Interview with Carole DeSanti by Agnes Rose on the process of writingThe Unruly Passions of Eugénie R.
The process of writing was somewhat mysterious...:
Interview with Carole DeSanti
The following interview appeared on the book blog W Krainie Czytania & Historii (Our thoughts about books, literature & movies) in conjunction with the publication of the Polish edition of The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. *
Carole DeSanti’s novel The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. evolved over years of clandestine writing and research. A response to such classics as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Zola’s Nana, the novel explores a woman’s journey from crisis and self-doubt to awakening and consciousness during the turbulent era of the Franco-Prussian War.
Agnes A. Rose: Thank you very much for your accepting my invitation to take part in this interview. As I mentioned above you are a writer and an editor at The Penguin Group. First I would like to ask you about your novel which was published in Poland last year. Of course I mean “The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R.” You were inspired to write this book inter alia by Émile Zola’s novel entitled “Nana”. Could you tell us something more about it? Why was it “Nana”?
Carole DeSanti: Zola considered himself a realistic novelist – he wanted to prove that his novels could be just as “scientific” as, well, science – and that this made them superior to other kinds of novels. He applied a particular method and studied every element he put in his books, from the shape of a wagon wheel to the workings of society at large. Like all writers he wanted to render life truthfully, and felt that objectivity was important. I admire Zola and consider myself a realist as well, but we had a conflict: Nana, the courtesan at the center of his story, had no inner life – no ability to consider her actions or their consequences, and no capacity for love. This is simply presented as fact, in his novel. But, is it realistic? Scientific? Even if it can be declared a fact about a woman who becomes what Nana does, how did it come about? What would happen if you gave an inner life to such a character? What experiences might restore it? If Nana had been allowed to think, what would she have thought? Later, I read that Célèste Mogador, a real-life courtesan of the time, who wrote her own memoirs, and clearly had an inner life and an ability to reflect, was angry at Zola for his portrayal: as an audience member at a celebrated stage performance of Nana – Mogador loudly hissed. That hiss was so distinct that it traveled down the pages of history, and found me. I was well into my project by then, but I thought, aha! I was not the first woman to respond to Zola in this way.
Agnes A. Rose: I read that you worked on this novel very long. It was about ten years. I wonder why it took you so much time.
Carole DeSanti: The process of writing was somewhat mysterious. As you can imagine, as an editor I race against the clock a lot, and my tendency was to want to put myself on deadlines, too. But, Eugénie herself – and by that, I mean the state of mind in which I truly felt I was in touch with this remote being – would not be rushed: it was as if she was saying, “if you want to know, if you do not want to be superficial and force a solution, it will take the time it takes.” So, I began to ask, how deep could I go, how “right” could I get it, how well could I get to know her? She came and went. She fell silent. Her silences let me know when I was imposing my will on her story. She did not care for that!
Agnes A. Rose: On the cover of the Polish edition of your book we can read that you wrote it in secret. Why didn’t you want your writing plans to come to light? Were you afraid that you might give up?
Carole DeSanti: No, it was because of the distaste in U.S. publishing about editors who write. Although many editors do write, there is something of a taboo about it. I did not want to give the impression to my authors and my bosses that I was not dedicated to my job, because I was, and am. Also, I never really had a good answer, in publishing terms – that is, business terms – as to why I was doing this crazy thing.
Agnes A. Rose: How did you create Eugénie Rigault? Is she completely fictional character or maybe based on a real historical figure?
Carole DeSanti: She is fictional, although she has elements in common with the lives of real women – Sarah Bernhardt, Célèste Mogador, Marie Duplessis – and many who were less famous. I learned about them from court documents, diaries, newspapers, testimonials of various kinds. Eugénie travels in a world of real figures, though – Louise Michel, the revolutionary teacher; Camille Claudel (who is “Mademoiselle C.”), Haussmann, Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie; the courtesan Giulia Barrucci who is her friend…
Agnes A. Rose: What is the most interesting or maybe surprising fact you came across in your research for “The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R.”?
Carole DeSanti: That Célèste Mogador and I share the same birthdate! She was born December 27…1824. I nearly fell off my chair in the library when I found that. I had fallen into some doubt about what I was trying to do, but at that moment, I knew for sure that she was on my side, a sort of guiding spirit of the project.
Agnes A. Rose: What were the particular satisfactions or frustrations of writing this novel?
Carole DeSanti: Satisfaction: writing a scene – then going back to check the facts, and realizing that I’d gotten it “right” the first time without having specifically researched something – that’s magical! Frustration: when the opposite happens, and history – or my character – shook her head and said, “nice try, but no dice!” Also, I loved visiting special museums, finding objects like lingerie, or an umbrella – imagining who had touched these things, owned them – feeling the aura of the past.
Agnes A. Rose: What about romantic love? Eugénie still meets men who are not good for her and they make her unhappy. While reading I came to the conclusion that Eugénie Rigault finally accepted her destiny associated with men in her life. Couldn’t a nineteenth-century prostitute count on real and happy love?
Carole DeSanti: Eugénie is engaged in a long, life process that involves learning to love and be loved without giving up her power – not allowing herself to be pushed around by the world, or even by her own desires. She gets closer to it with each relationship – closer with Henri, than Stephan – though with Stephan, she continues to learn, too. She is doing it within a society that really hated and denigrated female sexuality, and was obsessed both with fear of and desire for it, so it was a bit of a challenge! But I think she will find genuine love in the end. She is well on her way.
Agnes A. Rose: Is there anything you admire Eugénie for? Maybe did you learn anything from her?
Carole DeSanti: Oh, many things. If I was having a hard time with something in my life – say, finding an apartment in New York City – I would think, “what would she have gone through, in her time? Women were not even allowed to have furniture then!” Or when I was brokenhearted at the end of a love affair, I thought about what it would have meant to be as alone as women once were: shunned by their society, destitute and unprotected – unable to work in addition to being heartbroken. What would she do? Eugénie’s resilience taught me to find my own.
Agnes A. Rose: Did you plot your book before you started writing or did you work off an outline? How did you like to work on your novel?
Carole DeSanti: I had no plan, except to find the truth of the characters. I had to throw out all attempted outlines, I just dove into the research, or into the French countryside, or Lourdes – and learned as much as I could. Then I tried to write truthfully from that place. I used books from and about the period to carry myself away, to escape into it. And I tossed my own problems at Eugénie, and had the fun of re-creating people I knew, as 19th century versions of themselves. What would so-and-so have been like as a brothel madam? Maybe that ex-lover died on the barricades as a Communard. That sort of thing. When Stephan stepped up to tell his own story, it was a total surprise!
Agnes A. Rose: Was there a point where you said to yourself: “this is enough research, I need to go and write the book now”?
Carole DeSanti: Yes, I said that, and I sent it off to an agent who had expressed interest in it. Then – that very day – I was browsing in a bookstore and came across a big, fat history of the Paris Commune! I had skipped over this piece of history, due to laziness and hurry, and because it was a complicated business to render in fiction. When the manuscript was declined by publishers in New York on the first submission, I then had all the time in the world (once I got over my wounded feelings) to go back to the Commune and the Siege – which turned out to be crucial to the story. Such was the lesson of deciding I had had enough of research. But, really, my question was always, “can I learn more?” or “can I be finished?” I might have over compensated because research is so fascinating, there are always wonderful surprises.
Agnes A. Rose: How much being an editor helped you in writing and publishing your book?
Carole DeSanti: I would not say being an editor helped me to write, because I was impatient with myself, and held myself to a very high standard even though I was a beginner. I was horrified at my early tries, and very self-conscious. All of that had to be deconstructed, and it was a tug of war. I felt like a prize-fighter who had decided, insanely, to learn ballet – I had to lose all of that muscle-mass, and teach myself grace and precision. In terms of publishing, I did not have much help there, either. My knowledge of publishing did not help me to escape rejection, for example!
Agnes A. Rose: Do you plan to write a sequel of “The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R.”?
Carole DeSanti: I would like to. I am very curious about Eugénie’s later relationships – and – to your earlier question – how does she find her way to real love? What does that love look and feel like? What would it have felt like in the late 19th century for a woman to take possession of her full powers? And what of Berthe?
Agnes A. Rose: Could you tell us something more about your working for The Penguin Group? What is your experience in working with other authors?
Carole DeSanti: An editor’s job is to be a “bridge” between the creative side, and the business of publishing. It is a seesaw, a dance, and a responsibility to be fair to both sides. My heart will always be with authors and the creative process – but there is also a point at which the discipline of business is helpful. For each author and each project there is a balance point and I am always trying to find it.
Agnes A. Rose: Thank you very much for this nice conversation. Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked? Maybe would you like to say something to your Polish readers?
Carole DeSanti: I feel very privileged to have such readers. I have heard that there is strife in Poland (as in many parts of the world) about a woman’s body, our right to be independent and to choose our own destinies. Women are in conflict with traditional values, often religious values, and trying to find our way. I have been reading about the situation of legal and illegal prostitution, trafficking, and I feel concerned for these women. Still today, we struggle with the value of our lives and our bodies. How to value ourselves? How to feel valued – Is it money, is it love? All of this is very much a part of The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R., – so I hope that the novel might allow readers to step back and see how long these struggles have been going on, and that we are slowly – very slowly – making progress. In the end, Eugénie had to respect her own experience, first – before any sort of dogma. She had to learn what respecting herself and finding her own power of choice actually meant. That it is possible to survive in extreme situations, and to return from afar to be true to ourselves. I hope she can do the same for readers in Poland. Thank you so much for these rich and interesting questions, Agnes.