Photo courtesy of Heather Waraksa
Jessie Chaffee will be presenting her debut novel Florence in Ecstasy at Florence University of the Arts on November 30, 2017. She grew up in New York City, where she currently resides and works as an editor at Words Without Borders, an online magazine of international literature in translation. While in college, Jessie studied abroad in Florence. She later returned on a Fulbright grant to complete research for Florence in Ecstasy, and was the writer-in-residence at FUA. She found the city to be dynamic and inspiring—in particular, the women who are a part of its history. Set in the present-day, her novel incorporates the lore of Catholic mystical saints—women famous for their ecstatic visions—as a way of exploring more contemporary issues of women's relationships with their bodies and their search for autonomy and expression.
Where do you typically find inspiration?
“I am very inspired by history and mythology—by thinking about how people in the past understood their world and made meaning, and how that relates to our understanding of ourselves today. As a writer, I love doing research, because it takes me outside of my own perspective, it challenges me to think differently, and it often surprises me and leads to unexpected things in my work, which is one of the great joys of writing.”
What inspired your novel Florence in Ecstasy?
“Florence in Ecstasy was inspired in part by my own history with Florence and a desire to capture what I find compelling about the city—its richness and beauty, and also its complexities and contradictions. Though the novel is not autobiographical, it does speak to something that I think many people have experienced, myself included—the feeling of losing or becoming a stranger to oneself, and trying to rebuild from the wreckage. The novel was also inspired by the stories of the female Italian mystical saints, many of whom refused to adhere to the status quo. For a lot of these women, entering the church, claiming a direct relationship with God, and speaking their mind was a profound act of strength and rebellion. That rebellious spirit was inspiring and felt very relevant to the story that I was telling in the present about a contemporary woman who is similarly trying to find a different path for herself and who, like the saints, is in some way at war with herself and her body.”
What authors inspire you?
“My favorite authors are all women who write about the experience of being a woman in the world in a way that is authentic, visceral, and fierce. I love, in particular, Jean Rhys, Marguerite Duras, Elena Ferrante, Natalia Ginzburg, and Dacia Maraini.”
Do you base your characters on real people?
“None of my characters are based on individual people, but, of course, my experiences and relationships with other people help me to build characters whom, I hope, feel real.”
How many hours a day do you write typically? How long did it take you to write Florence in Ecstasy?
“From the time I started Florence in Ecstasy to the moment it was published was nine-and-a-half years, so almost a decade. I wasn't writing that entire time, of course—I was working, going to school, researching, and later revising, revising, revising! I don't write every day, but on the days I am writing, I try to write for a full day, and to treat it as a job as I would any other job.”
Do you ever get writer's block and if so how do you overcome it?
“It often helps me to take a walk—I solved many problems in the novel while walking around New York or Florence! If I'm stuck, I'll also listen to music or go to see art or theater—experiencing the creative work that others have put out into the world almost always inspires me and shakes me out of my rut. And, of course, another solution for writer's block is simply to write—meaning I'll sit down and write whatever comes into my head, write anything, without expecting it to be perfect, or even good. It is very rare that the best writing comes in the first minutes or hours of writing. I usually have to write my way into what becomes the strongest writing. Recognizing that—and taking the pressure off in those first minutes or hours—helps a great deal.”
What advice do you have for students who wish to pursue writing?
“One of my writing mentors gave me two pieces of advice that I always carry with me. The first is that we all have a story to tell—tell the story only you can tell. That doesn't mean that everything that you write has to be autobiographical or come out of your own experience—on the contrary, I think it's vital as writers that we go beyond our own ideas and experiences. But I think it's important for every writer to remember that, whatever the content of what you are writing, as the only person who has experienced the world in exactly the way that you have, you have something unique and valuable to share. The second piece of advice was to ‘find your people.’ Find the writers who will be your community. Writing is solitary, but it doesn't have to be lonely. At every stage in my writing career—as a student, an aspiring author, and now a published author—having other writers in my life who supported me and who I supported are what kept me inspired, kept me sane, and also challenged me to grow as a reader, writer, and person.”
We look forward to meeting Jessie Chaffee to hear more about her process and the book Florence in Ecstasy!
The event will be held on November 30th from 4:00-5:00pm in the FUA library located at Corso dei Tintori 21.