Alrighty, hello and welcome to my blog series dedicated to author interviews for 2018 debut authors! This has been started as a way to support some of my fellow ‘debutantes’ of 2018. Some of the genres may be a little outside while I usually write/talk about here, but each of these I share struck my interest in one way or another.
(See past author interviews at the end of this post!)
Clarissa Harwood’s debut — Impossible Saints — just hit the world on January 2nd. It’s historical fiction, involving all sorts of themes that tickle my interest. You’ll see why below!
Author Name: Clarissa Harwood
Book Title: Impossible Saints
Book Genre: Historical Fiction
Release Date: January 2, 2018
Publisher: Pegasus Books
The setting is 1907 England. Lilia Brooke, an agnostic militant suffragette, believes marriage to a clergyman is a fate worse than death. Paul Harris, a quiet, intellectual Anglican priest, is well aware that falling in love with Lilia is incompatible with his ambition to become the next cathedral dean. Lilia and Paul must decide which compromises they’re willing to make and whether their love is worth fighting for.
“How well do you know Whitechapel?” she asked.
“Have you ever been there?”
“No,” he admitted, “but I don’t need to go to Hell to know I don’t want to spend time there.”
She laughed. “That’s a terrible analogy.”
“Don’t you think you could better achieve your ends by adding a little prudence to your fearlessness?”
“You sound like my mother.” She tapped her foot impatiently. “Why is it that men’s courage is called bravery but women’s courage is called recklessness—or, even worse, foolishness? If I were a man, would you urge me to be prudent?”
“I certainly would,” he said firmly. “Not everything is a question of sex.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. Everything is a question of sex, but because you’re a man, you don’t see it.”
Where did you get the idea?
The genesis of the novel was a scene that popped into my head about twenty years ago: it was as vivid and detailed as if I were watching a movie. I saw a confrontation in a meadow between a studious boy who didn’t know how to play, and a fiery girl pretending to be Jeanne d’Arc, leading her army of brothers. That scene haunted me for many years before I finally gave in and started writing Paul and Lilia’s story. The scene doesn’t appear in the finished novel, but both Paul and Lilia refer to it and remember it as their first meeting.
What’s the story behind the title? (e.g. who came up with it, did your publisher change it, etc.)
The original title was Marching as to War, but by the time I signed with my agent I had changed it to A Battle Worth Fighting. I was quite attached to the latter title because it’s a direct quotation from the novel, but my editor rightly pointed out that it sounded more like nonfiction than fiction. The final title, Impossible Saints, was the result of a fun brainstorming session with my editor and my agent. While the others enjoyed my contribution of The Suffragette with a Priest on a Train, it didn’t make the cut!
No spoiler, but tell us something we won’t find out just by reading the book jacket
My protagonists’ choice of heroes says a lot about them. Paul’s hero is the Victorian founder of the Oxford Movement (and ultimately Anglo-Catholicism), John Henry Newman. Lilia’s hero is early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Tell us about your favourite character.
It’s tough to choose a favourite because I love Paul and Lilia equally. I used to tell people that Paul is who I am, and Lilia is who I want to be. This isn’t really true, though, and my husband keeps telling me that I’m Lilia, even though I don’t see her qualities in myself. The novel is told from the points of view of both Lilia and Paul. Because this was the first novel I wrote that includes the point of view of a male character, I was nervous about expressing a man’s attitude and thoughts convincingly, so I deliberately gave Paul my personality (INFJ, for Myers-Briggs fans). Over the course of multiple revisions, he changed and became his own person, but I still identify with many of his strengths and weaknesses. Lilia is much braver and more outspoken than I am. She’s also an extrovert and has much more energy for people than I do. But I admire her and her convictions!
If you could spend a day with one of your characters, who would it be and what would you do? (P.S. Please keep it to PG-13)
I’d be happy to spend a day with either Lilia or Paul, but Paul is harder to get to know and I could see myself becoming frustrated with his reserved nature. The two of us might just sit in opposite corners of a room reading books! It would be more interesting to follow Lilia around, hearing her speeches and watching the effect she has on the people around her: she’s very charismatic and passionate about women’s rights. Maybe she’d let me be her personal assistant!
Are your character based on real people, or do they come from your imaginations?
The only real person who makes an appearance in Impossible Saints is Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the best-known British militant women’s suffrage organization in the early 20th century. I’ve already mentioned that I based Paul’s personality on my own, and I do rely quite a bit on the Myers-Briggs personality typology when I create characters. If I’m struggling to understand a character’s motivations, I’ll often ask someone with a personality similar to my character’s for help.
How long did you take to write this book? (You can share about the timeline from drafting to publication)
The novel took about twenty years from conception to publication. The first draft took me a little over a year, but I’ve written so many drafts since then that I’ve lost count. I gave up on it several times and wrote other books, but I kept coming back to it. You can read more about the timeline, including signing with my agent and getting the book deal in this blog post.
What kind of research did you do for this book?
As a doctoral student and later an English professor, I specialized in nineteenth-century British literature, so the poetry and fiction of that era always sparks my research and leads me to primary sources. An early influence on Paul’s development as an Anglican priest was Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers, with its delightful melodrama surrounding the lives and loves of cathedral clergy. Poets associated with Anglo-Catholicism inspired Paul’s story too, such as Gerard Manley Hopkins and Christina Rossetti. First-person accounts of the suffragettes’ destruction of property, hunger strikes in prison, and the brutal force-feeding they endured, especially Emmeline Pankhurst’s My Own Story and Constance Lytton’s Prison and Prisoners, were especially influential in shaping Lilia’s experiences.
What did you remove from this book during the editing process?
Deciding what to include and what to exclude is always difficult, but I’m fortunate to have people with great editorial eyes looking at my work—critique partners, beta readers, my agent, and my editor at Pegasus. I’ll admit I was dismayed when Laura, my agent, first suggested killing off a fairly major character in Impossible Saints, but Laura has an uncanny ability to detect which elements of a story should be left in and which should be left out, so I knew I could trust her judgment. I was also disappointed when I realized on my own that I had to kill off my only Canadian character and put a New Zealander in his place! It’s obvious to me now that both “murders” improved the novel.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
My natural tendency is to be a plotter, but I’m trying to let my inner pantser come out more often! I never plot a novel in great detail, though. Before I start writing a novel, I usually write a brief synopsis. Writing a synopsis for a finished novel is painful, but writing one early in the process is a helpful exercise to work out what the important turning points and key scenes will be. Of course, the synopsis I write at the beginning bears little relation to the one I write at the end, but that’s as it should be!
What is your favorite part of your writing process, and why?
I love revisions, whether I’m doing them on my own after having written several drafts, or whether I’m doing them based on my agent’s or editor’s feedback. There is no “terror of the blank page,” so I don’t experience writer’s block when I’m doing revisions. I already know the story and the characters, so I don’t have to create anything from scratch. Instead, I’m adding layers and depth, polishing something that is already a solid story.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process, and why?
The first draft! How I hate the first draft! I hate not knowing my characters. They aren’t my friends yet, and I miss my old friends from the previous novel. The characters in a first draft are people who’ve dropped out of the sky and are ordering me to tell a story I don’t know.
Can you share your writing routine? (e.g. How do you carve out your writing time? Where do you normally write?)
I’m very fortunate to have flexible hours in my day job (I teach online courses at my local university), so I can work at home most days and organize my time the way I want to. Mornings are my sacred writing time: I try to write for at least an hour or two every morning. But my writing routine is quite different depending on whether I’m writing an early draft or a later one. I give myself a minimum time period when I’m working on a first draft (only ten minutes if I’m really struggling). When I’m working on a later draft or revisions, I give myself a maximum time period: otherwise I miss appointments, meals, and sleep because all I want to do is write!
Have you ever gotten writer’s block? If yes, how do you overcome it?
Yes, usually when I’m working on a first draft or if I’ve been away from the manuscript too long. I’m a recovering perfectionist, so my first step is usually just reminding myself that it’s ok to “write crap.” In fact, this is how I wrote my entire dissertation! When my writer’s block is really severe, I use the ten-minute minimum time period I mentioned before and let myself make point-form notes if I can’t form complete sentences. Another trick I use for severe writer’s block is stolen from the movie The King’s Speech: to work on the king’s stutter, his speech therapist had him shout out swear words to loosen him up. I do this with writing if I’m really stuck: I just write long lists of swear words!
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
I wrote two novels as a teenager that were awful. I rewrote one of them in my twenties, but it was still pretty awful. I’ll call those my three practice novels. Then I signed with my agent based on a finished novel that didn’t sell, and I recently finished a sort of sequel to Impossible Saints. That’s two finished unpublished novels. I also have two unfinished first drafts of new novels.
Do you have any writing quirks?
Ha! Is there a writer who doesn’t have writing quirks? I look like a maniac when I’m revising a novel because I often talk to myself loudly and gesticulate wildly. Fortunately I’m usually alone at home when I do this, but not always. I also do my best writing when I’m “inside the purr machine,” which is on my sofa with one cat on either side of me and another behind my head.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I love reading, watching movies, going for long walks, traveling, and making snow women.
Apart from novel writing, do you do any other kind(s) of writing?
I’ve done my share of academic writing as an English professor, but these days most of my academic writing is making comments on student papers. My comments are usually pretty dull, but occasionally I feel inspired to write things such as “Your essay is like a garden with some lovely flowers but far too many weeds.”
Share something about you most people probably don’t know.
Songs by the 70’s Swedish pop group ABBA are the soundtrack to my life.
What are you working on right now?
A historical novel about a Victorian woman mountain climber.
What’s your favourite writing advice?
Don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration comes after you start writing, not before. The best writing advice I’ve heard for writer’s block is “butt in chair” and “lower your expectations.”
The book you’re currently reading
I always have several books on the go. This week they are a nonfiction book about scandalous Victorian court cases, Peter Pan because I’m teaching it this week in my Children’s Literature course, and Song of a Captive Bird, a novel about the 1960’s Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad that I’m reviewing for the Historical Novel Society.
Give us a short pitch of your novel
England, 1907. Lilia Brooke bursts into Paul Harris’s orderly life, shattering his belief that women are gentle creatures who need protection. Lilia wants to change women’s lives by advocating for the vote, free unions, and contraception. Paul, an Anglican priest, has a big ambition of his own: to become the youngest dean of St. John’s Cathedral. Lilia doesn’t believe in God, but she’s attracted to Paul’s intellect, ethics, and dazzling smile.
As Lilia finds her calling in the militant Women’s Social and Political Union, Paul is increasingly driven to rise in the church. They can’t deny their attraction, but they know they don’t belong in each other’s worlds. Paul and Lilia must reach their breaking points before they can decide whether their love is worth fighting for.
Give one or two of your favourite blurbs.
“The perspective is refreshing in that the church is not the villain, nor are all the suffragettes cardboard cutouts. One interesting aspect is the novel’s exploration of the contrast in ideologies between the more conservative, peaceful suffrage groups and the militant, property-destroying Women’s Social and Political Union. This parallels the spectrum in today’s protest-heavy atmosphere, lending the novel contemporary social relevance in addition to its romantic plotline.” – Booklist
“Harwood brings us vividly and convincingly into the past, as we see the whirlwind of social changes in early twentieth century England through the lives of two passionate and authentic characters.” – Jessica Brockmole, internationally bestselling author of ‘Letters from Skye’
Clarissa Harwood holds a PhD in English Literature with a specialization in Nineteenth-Century British Literature. In addition to being a proud member of the Historical Novel Society, Clarissa is a part-time university instructor and full-time grammar nerd who loves to explain the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. She lives in London, Ontario.