Jessie Chaffee on Saints, Sinners, and Surviving Your Twenties
Bethanne Patrick in Conversation with the Author of Florence in Ecstasy
According to NPR, Jessie Chaffee’s debut novel Florence in Ecstasy is “beautiful but exhausting,” an apt phrase for a story about a woman battling the demons of her eating disorder while living in one of the world’s most evocative cities.
Chaffee, who edits for Words Without Borders, received a 2014-2015 Fulbright Grant in Creative Writing to Italy to research and complete the novel, released in May from Unnamed Press. Her fiction has been published in Bluestem, Global City Review, Big Bridge, The Sigh Press, and Promethean, and she has been granted fellowships by the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Ox-Bow, and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.
Chaffee and I spoke via telephone from her New York home about mystical saints, emotional humiliation, and her upcoming nonfiction involving Christian martyrs and the Congregational Church and her female relatives.
Bethanne Patrick: Congratulations on your debut! Tell me about Unnamed Press and what it’s like working with a small press that has big ambition.
Jessie Chaffee: I’ve had a fabulous experience with Unnamed Press. Chris Heiser was a great editor on the book. I’d done two major revisions with my agent Sarah Burnes, who is wonderful, and then with Chris I did another couple of big revisions. Everyone at the press has been so involved at every stage of the process, from editorial to publication, but even better, they’ve allowed me to be involved and to be part of the conversation. I think they have a really innovative and creative approach to getting their work out there, plus they have a really terrific list, if I do say so, as part of it. When I first encountered Unnamed Press during AWP in Los Angeles, I was taken with the diversity of their books and how beautifully they are produced, but hearing a panel of their writers read was the kicker. I was really impressed by the quality of the work and how personally editors Chris Heiser and Olivia Taylor Smith seemed to support it. They foster an outward-looking list.
BP: Tell me what you mean by an “innovative and creative approach,” as well as an “outward-looking list.”
JC: They had me send 30 of my favorite photos of Florence for Instagram campaigns; that’s just one example. They’re really connected with readers and book bloggers, and have gotten my book in the hands of the people who are the right people to be reading it. I’m going to be doing events around the country, events where I know people, can be paired with other people. They’ve helped me to get out there and get the word out.
I read a lot of work in translation for my position at Words Without Borders, which gives me a good sense of what’s great in the rest of the world. Unnamed, to me, is about not reading the same story again and again; it’s a very creative, mixed list of books.
BP: When I read Florence in Ecstasy, I was pleasantly surprised by its plot, which includes a love story between two people—but is much more a love story with the self, between your protagonist Hannah and her id.
JC: Hannah’s dealing with an eating disorder is in some ways like any kind of addiction or kind of abusive relationship. It is a kind of unhealthy romantic relationship; the eating disorder becomes the center of her life. Part of coming to Florence is Hannah kind of rebuilding herself, replacing that disordered relationship with something else. Doing so means accepting herself, not in the sense that she’s perfect, but in accepting who she is, accepting her body. She has to find meaning elsewhere, to find love elsewhere, to sort of learn to be at home with the unknown. One of the things that plagues Hannah is that she had this addiction and she won’t be able to escape it, that it will keep coming back. That the things from the past will keep coming back.
BP: Another welcome surprise: Hannah’s eating disorder has very little to do with conforming to a cultural ideal.
JC: For Hannah, this isn’t something that grows out of feeling the need to look a certain way. The reason I wanted to write a book about being inside of an eating disorder is to show that it’s not about body image, it’s about control. Hannah describes it a few times as being a kind of artistic creation, almost, which is why I wanted to bring in the Catholic mystical saints. She connects with them on a number of levels, and one is on the level of self-starvation. She connects most with their descriptions of ecstasy, the expression that came out of their ecstatic experiences, this clarity of sight and sense of identity that came out of that. For Hannah the thing that is most addictive is this sense of purpose, its own kind of ecstatic experience. It begins as control, then it becomes something else, and that’s when it’s really difficult for her to extricate herself from it.
BP: Are we ever supposed to know how and why Hannah developed an eating disorder?
JC: As a writer, I didn’t want to point to one specific cause. To my mind, Hannah has been struggling with depression for parts of her life and is at a point in her life where her need for control is battling her need for identity. It was important to me that she be older, not an adolescent: an older woman dealing with an “adolescent disease.” I believe that eating disorders exist across the spectrum. It certainly grows out of her kind of searching for a sense of meaning and purpose, trying to figure out who she is. Which happens in your twenties, and when you’re weighed down by depression, that expresses itself in different ways. But I didn’t want to say this is the cause because like any addiction we can’t locate one single cause. That the eating disorder grows out of her kind of struggles to find herself.
BP: Did you ever experience an eating disorder?
JC: I did, in my early twenties. I wanted to write about this because it shook me, it haunted me, even though it did not come out of nowhere. I’d had a relatively healthy experience with food and eating for most of my life, but after 9/11 I felt ill-equipped. I was teaching, and at the beginning of my own adulthood, and I was frightened for my students. The world felt incredibly unstable. For me, personally, it grew out of the addiction to control and security, then became something really different. I wanted to write about what it felt like to be inside of that and to challenge some of the stereotypes around eating disorders.
As you were saying earlier, often eating disorders are all about women trying to look a certain way. That comes from a kind of outward gaze, and that may be the case in some cases of course, but it’s not always the case. A lot of the fiction you read indicates that these disorders affect only women, and primarily women, and as somebody who was looking for representations I didn’t find a lot of what I was looking for. I had a Fulbright grant in Italy, and I was giving readings and book presentations and almost without fail someone would come up to me to reveal their struggle with an eating disorder. Women, men, people of all ages and backgrounds. These disorders are insidious, and yet we assume they only affect young women. It’s not always people who have been hospitalized, it’s not always people who have gotten to the place Hannah does in the book. My own experience was even more short-lived than Hannah’s. I realized I was touching on something that touched so many people’s lives
BP: What about the city of Florence attracted you for Hannah’s situation?
JC: I wanted to write Hannah kind of isolated in the opening, because this is not a book where the place becomes the solution. Florence is complicated, and it complicates things for her but it’s also a culture that’s rich with food and beauty and interpersonal connections. There’s also Hannah’s involvement in the rowing club, which is about making peace with her body and being centered in herself, and her relationship with Luca, allowing herself to be vulnerable. Italy is a part of what helps Hannah to get back to herself, but it’s not THE answer, not a magical solution, either.
Bending to Florence’s will—it’s a city, but it’s also a small town! It doesn’t take that long, for Hannah, once she’s a part of that social fabric; she recognizes how hard it is to hide. That becomes really complicated in a place that does operate like a village. I wanted her relationship with Luca to be part of that complication. He does not save her. He has his own demons. It’s something that’s real. They find each other at the right moment. And are able to help each other.
BP: What do you write about when you write about rowing?
JC: I studied abroad in Florence in college and while I was there I learned to scull. I was looking for a way to get exercise, and I spent part of that semester learning, but I remembered the feel of it years afterwards. Hannah’s entering the rowing club seemed like the perfect place in a number of ways. Like any touristed city, Florence has layers, and joining something local can help you get behind the veneer right in the center of the city, which has a completely different reality and existence. When you’re rowing on the Arno the city has a completely different vantage, the city itself opens up. Rowing centers Hannah in the city, but also centers her in her body, whether you’re on a rowing machine or out in the scull, doing it well means being centered. It’s a very vulnerable thing; you really have to be in synch and in tune and centered. It’s the perfect activity for Hannah, who is at war with her body and herself. Rowing takes her outside of herself and grounds her.
BP: But some of the social life around the rowing club also unnerves her.
JC: There are things she appreciates and admires about the club, but things she certainly is not on board with. One of the things she discovers and this not only about Italy, are the complications about being a woman, how they’re objectified. During one scene in my novel, at a festival, a strong woman expressing herself gets indicted in a way none of the men would have. That’s disconcerting. Hannah is there with Luca, who doesn’t necessarily condone it—but he also doesn’t challenge it. She ends up asking questions about this community and culture and, more generally, about how women are depicted as saints or whores.
BP: Hannah is a real woman, but she is powerfully attracted to the Roman Catholic female saints.
JC: The saints were real women, too, but in their times they were fairly rebellious, had these ecstatic visions that were in some moments held up as their connections to God, and in other moments challenged. Being a saint was not just about being a saint, it was about walking that line, depended on who was assigning the label. The saints in all of their complications have a great deal to do with Hannah’s early and later breakdowns, because she wants to be perfect, even revered (at least in her own mind), but she doesn’t want anyone to find out she has this disorder. As long as other people don’t know about it—or at least she thinks they don’t know about—she thinks she’s fine.
Like the saints Hannah has this sense that she’s connected to something more, she’s not thinking rationally while she’s in it, but what she knows is she doesn’t want other people to find out. When she’s throwing up at work in Boston and people are noticing her weight loss, that’s hitting bottom in a way that she can’t deny what’s happening any more. It’s complete emotional humiliation. Once it’s known at work and she’s under treatment and her sister knows, she’s not able to connect others in a way that helps her to get better. Going to Florence grows out of a kind of desperate need to heal herself. A feeling that what she needs doesn’t exist at home. A kind of Hail Mary. An attempt to kind of heal herself.
BP: Your next project also concerns some remarkable women.
JC: I’m working on some nonfiction right now. As I was researching the novel I also discovered during my year in Florence some of the early Christian martyrs, like St. Agata and St. Lucy. I got interested in some of these older women, ancient in the church. There is a multi-day festival to St. Agata in Catania, all about a woman, which is amazing for a culture now focused on such a patriarchal church. Part of what I’ve been working on is essays that deal with that history of patriarchy, with history of women in my own family, including my great-grandmother how was ordained in the Congregational Church in the 1930s, exploring history of women in Catholicism. How women find their ways into their roles.