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Jessie Chaffee‘s debut novel, Florence in Ecstasy, tells the story of Hannah, an aimless young woman struggling with a serious eating disorder, who has fled her life in order to find herself in Florence. One day Hannah learns of St. Catherine, a local martyr who starved herself, ostensibly seeking rapture. What follows is a deep dive into the world of self-abnegation, and a struggle towards pleasure and self-acceptance.

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The preponderance of saints and the rich detail about life in Italy make this a unique coming-of-age novel. It’s no surprise that the Chaffee’s Florence feels vivid and real; Chaffee was awarded a 2014-2015 Fulbright Grant in Creative Writing to Italy to complete the novel, during which time she was the Writer-in-Residence at Florence University of the Arts. Chaffee had to dig deep into historical research to make her saints come alive; luckily JSTOR offered the sources she needed. We asked her all about it.

Amy Shearn: What sparked this story? 

Jessie Chaffee: Around the time that I began Florence in Ecstasy, I was reading books by women who were writing about women who had in some way lost themselves, whether to addiction or unhealthy relationships or simply the inevitable obstacles that life throws in our paths—Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment, Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, and, particularly inspiring, Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight. Rhys’s intense, interior, visceral, and somewhat ecstatic depiction of her protagonist’s destructive love affair with alcohol was unlike anything I had ever read.

It was also the first piece of fiction that fully resonated with my own experience of losing myself to an eating disorder in my early twenties. Though my experience with anorexia was very different than my protagonist, Hannah’s—and, thankfully, was more short-lived—it left me with a lot of “what ifs.” What if I hadn’t gotten out of it as quickly as I had? What if I’d been more isolated or if I hadn’t believed family and friends when they offered help? So I took those lingering questions, along with the desire capture addiction and interiority in the way that Rhys and others had, and began Florence in Ecstasy.

Florence, Italy, is almost a character in the novel—was the book inspired by a trip to Florence, or something specific about that city? You traveled to Florence in the process of writing this book. How did that inform your writing? Do you think you could have—or would have—written this novel the same way had you not visited the actual city?

I’d studied abroad in Florence in college and kept going back whenever I could—the city took hold of me, in the way that it does many people. When I started this novel years later, Florence seemed like the ideal setting, in part because it is a city that is filled with beauty and history and vitality and food, which made it a rich and complicated space for a woman at war with her body and her past who is struggling with ideas of beauty. Hannah also has a background in art history and so it made sense that she would attempt to recover in place saturated with art, which is a language that she understands.

The city influenced the novel in every way, from the content—including the Catholic women mystical saints with whom Hannah because obsessed—to the rhythm of the prose. For example, one of the most striking sounds in Florence are the church bells that toll throughout the city multiple times a day, and that resonance—the feeling of being filled with sound and then left empty in its echo—showed up in my writing in a way that was unconscious but that I recognized once it was on the page. I don’t think this story could have happened anywhere else, and I could not, and would not, have written it without the time I spent in Florence.

How did you go about constructing your first draft? Did you research, then write? Write, then research? Do both simultaneously?

I tend to draft fairly organically—I start with a question or a conflict and characters and a setting and then see where the writing takes me. It keeps the book fresh and it allows me to be surprised. I do a lot of outlining and mapping as a part of the revision process to make sure that the themes, pacing, etc. are all working—so I do things a bit backward, I guess! In the case of Florence in Ecstasy, letting the story unfold in the first draft in a somewhat unplanned way lead me to one of the key parts of the book—the Catholic women mystical saints, who were famous both for their ecstatic visions and for starving themselves for God. Once I realized they were going to be an important part of the story, I began doing research. Initially, the way I incorporated that research was pretty rough, and much of the work I did in revising was to make sure that the history of the saints was woven into the novel in a way that makes sense for the arc of Hannah’s emotional journey and the overall action of the story.

There is a lot of Italian woven throughout the book, sometimes not translated. Are you fluent in Italian? What made you want to weave in the language this way?

So much of culture is bound up in language, and that is certainly the case in Italy, where the language varies from region to region and from city to city. And so it felt really important that readers experience the language, whether or not they always understood it. At the novel’s opening, Hannah is very isolated and she isn’t fluent, and so I also wanted to provide a sense of her dislocation and alienation by including Italian in the dialogue. Though I became fluent in Italian over the ten years that I worked on the book, I still had Italian friends read the final drafts for me, because even small things—for example, whether one of the central characters, Luca, would use the formal or informal tense when meeting Hannah—carry weight, and I wanted those details to be as accurate as possible.

Your main character, Hannah, struggles with anorexia, which is linked in the book to the asceticism of certain female saints. Was this connection always a part of the fabric of the book, or did you discover it as you wrote? How much research did you have to do about the saints and this practice of not eating?

The saints came as a complete surprise to me. I’m not Catholic and did not intend for them to be a part of Hannah’s story, but as I was writing one of the early scenes—which takes place in a church in Siena where there are these extraordinary frescoes of St. Catherine along with the saint’s mummified head—I began researching Catherine, and then other Italian women saints from the thirteenth up through the seventeenth centuries. And I realized that not only were there literally hundreds of them, but that their stories were relevant to the one I was telling in the present, in part because, like Hannah, they were at war with their bodies—St. Margaret actually says, “Do not ask me to give in to this body of mine . . . between me and my body there must be a struggle until death.”

But the connection went beyond that. The saints struggled to escape their earthly bodies in order to achieve spiritual ecstasy, and it was their descriptions of the duality of that ecstatic state—which inspires both elation and pain, because once they’ve known the high, living without it is unbearable—that most resonated with Hannah’s story. Their writing (some of it in their own hand, some of it dictated) is filled with an insatiable desire and a longing for meaning that I think plays a major role in any kind of addiction, and certainly in the experience of an eating disorder. I ended up doing an enormous amount of research—some of it in books and articles about the saints’ fasting, but much of it in the actual accounts of the saints’ lives, which detail their experiences with ecstasy.

There are references to mythology throughout the book—how do art, mythology, and ancient history define Hannah’s existence, or our understanding of her? Or yours, as the writer?

What a great question—thank you! For many years, I taught ancient history and mythology—first to sixth graders and then to college freshman. Regardless of their age, students always connected with the stories of the Greeks. The Greeks’ understanding of the universe as a chaotic, apathetic place that we, as humans, are trying to both survive and make meaning of is relevant at any age, and it is profoundly so for a woman like Hannah, who has literally taken herself to the edge of the abyss. The references to mythology—including Hannah’s descent into the underworld of the rowing club where, like Persephone, she attempts to resurrect herself—are a strong nod to those much older narratives. Because Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance (a period which was a “rebirth” of the ancient ideas), mythology permeates the art and architecture, and Hannah’s background in art history allows her to read the city and its art in the language that created it. As a writer, I’m fascinated by how people in the past understood the world and their place within it, and because the ancient Greeks grappled with some of the most foundational questions, they sneak into my stories whether I mean for them to or not.

Rowing becomes an important part of the book’s plot—why rowing? Did you have to research, or physically row, to get into that mindset?

When I studied abroad many years ago, I learned to row in Florence at the rowing club that is featured in the book. The club is a unique place—it is the right in the center of the city, directly beneath the famous Uffizi Gallery, but it is hidden and, unlike much of Florence, it is completely Florentine. It also offers a different perspective on the city. Florence is dense, crowded, claustrophobic, but being out on the Arno changes it—as Hannah says, it is like seeing the city from the inside. Incorporating the setting of the rowing club allowed me to share with readers a Florence that it is different from what most tourists see. Rowing also felt like the right activity for Hannah because it requires balance, both mental and physical. You have to be in your body and somewhat at peace to be successful at it, and that’s an important, and significant, challenge for someone with an eating disorder. Sculling is also necessarily solitary, and the combination of that healthy solitude and the demands of rowing help Hannah to reconnect with her body and with herself.

What sources from JSTOR helped you research the book? How were they helpful?

So many! I used JSTOR in my initial research about the relationship between the saints and eating disorders. In particular, I read reviews of books like Rudolph M. Bell’s Holy Anorexia and Caroline Walker Bynum’ Holy Feast and Holy Fast, both of which ultimately took me to the books themselves. I also read articles—“The Mystical Self in the Book of Divine Consolation of the Blessed Angela of Foligno,” “Catherine of Siena: The Two Hungers,” and many more. That initial research gave me a grounding in the relationship between women of the past and the more contemporary themes I was exploring, and it also lead me to primary sources related to the saints, many of which would have been difficult to locate otherwise because so many of the these women have been forgotten and/or purposefully left out of the canon.

I also wanted to do due diligence when it came to my depiction of an eating disorder, and I used JSTOR to research everything from firsthand accounts to psychological studies to academic essays on the evolution of disordered eating. Some of the key articles I read were “Cinderella’s Stepsisters: A Feminist Perspective on Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia,” “The Haunted Flesh: Corporeal Feminism and the Politics of (Die)Embodiment,” and Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s article “‘Fasting Girls’: Reflections on Writing the History of Anorexia Nervosa,” which then took me to her book, Fasting Girls. Much of my research itself didn’t make it into the text but it was essential scaffolding and I hope the effects of it can be felt when you read the novel.

Were there any findings in the course of your research that really blew your mind?

What most struck me was how many records there were by and about the saints—the sheer amount of material, and the fact that so much of it is relatively unknown, amazed me. And I was fascinated by the details of their stories: St. Margaret was famous for being able to detect the difference between blessed and unblessed communion; at her baptism, swarms of bees circled St. Rita and then crawled into and out of her mouth without harming her; St. Lucy of Narni’s visions were so prized that multiple cities battled to claim her; St. Catherine wrote letters of criticism to the Pope—that a woman in the fourteenth century was not only criticizing the head of the church, but being taken seriously (he listened to her!) is astonishing. 

Were there any amazing things that came up in your research that didn’t make their way into the book, but that you are storing in reserve for cocktail party banter/another book/this interview?

Absolutely. For the sake of the novel, I decided to focus only the Italian women saints from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, because those are the records that would be most readily accessible to Hannah, who begins to read about them after she gets a part-time job at a Florentine library. But while researching, I also became fascinated by some of the early Christian martyrs, like St. Agatha from Catania, Sicily, who was born in the third century. Agatha was tortured after refusing the advances of a Roman prefect and her breasts were cut off as a part of her martyrdom, and so she is always depicted holding her breasts on a plate. In Sicily, there is a multiday festival dedicated to Agatha that I attended, and I was absolutely blown away, not only by the level of spectacle but also by the fact that it was entirely constructed around this woman. And not just any woman—a young woman who was punished for saying “No.” It may have happened in the third century but it feels awfully contemporary. Women like Agatha didn’t make it into the novel, but I am working on some nonfiction about them, so the research continues.

Novelists often note that background research can be a form of procrastination, or that researching leads them down rabbit holes. How did you avoid these common research pitfalls?

I’m not sure if I did avoid them! I love the research process, and as long as it doesn’t completely halt my writing, I’ll allow myself that procrastination. I went pretty deep into the history of the saints and in the end it wasn’t all necessary. But at the time it was impossible to know what would be most relevant and though I sometimes went down paths that dead-ended, I think it helped the book that I was completely immersed in the subject. To go back to the Greeks, Heraclitus said, “You must expect the unexpected, because it cannot be found by search or trail.” I think that research allows you to do that, to follow the potentially false but fascinating leads that land you at the right point of connection.

More novelist interviews:
Arif Anwar, on researching The Storm
Elise Hooper, on researching The Other Alcott

Rachel Kadish, on researching The Weight of Ink
Hala Alyan, on researching Salt Houses
Claire Cameron, on researching The Last Neanderthal

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Oxford University Press
The Wilson Quarterly (1976-), Vol. 12, No. 1 (New Year's 1988), p. 147
Wilson Quarterly
Mystics Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 1 (March 1998), pp. 8-22
Penn State University Press
Signs, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Winter, 1976), pp. 342-356
The University of Chicago Press
Signs, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Autumn, 1998), pp. 35-67
The University of Chicago Press
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Wiley on behalf of the Society for Research in Child Development