Monday, January 08, 2018

Interview with Clarissa Harwood, author of Impossible Saints, set in early 20th-century England

I'm pleased to present this interview with historical novelist Clarissa Harwood, whose debut novel was published by Pegasus last week. Impossible Saints takes readers back in time to England of 1907 and follows the separate ambitions and growing love between Lilia Brooke, a schoolteacher turned militant suffragette, and Paul Harris, an Anglican clergyman. Clarissa is a fellow blogger and member of the Historical Novel Society, and after receiving an advance copy of her novel in the mail, I knew I wanted to read it.  I highly recommend it for its nuanced characterizations and depiction of how her hero and heroine's challenging romantic relationship reflects their personalities and the era they lived in.

Why does historical fiction appeal to you as a reader and writer?

I’ve always found that historical fiction communicates a fuller, deeper truth than dry facts and dates do. To be able to convey that authentic historical experience through storytelling is a powerful and dangerous thing! I’m also fascinated by the tension between historical accuracy and historical authenticity. Perfect accuracy is impossible without a time machine, of course, but even the things we can know for certain about the past can’t be exactly reproduced because readers wouldn’t find them compelling or even believable.

For example, I once read this line in a novel by George Eliot: “Where do you hang out?” If a character in a historical novel were to say this, readers would certainly object to this use of apparently modern slang. As a reader, I’m often jarred by modern-sounding language. I remember seeing the word “cash” used repeatedly in a novel set in the Renaissance and wondering why this respected historical novelist would use anachronistic language. Imagine my surprise when I looked up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary and found that “cash” was indeed used as early as the sixteenth century to indicate ready money.

I’ve had to cut some wonderful Victorian and Edwardian phrases out of my writing to avoid creating this jarring effect. For example, I’ve seen the phrase “she looked at him with all her eyes” in Victorian novels and think it’s a lovely way to describe a woman gazing at her child or suitor, but when I used it in an early draft of one of my novels, my critique partners told me it made them think of a spider!

It’s a delicate balancing act for an author to create an authentic setting that readers find believable while avoiding the kind of accuracy that distances readers instead of inviting them into the story. But I love the challenge, and I love to see how other authors handle it.

Rather than being a large-scale epic about the suffrage movement and other happenings of the day, Impossible Saints has a tight focus on two individuals, their relationship, and how historical events impacted them and vice versa. You’d written on your blog about how the original version of the novel was considerably longer and had a large cast of characters. During the revision/streamlining process, how did you decide what to leave out, and what to leave in?

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. It also helped to keep my focus on Paul and Lilia’s personal and relational development. As a reader and writer I’m always more interested in characters’ psychological depth and complexity than on large-scale epics. Although thorough research on the time and place is essential, the story won’t grab me if the protagonist isn’t three-dimensional.

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 (I call her a synopsis whisperer), 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.

One revision felt like the narrative equivalent of the Hokey Pokey. Early in the novel, Lilia attends a cathedral service to hear Paul preach. An early draft of that chapter included the whole sermon, and my critique partners ordered me to cut it down. I needed to write the whole sermon for myself to understand what Paul was trying to convey, but readers didn’t need (or want) to read the whole thing. As the revision process continued, the sermon became shorter and shorter until there were only two sentences left by the time the novel went to my editor. I was highly amused when my editor asked if I could include more of the sermon so its effect on Lilia would be clearer. I keep all my old drafts, so the whole sermon was still there to pick and choose from. (You put the sermon in, you take the sermon out, you put the sermon in and shake it all about…)

I enjoyed reading about the different traditions within the Anglican Church, including Paul’s preference for the elaborate ceremonies and formality of “high church” practices, and the conflicts he runs into because of this. How did you come up with his character, and how did you research this aspect of your story?

About twenty years ago, Paul popped into my head as a serious adolescent with his ecclesiastical ambitions fully formed! At the time I’d just started my doctoral studies and had no time to write fiction, but the Victorian literature I was studying certainly influenced Paul’s character development. Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers was an important early inspiration for Impossible Saints with its focus on the lives and loves of cathedral clergymen. The Oxford Movement, which evolved into Anglo-Catholicism, influenced many writers of the time. I made its founder, John Henry Newman, Paul’s hero. I was also influenced by poets with connections to Anglo-Catholicism such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, who became a Jesuit priest, and Christina Rossetti, who worked with “fallen” women in a penitentiary run by an Anglican sisterhood. But Paul is also my response to the stereotypes of priests and ministers that I see too often in contemporary fiction—they’re either villains or unbelievably perfect saints.

During the twenty years between the conception and publication of Impossible Saints, I was experiencing a sort of personal Oxford movement. I was raised in an evangelical Protestant church that I eventually left, but in my thirties I discovered the beauty and mystery of more “ritualistic” churches. The rich symbolism of the Anglican church in particular appealed to me on a literary as well as a spiritual level.

Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to tell the story from the viewpoints of both Lilia and Paul?

Yes, I did. The genesis of the novel was a vivid scene I imagined between Paul and Lilia when they first met as adolescents. It was in a meadow where Lilia was pretending to be Jeanne d’Arc, leading her army of brothers. This confrontation between a fearless girl and a quiet but stubborn boy set them up as equals from the start, and I felt both of their stories needed to be told. This scene was eventually cut from the novel, but Paul and Lilia both refer to it.

I love stories told from dual points of view. I’m fascinated by the very different perceptions two people can have of the same situation or relationship, and I enjoy exploring those perceptions as a novelist.

The experiences Lilia faces as a leader in the Women’s Social and Political Union are traumatic, especially as the movement becomes more militant. Was there anything unexpected or surprising you encountered as you learned more about the suffrage movement?

When I first started researching the suffrage movement, I knew very little about it, so many things surprised me. The biggest shock was the violent way the suffragettes were treated by police and prison officials. The militant suffragettes were represented in the media at the time as “unwomanly,” disorderly criminals, but even their most extreme activities such as setting bombs in letterboxes or empty buildings paled in comparison to the backlash against them. During public speeches and peaceful protests, they were assaulted physically and sexually by bystanders and the police. When they were arrested for destroying property and went on hunger strikes, they were force fed in brutal ways. Whatever one’s opinion may be of their militant activities, they didn’t hurt people, only property. Yet they were attacked physically, and some of them died later from the injuries they sustained in prison.

Personally, I’m a pacifist, so I wouldn’t have done what the militant suffragettes did, but I understand their motivation. They had been agitating for the vote quietly and politely for many years, but the government was ignoring them. Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union, reasoned that the only way to get the government’s attention was to attack what the Englishman cared about most—property. In My Own Story, she points out, “Window-breaking, when Englishmen do it, is regarded as honest expression of political opinion. Window-breaking, when Englishwomen do it, is treated as a crime.”

How does your academic background and career inform your writing?

As a student, I came close to choosing history as a major, but English literature won out. For my PhD I specialized in nineteenth-century British literature, and as a professor I’ve had the pleasure of teaching the great writers of that period. My knowledge of nineteenth-century literature and culture constantly inspires me with ideas for novels. But there is a disadvantage to being a novelist with an academic background—I had to unlearn my formal academic writing style and figure out how to tell a good story in an engaging way!

Thanks very much, Clarissa!

For more information, please see the author's website at


  1. Thank you for a very interesting interview.

  2. What an in-depth and interesting interview! I really enjoyed reading through Clarissa's answers, and your questions were great. I will definitely be picking up Impossible Saints.

    1. Thanks, Jordan! Glad to hear you'll be picking it up.

  3. What a thoughtful and eloquent interview. Thank you to you and Clarissa Harwood.

    1. Thanks very much for your comments!

  4. Wonderful interview. Can't wait to read the book!

    1. Thanks, Leslie - you have a good reading experience in store!