Kathryn Harrison has never shied from controversy—one might even say she courts it. She achieved notoriety with the 1997 publication of The Kiss, a shocking examination of her torrid four-year affair, beginning at age 20, with her pastor father. Those who read it either praised Harrison for her courage or excoriated her for her indiscretion. She has said she felt she'd "stepped outside of human society" during the affair and that "my desire for love had cost me my integrity."

In the years since The Kiss was published, Harrison has raised three children with her husband and written nine more books. While much of her work, fiction and nonfiction, has been intensely personal—mining subjects such as sexual obsession, anorexia and shame—her new book, Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured (Doubleday), interweaves scripture, folklore and history to create a compelling look at an iconic heroine. O books editor Leigh Haber sat down with the author to find out what drew her to the project.

Q: Has Joan of Arc always fascinated you?

KH: There aren't many people in our history who have so completely surrendered themselves to a mission that they would give up their lives for it. There's something thrilling about a teenage girl who has the internal fortitude to lead an army of men and face down a tribunal of 60 judges when standing her ground means she'll be burned at the stake.

Q: From the time Joan was 13, she heard voices—voices that eventually told her to leave her tiny village to rally her country in the name of France and God. If that happened to someone today, we'd think she needed psychiatric help....

KH: She clearly existed in a way others don't. I was determined not to cut her down—I wanted to preserve her mystery and let it shine. I've always been interested in the intersection between our rational and our unconscious lives. Sometimes there's a sort of tear in the veil, and there are people who live in more than one dimension.

Q: What relevance does Joan's story have for women today?

KH: She believed in herself and her vocation, and she let nothing stand in her way. She refused to fit in to the place she was given.

Q: Is that how you approach being a writer?

KH: Writing is how I stay sane. It's completely necessary. I can't work out much about myself or what I see in the world around me unless I do it through writing.

Q: You've said you intend for your writing to destroy "a reader's equilibrium." What do you mean?

KH: I like nudging readers into a slightly different perspective, but in a sly way—I want to be the writer who slips a stiletto in and out, to make so swift and clean a cut, it's not until a chapter ends that the reader looks down and sees she's bleeding and asks what happened.

Q: You have withstood a lot of name-calling and second-guessing for some of your writing, especially The Kiss. Does that sting?

KH: I don't care what people think about me. I care what people think about my work. As a young woman, I was so eager to please that I served others' happiness and even their values before my own. It didn't earn me love, but it did deliver me to a place where I had to choose between what I thought of myself and what other people did. I chose myself.


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