Interview with Jessie Chaffee, author of Florence in Ecstasy
Today we’re chatting with Jesse Chaffee, author of the literary novel, Florence in Ecstasy.
Please describe what the story is about.
Hannah, a young American woman recently arrived in Florence, bears a painful secret—a harrowing illness that threatens her identity, as much as it does her health. Determined to rebuild her life in Italy, she joins a local rowing club, where she is drawn into Florence’s vibrant present—complex social dynamics, soccer mania, eating, drinking, sex, an insatiable insistence on life—but she is also rapt by the city’s past and the stories the Catholic mystical saints, women famous for their ecstatic visions and for starving themselves for God.
Share a teaser sentence or two from your novel.
I still cannot cross Piazza della Signoria at night without looking up to the golden lion at the top of the Palazzo Vecchio, to the harsh glare of Neptune who rules the fountain outside, to the writhing sculptures in the loggia at the piazza’s corner—lit from below, the Sabine woman twists and twists out of the grasp of her attacker, all that stone tapering from the massive base to the single point of her finger reaching toward the sky. There is something more, it says.
What do you want people to know about your book?
You could spend weeks in Florence and not get off the well-worn tourist routes, but there are many beautiful, hidden places in the city, and I wanted to capture those in the novel. One of those places is the rowing club that Hannah joins. Ironically, the club is located underneath the Uffizi Gallery, one of the most visited sites, but it is a different world, one dominated by Florentines. Hannah also discovers hidden stories in Florence—those of the Catholic mystical saints, whose ghosts are everywhere in the city.
What did you learn about yourself while writing this novel?
I learned how important it is to cede control when I’m writing—to trust my instinct and my characters, and to allow the story to take me places I hadn’t planned on going. The philosopher Heraclitus had it right: “You must expect the unexpected, for it cannot be found by search or trail.” I could not have anticipated the moments of discovery that changed the novel, and yet they became the best parts of the book.
What was your timeline from drafting to publication?
It will be nine-and-a-half years from when I first began the book to when it is published. Part of that time was drafting and revising, and part of it was researching: I had the opportunity to spend a year in Florence on a Fulbright grant, which allowed me to explore the history of the saints in depth, and also helped me to bring Florence more vividly to life.
What is your favorite part of writing (drafting characters, making up scenes, plotting, developing emotional turning points, etc). Why?
One of my favorite parts of the writing process is researching—learning new things that change me and change the work. For this novel, I loved spending time with the writing of the Medieval and Renaissance women mystical saints. They were rebels of their time, determined to control their lives and tell their stories, in an era when both were unheard of.
Briefly, where did the idea for your book come from?
I knew that I wanted to write a book about a woman struggling with the seduction of an eating disorder, and that I wanted to set it in Italy—a place filled with beauty, history, and, of course, food. But the saints were a surprise: I was writing a scene in Siena, where my protagonist Hannah encounters images of St. Catherine, along with Catherine’s mummified head, when I realized that that the novel wasn’t only about a contemporary woman’s relationship with her body and identity, but also about the longer history of women’s struggles for meaning and expression.
When do you do your best thinking about your work in progress?
I do my best thinking when I’m out in the world—sometimes that means taking a solitary walk to feel more centered, and sometimes it means attending a reading, a concert, any event that takes me outside of myself, inspires me, and gives me a new way of thinking about the work. And travel has always enriched and challenged me as a writer.
Share something people may be surprised to know about you?
Like Hannah, I also learned how to row on the Arno River in Florence, and while I haven’t done it in years, the experience helped me to capture that part of Hannah’s story, to evoke the feeling of being on the water and seeing the city from the inside.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
One of my writing mentors, Linsey Abrams, would say: “Tell the story only you can tell.” She meant that we each have a unique and valuable story to share—one that while not necessarily autobiographical is nevertheless true. Her advice gave me the confidence to follow my own truth.
Right now I’m working on creative nonfiction that delves into the history of the women of my own past, including my great-grandmother, who was ordained as a minister in the Congregational Church in the 1930s.
Who are your favorite saints?
I love St. Angela of Foligno, whose descriptions of spiritual ecstasy, and the relationship between love and pain, are beautiful, passionate, and also incredibly sensual. I’m also fascinated by St. Rita, the protector of victims of abuse—especially domestic abuse because she survived an abusive marriage before entering the church. St. Rita became incredibly popular among women, who connected with her story, and that inspired her canonization. She is also the saint of the impossible—impossible because on her deathbed, she asked one of her sisters to bring her a rose from her childhood garden in near Cascia in Umbria. It was the middle of winter, but still there was a fresh rose growing.
“Jessie Chaffee’s debut novel is an unflinching look at a woman’s attempt to outrun her demons . . . displaying not only diligent research but also an emotional intuition that brings Hannah to startling life.” — Publishers Weekly