Interview: Wendy K. Harris



” I don’t spend all my time wandering the beaches and gazing out to sea – although that was my vision when I moved to the Isle of Wight in 2003. Sometimes I wonder how I ended up here. It wasn’t part of the grand plan which was, in fact, to have no plan at all. ”

How has the experience of publishing The Sorrow Of Sisters surprised you?

I think I have been most surprised by the strength of my own emotions. Getting published was almost unintentional. I was prompted by fellow writers and my daughter, and I thought I might as well give it a go. I’d read so many accounts of writers papering walls with their rejection slips that I had no real expectations. Tentatively, I sent a few chapters to a literary advisory service and received positive feedback and the names of three agents to try. The second one signed me up and that’s when the possibility of being published arose and the thrill of it hit me like a sledgehammer. I don’t think I’ve been quite the same since!

What about the experience has stood out from your other writing endeavours?

The exhilaration of holding the first bound copy in my hands – even though it was the German edition and I couldn’t read it! The other aspect is the vulnerability. For me, writing a novel is a bit like gestating a baby – it’s a private and intimate experience and then suddenly it’s out there for the world to pick up, consider and form an opinion. Fortunately the feedback has been wonderful. But what if everybody hated it? I think I would have to go into exile.

What projects are you working on currently?

I am working on a ‘treatment’ for The Sorrow Of Sisters. This is like a synopsis but written as the first stage of a film script. I have just received an offer from my German publisher for the second ‘Undercliff Novel’ the title of which is Blue Slipper Bay, and I am also twenty thousand words into the third – Winds That Blow Lonely.

Do you practice any writing rituals?

I need to have a clear, quiet mind before I start writing. I achieve this by dealing with any pressing external chores first so they don’t nag at me. Then I go into my writing room with a sense of the sacred. I light incense or a candle, maybe play a chant, and sit quietly for a while. I know that my best creativity lies beneath the turmoil of my ego. I can’t always reach it but I give it a chance. Writing a journal also helps clear the junk from the path. When I am ready I just start – maybe with pencil and pad or sometimes straight onto laptop. And I can go at it for hours!

What have you been reading lately? Is there anything you’re reading now, or have read recently, that’s impressed you?

Precious Bane

by Mary Webb – the chosen book for my local reading group. It was first published in 1924 and is set in rural Shropshire. I usually go for contemporary fiction but this old-fashioned tale stunned me with its beauty and poignancy. It is the story of a young woman with a hare-lip, the superstition that surrounded her at the time, and her extraordinary affinity with the natural world which nurtured her generous soul.

Aside from writing and reading, what else do you feel passionately about?

People aside – The Undercliff of the Isle of Wight, where I live. It abounds with history and wildlife and stories – told, untold and imagined. It is a rugged but fragile area where humans try to control land and sea, which of course have their own agenda. And then there’s my eternal quest for the invisible dimension of life which upholds and makes sense of the visible.

Do you have a favourite quotation, or perhaps just a few words, you feel sums up your philosophy on life??

Be Still And Know – not in an intellectual or religious way but in a ‘time to stand and stare’ way. Thoughts have a tendency to preoccupy my mind with the future and the past. Taking a deep breath and feeling deeply into this moment brings me back to an awareness of the actual experience of living.

If you were marooned on an island, stuck in an elevator, or otherwise cut off from society, what one book would you want to have with you?

This is a very difficult question for an avid, eclectic reader who seldom reads the same book twice! It would have to be big and complex to maybe last a long time. Classically, I’d choose Dickens – Bleak House. Spiritually –

A Course In Miracles or Eckhart Tolle – The Power Of Now. Contemporary fiction would be Barbara Kingsolver – The Poisonwood Bible. But if I must choose only one – and given that I feel all life is a quest for fulfilment in some shape or form – I would go for Tolkein – The Lord of The Rings – especially since seeing the wonderful films and the New Zealand landscape which I love.

What memories do you have from your childhood, about your experiences in public libraries? Did they play a role at all in your love of books and reading?

Wonderful! My local library was an old monastery in the middle of what became a public park. I can still hear the creak of the gnarled oak doors and smell the musty books. The silence was tangible and the gloom intense. And all those shelves were stacked with promises of magical experiences. I had little cardboard tickets and, oh, the joy when I was old enough to graduate from the junior to adult sections and enter through the grown-up door! Definitely the start of my addiction.

The Sorrow of Sisters by Wendy K. Harris


  • Series: Transita
  • Paperback: 376 pages
  • Publisher: TRANSITA LIMITED (March 10, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1905175264
  • ISBN-13: 978-1905175260

From The Sorrow of Sisters by Wendy K. Harris:

” I was born here – the phrase kept repeating itself in my mind.  I felt friendly towards it, an old-fashioned town, a hotchpotch of preserved Victorian grandeur, some renovation needed – some demolition even.  There was a hut on the beach selling today’s catch of crabs and lobsters, a digger further along heaving boulders for a small harbour.  It had none of the chic of the Mediterranean resorts which I favoured, but there was something comforting about it, like putting on saggy tracksuit bottoms and slippers after a day spent in a tight skirt and high heels.  … It might have been nice to grow up at the seaside. But then my life would have taken a different course.”


The books I choose in the cooler months don’t always tend to be any different in genre or “weight” than those I choose in the warmer months, but it seems particularly satisfying, once there’s a bit of bite in the air, to curl up with a nice, densely plotted saga sort of novel you can completely sink into.  The Sorrow of Sisters is precisely this sort of book.

Harris’s book features lush, sensual language that seems to evoke the Isle of Wight very clearly. Not having been to the island personally, I feel I can now imagine what it must be like to visit there. The imagery in this book was so vibrant and real I found myself caught up in the sights, sounds and even smells of the island, as illustrated by the many passages like the one featured above.

The book begins with a series fragmentary scenes. Before you know all the characters and have them straight in your head scenes come at you in what almost seems a random order.  The feeling is a bit disconcerting at first, but it doesn’t take long before things come into much sharper focus. It’s at this point the book really takes off, moving forward in a smooth, if not completely linear fashion.  It’s also at this point you begin to realize more about what was happening earlier in the book. I went back to re-read a few passages, to get things straight in my head, and I believe that really paid off as far as my continued enjoyment of the book.

Flashbacks are used in the story to great effect, allowing the reader to get the background history on the characters and the story while at the same time hurtling forward with the characters.  This adds to the rich, multi-layered quality of the book.  Without the backstory the novel itself wouldn’t be nearly as compelling as it is, and the method Harris employs is completely inspired. This works so well I can’t imagine a better way of approaching the writing of this book.

The plot of the novel concerns the lives three women, 49-year old Jane, a married woman with no children who’s occupied in nursing her dying father; Lillian, who has passed away by the time the main plot begins, but whose deeply intimate relationship with Emmeline is key to the book; and Emmeline herself, who survives to relate the whole tale to Jane.

Lillian and Emmeline are native to the Isle of Wight, and their sections take place there. It’s only when Jane receives notice she’s inherited a cottage on the island that she ventures there herself, and from that point on revelations about her past begin slowly unwinding as she learns more about her own ties to this land.

Surrounding these women are the men in their lives, 85-year old Henry, who’s Jane’s father and also the brother of Emmeline; Chas, who’s married to Jane; and, finally, Neptune and Woody, homosexual partners ostracized from the island community, a situation that leads them to withdraw somewhat from the world, becoming very close to Lillian and Emmeline. Neptune and Woody enjoy comfort and friendship with these two women they can’t find anywhere else, and as a result a very closely-knit friendship develops.

The many twists and turns of plot are extremely satisfying, but the fact is revealing too much about them reveals too much about the book, as well, potentially spoiling the plot for those who’ve yet to read it.  The book really revolves around the revelations Emmeline gives to Jane, both about the truth of her own life and also the truth of Jane’s. Each revelation digs deeper and deeper, until ultimately Jane is sent reeling, having to decide whether she’s strong enough to commit to helping Emmeline or if her loyalty to her father is greater. Her decision reflects her great strength of character, even in the face of some very difficult truths. 

The ending of the book is as tumultuous as you would expect, given the kinetic, dynamic nature of the tale. This book reminds me of a cross between Wuthering Heights and the fiction of Sarah Waters. It has all the intensity of Bronte’s work, coupled with the gorgeous prose and deep humanism of Sarah Waters.

This is a highly emotional book, fraught with both the best and worst of humanity.  By turns it crushes and then redeems, ultimately finding light and hope, after the storm has cleared.