If you’ve not had a friend rave to you about A Discovery Of Witches yet, you probably will soon. It’s the first novel in the All Souls trilogy, a series of books about a witch, Diana Bishop, and her vampire lover, Matthew Clairmont, who break all the rules of their magical world in their search for an ancient manuscript that can tell them the truth about the origins of magical creatures. Since publication, the book has been translated into 36 languages, followed by three more books (Time’s Convert, the latest, comes out next week) and tonight the TV show, starring Teresa Palmer and Matthew Goode, premieres on Sky One. The books are gripping, completely absorbing and ridiculous in the best possible way – and the TV series is exactly the same.
The idea for the series came from a thought experiment. “I was going through an airport bookstore and there was literally an entire wall of books about witches, demons and vampires, wolves, fairies, shapeshifters…” says author Deborah Harkness. “And I was thinking, why do we still want to read books about them? I can understand why people read about them in 1550, but now? And these books made it seem like these creatures were real. What if they were real? Where would they go to work, where would they date? Where would they send their children to school?”
So interested in these questions was Harkness, a historian, that they distracted her from what she was supposed to be writing at the time. “I was supposedly writing a book on experimental practices in royal society, very academic, and instead I spent the entire autumn thinking about what would a vampire do for a living.”
But that autumn was also the autumn of 2008, when California voted to ban same-sex marriage, and Harkness thinks that that situation became part of the story. “I kept thinking, we’re not nice to people who are different,” she said. Because of this, the overall message of the series ended up being that difference is a good thing and should be celebrated. “What I really hope people think is, I’m different but that’s a good thing, that’s a positive thing and I don’t have to be afraid of people who are different. I just see so many people in the world who are brilliant in so many ways but are held back because of that fear of being discovered, of being uncovered. I think that comes through brilliantly in the television show.”
Creating the television show has been a really strange experience for Harkness, who was executive producer, involved in early writing sessions and consulted on everything from casting to directors. She compared it to watching a child on their first day of school, knowing that it’s the best thing for them but feeling a wrench at having to lose control. “Sky and Now TV have been absolutely wonderful in allowing the show to be quite similar to the book. Nobody told us, well, you have to have more blood or more car crashes or whatever; we were really intent on making it true to the spirit of the book.” And the result is, for want of a better word, magical. “There were moments where it was so exactly what I envisioned in my mind that it gives you goosebumps. The whole thing literally felt like my imagination had just come right out of my head and on to the screen.”
When we fall in love, we tend to do a lot of weird things about pretending things are OK that aren’t. We tell ourselves and our partners little lies along the way to make it possible
But with the TV series is going to come a whole new audience, and that means a whole lot of people are going to be introduced to Matthew Clairmont, aka Dr Vampire Love Interest, for the first time. Matthew, in traditional literary vampire form, is possessive, domineering and checks off several points on the coercive-control watchlist. How does Harkness think Matthew Clairmont stands up as a love interest in a post-#MeToo era?
“One of the reasons why I really wanted to explore that was precisely because there seems to be this romantic longing to have a vampire boyfriend – and you think, really?! What would this really be like?” she said. “I really wanted people to have this conversation, and be actually pissed off with it. It allows people, hopefully, to say, I’m not okay with Matthew following her around, because that’s what we need to be talking about.
“When we fall in love we tend to do a lot of weird things about pretending things are OK that aren’t. We tell ourselves and our partners little lies along the way to make it possible, but there’s always a moment where all those chickens come to roost. I think that relationships are really hard work and a constant process of refining those truths and getting deeper, so the moment when Diana says stop telling me what to do, and back off, those are the important moments. You get to have your goofy, giddy moments, but you also have to have the moments where you say this is not OK with me, and have that be respected.”
Relationships and their complexity are another important theme in the book and the show, whether that’s the relationship Diana has to her parents, who died when she was young, the coven she’s supposed to be able to trust who she doesn’t quite fit into, or the cross-species family she builds around herself. This, Harkness says, was intentional. “I think that what really matters is making a family that can stay together and I don’t mean a biological family, necessarily. I mean the family you choose. Your family might be your co-workers, they could be friends from childhood. It might be your blood relations but it doesn’t have to be.
“There’s this world where a lot of people feel dislocated and disenfranchised and far-away, but really what’s worth fighting for is those people, who you love and who love you. And gosh, isn’t that what makes it all worth it?"
For a book that I described in my initial review as “escapist nonsense”, there’s clearly a lot of weight and meat to A Discovery Of Witches. But the question remains – why are we still so interested in stories of witches, vampires and magic? “I wish I knew that, I really do,” Harkness said. “I think with all of our modern science, with all of our modern technologies, we still have that feeling that there’s more in the world that we can possibly explain, and I think we’re hopefully not going to lose that. And I think that’s what magic stands for in our culture. It’s the mystery that still remains in spite of it all.”