Today I’m joined by the brainy and delightful bestselling sci-fi/fantasy author Lindsey Sparks, who got me to read a book that approximately one million people have recommended to me. Lindsey calls “A Discovery of Witches” a grown-up Twilight meets the Da Vinci Code, which I think is spot on. She also blew my mind when she explained how a good sci-fi or fantasy novel will stand on its own when all fantastical elements are pulled out of it, which in turn made me rethink what I have liked about the few books in those genres I’ve read.
One warning: we delve into the topic of miscarriage in this episode, and how it can be a trigger for many readers, and how hard it is to avoid. I’ve moved this part of our conversation to the end of the podcast, so if this is a topic you aren’t up to, you may want to tap out at about the 20 minute mark. You’ll still get the book chat, but you can skip over the part you are sensitive to.
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Discussed in this episode:
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
Julie’s appearance on Lindsey’s podca
The Redemption of Althalus by David Eddings
Dead Witch Walking: Book One of The Hollows Series by Kim Harrison
The Heroine’s Journey: For Writers, Readers, and Fans of Pop Culture by Gail Carriger
The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell
Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
The Ending Series, co-authored by Lindsey Pogue and Lindsey Sparks
Lindsey Pogue on the Best Book Ever podcast
True Blood Television Series
Dead Until Dark: (Sookie Stackhouse Book 1) by Charlaine Harris
Guilty Pleasures: An Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter Novel (Book 1) by Laurell K. Hamilton
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
Virgin River by Robyn Carr
Virgin River TV Show
The Elemental Mysteries by Elizabeth Hunter
The Martian by Andy Weir
A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
Hello. Bookworms welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where I get to know interesting people by asking them about their favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and today I’m talking to best-selling scifi and fantasy author, Lindsey Sparks, who chose a book that a lot of you have recommended to me. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness has legions of cross-genre fans, both for the book series and the television series, and I can totally see why Lindsey thinks it is the Best Book Ever
Listeners, one quick note: Lindsey and I did get into a discussion about portrayals of miscarriages in books, and how that can be triggering for people who have experienced it, and how difficult it can be to avoid the subject. I have moved that part of our conversation to the end of the podcast, so if this is something you aren’t up to right now, I suggest you tap out around the 20-minute mark That way you can still listen to the book talk, but you can skip the more sensitive part of the conversation. I want to send you all of my love and I thank you for listening.
Julie Strauss: Hi, Lindsey. Welcome to the Best Book Ever podcast.
Lindsey Sparks: Hi, thanks for having me.
JS: I’m delighted to have you. I have been a guest on your podcast, but we were drinking alcoholic beverages then. Now it’s early morning, and there are none. That I know of. Are there alcoholic beverages in your cup?
LS: There’s none in mine.
JS: Lindsey, tell me a little bit about your reading life. What kind of a reader are you?
LS: I don’t know. Can you be a rut reader? Like, I get in a rut where I only read a certain kind of book, but that can change. I generally read things that are scifi or fantasy. Within there, usually I almost always read books that are written by female authors or have a female protagonist, or both. Usually both. I really like paranormal and urban fantasy. I prefer – don’t know how nitty-gritty you want me to get? I prefer a first person. Let’s see. I do really like dystopian books, but that’s one of those, like sometimes I’ll go off into like a dystopian tangent for a little while, and then I’ll come back to my kind of fantasy home.
JS: How did you get into those specific genres? How’d you become a scifi reader?
LS: I would have to say probably Chronicles of Narnia was really where I got started as a kid. I remember pretending with one of my friends, when I was in, had to be like older elementary school. I remember pretending, like we would turn off all the lights in the room and we’d stick up paper stickers. Oh, I don’t know. We’d be like decorating the room to make it feel like it was going to be Narnia. And then we’d go into the closet and come back out and pretend that we were in Narnia. I think that from there I moved into more epic fantasy books. I read every single thing that David Eddings ever wrote. Totally into Bill Garrett and all of the related series for that. One of my favorite books, still, is not the one we’re talking about today, but it’s a David Eddings book, which is The Redemption of Althalus. And it’s one of those things where I don’t know if that’s actually how you say it because I’ve only ever like read it with my eyeballs.
JS: And what is that?
LS: I think it’s the only standalone book that David Eddings wrote. Well, it’s an epic fantasy. So it’s a secondary world fantasy. There’s a male protagonist. All of his stuff has male protagonists. He’s a thief. So the main character is a thief, and then he gets drawn into this whole prophecy, saving the world kind of thing. I don’t know, it was different from a lot of the elves and dwarves fantasy books that I had read at that point. It just was really unique and I really enjoyed it.
JS: You said you specifically are interested in books with female protagonists. How did you get to that point?
LS: I remember once I got started with urban fantasy, I felt like urban fantasy is my, has my reading heart. That’s my my home base for reading. And I think maybe it started with Kim Harrison’s Hollows series.
JS: And why do you think you like it better with females?
LS: Well, for me as a female identifying person, I feel like I can relate to the characters better. And I think a lot of readers, especially female readers, can get frustrated with the way that female characters are written by male authors. And this is kind of interesting: I was reading The Heroine’s Journey by Gail Carriger. Have you read that?
JS: I have it. I haven’t read it though. That’s the story of my life. I say that at least once per podcast.
LS: It’s new. I think she released it this year. She’s an author, and it’s a kind of a counterpoint to The Hero’s Journey. She dissects several different myths. The heroine’s journey doesn’t have to center on a female protagonist. It’s just kind of like, not like the opposite, but it just balances out the hero’s journey. So the hero’s journey is really a lot about like isolation and being strong on your own. A very typical Western definition of strength. But then the heroine’s journey is a lot more about building your team, working as a group, strength in numbers, cooperation and that kind of thing. I think I really am drawn to those kinds of stories. A lot of the stories, like I said, like the heroine’s journey, doesn’t require a female protagonist. But a lot of the female protagonist stories do end up having a heroine’s journey. And it is about building the team and you end up with really interesting supporting characters and people who you would want to have their own story. I really love it when not just the main character has all the interesting backstory and the fun characteristics and stuff. When everybody feels like a real person.
JS: The thing that jumped out at me, the second you were describing the difference between those two books, is the Harry Potter series. It is a perfect example, right? Because Harry always thinks, I’m going to do it myself, I’m not going to tell any grownups. And it gets him in trouble over and over. And Hermione and Ginny are always going, Dude! You need a team.
LS: Yeah. At its core, Harry Potter is a heroine’s journey because the way that he’s able to find success as by drawing on his team. When he’s the weakest is when he tries to go off on his own. And it’s when he falls back on and relies on his team, that he is able to actually overcome a lot of these obstacles and is able to be successful in his journey.
JS: By my account, you’ve written around 25, 26 books that I saw on your website. You have three different podcasts.
LS: I have three different podcasts?
JS: That’s what your website says.
LS: I do? Oh, you’re right. Yeah.
JS: Okay. Do you know how do you know how many kids you have?
LS: Two. But I also have cats and dogs. So you could include them if you wanted.
JS: Will you tell my listeners how it is that you’re able to make reading a priority in your life? Cause there’s a giant bookshelf behind you. You’re clearly an avid reader. How do you make time for reading in your life?
LS: Audio books.
JS: Are you able to do that with the kids around?
LS: Yeah. so, I am blessed with, very independent young children. Which is funny to say, because one of my kids is not even one year old. But my kids are perfectly happy to have me sit in a room with them. They’ll go around and play with toys and explore the room. We have a room that’s set up just for them. It’s blocked off so they can’t get out of it. I sit in there with them and they play with their toys and they come over to me and I’ll pause my book and then we play together and then they’ll go off and do their own thing again. So, yeah, so I just listen while I’m hanging out with them, and I pause it when they need my actual ears as well as my eyes.
JS: So you’re really comfortable with reading in very small increments.
LS: I think that goes back to my whole aid back, flexibility kind of thing, you know? Go with the flow. And also, my baby is still nursing, so when I go off with him alone, I listen to a book then. Cause it’s just like my little peaceful time.
JS: Can you tell me, how did you find today’s book, A Discovery of Witches?
LS: Yeah. So I found A Discovery of Witches when I was working at a bookstore before I started writing. I was working at a bookstore in Napa with Lindsey Pogue, who is my co-author for the first book and series I ever wrote.
LS: Has also been a guest on your show, and is also my co-host for a podcast. We are very involved in each other’s lives. This book came out as a new release while I was working at the bookstore. I was in a very paranormal romance, urban fantasy kind of phase. Not that I ever really get out of that, but that was hardcore where I was at that point. And that was in the time of, I think it was like the first season or maybe the second season of, True Blood? So I was really into vampires. I loved that show early on, read those books. I was just devouring any books that had vampires at that point. Anyway, so back to Discovery of Witches. So that came out, I loved the cover, and I started reading it and I was like, oh my God, this book is amazing! Because it was a paranormal romance vampire book that had smushed together with The DaVinci Code. Like it was just like this historical academic mystery spun through this vampire, Twilight tale. It hit all of my buttons. It fits on everything that I would want there to be in a book. I love these academic mysteries combined with paranormal elements. I just think it’s really fun. Another author who does this really well is Elizabeth Hunter in her Elemental mysteries series.
JS: Discovery of Witches – what genre do you call it? You keep saying academic mystery. And that’s what I would think of it. But before this conversation, when I sat in the bookstore, I always thought paranormal romance.
LS: Yeah. I would say paranormal romance.
JS: Oh, interesting.
LS: I mean, it’s very cross genre. I think Deborah Harkness did something really neat here by kind of smushing in that more DaVinci Code, academic thriller element. Very cross genre, I would say, but paranormal romance at its heart. And I think the way that I would decide that is by saying that, I think way more paranormal romance readers would be interested in this and the academic thriller elements then academic thriller readers would be interested in it for its paranormal romance elements. If that makes any sense.
JS: I did actually jot a note down that people who I think have no interest in romance really love this series.
LS: Yes. Or, no interest in fantasy. I feel like the story could stand alone, or stand on its own, if you took out the paranormal elements. I have no idea who said this, but there is a famous classic scifi author who said something along the lines of: a sci-fi story should be able to stand alone, or stand on its own, as a whole, complete, fulfilling story, even if you took out all of the scifi elements. Telling writers that they need to not just rely on the world-building and the more fantastical elements of their story to keep readers interested. At the heart of a story, you need to actually have a story that could function in any setting.
JS: I’m trying to think now of things that have crossed over. I never read scifi, but I read The Martian.
LS: Oh, my God, that book is so good. And even though one of the best things about that book is all of the crazy, nitty-gritty, science details that Andy Weir throws in there, at the heart of that story, it is about this man’s will to survive. Like he is not going to give up. So that story could have been in some mountain wilderness.
JS: Of course. That’s exactly right, isn’t it. That’s exactly the key. If the story is there, everything else is sort of, not window dressing, but a little bit. It’s just format. It’s always so interesting to me that eternal beings are always academic for some reason, which I think is so fascinating. And I I’ve always been curious about that. Not all of them, of course, because some of them are just having sex.
LS: Yeah. I tend to lose interest in that. I need a little bit more, I dunno, not story because you can’t have, you can have story when it’s very carnal. I don’t know. I just feel like I like the academic. I like it when there’s some historical mystery. Especially in A Discovery of Witches, Matthew, the vampire, who’s very old, has really, at least the last few centuries before we meet him, has like been devoting his life to trying to answer the question of who, where do vampires and the other creatures in this world come from, and trying to figure out where they’re going. What’s next for creatures? I think, I totally agree with your observation here where these immortal beings – vampires are the only ones in this world that are immortals – they’re kind of over the physical. Like, it’s just boring. They’ve done it all. They’ve felt it all. And the only thing, the only thing of wonder that’s left to them is, is this more academic, esoteric sort of philosophical experience that they can only have because only they can spend centuries studying something. Whereas the rest of the warm bloods, as they call them, are limited to the normal lifespan. I really liked the stories where there’s that kind of tension between what do humans know versus what don’t humans know. On this one, the non-human creatures are still hidden. but then in the Southern Vampire Chronicles, the True Blood series, they had recently come out of the coffin. So the human world was aware of at least vampires. And in The Hollows series by Kim Harrison, the witches and vampires and other magical creatures have come out like 50 years earlier when humanity was suffering from a disease that was going to kill them all unless the creatures stepped in and there was magical intervention. So I love the different ways that that is explored in all of these different worlds by all of these different authors. And I think it’s a really interesting tension to look at. What would happen or what would our world be like if there were magical creatures and they came out? How would we react? What would that do? And I think it really brings to head some of the real-life tensions that we see every day and the less magical differences that people perceive.
JS: It kind of bums me out. There was this one scene in Discovery, which is where she says this one line about, She’s a witch, he’s a vampire, and she can’t bear to go to breakfast. It’s better than going to breakfast and having him glare at her over his coffee in the morning. It was just a throwaway line. And I literally obsessed about it. Cause I thought, is she saying that even eternal creatures, who know everything and have seen everything, still have these petty hatreds and biases and prejudices? Is what we’re saying? We have no chance here if that’s what we’re saying. My God, that’s a depressing thought.
LS: Yeah. And I think it’s actually pretty interesting the way that Deborah Harkness looks at this. The main character in this book, her perspective – it’s the first person for the most part, there is a little bit of third person thrown in there with other characters – but Diana, her perspective is that she’s a little bit of an unreliable narrator, even though she doesn’t know it. She doesn’t know that she has been really sheltered, purposely, by the other, witches is in her life. Her magical power, which is actually quite unusual and extreme, has been subdued by the adults when she was a child, for reasons to protect her. Almost as a by-product of subduing her magical power, she has been kept away from the magical world and she hasn’t really learned a lot about the magical world. What she perceives as these prejudices between the different, and there definitely are some very extreme prejudices between the three different kinds of creatures, which is vampires and demons. But she doesn’t understand that there are actual laws and a governing organization. She doesn’t know any of this. So to her, it’s just like, creatures stick to their own. Vampires don’t like others. In her head, it is very much just about prejudice. Whereas as she learns more about the world that she has been ignoring for three decades, she comes to see that there’s some reasons behind why these things have happened. It’s another interesting tension in here between Diana’s ignorance, which is funny because she has this really like accomplished academic, but she also doesn’t know any of the actual history of her people.
JS: It’s a series, right?
LS: Yes. It’s a trilogy.
JS: Does the trilogy stand up to the first book? Do you feel like they all have the same quality?
LS: I definitely would say the first book is my favorite. The second book, they travel back in time to Elizabethan England and. The author, Deborah Harkness is a historian. The second book takes us back and really explores a lot of stuff about Elizabethan England. And to me, it just got like a little bit nitty-gritty and wandering. But anyway, I just read it, I think, for the third time. I listened to the audio book and I just finished it and just started book three again. I definitely didn’t have any problem this time. However, I did have to skip over a part in the middle. There is a miscarriage in the second book and I have suffered from a miscarriage before. And so I definitely get kind of, I can’t really handle reading or seeing movies or shows that include that kind of stuff anymore. I knew that was coming, so I just skipped over the middle part of the book.
JS: My God, that’s a hard one to avoid. How do you navigate that in your reading life? I don’t know that I’ve ever seen any kind of trigger warning for it?
LS: I don’t know if I have either. Let me think. I’m not sure if I’ve encountered it in a book. I know I’ve passed on movies and shows. Oh, no, no, no. Have you watched Virgin River?
LS: So the show is based on a series of books. There is a miscarriage in there, and I almost had to stop watching it. And I think that was my first encounter with a fictional depiction of a miscarriage that made me a lot more cautious about things. That was the first one I had encountered since experiencing my own. And it made me a lot more cautious about diving into books and stories that might include that. It definitely hit me a lot harder than I was expecting. I mean, it’s a tough one. People don’t talk about it very much.
JS: Well, there’s our problem.
LS: Yeah. And I it’s definitely something that, when you’re going through it, you feel so alone, because people don’t talk about it so much. There’s a lot of shame and societal stigma that’s just really harmful.
JS: Which is weird that it’s so isolating because, of my friend group, I am the only one I know who never experienced it. I mean, it is very common.
LS: Yeah, it is. And I think that, because it’s not talked about, people don’t realize how common it is. But it’s definitely one of those things that you don’t realize how common it is. I mean, you can read about it in textbooks or you read about it on the internet and articles and stuff about those statistics. Like, it’s really, really common. But, you don’t realize how many people in your life have experienced it until you go through it yourself, and then people start bringing out their own personal stories.
JS: So, despite the fact that it was so difficult for you to get through the second book, you skip that part as you were listening to book two, and then you kept going? So you felt like the book was worth it?
LS: Well, I knew she was going to get pregnant again, so she was going to have a successful pregnancy later. So for me, having that be a touchy subject for me, it helps to see that a character who can move on and make something positive out of something that has been so difficult.
JS: And what do you think of book three? Well, you’re rereading that one right now. So you must also like that one, I guess?
LS: You know, it’s been so long since I originally read book three that I can’t remember what happened. So I’m actually really, really excited, because it feels like reading it for the first time.
JS: Given unlimited time, would you still prefer an audio book? Or if you had the opportunity to read paper books, would you do that? Because you clearly like paper books. I see them behind you. I realize they are probably from your past life.
LS: Yeah, some. I did just read recently a few months ago, I still have a couple books left the Court of Thorns and Roses series in paper. I really prefer paperback over e-readers. Only because, I don’t know what the deal is, but with an e-book, I tend to forget about the books more. It’s not the stories. It can be the exact same book. It’s just something about holding the book and seeing the cover every time you open it. It just kind of makes the book leave more of a lasting impression. Maybe it’s because there’s more of a visual cue? I like eBooks. They’re easier to hold.
JS: I have the exact same reaction to E-readers. I always ask people this question and I have had people tell me that they remember more on E-readers because of the highlight function and the ability to look up and all that. I still highlight, but I feel the same way. It just leaves my head the second I set that Kindle down. And I can’t understand what the cognitive dissonance is there, but something about it does not stick in my head. I don’t know.
LS: Yeah. I’m not sure. I think something else that is interesting with paperback books for me, I’m sure this is a cardinal sin to a lot of readers, but I totally cheat. If I’m starting to get the feeling that like characters are gonna get together or something’s going to happen, I’ll just flip, forward a chunk of the book and just gently skim a few pages to see if anything going to happen? Or if I want to see, how long do I have to wait until a hookup. When is this going to be like a kiss? Can you at least like, get some action?
JS: Why do you do that? What if you skipped ahead and you found out, and then he shot her or something like that? It would be terrible.
LS: I know. It’s something I’ve done for as long as I can remember. And it’s definitely not going to stop. Something I like about the audio book experience is that’s not an option, so I can just really zone out into the audio. I mean, I don’t zone out, especially not when I’m watching my children! But I can let the story take me on the journey that the author intended.
JS: Will you tell my listeners where they can find you and your work?
LS: Oh, yeah. They can find me at my website. And there they can find my links to all of my places online. The number one place where I spend the most time is my Facebook reader group, which is called Linsey’s Lovely Readers.
JS: Okay. Thank you. This has been so much fun. Thank you for joining me today.
LS: Oh, thank you for having me.
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Thanks for joining me today. And I will see you at the library.