Fans of the All Souls Trilogy are thrilled at the news that the TV adaptation, titled after the first book in the series, A Discovery of Witches, will air in the UK this September and has been picked up for U.S./Canada airing by Sundance Now (official air date coming.) The story, written by author and historian Deborah (Deb) Harkness, centers around a witch in her early thirties named Diana Bishop who discovers that there is much, much more to her than her powers. Diana, like all women, is struggling to find her place in the world with new powers, a dangerous past, and a longing to be accepted, loved, and encouraged. As women, we find ourselves in this position more reverently as we approach the 30-year mark: “I don’t have kids yet…I haven’t met a husband or wife … my job is literally draining the life out of me … oh shit—I’m 30!” This self-doubt that is so regrettably present in women, coupled with the general yearning to be accepted and welcomed into standard society, is a struggle that spans, unfortunately, through generations. This idea of acceptance and self-worth is what drove Deb to write the All Souls Trilogy.
But this interview was not a sounding board for wallowing. As you’ll hear in the podcast below, Deb had an audible smile on her face throughout. Deb, who is still a professor following the success of her novels, describes how she wrote the All Souls Trilogy for her female students, the “intelligent, smart, vital, lively, women” that grace her classroom (and, of course, for all of us avid fans around the world).
Excerpts of the interview are transcribed below, but please tune in to the full interview in the podcast, where we discuss female empowerment and how we must lift each other up, why vampires are still popular, and, most importantly—why Deb thinks drinking rosé is an acceptable year-round wine. (Fans of the book, you’ll appreciate the wine tidbit!)
“I went to a women’s college, and I would not be sitting here with you had I not gone to a women’s college. I really needed that space where there was no sense of limits of what I could do—and no sense that there was some kind of pecking order or hierarchy.”—Deb Harkness
PURE FANDOM: Before we dive into the more layered questions, I’d love to know what your favorite wine is, and where can we find it? Or, does it depend on what kind of mood you’re in?
DEB HARKNESS: It depends on what kind of mood I’m in. I will say that my wine tastes evolve all the time, and it really depends on what I’m eating. I went through a really hardcore vegan phase a couple of years ago, and let me tell you, cabernet sauvignon is not a vegan’s best friend! Back in the day when I was eating a lot of hamburgers, cabernet sauvignon was my favorite wine! But, it changes. These days I’m eating a huge amount of fish, and I love rosé. I love dry rosé. If you were to just walk into my house, nine days out of 10 I will be drinking a dry rosé from the South of France. And you can’t beat it.
My mom actually makes a wonderful sangria, and for my birthday this year we tried rosé sangria.
You know, I’ve never seen a rosé sangria. That’s a wonderful idea.
For a party, [it’s just] two bottles rosé per one cup of brandy.
Well, that is my kind of go-to wine for the moment. It’s not just a summer thing for me. It works just as well with grilled salmon in November or barbecued salmon in July. And it’s inexpensive!
What about vampires just oozes allure and romance? A lot of people think the vampire craze is over, but to me, I just love it!
Did you hear they are doing a Buffy reboot? I heard that yesterday [at comic con] and I was like, “oh my goodness, here we go again!” I think for all of us the prospect of immortality is very alluring. The idea that somehow we could live a life that transcended that normal sense of—well, a vampire never has to go through [being] middle-aged, do they? What would be middle-aged for a vampire? Who knows? So, I think for all of us we are so pressed for time these days, and we have this sense that time is running out, “oh my god I was 20, and I turned around and now I’m 30 … “ Everything is racing, racing, racing, and I think the “vampire” speaks to us today for different reasons than it did, and that’s what makes a mythical creature have a long-lived resonance. A witch in the sixteenth century had a very different vibe that it does now. Stoker’s Dracula is a very different vibe than Matthew de Clermont, and it’s because at that point [Stoker’s Dracula] spoke to them on a very different level than now. But, I think now it’s all about this crazy, rushing time sense. “If I was a vampire, I could just slow down!”
What I love about your mythology is that it’s not just about “oh, he’s a vampire” and that’s the only thing that makes [Matthew] sexy. You use these supernatural creatures as part of telling a bigger story. This story is about sexism, racism, involving acceptance. What drove you to say, “this is the story [I want to tell]”?
So, I’m a historian and one of the things we do is read lots and lots of literature from the past. We see the ways that people in the past mobilized really fantastical creatures of all sorts, from mermaids on up to angels or whatever, and we have this term in the academy where talk about how they’re “monsters to think with”. And at any given moment in time, you can take all of your cultural anxieties, like to say racism, and you can park it on a mythological creature and work through this experimental lab. It might be too intense to think, “man, I have these really complicated feelings about my neighbors who have a totally different ethnicity” and it seems like, “oh that’s going to make me a bad person if I think about it, I’m going to think about vampires.” It just provides the human psyche, somehow, with room to work through those things. When I started writing these books it was 2008, [California Prop 8] was up on the block in California, so my whole state was about to take away the right to marry from a significant portion of the population who had just had it! And I was like, “how can we be doing this in 2008?! How can we think that we are these advanced, progressive people and have these sorts of responses that are, ‘no you’re different than me, no you won’t have the same rights’”? At the same time that was happening, it was the anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origin, so my mailbox was full of two things: Prop 8 stuff, and “celebrate Darwin and the understanding of evolution!” (Laughs) But we’re not evolving! That’s when I [thought], I want to write and talk about the things that I think are our biggest challenges, which [are] empathy, tolerance, acceptance. I didn’t want to do it in a weird preachy like, “I know the answer way”, because I don’t. I just wanted to explore and this was the way this whole world [came alive].
It’s about human/creature decency is what it comes down to.
Yes. It’s about the fact that we make monsters. Sometimes we make our neighbors into monsters, sometimes we make things we don’t understand and frighten us into monsters. That’s a human tendency, but we have got to learn as a species, if we’re going to survive, [how] to figure this out.
And in addition to that, being a woman. I think it’s getting better, because as females we are trying to empower each other more. And you know, it’s hard to ask for an interview [with someone you look up to!] We tell our [Pure Fandom] writers, “Well, you know you can ask for an interview … just ask!” But we don’t think to, because society has put these pressures [on us], which is why I love the character Diana. Because while she is strong and brave, she’s also relatable because she’s super vulnerable and has her own insecurities. How important was it for you to make her a heroine, but also make a reader like me think, “OK, I get why she did that. I understand if she’s a little insecure or faulted.”
I have to say for me the kind of superheroes who are completely comfortable with wielding life-altering powers, they do nothing for me. They do nothing for me, because I can’t relate to them. And I look out at my classroom that is filled with such intelligent, smart, vital, lively, women and I see them struggling to raise their hand, to speak up. I wanted to write about women in power because I think it is the single, biggest challenge in some ways facing women. There’s so much that tells you to blend in, to not make a fuss, to not speak up, not cause a problem… and it’s like no, no, no. And, you know, I just don’t buy it that a 30-year-old woman who’s a witch is like, “Score! I’m good with that!” That just doesn’t sound right to me. You would have to grow into that and take your power. But that’s the same for you or me. So, then it just becomes every woman’s journey, not just one woman’s journey.
That is so true. You know, at a previous job I got a promotion, and at first I was like ,”oh, great!” But then, I was terrified at all of these new responsibilities. With Diana, that’s kind of what it would be like [with her powers]. You’re given all these amazing things, but “what if I mess it up? Can I handle it?”
Of course, “what if people don’t like you anymore because of it”? Or what if the people that were your friends, now you’ve got this power over them—now you’re the other. Now you’re the monster in the room. And you’re the different one, right? You were all a pack, you get promoted, it’s a different thing. We don’t talk about that enough as women. We just don’t. So, I really wanted write a story where I felt like my students could graduate, have their first couple years of being totally overwhelmed at their first job or grad school, and then find these books and be like, “Oh, gosh—these books are for me and have these really strong women at all ages.” There’s all of this wisdom and all of these challenges.
How did you get there? What did you learn from having any hurdles or [self doubt], or because you’re a woman? What experiences did you draw from to get here?
I think it was really important for me to go to Mount Holyoke [College]. I went to a women’s college at 17 and you know people always say to me, “Why doesn’t Diana go to Mount Holyoke?” If Diana had gone to Mount Holyoke, she wouldn’t be in this pickle at 33. I was just surrounded by 1,800 incredibly smart women in an environment that said, “The only voice you’re going to hear are female voices.” Everybody running everything from class presidencies to the residencies and also the sports teams, they were all women. I left that environment thinking that was just normal. I went to grad school—I was the only woman talking in class! These were women who were at Harvard and Yale and I would be like, “why are none of you talking?” I just kind of left and I guess in a weird way it desensitized me to a lot of stuff. I do things and people always say, “What are you thinking?” And it’s what I was taught at Mount Holyoke. What I’m thinking is this is what feels right to me, what I want to do, and having that conviction hardwired in you … you know the worst you can do is fail. It took me three years to get into graduate school. I got rejected for two years in a row before I was finally accepted. But I didn’t think, “Oh God it’s the end of the world I’m a failure and I don’t know what to do.” I was like “well, I’ll go try again then. I’m going to go work in a bakery for a year and I’ll figure it out.” I think [women] we’re just so hard on ourselves. Don’t you think?
“It took me three years to get into graduate school. I got rejected for two years in a row before I was finally accepted. But I didn’t think, “Oh God it’s the end of the world I’m a failure and I don’t know what to do.” I was like “well, I’ll go try again then. I’m going to go work in a bakery for a year and I’ll figure it out.” I think [women] we’re just so hard on ourselves.”—Deb Harkness
100%. And it’s so interesting, for every woman we interview with this series, you all say the same thing: “No—it’s not hard to do this [reach your goals]. It should be easy, because it’s what you want to do and you just keep going.” I think that’s so important because we doubt ourselves so much. As mothers, sisters, daughters, friends, we always have this kind of self-doubt floating over our heads, and it’s just silly. It doesn’t need to be there.
Look, I woke up filled with self-doubt today. “Am I going to be able to get through today … am I going to be able to get through these interviews… what if I spill my tea…?” It would be wrong for any of your listeners to think, “oh, she has no self-doubt.” I’m 53—I have self-doubt every moment of my life. But, the thing that we need to realize as women is that’s a) totally normal and b) every woman you’re looking at has the same [thought] in their head. The important thing is to keep going, and have your dreams, and lift yourself up, and lift up other women around you. A rising tide lifts all boats. We are not in a competition with each other, and we have a lot of power at our fingertips. Like Diana, we just need to say “yes, I’ll take it!”
“I’m 53—I have self-doubt every moment of my life. But, the thing that we need to realize as women is that’s a) totally normal and b) every woman you’re looking at has the same [thought] in their head. The important thing is to keep going, and have your dreams, and lift yourself up, and lift up other women around you. A rising tide lifts all boats. We are not in a competition with each other, and we have a lot of power at our fingertips. Like Diana, we just need to say ‘yes, I’ll take it!’”—Deb Harkness
Who are your heroines? Fiction or nonfiction?
You know, I have to say that one of the women that fascinates me the most, she’s not a straightforward woman, but I think the woman I always go back to and try to figure out how she did what she did was Queen Elizabeth I. That woman had everything in her life stacked against her. She was the last one standing. She almost died numerous times, and at 25 somebody plopped a country on her plate and said, “Yeah—good luck with it, girl. You’re an unmarried woman.” And the predictions were that she’d last two to three years before she was a coup d’état or she married somebody that took over her country. The fact that she made it to 70 without any of those things happening is so beyond staggering. And the way that she stayed flexible. What’s interesting about her is that she had a very close circle of woman friends who she relied on a lot, but she did not treat them well. So she’s both a kind of role model, but she’s also a cautionary tale. She did not establish schools for girls, she did not promote women into positions of power—because she was so worried about maintaining her own position and being the exception to every rule. She didn’t have space for that, that would not have worked for her. She’s the one I can always go back to, because I can [say], “be like Elizabeth, don’t be like Elizabeth.”
(Laughs) Also—love your girlfriends.
(Laughs) Also, if your girlfriend gets a horrible tragic disease that’s disfiguring, don’t send her home and never see her again because it makes you upset.
That’s a shitty move, Elizabeth.
That’s a shitty move, yes, I would agree with you there. And it was her boyfriend’s sister so even more awful.
We interviewed Alice Troughton [director of several A Discovery of Witches episodes] this week. You know, it was so funny because she was leaving for Morocco, she was packing up at home, and she was making macaroni and cheese for her son, and there were sheep baa-ing in the background. We had the greatest conversation about why she wanted to do this series, and she was saying that she loved [Diana], loved the books. We discussed whether it was important to have a female director when you’re directing a female-driven show, does it make that much of a difference? I’m curious if you had any say or requests of someone like Alice to direct Diana so she’s portrayed in the best way.
I didn’t. I was thrilled with our directorial choices, and they were all very different. We started with a man, JC Medina, who is a Spanish director of films. Then we went to Alice, and I love her body of work and she was amazing, and our third director was a woman Sarah Walker. We had an unusually female crew. JC had a female director of photography, a female first assistant director—who’s basically running the floor. Alice actually had a male director of photography and a male running the floor. Sarah had a female director of photography and a male AD. But that’s highly unusual. I think somebody did the statistics and there were something like four female cinematographers for films that were up for any Oscar contention, and we had two on our television show. I just wanted them to really resonate with something in the [story]. I think that each of them brought really different features to it. I think Alice was such a thoughtful, character-driven director. It was a gas to see her work and think through things. She loved the stories, and she was just so into those aspects of it. Our goal is always, with the different directors over eight shows, to all feel as a [single] piece. [So you don’t say] “Oh, this is an Alice episode”. The sheer amount of people on this and bringing their talents to it [was always] a real treat. Alice had a lot of fun with Alex [Kingston] and Valarie [Pettiford] and getting those characters ready and up and moving. In the first two episodes [they’re] not in it very much. I’m so glad you had a chance to talk to her—she’s really fantastic!
You could feel her energy on the phone, she was hilarious and wonderful.
She’s such a great reminder to us that we don’t need to look seamless and perfect. There was Alice making macaroni and cheese with animals in the background and packing for Morocco and talking to you. This is our superpower as women! But so often we’re like, “Hi, here I am, being totally professional…” When actually, multi-tasking may save the world and is a female superpower.
“…multi-tasking may save the world and is a female superpower.” —Deb Harkness
100%. And you don’t have to be a mom to do it. I remember when I had my daughter 11 months ago, and I would just think, “Oh my god I have to be the perfect person for her…” and I started to realize, my daughter’s going to hate me if I’m constantly trying to be something I’m not. I just learned to let go and juggle things.
Also, you don’t want her to have to do that, right? That would be the last thing you would want for your own daughter. We have learn while we’re supremely multitasking and running the universe, also to be able to say, “actually, I need a 30 minute nap now. If I’m going to continue to run the whole universe, I [have] to take care of me, too!” And that’s where, again, power is a set of relationships. Often in films and TV power’s a thing. You either have it or you don’t. Actually, that’s not what power is. Power is a relationship that you have. It’s a give and take and it’s not something you wield. You don’t pick it up and put it down again. It’s something that people have to give you, you have to be willing to take it, you have to be willing to give it back and forth and exchange it. What I loved about writing Diana and about writing Time’s Convert was being able to write Diana a year after the events in The Book of Life. She’s starting to settle into her power. She’s starting to figure out how to make this a daily part of her life and take care of her and her needs. I love writing and going on that journey with her. That’s what I hope to keep going with the writing is just to keep exploring all that process as these creatures figure out how to live together and accept each other and have their fights and have resolutions and take the power that’s theirs.
Visit our Fierce Females section for more interviews with badass women.
More A Discovery of Witches SDCC 2018 coverage, including Deborah Harkness’ press room interview:
The series will make its debut in the U.S. and Canada on a date to be confirmed, with all episodes available simultaneously on both Sundance Now and Shudder, marking the first partnership of this kind for the two SVOD services. SundanceTV has also acquired second window linear rights to the series. The series debuts in the UK this September. Deb’s newest book Time’s Convert will be available September 18, 2018.
Featured image: Deb Harkness