6:45 pm EDT, September 24, 2018

Deborah Harkness on ‘Time’s Convert’ and how experiences in reading inform her characters

Time’s Convert takes fans of the All Souls Trilogy into the life of Marcus Whitmore. Hear from Deborah Harkness about how history, and reading, informs his story.

I imagine Deborah Harkness is the professor whose class you show up to 15 minutes early. She’s the one you want to meet with during office hours and whose lectures are as interesting as the works of fiction she has given to her readers all over the world.

The All Souls Trilogy is more than another vampire and witch series. It is more than historical fiction. More than a time-traveling tale. It’s science and literature and an exploration of characters informed not only by their surrounding but their relation to one another.

The last book of the trilogy, The Book of Life hit shelves in the summer of 2014. A companion guide to the series did not follow until May 2018. Now, Time’s Convert, arrives just as Discovery of Witches prepares to find a second home on television.

The All Souls Trilogy weaves such a complex and interesting tapestry that it would take a series of novels such as Time’s Convert to even begin to unpack all the layered stories waiting to see daylight.

For Harkness, it all starts with a notebook. And the name written at the top of this one was Marcus Whitmore.

We spoke with Deborah Harkness about how experiences in reading inform characters, what the world of a fledgling vampire looks like, and how academia helps create a sandbox in which to build intricate worlds.

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Deborah Harkness ‘Time’s Convert’ Interview

We’re here are to talk about Time’s Convert. I thought it was such a great deep dive into the character of Marcus and opportunity to learn about Phoebe.

I love the phrase “deep dive.” Deep dive is exactly what it should feel like.

Recently at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, you spoke about how a imagining a character’s reading experience, what titles are on their bookshelves, helps to inform who they are. Can you expand on that and what it meant for the creation of Marcus’ story?

I really did begin that process of imagining people’s bookshelves. I guess I did it a little bit with Diana without even knowing it just because I knew what kind of scholarly resources she would have been drawing on.

When I did the World of All Souls companion, I tried to imagine the development of Matthew’s scientific ideas. It was way too complicated to think of it in terms of an idea by idea kind of transformation. But I could really easily think, ‘What would have been the big ancient books he would have read when he just became a vampire and learned how to read? What would he have learned in the Middle Ages? What would he have read in the early modern period?’

So on and so forth. And that kind of gave me this idea that with vampires, wouldn’t it be exciting, not easy, but exciting to figure out what would have formed their identity as a warm blood and then what they would have taken in as formative ideas to their life as a vampire? And that’s where I really started delving into the character of Marcus.

I don’t know how many of your [readers] bullet journal, but I found this really wonderful bullet journal spread that was about books you read. It was a line drawing of a bookcase, where you sketched in a bunch of book spines and you wrote the titles in it. And I actually did that for Marcus.

I filled it in with various novels he would have read, with the titles of newspapers, the titles of books, the titles of medical books and then I set about reading them.

And it was an amazing experience.

As an academic, I’m sure that you can fall down these rabbit holes quite easily where you find your crafting what Marcus’ bookshelf will look like and then your personal bookshelf has tripled in size.
Where do you set these tentpoles when you’re unpacking a character like Marcus, when you know what happened in the trilogy, but there’s also all this other time to explore? How do you go about creating new barriers and landmarks and navigating that space in between?

You know that’s a great question, and it’s different for every character. But I knew about how old Marcus was when he was made, which was in his earlyish twenties. I needed to figure out when he was born. And that meant that he was born sometimes between 1757, 1758, 1756. I read up on the events of that period and I thought, okay, what if he was born during what was at the time one of the major conflicts, the Seven Years War? The French and Indian War as we used to call it. There was a really major event, the fall of Ft. William Henry in that war.

I thought what if he was born around that time? What if his father was a soldier in that war as many, many men living on the colonial frontier were? For anyone who’s read Last of the Mohicans it should.

And then I thought okay, there’s a beginning for Marcus. So, what does that mean to him in terms of geography?

For example, I knew right away that there was no way he was going to end up at Lexington and Concord. He just wouldn’t have. He was just a little too young and a little too far away. But he might have made it to Bunker Hill. And then you go on from Bunker Hill. It’s a very slow, cumulative process of laying down those markers. And then once you lay them down, not getting all wiggly about it, saying, “Oh, you know it would be so much more interesting if he was in Philadelphia.” Because all the exciting stuff was happening in Philadelphia.

You have to say to yourself, actually no, you’ve made your bed now you have to figure out how you are going to lay in it. And surely there were interesting things happening in Western Massachusetts at the time. You discover, yes, there were and this is how I can explore it and we’ll just link into Philadelphia at a later point. It just grows and it has it’s own kind of logic.

The hardest thing to do is uphold your tentpole. You can’t keep setting up tentpoles and knocking them down, you have to be able to work inside the building that you are building and not start saying, “Oh, I wish I’d put the kitchen over here.” And rearranging and redecorating before the thing is even done.

Time’s Convert falls into the trilogy so seamlessly, that knowing what we know from the All Souls Trilogy, it’s an interesting reading experience filling in little pockets of information. I am curious to know what the most interesting discovery about Phoebe was in this process.

Well, the chapters that follow Phoebe’s first 90 days as a vampire were just so much fun to write. I looked at childhood development books and human development books and tried to imagine if a day in the life if a vampire was equivalent to a year in the development of a human being, we’re following Phoebe from birth to extreme old age.

And thinking well, if you’re two and it’s your second day you go through the terrible twos. If you’re 13, you go through puberty. And if you are 21 days you strike out on your own for independence.

Just thinking about it that way and imagining what would teenage rebellion look like if you were a vampire. It wouldn’t necessarily be about, “I want to break out of the house and go smoke behind the shed with one of my friends.” What would a vampire’s rebellion look like?

And that just became an endless source of fascination, especially when I got to compare it with Marcus’ far more rough and ready kind of ad hoc transformation. He was born in war time and he didn’t get the kind of pampering that Phoebe gets during her transformation. So that was a nice contrast as well.

As you were just alluding to, [Phoebe and Marcus’ transformation] is an exploration of something completely new, contrasting the more historical elements. Marcus was at Bunker Hill he was not in Philadelphia. Those are places you have to eventually go. But you have a bit more play with the vampire area where you can bring in new research.

It’s interesting because it was sort of new. People would say to me, “Oh, well which vampire books did you read to get your ideas for Phoebe’s transformation?” Well, none, because my vampires aren’t like other people’s vampires.

Mostly what we see in the vampire literature is person gets made into a vampire against their will, they don’t know what’s happening. They wake up, the find they need blood, they kill somebody in order to feed and then they are racked with guilt because they have to keep doing it over and over again.

And that isn’t the way it is for Phoebe or any of my vampires who don’t have to kill someone in order to feed. It was a really fun thing to imagine a different way for vampires to go through their developmental process. One that wouldn’t necessarily have guilt as the major emotion, but could have discovery, or pleasure even, or other things at work.

I wanted to wrap up talking a little about the fan base around this. What’s been the most rewarding part of connecting with these fans who are hungry to knowledge and wanting to connect with these characters?

Well, I think you’ve already divined it. I’m a teacher, I’m an educator, so I like nothing more than getting together with a group of people and getting to to talk about big ideas and what we’ve been reading and what we’re thinking about what we’re reading. And so all of my encounters with my readers ended up impressing me with how smart people are and how thoughtful people are.

They have the most amazing insights and they bring their own experiences to bare. There’s a saying that you can never read the same book twice because you’re a different person when you read it.

And I think that that is one of the most amazing things to me. That someone will say, “I first read this when I was having my first child, but it’s eight years later and they are now eight and I have a totally different appreciation for Diana’s parents and the dilemma that they face and what they did to Diana in spellbinding her.”

That’s what keeps me engaged and interested and it’s what makes me excited about delving into these backstories because I think, “Oh, wow. What will come out in our discussions? What will come out asking readers about a part that resonated for them or didn’t resonate for them or they couldn’t figure out later in life.”

And what a pleasure and privilege it is to have such a big classroom.

About ‘Time’s Convert’

Set in contemporary Paris and London, and the American colonies during the upheaval and unrest that exploded into the Revolutionary War, a sweeping story that braids together the past and present.

On the battlefields of the American Revolution, Matthew de Clermont meets Marcus MacNeil, a young surgeon from Massachusetts, during a moment of political awakening when it seems that the world is on the brink of a brighter future. When Matthew offers him a chance at immortality and a new life, free from the restraints of his puritanical upbringing, Marcus seizes the opportunity to become a vampire. But his transformation is not an easy one and the ancient traditions and responsibilities of the de Clermont family clash with Marcus’s deeply-held beliefs in liberty, equality, and brotherhood.

‘Time’s Convert’ by Deborah Harkness is available now from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and your local independent bookstore. Also, don’t forget to add it to your Goodreads “to read” list!

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