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Feb 9, 2011

A Talk and Booksigning with Deborah Harkness

I attended a talk by Deborah Harkness last night at USC, the university where she teaches. It was the release day for her novel A Discovery of Witches and the first book signing in what's likely to be a whirlwind tour. She's already a bestselling novelist.

A lot of profs from the history department were there, as well as grad students and undergrads. Syrie James, the author of Dracula, My Love and Nocturne was also there, but not too many other novelists that I know of. (If you know otherwise, correct me.) The talk was held in Doheny Library and books lined the room where she spoke, so it was a fairly rarified academic atmosphere...the perfect background, given the book. Nonetheless, I resisted, as long as possible, the urge to geek out and take notes. I mean, she's used to students taking notes when she give lectures, but I figured she probably didn't want note takers during her novel reading. My resolve lasted all of fifteen minutes. Then I broke down and took notes, mostly because I already knew I wanted to blog about it, and also because Deb is damn funny.

She began by explaining the bare bones of the novel to those who hadn't read an ARC or (like me) downloaded it on their kindle and finished it in one sitting before the talk.

"My character is 33 and has tenure at Yale...that's how you can tell it's a fairytale..." The audience laughed uproariously. "...and this is the last time I'll be able to use that joke," she added, "because no one else will get it." (We laughed even harder.)

She read some sections aloud and talked a bit about why she wrote a novel. She didn't plan it; it just happened. The Twilight craze was going strong in 2008 and she wondered what vampires would do for a living. "They can' all be private investigators."

But academia would be perfect for vampires. "You could spend 600 years on a research project and really get somewhere!" (Which is probably about how long it's going to take me to get my PhD at this rate, by the way. But I digress.) Or, they could build their portfolio.

"Just as you don't know the point of your paper until you write the last paragraph," she said, to more laughter from the academics in the audience, she didn't know what her themes were until she had written the novel. She had a couple aspirations for the book. She hoped to make academic life sexy. A major theme that evolved (inside joke, since evolution is a big theme) was the balance between science and history, logic and magic. Diana and Matthew represent the alchemical process, the marriage of opposites that gives rise to the Philosopher's Stone, to novelty and eternity.

Another amusing bon mot was when she mentioned that her novel was publicly graded in a national magazine ... and received a B+.  "Students and former students of mine may remember all the lectures I gave that a B+ is a fine grade, a sign of future potential.... Well, I don't promise to never give that lecture again, but now I know how it feels. Just be glad your grades are not published in a national magazine!"

I probably laughed WAY too loud at that one. Er, yes, I did get a B+ in her class, and I did hear that lecture. I have to say, however, that her book is a million times better than my class papers. Which just goes to show something I've always known, that grading novels is a ridiculous conceit. Novels can be judged; I don't believe they can be graded.

(Oooo, wouldn't it be great if you could submit a novel for a history class, though? I know, you're thinking, "Hello, moron, isn't that called an MFA program?" To which my answer is: "They don't study history in MFA programs." I want to study history, I just think it would be more interesting, sometimes, to write about it as fiction. Ah, well.)

Deb noted that her experience of studying how various historical figures had build their concept of the world helped her with the novelist's task of world-building. I thought that was a fascinating insight, a connection I've made intuitively, but never analyzed before.

During the question and answer period, a prof of modern history asked her, "What's wrong with getting over magic? I like the modern world. I'm going to come out in favor of disenchantment."

Deb answered that magic represents "limitless potential" and we need a little magic in modern life, we need faith in limitless potential.



Heidi C. Vlach said...

Wish I had been there, it sounds like Deborah puts on a great show! And I'll definitely have to check out A Discovery of Witches.

Michelle Davidson Argyle said...

Wow, awesome! So this is the famous person you know. Sweet! I will definitely check out her book, too. It sounds fantastic, and so does she!

Michelle Davidson Argyle said...

Oh, and that last thought is killer.