Deborah Harkness On Wine Blogs, Vampires and Writing

DHI like Deborah Harkness for a whole bunch of reasons.

I first came across her when I discovered her wine blog, Good Wine Under $20. And I wasn't the only one who discovered Deborah's well written, witty, and well-focused wine blog that gives the budget conscious among us a place to look for reasonably priced wine. She has won two American Wine Blog Awards for Best Wine Review Blog and Best Single Subject Blog. I liked her for the passion she put in to this blog and for the generosity with which she dispensed her enological wisdom. But I liked her too because she is a historian. Unlike myself, who was only able traverse the study of history to a masters degree, Deborah went all the way. A scholar of the History of Science, Deborah teaches at USC and writes. "The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution" and "John Dee's Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature" both resulted from her research.

These days Deborah is better known as a best-selling novelist. Her debut novel published by Penguin, "A Discovery of Witches", was released in sold more than 300,000 copies in Hardback. The paperback was released in December and is selling in huge numbers. "A Discovery of Witches" is the first in a trilogy that will be followed by "Shaddow of Night" to be released in July. Warner Brothers acquired screen rights to the trilogy—Denise DiNovi and Allison Greenspan are set to produce.

Suffice to say, Deborah Harkness is the most successful wine blogger in the world.

"A Discovery of Witches is a tale of the supernatural in which erudite, scholarly, sexy, and contentious ADiscoveryofWitchesvampires, witches and daemons take center stage. The book is a mystery a love story and a puzzle and, importantly, it is great fun to read. Deborah does not write down to her audience. Rather, she opens a door into the world of scholarship and history.

Deborah was kind enough to answer a few questions for an interview at FERMENTATION:

FERM: "A Discovery of Witches" has been nothing less than a phenomenon in the publishing world. Huge sales. Another book coming. And movie rights sold. Wonderful critical reviews. And all this from someone who spent the majority of her career toiling largely in the academic world (meaning relative obscurity) and who became a good sized fish in a pretty small wine blogging pool. Given the extraordinary success what has been the biggest change to your day to day life, has the success actually changed the way you understand the world you live in and most importantly, how much do you like the success and attention?

DH: The biggest change is that I receive a lot more email, and my time is much less my own. There are many rewards in my new life–meeting readers, traveling, actually having people CARE what I think about reading and libraries and other topics–but there are more demands on my time. It helps to just take a deep breath and remember the only thing that has really changed is the size of my classroom. It's very large these days! As for "success," I'm not sure you ever think "there, I've done it now and can relax." There's always something else to read, something else to write, another email to answer…

FERM: You mention in your response the joy of "Meeting readers". I can't be sure but I'm guessing this is as much validation of your writing than are sales. Based on your conversations and meetings with readers, can you comment on what the key is for a reader to connect strongly with a character.

DH: Meeting readers is actually more about the readers than about me.  I'm there for them.  The fact that they connect with the book is a far more meaningful validation than anything else. This has to do with goals/objectives as with any writer. I never set out to write a best seller. I set out to tell a story that would get people thinking and talking. When I meet readers I feel I've met my objective.  As for what makes a reader connect it's simple: they have to care what happens next.

FERM: The idea of simply having a larger classroom is interesting. To what extent was it your intention to use ADOW to offer an introduction to or familiarize people with the grandeur of Libraries? Or was there a desire to introduce readers to something else that you found particularly compelling from your academic research?

DH: ADOW is all about the relevancy of the past to the present and future, and the importance of learning and reading. There are little buried treasures of historical information in the books for readers to find. That is how I tried to convey my love of finding things in the archive, which is what my life as a scholar is all about, as opposed to my life as a teacher.

FERM: Having been involved in it for so long and have had the chance to watch it develop, what are you general observations on wine blogging today?

GoodwineDH: I remember back in the day when there was hardly anyone on Twitter and the bloggers used to use it as an online coffee break room. Things have changed! I am amazed at how many people are blogging, and gratified to see that many are doing so simply because they want a way to chart their journey with wine. There are many reasons to blog, but this was always mine and I'm glad to see it hasn't gone the way of the dodo. I'm thrilled to see friends whose talent I admire continue to thrive. I don't have time to keep up with as many wine blogs as I once did but I never miss Joe Roberts and Fredric Koeppel! I wish there was less sniping, fewer ex cathedra statements about what is "good," "worthy," and "important," and less time spent gazing into crystal balls about the future of wine blogging and social media but I fear these are here to stay.

FERM: You spent most of your academic and writing life with hard, tangible, hold-in-your hands books. My guess is you have a reverence for the traditional book form (pages, binding, dust, etc). What are you thoughts on eBooks, ePublishing and the future of reading?

DH: I'm a historian of the book (among other things) so I have a reverence for the word over and above the form in which the word is preserved. In the period I study, the printing press was just invented and people thought it was the end of literacy, the world, and civilization as they knew it. People worried that no one would remember how to hold a pen because of the printing press. That didn't happen. Now, it's ebooks. There are adjustments to be made, of course–often painful adjustments. But I cannot imagine that the physical acts of writing with a pen, or turning the pages on books are going to disappear any time soon. As for the future of reading, I think people are reading much more than they did before, on a wide variety of platforms (traditional and electronic). So I think reading is healthier than ever.

FERM: How do you explain the incredible interest around the world in that literary genre that features Vampires/Witches/Werewolves/faeries, etc?

DH: If I could explain it I'd be a very popular guest on talk shows. These creatures are cyclical. There weren't many stories about vampires in western Europe prior to the late 18th century. Before that it was witches. Before that it was demons.  The reason all remain popular is because they are monsters to think with. We use them to work through difficult issues.

FERM: I've often thought about the virtues of being a vampire, as well as the pitfalls. I've decided that given the opportunity I would happily take what Lestat (or was it Louie?) called the "Dark Gift". For me it is immortality more than any of the powers that presumably come along with the condition. It's the idea of being able to see how the future unfolds and the wisdom that comes with experience simply living. Given the opportunity, would you take the "Dark Gift"?

DH: You know, I'm pretty happy being human. The key thing is to live a rich, full life regardless of how long it might be.

FERM: How have you dealt with writers block, if in fact you have experienced?

DH: I don't have much time to indulge in writer's block, but when I feel blocked (and everybody feels like that sometimes) I set a 3-day no writing rule. For three days I can't write anything no matter what. By the end I'm counting down and can't wait to start. My other trick is never to write out the last sentence in my head. That way, when I go back to my computer the next day I know exactly what I'm going to write. It's good for forward momentum!

For me, Deborah is an inspiration and a source of great reading. I recommend "A Discovery of Witches" very highly. It is one of the best novels I've read in the past few years. If you enjoy the idea of dusty libraries holding secrets and wisdom, if you like strong female characters, if you like indulging in the fantasy of vampires and witches, if you enjoy a fast moving, surprising and rich tale, you will like "A Discovery of Witches"

By Deborah Harkness


7 Responses

  1. Samantha Dugan - April 3, 2012

    Okay Tom, now I have a couple questions for you. Upon reading, “I’ve often thought of the virtues of being a vampire, as well as the pitfalls” I had to wonder:
    1) Really?
    2) How often?
    3) Should I be worried about you?
    4) Were you channeling The HoseMaster?
    5) Was it Absinthe or Pastis that inspired your vampire fantasies
    6) Are you aware that no matter how sensual, and sexual, they like to make these creatures out to be they are in fact, (yes I know) dead, (or the un-dead if you please) and blood flow to the penis would be impossible…given any thought to just how frustrating that would be?!
    That being said it was great to see you featuring another blogger/writer again. Miss the Bloggerviews!

  2. Tom Wark - April 3, 2012

    Dear Sam:
    Considering the state vampirism is a meditation on mortality and second chances. However, I get that considering the possibility might seem odd. And that whole thing about the Penis and vampires? I advise you to read Deborah’s book.

  3. Jeff - April 3, 2012

    Deb is a gem. I’m so glad that she has found success with A Discovery of Witches. My wife read it and loved it and it’s in my book-on-tape queue.
    And, selfishly, I have referenced on more than one occasion that I “know” Deb.
    Good on ya Tom for highlighting her here.

  4. George, UK wine merchants - April 4, 2012

    Hi Tom,
    Thanks for the introduction to the works of Deborah Harkness. I have just delved into A Discovery of Witches and am looking forward to reading more.

  5. Fredric Koeppel - April 4, 2012

    Excellent interview, Tom and Deb… and Deb, thanks for the mention! That means a lot …

  6. 1WineDude - April 5, 2012

    Love it – Deb is a class act.
    Deb – thanks for the kind words, hopefully we will see you this Summer!

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