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Up Against Art: An interview with Jessie Chaffee

By (August 1, 2017) No Comment

Author photo by Heather Waraksa

Not many people would think to deal with their eating disorder by holing up in Florence, but Jessie Chaffee’s debut novel, Florence in Ecstasy, is not concerned with pat reasoning or easy answers to complex questions. Her protagonist, Hannah, unable to confront the anorexia that has left her jobless, loveless, and in a precarious mental state, leaves Boston for Italy. There, she immerses herself in the joys of the local culture – rowing, soccer, seductive men named Luca – while cultivating an obsession with ascetic female saints and the pleasure and debilitation of self-starvation. Shunning, and often upending, the conventions of the redemptive travelogue, Chaffee instead offers through Hannah a dimensional portrait of a flailing soul trying to find hope in the “cradle of the Renaissance.”

Here she speaks with OLM about community, communicating truth, double standards of self-awareness, and the appeal of the Unflinching Female Writer.

Steve Danziger for Open Letters Monthly: So, you’re a first-time novelist with positive reviews from, among others, Publishers Weekly, NPR, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and pre-publication blurbs from writers like Alice McDermott and Claire Messud. Do all of your friends hate you, or just me?

Jessie Chaffee: Ha! I hope not! If it helps, it was quite a long journey to the novel being out in the world—almost ten years.

But it does bring up something that I think is crucial for a first-time novelist, or really, for any writer, at any point in their career: I have been buoyed again and again by the generosity and kindness of other writers, people who have supported me, offered advice, given endorsements. There are plenty of obstacles to building a writing career, and my mentors have always emphasized that it’s essential that we support and sustain each other in the face of those obstacles.

I’m grateful for the kind words from talented writers and reviewers, of course, but more than that, I appreciate that the book is being read deeply, that what I was trying to convey is being understood, and that readers are bringing new insights to it. For me, the point of writing is to connect, to communicate a truth (whether or not it comes from one’s own experience), but there’s a substantial gamble in that—will that truth resonate? Will readers find themselves somewhere in the story you’re telling? And because I was exploring subjects that many people have had direct experience with—eating disorders, addiction, and isolation, for example, and also Italian culture and the highly visited city of Florence—the stakes felt high.

OLM: Both in terms of establishing a dialogue with your readers, and a responsibility to respect your character’s vulnerabilities and pain?

JC: Exactly. While writing, I never wanted to lose sight of the fact that there are many people, myself included, for whom some of Hannah’s psychological and emotional struggles are realities. And so while it was important to present, for example, Hannah’s anorexia and depression in such a way that readers would have a palpable sense of both regardless of their own experiences, I had to be thoughtful and diligent in the way I approached the topics, and I was cautious to not romanticize them.

Some of my most gratifying experiences since publication have been hearing from strangers with whom the psychological, emotional, and geographic landscape of the book feel authentic. Because that’s why I began writing this story—to connect with readers around ideas that I feel are important. I think there’s always a question of whether one’s work will resonate, and to see that happen feels like I’m making a contribution, helping to foster the sense of community that has sustained me throughout my life and career.

OLM: Considering Hannah in that light, it seems that at least part of her distress stems from her inability to find a similar, nurturing community, or sense of belonging.

JC: I think that’s true. Hannah flees her life in Boston in large part because she isn’t able to find—in friends, family, colleagues, therapists—the support and community that will help her to heal. She arrives in Florence with the intent of healing herself, and is initially quite isolated, but she also joins the Florence Rowing Club, a vital community that ends up, in many ways, sustaining her. And then she discovers the Medieval and Renaissance mystical saints, who also play an important role in her understanding of her relationship with anorexia.

I began Florence in Ecstasy while in the MFA program at City College, where I found great readers in my peers and vital writing mentors who became powerful guides in the process, including Linsey Abrams, whose empathy and emotional intuition, on the page and in life, are profound. Linsey instilled in me the importance of “finding your people,” by which she meant finding that supportive community. It made sense that part of Hannah’s journey would involve finding her people, and it was certainly essential to me as a writer—as I think it is for all writers—to have those trusted readers and guides to help me in realizing the novel—people who would tell me when what I’d set out to communicate was coming through, when it felt off, when I needed to go deeper.

OLM: So in many ways, Hannah’s experience is the obverse of yours. It’s interesting to note how you’ve created a very personal novel using a very unorthodox strategy; what gave you pleasure in writing it coincides with the same elements that Hannah is using to find hope and invigoration, but your pleasure stems from a place of support and encouragement, while hers comes from a place of almost desolate isolation.

JC: Though I had the support of readers, writing itself is still intensely solitary and a certain amount of isolation is unavoidable. Much of the work of building Hannah’s interior world required solitude, and every aspect of that world came from a place that felt real in the writing—I had to project myself into Hannah’s emotional state in order to write it.

OLM: And in that lonesome state, is that desire for community, and inability to find living mentors, part of what fuels Hannah’s interest in the lives of the saints? For instance, with Saint Catherine, we have an example of a woman whose flesh was desecrated in life and consecrated in death. It’s as if Hannah is finding her strongest sense of community in the possibility that she too is experiencing a suffering that might one day be thought holy.

JC: Women like St. Catherine were famous for their ecstatic visions and were also incredibly powerful, and Hannah is drawn to them for those reasons. And their more extreme behaviors—like self-mortification and starving themselves for God—resonate with her own experience of finding meaning, and ecstasy, through denial, and help her to understand why the eating disorder was/is so seductive and difficult to extricate herself from. Of course, while the saints were creating lasting identities for themselves, they were also practicing self-erasure and martyrdom. And so part of Hannah’s recovery involves rejecting some of the saints’ more extreme behaviors as she rejects those behaviors in her own life. Nevertheless, these women from the past become a community of sorts for her as well. This is not a book about a woman finding religion, but it is in the lives and writings of the saints that Hannah finds the language to articulate, and thus better understand, her own struggles.

OLM: One of the most illuminating scenes occurs when Hannah retreats to a restaurant bathroom during a dinner date and subjects herself to an agonizing self-examination. It’s painful to read, but makes stunningly clear how her affliction has trapped her in an existential state somewhere between her world’s collapse and the transcendence of the mystics.

JC: That was one of the more difficult scenes to write, in fact, because it is so painful. But it was also inevitable that it would occur. It comes at a moment when Hannah is making a conscious decision to connect with another person—she agrees to go to dinner with one of the rowers—but the draw of the disorder is so strong that it upends her efforts. It has dominated her life and extricating herself from it is something she both wants and doesn’t want. As she says at one point, “How could I wish it away? How could I wish myself away?” Letting go of the disorder is not only difficult, but means ceding the very thing that, unhealthy as it is, has provided meaning for her. And it means ceding a part of herself.

OLM: I’m curious, given the various aspects of your protagonist’s struggles, if you are picking up on patterns emerging in regards to what readers are responding to, or want to know about you and/or the novel?

JC: People often ask why I chose to set the novel in Florence and whether I had any anxiety writing about a place that’s already been written about so extensively. I love that question because bringing Florence to life in a new way was a conscious part of the process and it’s a joy to speak with readers about the decisions I made when creating the portrait of the city. Florence is a small enough city that you can feel close to it quite quickly. But the more time you spend with it, the more you recognize the city’s layers, the things that exist below its veneer—like the rowing club, an authentically Florentine community where Hannah learns to scull and where she is drawn into the complex social dynamics of the city. I’ve had people identify with the book on both levels—the depiction of the better-known parts of Florence, as well as the less obvious social and cultural nuances. And going back to the importance of finding one’s readers, I had a number of Italian friends read the book, and their feedback was essential.

Occasionally people have asked for a single reason for why Hannah developed anorexia, which I think speaks to some false assumptions about eating disorders, including that they are diseases that can be attributed to a simple, identifiable cause (or causes). I’m not sure people would ask the same question of a character dealing with depression or alcoholism or another form of addiction. The catalysts—and the way that they manifest—are a complicated, layered mix of the physical, cultural, psychological, emotional. The same is true of eating disorders—the reasons that they are occur aren’t simpler to define than any other human experience, and I wanted the novel to convey that.

OLM: And part of what feels so fresh about the novel is how free it is of any reductive tropes that often taint redemption narratives. Do you think this is part of the identification readers are experiencing, that you’ve brought to light a confounding, debilitating condition so far underserved in contemporary literature?

JC: I hope so! In the same way that it would have felt artificial to offer a single cause for Hannah’s struggles, it would not have felt right to offer a single solution. There are—and need to be—moments of redemption, or at least hope, but like any addiction, an eating disorder isn’t something that disappears. You learn to survive it, live with it, live in spite of it. And there’s a spectrum—there are many people who struggle with their relationships with food and their bodies, who diet or eat or exercise to unhealthy extremes. Though they may not be diagnosed as anorexic, or go to some of the extremes Hannah does, I think they do still experience the feelings of, by turns, shame, self-loathing, isolation, power, and elation that accompany disordered relationships with food and the body. And so I hope the book sheds light on not only anorexia—which is, on its own, quite widespread—but also broader issues around eating and body image that can be debilitating.

OLM: This is my second interview in a row where I’ve interviewed a female writer whose work is consistently characterized as “unflinching.” What do you think there is about the Unflinching Female Writer that reviewers/readers are finding so appealing?

JC: Many of the novels I love—Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment and Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight, for example—could be described as “unflinching.” They are close, intimate, intense depictions of descents into the altered states that result from addiction and alienation, when the world as one has understood it becomes a stranger. You experience what their protagonists do in a way that feels authentic but unfamiliar, offering a new understanding of the interior lives of the women at the center of the works. I’ve tried to achieve that in Florence in Ecstasy both through the closeness of the narration (first person present tense) and the honesty of my protagonist Hannah’s telling. Hannah isn’t always reliable—she admits that she’s lied to people in the past and she is sometimes lying to herself—but she’s honest about the horror and euphoria of her experience with an eating disorder.

I think people are drawn to unflinching work because they crave authenticity in fiction. When I open a book, I want to be fully transported, to believe the story I’m reading even when it’s uncomfortable, claustrophobic, raw. Why are reviewers/readers drawn to unflinching writing by women in particular? The cynical answer is that that label might promise a certain kind of voyeurism or sensationalism. But voyeurism involves taking in, from a distance, someone’s experience—of pain, joy, grief, pleasure—rather than inhabiting or illuminating it. I think that a work that is truly unflinching is one that invites empathy rather than creating distance. And I hope that that is what readers are drawn to. And that they desire the same complexity and strength in women protagonists as they do in their male counterparts.

OLM: So do you think there’s pressure on women writers to keep that more voyeuristic distance? To avoid self-investigation?

JC: I won’t be the first to say this, but I think there’s plenty of excellent writing by women or depicting women’s interior lives that gets criticized for being overly confessional or navel-gazey in a way that the same story told by or featuring a man would not (for some astute criticism on this, see Melissa Febos’s recent essay in Poets & Writers, and Meg Wolitzer’s classic New York Times piece, “The Second Shelf”). I wanted to write a book that was, in part, inward looking and that asks for emotional engagement and vulnerability on the part of the reader—those are the types of books I like to read, and I think it’s vital that women continue to write them and to validate those experiences.

Whatever your identity or experience, when you turn the lens inward, I think you also make a pact with the reader—that you’ll do the work to make that interior landscape as rich, specific, and interesting as our internal lives are. And that includes how our interior selves come into contact with the world. Hannah doesn’t live in her head alone, but in Florence, up against art and history, the people she encounters, the physical world, her own body in that world, and so, as a writer, I also turned the gaze outward and (if this makes sense) backward, and that took me outside of myself in a way that was good for the book. Researching the saints, the art, rowing, and Italian language and culture was one of the most exciting parts of the process, and at a certain point, I realized that the story I wanted to tell was not only about an individual contemporary woman’s experience of anorexia, but rather the larger experience of women’s relationships with their bodies and searches for meaning and expression.

OLM: And for Hannah, the search is by turns physical and metaphysical, both of this world and somehow beyond it.

JC: Her search is an existential one. For many years, I taught ancient history and world humanities, and I love the Greek sense of the world, their understanding of the human experience as a reckoning with a universe that is chaotic and indifferent. They looked into the void and came away with the belief that any meaning has to be created by us. Hannah is also looking into the void and attempting, quite desperately, to create some meaning beyond the disorder that will enable her to move forward. She descends into the underworld of the Florence Rowing Club and learns to scull in a boat named Persephone—like the mythological figure, she is trying to find her way back from the land of the dead, from the edges of existence. Throughout the novel, she frequently encounters the classical, including in art, where figures like Medusa and Venus serve as both echoes and foils.

OLM: With that in mind, was your use of Rape of the Sabine Women for the cover an attempt to redefine this very Florentine icon, as a symbol of emergence rather than abduction?

JC: I was thrilled that my publisher used that image on the cover because it is so important to the story. It is, like Hannah’s experience with anorexia, both horrific and beautiful. Hannah is drawn to the sculpture because it captures her feeling of being entrapped by the disorder. But in Giambologna’s piece, there is no escape for the woman who is attempting to break free from her attacker—the abduction is inevitable. What is remarkable is that, in spite of the futility of her efforts, she is still resisting, reaching for something beyond the moment of entrapment. The entire sculpture twists and rises to her single finger reaching toward the sky, and so that is where your eye goes. That gesture, the strength and hope in it, is for me the sculpture’s meaning. You can’t erase the horrific aspect of abduction, but the dogged and desperate belief that is that finger reaching up is beautiful. And for me it also speaks to the act of writing, to trying to grasp the ineffable, as impossible as that might be.

Jessie Chaffee is the author of the debut novel Florence in Ecstasy (Unnamed Press). She was awarded a Fulbright grant to Italy to complete the novel and was the writer-in-residence at Florence University of the Arts. Her writing has been published in Literary Hub, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Slice, and Global City Review, among others. She lives in New York City and is an editor at Words Without Borders. Find her at www.JessieChaffee.com.

Steve Danziger is a contributing editor at Open Letters Monthly. His interview with Paula Bomer appeared in the June issue.