Florence in Ecstasy is your first novel—when you began it, did you know it was going to be a novel?
I tricked myself into starting Florence in Ecstasy–or got tricked into it. While in the MFA program at City College, one of my mentors gave our class the assignment of writing the first chapter and description of a novel we’d never write. The prompt was freeing and it got rid of the voice of judgment that often sits on my shoulder. I wrote what would become the prologue of Florence in Ecstasy (which has survived almost intact in the final version), a few paragraphs about what the book might look like—including that it would involve Italy, a woman’s relationship with her body, and the fractured experience of addiction. After turning in those pages, I decided I wanted to actually write the novel. But I’m not sure I would have ever begun it without that prompt, which allowed me to leap into a larger narrative without the fear of knowing exactly where it would go.
There’s a psychosomatic experience called Stendhal Syndrome—it’s named for the writer Stendhal who collapsed after an ecstatic experience viewing Giotto’s frescoes in Santa Croce. It’s also called Florence Syndrome, because there are so many opportunities in Florence to be overwhelmed by beauty and art and history. I experienced that when I studied abroad there years ago in college—the city took hold of me. And it felt like exactly the right backdrop for my protagonist, Hannah, who is struggling with an eating disorder—and thus with her body and ideas of beauty—and who is fleeing her history. She eventually stumbles upon the history of the Catholic mystical saints, who were plentiful in medieval and Renaissance Italy, and who, like her, experienced their own kind of ecstasy through denial by starving themselves for God. Italy is also an extremely social place—relationships are everything—and that aspect of the culture challenges Hannah, forcing her to engage and to become involved in the dynamic social side of the city rather than remaining isolated, as she is at the book’s opening.
In the excerpt, Hannah joins a rowing club—why is she drawn to rowing? Why is rowing important to the story?
Hannah has spent her first month in Florence on the tourist path, which can be hard to find your way off of. She’s also there in August—the city is hot, humid, and crowded with outsiders, as most of the Italians are on vacation. When you’re on the river, all that changes—the crowds and noises are distant, you are viewing Florence from the inside, in more ways than one because the club is also filled with locals. Ironically, the rowing club is located directly below the Uffizi Gallery, maybe the most visited site in the city. In the excerpt, Hannah sees a woman rowing on the Arno and it suggests something to her—a different kind of existence in the city, a different kind of person that she could be, and also the possibility of making peace with her body. And, indeed, the only way to keep a scull balanced and on course is to be at peace with your body, centered and focused. So descending into the club—and then the act of rowing itself—is Hannah’s attempt to save herself, to find her way back to her body, and to escape her isolation.
Favorite Italian locations that feature in the novel?
Besides the rowing club, which really is an oasis in the city:
The hills outside Florence—you can get out of the city and up into the hills and into nature fairly quickly, and it feels like a world away. It also provides a vantage on the city that allows you to really see Florence in a way it is difficult to otherwise.
The trains! I love traveling by train in Italy (in spite of Trenitalia’s consistent delays). During my year there, I did some of my best thinking on trains. Hannah takes a few trips by train, watching the landscape change outside while grappling with things internally. Trains are good for that in general, but it’s hard to match to the beauty that you glimpse while training through Italy.
The Basilica of San Domenico in Siena—perched up on one of the hills in Siena, the basilica is a simple, airy space, a sharp contrast to the tight streets of the city and more ornate central cathedral. The basilica holds the beautiful frescoes of St. Catherine that Hannah encounters, and the saint’s mummified head—bizarre and also completely entrancing.
The Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella church in Florence is one of the places where I’m liable to succumb to Stendhal Syndrome. The frescoes—an explosion of rich colors that depict Biblical scenes reimagined in Renaissance Florence and featuring Florentine nobility in drop-dead gorgeous garb—can easily inspire ecstasy.
Piazza Signoria—one of the main squares in Florence and also the civil center; it is unlikely any visitor to the city will miss it. But I especially love the piazza late at night, when it empties out a bit. A copy of the stunning sculpture that features on the cover of the novel—Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Woman—is in that square, and seeing it lit from below, coupled with the sharp outline of the ballasted tower of the Palazzo Vecchio against the deep night sky, take my breath away every time.
You spent a year in Florence on a Fulbright grant to research the novel. Did what you discovered in your research surprise you? Did living there change the book?
As Hannah discovers, though Florence is a small town, it is still difficult to get past the city’s veneer. Having a full year there enabled me to explore the layers of the city that aren’t immediately apparent, to form meaningful connections with Italian and expat communities (including people who gave me essential feedback on the book), and to capture in a more genuine way the language, the culture, and the visceral details and feel of the city. Researching the saints was also vital to realizing the book, and my conversations with people made me realize something I had suspected but wasn’t sure was accurate—that these women from the past really are still very present. And while here in the U.S., sharing that I was researching the Italian mystical saints might be met with some blank stares, in Italy almost every person I spoke with would have a personal experience to share, a bit of trivia, or a recommendation of a town I should visit.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was old enough to write. But before then, I had other aspirations. I’m a native New Yorker, and when I was very young I wanted to be a taxi driver, because driving seemed like fun and because people were always handing the drivers cash, so I imagined it was also a big moneymaker. Flash-forward three-plus decades—I don’t have my driver’s license and I haven’t ended up in a lucrative profession. But I’m still in New York, and I feel very fortunate—and very happy—to be doing what I’m doing.
JESSIE CHAFFEE is the author of the debut novel Florence in Ecstasy (Unnamed Press, May 2017). 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 The Rumpus, Slice, Electric Literature, Bluestem, Global City Review, and The Sigh Press, among others. She lives in New York City and is an editor at Words Without Borders. Find her at www.JessieChaffee.com.