Today I’d like to welcome Clarissa Harwood whose novel IMPOSSIBLE SAINTS debuted on January 2, 2018.
“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’
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.
Sharon: Welcome, Clarissa! To start, can you please describe what IMPOSSIBLE SAINTS is about?
Clarissa: Of course! 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.
And here’s a teaser:
“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.”
Sharon: I know everyone always ask authors this question but where did you get the idea?
Clarissa: 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.
Sharon: What’s the story behind the title?
Clarissa: 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!
Sharon: I know all about title changes! Can you tell us something we won’t find out just by reading the book jacket?
Clarissa: 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.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… Click To Tweet
Sharon: Can you tell us about your favourite character?
Clarissa: 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!
Sharon: Are your character based on real people, or do they come from your imaginations?
Clarissa: 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.
Sharon: How long did you take to write this book?
Clarissa: 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.
Sharon: I know about the long road to publication well! What is your favorite part of your writing process, and why?
Clarissa: 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.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,… Click To Tweet
Sharon: What is the most challenging part of your writing process, and why?
Clarissa: 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.
Sharon: Have you ever gotten writer’s block? If yes, how do you overcome it?
Clarissa: 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!
Sharon: Do you have any writing quirks?
Clarissa: 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.
Sharon:I love the “purr machine”! Can you share something about yourself that most people probably don’t know?
Clarissa: Songs by the 70’s Swedish pop group ABBA are the soundtrack to my life.
Sharon:What are you working on right now?
Clarissa: A historical novel about a Victorian woman mountain climber.
Sharon: Oh my gosh, that sounds so interesting! What’s your favourite writing advice?
Clarissa: 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.”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.” Click To Tweet
Sharon: What book are you currently reading?
Clarissa: 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.
Sharon: Thanks so much for spending the day with us, Clarissa. And best of luck with your debut!
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.
Sharon Wray is a librarian who once studied dress design in the couture houses of Paris and now writes novels of suspense, adventure, and love. The author of the Romantic Suspense Deadly Force Series, her debut book Every Deep Desire releases on March 6, 2018 and is available for pre-order.