kind of architecture.

As a writer, did this modification of scenery bothered you in your vision of Sept Tours and St Lucien?

Yes. Sadly, while I have a voice in decisions about filming locations and settings, these often come down to budget and logistical issues.

Like you, it does not feel like the Auvergne to me—but perhaps that is because we know it so well. While I am of course grateful to Monselice for so generously agreeing to become the television adaptation’s Sept-Tours, the Sept-Tours in my mind is very, very different.

About Alchemy

As a French reader, I was used to the concept of Alchemy as a mean to change the metal in gold thanks to the philosopher stone. I don’t know if you are familiar with the work of Anne Golon and her 13 historical (and very accurate in their integral texts) novels called Angélique but her character Joffrey de Peyrac (an Occitan too) was an alchemist in the XVIIth French century. The vision of Alchemy in this time seems more to be a way to get wealthier or find immortality (which was a mortal sin for the Church and persecuted by the Inquisition) rather than the experimental and philosophical field you depict in All Souls.

Do you know why and how the Alchemy changed so much in a century?

It didn’t. Alchemy was always about all of these things—changing base metals into gold, achieving immortality, and of course, if you could do the first and the second you were bound to be wealthy!

In any case, the Inquisition was not really operating much in France in the 17th century, and alchemy wasn’t practiced much in France in the 17th century. As a scholar of alchemy, I must say that by this period alchemy had a fully integrated experimental, religious, and philosophical core, one that grew and remained consistent throughout the medieval and early modern periods.

There are always charlatans who will take an invention or philosophy and twist it to their purposes (like the alchemists who proposed get rich quick schemes), but that doesn’t really alter what alchemy is.

About Illuminated Manuscripts

We all love Diana and Matthew but we forget sometimes than Ashmole 782 is one of the main characters (if not the main character) of the Trilogy. I’ve paint illuminations for many years and I really love how you describe the manuscripts; their smells, their aspects, the colors, how to handle them … and how you place some of the greatest illuminated manuscripts in your story (Voynich, Aurora Consurgens, Splendor Solis, Ripley’s scroll…) In A Discovery of Witches, Matthew show Diana Godfrey’s copy of Aurora Consurgens and you write it was made by a French illuminator, Burgot Le Noir. As usual when women are concerned, we can find very few things about her and her work, only her father’s, Jean.

Can you tell us more about her?

Sadly, no ! Very little is known about her, as you discovered. Like Christine de Pisan, who was also a French artist, or the later Italian artist Artemesia Gentileschi, Burgot seems to have become an artist because she was working in her father’s shop.

We suspect that many girls would have done this kind of work, because a craft or trade was always a family business. But they are very difficult to locate in the historical record because they were not officially recognized in the guilds of the time and were legally prohibited from owning property or running businesses. They were femme couvert—and this means we have only traces of them.

About Time’s Convert (La Force du Temps in the French edition) and the Revolutions

I was happily surprised you chose to tell us more about the early days of Marcus in Time’s Convert and that French Revolution was part of the scenery. You are an expert of the Elizabethan era and told in some interviews, you weren’t very interested to tell about the USA history or more “modern” times.

Except from Marcus’ desire to tell his story, what made you change your mind?

Marcus did!

He just demanded that his story be told, and it was one of revolution and change, the end of the old order and beginning of something new.

It was a nice change, after all those years of thinking about feudal vampires and their protocols.

I imagine you had to make some research, especially for the French Revolution. Did you enjoy it and how did you proceed?

I teach the French Revolution, and the American Revolution in a glancing way because of course no one knew at the time that it was “American” but rather felt it was an insurrection in a British colony. But I am not an expert on that period, as you point out.

Furthermore, the 18th century worldview is very, very different from what I’m used to.  I started my research, as always, by reading both sources from the time (such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and newspapers, like L’ami du people) and also works by my fellow historians. That helped me to piece together a bit of the story of the period.

I really like the point of view you presented for the French Revolution. It is different from what we are used to read in France. I always wondered how Philippe would have dealt with these political changes.

Do you think he tried to prevent the slaughter of the monarchy or was in favor of the new democracy? Maybe had he spot Bonaparte yet?

Oh, my.

Well I don’t think he approved of the slaughter of the monarchy. I don’t think he approved of the democracy either, which was not really a democracy for very long. Philippe liked a more complicated set of checks and balances and I think he would have found the changes challenging.

As for Bonaparte, I don’t imagine any of the de Clermonts were very fond of HIM.

About the TV adaptation

Season 1 was a great success and made with so much art and love, it was mind blowing! New fans have discovered the All souls universe, the books and the fandom has grown, confronting sometimes the books lovers to the TV viewers (when the confrontation is constructive, it can be fascinating, though) For Season 2, I imagine the expectations are higher than ever for the fans which have all their ideas of how it should be done (and their own definition of what is an “adaptation”)

How do you handle this kind of pressure, being so connected to your fans trough social media?

I have had to draw very clear lines for myself between the characters and stories (which are mine), the books (which belong to the fans), and the television show (which belongs to the production team).

I cross between these worlds, and have dealings with people in each, but I cannot control how a reader reads my books and responds to them, and I can’t control the way the adaptation gets done.

All I can do is stay true to my books and my characters and tell the stories that I need to tell, in the way I need to tell them.

This makes some fans frustrated, I know, but it is the only way I can keep writing and telling more stories.

About the strong messages of your work

Even if your novels are mainly fictions (with very detailed and accurate historical facts and background), I can’t help noticing your work looks like a Humanist treaty.
I’ll tell the All Souls Trilogy sends a message of tolerance and acceptation of each other to the benefit of change, which is a really strong one in our confused and intolerant times. I was so happy to see the TV show perfectly incarnate and rely this message!
Time’s Convert tells us more about parenting, all kind of parenting and is also a strong message of tolerance.

Can you tell me if I am mistaken in my reading?

You are absolutely not mistaken.

And, as an author, what would you like to be your legacy: the fiction and its universe? the historical knowledges ? opening people mind to other places and other times ? your ability to federate a strong community all around the word?

Can I choose all of the above?

As a teacher, all I have ever wanted is to make a positive difference in the world, to enlighten and help others to find their truth about themselves and the world around them. So whether I am in the university, or writing, or talking with fans on social media, or taking part in the television show, it is all part of the same project: to make a difference.

To end this interview,

I’d like to ask you something I wonder for ages. It is not a critism, just mere curiosity.

Why Matthew is called Matthew (the English name) and not Matthieu or even the Occitan version Matèu ?

I perfectly understand why he call himself Matthew in England or being Matthew Roydon but being Human in the VIth century, he should have been called in a local name, not an English one. Only Ysabeau calls him Matthieu and the genealogical charts write Matthew. As all your characters are named with the accurate spelling of their original country, I wonder,

why Matthew is an exception?

Because we get to know Matthew first in his persona of Matthew Clairmont. We have seen nothing of Matthew in the 6th century, when no written records were kept in any case. Philippe calls him by the Greek form of his name. So really there is no “right” or “wrong” way to describe him. He is Matthew—however it is spelled.

Avec Deborah Harkness
© Bishop-Clairmont Archives