How she brought the ‘Impossible’ to life

Bookmarks spotlights the personalities and published books of faculty, staff and alumni.

Today, English professor Clarissa Suranyi, author of Impossible Saints under the name Clarissa Harwood, answers questions on her ‘bookishness’ and writing.

Harwood 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 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.

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What book do we find you reading tonight?

I’m always in the middle of a few different books. At the moment I’m reading
A Lady’s Guide to Etiquette and Murder
, a Victorian mystery by a fellow debut author, Dianne Freeman. I’m also reading a biography of Leslie Hunter, a Church of England bishop in the 30s and 40s, for research on a new novel.

How you decide what to read? Reviews, word of mouth, maybe occasionally judge a book by its cover?

If I’m reading just for fun, recommendations from friends have the biggest influence. I’m also a reviewer for the Historical Novel Society, so I choose from the list the HNS sends out based on the historical periods or themes that look interesting to me. I’m also a member of a group of authors whose first novels are being published this year, and we all support one another by buying and reviewing one another’s books. But I also pick up books based on their covers.

Name one book you wish you had written. And why.

A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book. It’s a historical saga that begins in the late Victorian period and ends after the First World War. Byatt has encyclopedic knowledge of the era, and her layered storytelling is astoundingly complex and rich. It’s one of those masterpieces that I can’t read when I’m working on a novel because it silences me. It makes me wonder what I could possibly have to say when Byatt has said it all, and much better than I ever could.

Name one book you could never finish. And why.

James Joyce’s Ulysses. I’m also very suspicious of people who claim to have finished it.  I like modernist literature, but I never make it past the first 50 pages or so of Ulysses. I’m in good company, though: Virginia Woolf famously said of Ulysses, “Never did any book so bore me.”

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

I don’t think any book on my shelves would surprise people who know me. My husband and I have an eclectic collection of books. But people who don’t know me well might be surprised to see How to Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You.

Any genres you avoid? And why.

I don’t avoid any fiction subgenres, though I’m not a huge fan of science fiction or fantasy. I can’t say I avoid any nonfiction subgenres either, because I never know when one of my characters will choose a profession that requires me to do a lot of research on a subject in which I otherwise have no interest. I hope I won’t have to study shipbuilding or accounting, but I can never say never.

If you could require every university president to read one book, what would it be? And why.

Lois Lowry’s The Giver, to see what a society without the Humanities would look like.

What sort of objects are must-haves in your writing environment?

My three cats. Ideally, I’ll be writing on my sofa with one cat on either side and another behind my head. If they’re all purring at the same time I consider myself “inside the purr machine” and it puts me in the best writing zone.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Only three? Thomas Hardy, Christina Rossetti, and Charlotte Brontë.

How do you explain what your latest book is about to them?

I’d say Impossible Saints is a love story that interrogates the tension between Christianity and feminism at the turn of the 20th Century. They’d understand.

What is the best line you have ever written?

One of my favourites is “His becoming her husband had temporarily obscured the fact that she was fond of him.”

Who would you want to write your life story?

Nobody. I’m a very private person, so I’d rather let my fiction speak for me.