Jennifer Haupt: What inspired you to write this novel? What brought you to the subject matter?
Carole DeSanti: As for the subject matter — I don’t know that I would have come to that on my own. In my first real publishing job, which will always stand as my favorite, at Dutton in the late ‘80s — a clairvoyant came to our offices to sell his book proposal. I was a skeptical intellectual at the time, thinking that I was headed to grad school, and gave him pretty short shrift. But he told me, among other things, that I’d had a “past life” as a prostitute in France. I considered this something of a joke.
After I was laid off when the company merged and downsized — which was a heartbreaking situation — I had time on my hands, was reading for the GRE’s and I procured a battered old copy of Zola’s Nana. I devoured it in a night — but it also bothered me: Zola’s heroine had no soul, no interior life — and I “knew” (wherever this knowledge came from) that something was wrong, here. She was not just put on earth to be his puppet on a string, his vehicle to make a point about the society no matter how brilliant a novelist he was.
I also realized that what I was struggling with as a young woman — work and love, independence and dependence and having a voice in the world — referred back to historical dilemmas that had not truly been solved; they’ve just re-created themselves in different forms. Call me a slow learner but something in me felt stuck a century and a half back, and past lives or not, I needed some help with that. I had to invent it, though. This novel was a way to work out some problems in my life, among other things.
JH: How was this novel a way to work out some problems in your own life?
CD: The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. is about a woman who is abandoned by, and in turn abandons, what and whom she loves — because of circumstances that are more powerful than she is. She finds her way back in a complicated world, as a woman who has changed and grown stronger.
For me, that has been about the process of turning away from, and back to, my love of writing and literature. For years as a younger woman I was unable to write, then unable to read as I truly wished to (because I was reading a lot of unpublished and unpublishable manuscripts for work). I saw how literature and books were storm-tossed and ill-used by the prevailing commercial winds (this is not new, by the way) and I watched the creative part of myself die, again and again, and come back to life, first struggling and weak, then a bit stronger.
Like Eugénie, as a young woman I had to learn to love a world that did not seem to love me back. I had to battle anger and fear and appetites and defiance…insufficient resources…and was humbled, in writing her story, to understand that 150 years ago, with greater constraints and even fewer options, it would have been far more difficult. History is also a great therapist.
JH: Tell me about the journey of writing this novel. How long did you work on it? Were there points when you put it aside for long periods or nearly gave up? What kept you going?
CD: It began about 15 years ago. I was sitting in a rocking chair in my studio apartment in Brooklyn, in the dark, writing by candlelight, with my eyes closed, because that was the only way to push aside the other voices in my head. A visit the southwest of France had stunned me into an inspired state — because of the sheer beauty of the place; I had also been reading Zola’s Nana and Fanny Trollope’s Paris and the Parisians in 1835. I began studying the period of French history that caught my interest, the Second Empire. I sensed that people then were as beleaguered and alienated, as hungry and greedy and emotional and dramatic and fragile, as we were in our own time. Their world was changing and they were struggling to hold on, and I found a certain perspective and comfort in this.
I took a sabbatical from my publishing job in 1997-98, at the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center. I was not bold enough to call myself a writer, but I read widely — journalism, court cases, cookbooks, “guidebooks for gentlemen,” art history, studies of hysteria, railway maps, lists of patents — you name it. I wrote most of the first draft half-petrified, half-exhilarated, and finally, when I felt I could do no more, submitted the work-in-progress to publishers. My agent set a closing date: September 11, 2001. So: the towers fell and the novel was declined in all quarters; I then set it aside for nearly 4 years, feeling I’d never recover from either event.
What brought me back? Eugénie … a shred of her voice, a wisp, a new fragment. The sense that she and I were working out some weighty matters together and that in the end, we had to trust one another. So: back to the library, back to the drawing board. Also, back to the novel’s locations — the Marais district in Paris, the village of Tillac in the Gers region of France; to Lourdes, Auch. To a textile archive in Norwich, England to look at 1860s umbrellas and dance slippers. What kept me going? Sheer stubbornness and bits of magic, like crumbs in the forest. Re-reading a line that I loved…even one. Realizing that I’d gotten something right without researching it. Finding bread baked during the Siege of Paris preserved under glass in the Musée Carnavalet. Learning that Celeste Mogador (19th century courtesan and memoirist) and I shared a birthday. Books, historians, car mechanics, housekeepers, friends, fellow writers, libraries, massage therapists, and plenty of Cahors Red.
JH: Did you have to put aside your editor persona while you were writing? Or, did it help you to self-edit as you went along?
CD: My editor persona seemed to love interfering with the work. She kept setting deadlines, insisting on schedules, timeframes, outlines, and plans. She was impatient with the ebb and flow of Eugénie’s voice and her elusive emotional states; in the first draft, she decided to skip a war and force an ending, just to meet a timetable! On the line-by-line level, she was more helpful because she had little hesitation about slashing, revising, or even jettisoning swathes of material. She was keen to cut, no sentimentalist and at times a ruthless critic. There were many quarrels and tears. That said, we made peace. In the end, the editor bowed to the greater forces of the writing process — which is as it should be.
JH: What is Eugénie’s One True Thing that kept her strong and propelled her on her journey?
CD: “The logic of passion is insistent,” was the line from Stendhal that carried us along with a kind of talismanic power. Eugénie was never willing to abandon her passions, and that kept opening new chapters in her story. She wanted to know (and so did I) what passion was insisting upon. The answer was that she learn, and grow. And in the end, that is what she desired more than anything.
JH: What’s the One True Thing you learned from Eugénie?
CD: To trust the process. To let go, and allow the story to live and breathe. To trust that what is conjured to life has a reason for being; it is a mystery to be explored.
Source: Haupt, Jennifer. "Interview with Legendary Editor Carole DeSanti." Psychology Today, July 12, 2012.