Thursday, March 1, 2018

#AuthorInterview: Clarissa Harwood, author of Impossible Saints

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Clarissa Harwood to Flashlight Commentary to discuss her debut release, Impossible Saints.

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Release Date: January 2, 2018   |   Pegasus Books   |   Historical Fiction/Family Life
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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Clarissa. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us about Impossible Saints.
Thank you for having me here! Impossible Saints is set in 1907 England and is about the competing ambitions and growing love between a schoolteacher turned militant suffragette and an Anglican clergyman. Lilia, an agnostic, considers marriage to a clergyman a fate worse than death. Paul, a supporter of women’s suffrage but not of militancy, is well aware that his love for Lilia is incompatible with his ambition to become the next dean of the cathedral. Paul and Lilia must reach their breaking points before they can decide whether their love is worth fighting for.

At risk of sounding impertinent, where did you find this story? Did it strike like lightning out of nowhere or was is something that came to you over time? 
What first sparked the novel was a scene that popped into my head about twenty years ago: it was as vivid and detailed as a scene in a movie. I saw a confrontation in a meadow between a quiet, studious boy who didn’t know how to play, and a fiery girl pretending to be Jeanne d’Arc, leading her army of brothers.

When the idea first came to me, I had just started my PhD studies and didn’t have time to write the novel, but that scene haunted me for about ten years before I finally gave in and started writing Paul and Lilia’s story. The meadow scene was cut from the finished novel, but both Paul and Lilia refer to it and remember it as their first meeting. Their personalities as children were so clear in the meadow scene that it was easy to imagine what they’d be like as adults.

Without giving too much away, what can you tell us about heroine Lilia Brooke?
Lilia is a young woman with very modern ideals. She believes women should have the vote, and she’s willing to break the law to fight for it. She believes contraception should be legal. She believes in free unions, not marriage. She might seem extreme or too modern to contemporary readers, but the primary sources I found in the course of my research suggest otherwise: there were plenty of women like her in the early 20th century, though they weren’t accepted in most respectable middle-class circles.

The Women's Social and Political Union was a militant organization that campaigned for Women's suffrage in the United Kingdom. Why is Lilia drawn to this particular group? 
At the beginning of the novel, Lilia belongs to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), a non-militant suffrage group that was socially acceptable and pursued quieter, legal methods to get the vote. But she learns that the government doesn’t listen to these quieter methods, and after a tragedy involving a friend, she joins the militant WSPU founded by Emmeline Pankhurst, the only real person who makes an appearance in Impossible Saints. The WSPU was known for window-breaking, arson, and other property destruction, but what many people don’t realize is how brutally they were attacked by the police and bystanders even when they attempted to stage peaceful demonstrations and speeches. 

Belonging to the WSPU fits Lilia’s personality: she is strong, brave, and fearless when fighting for a cause she believes in, and there’s nothing she believes in more than women’s rights. But she’s not perfect: she lacks insight into her own heart!

Do you have a favorite scene in Impossible Saints? 
I have several favorites! Without giving too much away, one of them is possibly the worst marriage proposal in the history of marriage proposals. Another is a flirtatious scene in which Paul and Lilia argue about translating Horace’s Odes. One of my beta readers commented after reading that scene, “If I knew it could be this sexy, I would have paid more attention in Latin class!”

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing Impossible Saints?
Paul has a nemesis named Thomas Cross who intrigued me, but I couldn’t allow him to take over the story. The way I solved this problem was by making Thomas Cross the protagonist of a new novel!

If you could sit down and talk with one of the characters in Impossible Saints, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you invite and why? 
I don’t think either of my protagonists would want to just sit and talk with me, though I’d love to do that with either of them. I don’t know if other writers have inferiority complexes about their characters, but I certainly do: I’m constantly plagued by doubts that my characters would want to be friends with me if they knew me in real life!

Paul is harder than Lilia 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! Lilia would certainly talk to me, but she wouldn’t want to sit still for long, so she’d probably prefer that I follow her around, hearing her speeches and watching the effect she has on the people around her. Maybe she’d let me be her personal assistant!

If you could pick a fantasy cast to play the leads in a screen adaptation of Impossible Saints, who would you hire?
I would cast James Norton as Paul, which is a no-brainer for anyone who’s watched Grantchester. I’m not as sure about Lilia. Gal Gadot could do it, but in proper period dress, of course, not her Wonder Woman costume! One of my readers suggested Maggie Gyllenhaal, and I’d be happy with her, too.

What do you hope readers take from their experience of Impossible Saints? 
I’ve built a lot of layers into Impossible Saints, so I’d like to think it has something for everyone. Readers who like deep philosophical themes will be challenged to examine their beliefs about religion and feminism. Readers who love history will learn what women in England went through to get the vote. Readers who want romance will see that the novel is at its core a love story. I hope readers feel both satisfied and empowered after they turn the last page.

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Clarissa was born and raised on the Canadian prairies, where she spent her childhood forcing her younger relatives to play roles in her interminably long family Christmas plays. (She has since apologized to her Traumatized Cousins and Very Patient Elders, all innocent victims of her attempts to realize her artistic vision.) She now contents herself with trying to manipulate the characters in her novels, who regularly surprise her by being just as resistant to her interference as real people.

Clarissa writes historical fiction set mainly in Victorian and Edwardian England. She has been fascinated by all things Victorian since she was a child: the clothes, the elaborate social rituals, the gap between rich and poor, the dizzying pace of advancements in science and technology. When it was time to choose a major in university, she had trouble deciding between history and English literature because she really just wanted to study the Victorians. Ultimately, she chose English and earned a PhD specializing in nineteenth-century British literature.

Her novels pay homage to her favourite Victorian authors: the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Frances Hodgson Burnett. Her favourite living authors include Diane Setterfield, Kate Morton, Jessica Brockmole, and Susanna Kearsley.

In addition to being a novelist and 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.

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