Facts and Fictions

Deborah Harkness

Author and historian of science Deborah Harkness. Image courtesy of Marion Ettlinger.

Deborah Harkness is a historian of science and the award-winning author of The Jewel House, an academic study of science in Elizabethan London. More recently, she wrote a work of fiction, A Discovery of Witches, in which vampires, witches, alchemy, and other wondrous creations are found. The novel opens with its witchy heroine, Diana Bishop, in the most historical of settings, the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. Her research quickly drags her into more trouble than she can deal with, trouble that somehow connects to her murdered parents. Her best chance for survival is found in the person of an evolutionary biologist, who just happens to be a rather attractive vampire. In an interview with Chemical Heritage’s editor in chief, Michal Meyer, Harkness discusses fiction, nonfiction, and the history of science.

MM: Your heroine in A Discovery of Witches is a historian of alchemy. Is this a first in the history of publishing?

DH: She’s the only historian of 17th-century alchemy that I’ve tripped across.

MM: You are known as an academic writer. How did you go about writing in such a different style?

DH: When I started, in fall 2008, I was struck by the remarkable similarities between popular-fiction tastes in 2008 and people’s tastes in 1558. Both have a preoccupation with witches, goblins, and other creatures that go bump in the night. In the time period I study, theoretical knowledge was being blended with practical observations and experience. People had to come up with plausible explanations for things they believed were true, such as witches and the planets influencing chemical processes on Earth. These ideas were not crazy or superstitious; they were plausible within people’s view of the world. That year was also Darwin’s anniversary. The juxtaposition of evolution and tastes started me wondering: what if my 16th-century research subjects were right, and there really were these creatures around us? Where would that leave us in 2008?

If these creatures were really real, what would be their biology and history? How would we not have seen them up until this point? These are the kinds of questions a 16th-century natural philosopher would have to consider before writing a treatise on witches. Today, say there are real vampires: Where are they? Do they really have fangs? Do they eat only blood? None of that seems right to a modern audience. The book started with an abiding interest in figuring out how to make real this fictional world that seems so attractive to modern people.

I think if a world is going to be convincing, it has to adhere to some kind of modern truth standard. The idea that all vampires would be private investigators didn’t seem plausible. If you had a really long life, what would get you out of bed in the morning? You would do long-term things like science and investment banking, which were not the career paths that I remember when I read vampire fiction. I thought what a great gift immortality would be if you were a scientist. The main character grew out of that idea. It started out as an experiment in world building that ended up being fictional. At that point the world had its own logic and the story had to conform to it.

MM: Why are people today interested in these creatures?

DH: I think vampires cycle through culture. This is not the first big vampire moment. When I was in college Anne Rice’s vampires were in vogue. The original Dracula is very different than today’s vampires. Witches and vampires are places where we park a lot of our anxieties and our concerns. They crop up in specific times in history, when in retrospect we can see that our concerns were x or y or z. Only recently have historians advanced the idea that the Salem witchcraft trials in the 1690s were influenced by issues of inheritance and property and the changing political culture of New England. It can take a long time for us to sift through and see a pattern. With vampires some historian 50 years from now will look back and say, “This was worrying them.”

People want to believe there’s more in the world than can be scientifically explained, that there’s mystery in the world. Most people’s idea of science is a set of hard rules that don’t allow for anything outside of them. That must be frustrating to many scientists, because they do deal in the mysterious. Scientists push the boundaries of the unexplainable.

MM: How much history of science is there in the book?

DH: There is some history of chemistry and the life sciences. And because one of the protagonists is a 1,500-year-old scientist, there’s a lot of history of science woven in lightly. It is not a science textbook; it is a work of fiction. Some of the things I say are possible have been disproved by modern science. But that’s what I get to do as a fiction writer.

I think the alchemical story—of metals, material substances, growth, change and decay, creation and renewal—have interesting things to say to us today. That’s not how most people think of alchemy; they think it’s turning lead into gold. But alchemy was the dominant way of explaining difference and change in the world. We are all interested in the process of growth and change and decay. What are the powerful truths about nature and humanity that might be embedded in the alchemical story, and how could you draw those serious intellectual underpinnings into the book? That was great fun and a great challenge.

What I love about the history of science is that it’s the history of curiosity, of exploration, of taking risks. I do think there’s a lot to be said for that.

MM: What skills did you draw on in your writing?

DH: I learned an awful lot about how to structure narrative and how to tell a story through teaching history. Where am I going to begin the story? If I teach about Newton, how do I start—with the fact that he was a posthumous child, his love of mechanical toys, the debate over calculus, his reluctance to publish? You have to pick a starting point—a problem or a question—and hook the students. And you need to convey it in a way that has enough tension and drama so that students sit up and pay attention. But the great difference with fiction is that I don’t have to look it up. If I don’t know the answer, I make it up.

MM: What kind of reader response have you received?

DH: I’m not sure how many fantasy books have long passages from alchemical works, such as Aurora Consurgens, and complete sections of Darwin’s first edition of On the Origin of Species. What’s been great is the response from readers. They say, “I was never interested in Darwin and now I am.” Or “I knew nothing about alchemy and now I want to know.” As an educator that’s pretty terrific: we hope to stir the curiosity of those we come into contact with. On my page on amazon.com I have a whole set of recommended readings on the history of chemistry, which you don’t normally find on an Amazon fiction page. It’s confirmed something that I know, that people really are curious about the past and the world around them.

Michal Meyer is the editor in chief of Chemical Heritage.