It took Clarissa Suranyi nearly two decades to wrestle her first novel to the ground.
When inspiration for Impossible Saints first struck, Suranyi was starting her PhD in English at Western. She shelved the idea for a decade, then slowly chipped away at character and plot development while teaching English part-time.
That long-haul investment, however, paid off almost instantly following publication. Impossible Saints, which is set in Edwardian England and weaves together a story of the suffrage movement with a complicated romance, came out in January. A few short months later, the London Public Library’s eight copies had more than a dozen holds.
“I’ve been told a number of times that this cultural moment is a good moment for this – the #MeToo movement and the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote in Canada and the UK,” said Suranyi, a Western English professor who published Impossible Saints as Clarissa Harwood, her married name.
“I was deliberate about that; I wanted it published this year because it is an important one for women. But I am surprised by how many young women tell me they love it. Women in their early 20s seem to connect with (the main female protagonist) in ways I don’t even understand. I had a bookstore employee come up to me at an event in Chicago and tell me, ‘Lilia is me.’ I am baffled.”
The novel speaks to the difficulties of combining a career and a romantic relationship, she added. The stakes are obviously much higher for a militant suffragette in 1907 than they are for women today, but the basic struggle is timeless – how do we balance the work we love with the people we love?
The novel isn’t exactly Suranyi’s first foray into fiction. She has been writing since she was a child, completing her first novel at the age of 13, toying with characters, scenes and plots in her head ever since. She knew she wouldn’t make a living writing and decided instead to teach the written word, writing in her spare time. And as her first novel, a 20-year project, attests, sometimes, there’s not a lot of time to spare, Suranyi laughed.
“I had written a previous novel that wasn’t going to go anywhere and I didn’t want to revise or pursue publication. These characters in Impossible Saints came from that book; they are basically the children of the main characters. They were playing around in my head but there was no time to do anything else so I just forced them in the background,” she explained.
Suranyi was perpetually trying to strike a balance between teaching and writing. Being contract faculty helped, she said, and once she got the hang of her lesson plans, she started listening to her characters.
“I wrote the first draft in about a year or so. It was meant to be a Victorian novel. All the Victorian research and literature I had done was already in my head so I didn’t do a whole lot of research to start. Then halfway though my first draft, my female protagonist decided she wanted to be a suffragette. I thought, ‘Don’t do this to me,’” Suranyi said.
“I used to always laugh at authors who said their protagonists are real people. I thought they are silly and being funny. But it feels that way. They take a life of their own. I have to listen to them and what they want because when I’m imposing what I want, it doesn’t go well.”
In the process of writing and rewriting, Suranyi takes cues from characters, letting them direct the plot.
“I hate the first draft because I feel lost, like I’m at a party where I don’t know anybody and I have to get to know these people and write their story. By the time I’ve revised the thing four or five times, I know them and I can tell when I’m trying to get them to do something that doesn’t fit who they are,” she added.
Suranyi is working on a companion novel to Impossible Saints titled Bear No Malice, which will be published in January 2019.