Jessie Chaffee’s debut novel, Florence in Ecstasy, was selected as a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2017. It is forthcoming in translation in the Czech Republic, Russia, Poland, and Turkey. Chaffee completed the novel with the support of a Fulbright grant to Italy, during which time she was the writer-in-residence at Florence University of the Arts. Her writing has appeared in Literary Hub, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, Slice, and Global City Review, among others. She lives in New York City, where she is an editor at Words without Borders, an online magazine of international literature.
What book (not written by you) comes closest to capturing something about you? What is this aspect?
Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight was one of the inspirations for Florence in Ecstasy. I first read it in my twenties and I was completely absorbed by the novel, which is about a British woman alone in Paris who is descending into alcoholism. Rhys perfectly captures the duality of addiction—the pain and ecstasy of it—that’s at the heart of my own novel. While I’m fairly upbeat and optimistic, like most people, I’ve had moments in my life when I’ve become a stranger to myself—Good Morning, Midnight cuts right to the heart of those experiences. It is a stunning, visceral portrait of the loneliness, rawness, and also the power of being outside of oneself.
You spent a considerable amount of time in Tuscany to write Florence in Ecstasy. Clearly, Saint Catherine of Siena was an inspiration for the novel; the Arno river could be considered another “character” in the book. Are there less tangible aspects of Tuscany or Florence that were fundamental to the telling of this story?
That Florence is saturated with beauty and history is a cliché, but it’s also true, and because of the roles that both beauty and history play for my protagonist, Hannah, I don’t think her story could have happened anywhere but Florence. I’m not sure what it is that makes the aesthetic of the city so unique—the quality of the light, the art and architecture, the way that the dense chaos of the city center transitions so quickly into tranquillity in the hills that surround it—but that beauty is unique and it’s palpable. Likewise, the history—you can feel the layers of it in a way that you don’t in, say, New York, where I’m from. It was easy for me to imagine the lives of the saints who were local to Florence because they still feel present to me in the city. Every city has its own rhythm, sounds, and choreography, and so those also really shaped the book. For example, many times a day you can hear the bells of Florence’s churches ringing throughout the city, and that kind of repeated intoning—the feeling of being lifted up and then emptied out by the sound—influenced both the content of the book and also the rhythm of the prose in a way that was completely unconscious.
What is the biggest personal obstacle you must overcome in order to write?
Self-doubt, always. I’ve written for most of my life, but the blank page never gets less scary. I’ve found ways around it—I’ll give myself the task of writing x number of pages, even if they’re awful, and that allows me to write my way into the good stuff, into the moments where the writing takes over. Those moments are the high and they’re what keep me coming back to the blank page again and again, in spite of the doubt.
Read the rest of the interview on The Sigh Press.