What inspired you write this novel? What brought you to the subject matter?
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. However, 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, just recreated themselves in different forms. Call me 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.
What do you mean by problems? Give us an example?
Well, as a young woman, I wanted to be protected and cared for. I wanted love, sex, and desire to be woven together. I also wanted to be independent, respected, and not someone’s “subordinate” because of being economically dependent. I wanted to have my own voice, to be able to have a thinking, creative and reflective life —doesn’t this sound like a luxurious shopping list! However, if I put words to it, that’s what it was, my own pursuit of happiness, which seemed to me to be stymied in every dimension. I could not find an appropriate relationship, or a decent apartment in New York City, or land a job I truly enjoyed and that enhanced my life rather than draining it. I did have one, but it ended all too soon. In the novel Eugénie has her own version of these problems, and they were even more challenging as the constraints were greater. In that era, these issues affected huge numbers of women as they left the rural and traditional lives en masse for factory jobs and cities. A lot of the old links and traditions were broken, and the alienation of labor really took hold. At the same time, their horizons, including those on the mental and emotional level, were expanding – sometimes with nowhere to go, which led to some precarious situations.
How did you research this novel?
By reading widely and deeply – fiction, academic work, diaries of the period and self-published memoirs, court testimonies, journalism, even cookbooks of the time. I found cartoons, art books, studied paintings and many, many photographs—photography was just beginning, then. I traveled to France several times to visit all of the locations of the novel, from the foie gras producing region of the Gers in the southwest, which is one of the most beautiful and inspiring landscapes I’ve ever seen—to Paris and the Musée Carnavalet, which has a spectacular collection of Siege of Paris art and artifacts. Many small museums, too. I went to Lourdes after I drafted the chapter in which Eugénie travels there and revised it entirely after experiencing the Grotto. I followed a trail of breadcrumbs for years, and wrote many big, messy drafts full of scenes that didn’t hang together—dreams, memories, descriptions, meals, characters and encounters. I also looked hard at my own life, for clues and parallels to what my heroine might have been going through. It was the long way around, but I loved every moment of it. It kept me alive; this work kept my greatest loves—literature and history—alive when books in our present world had mostly become something else.
The novel opens with a question, “How does a woman begin to doubt herself? When does it happen, and why?” Can you say more about that?
That question is the core of the book, and the first sentence Eugénie R. ever put into my head. It was as if she was asking herself, and I was listening in to her thoughts. Eugénie doubts herself because she has tried very hard to love and be loved—however, she has been betrayed again and again. By her mother, who turns against her; her lover who abandons her; then, without any support from society she cannot keep her child. She has been forced to accept and live out the consequences of all of these things. But, in some part of herself she holds on to her point of view. She looks at the world and at herself in it, and asks, “Why is it this way?” This is the battle she fights, really: to hold on to what she thinks and feels. She needs to knit the world together in her own way and to see that her capacity for love does not make her powerless, nor does she have to become bitter, hard, or cynical even though she cannot remain naïve. The novel is about the internal movement from self-doubt to self-creation. Or you could say, from being blind to seeing, in all the ways that happens. The most important of these comes through friendships. With women, and also with men but on a different basis than was the most common one in her world.
Eugénie has a number of passionate relationships in the novel—one of them with a woman. Is Jolie her most significant lover, and is Eugénie actually a lesbian?
I don’t think we can graft the terms of our own society on to her experience. Eugénie does not try to name and define her desires —whether for Stephan, a fallen aristocrat; or for Jolie, who is her comrade in the brothel where they meet, and is later a fighter for the Paris Commune. Jolie is a kindred spirit, someone who extends herself and has a capacity for generosity, and loyalty. Jolie is stronger than she; is in some ways the woman Eugénie wishes she could be. Jolie captures her heart and fires her imagination as no one else does, I think—but all of Eugénie’s lovers have a lot to teach her. If you ask me, Jolie’s is more a lesbian as we would define it. Her desires are bound to women—men are a path to survival for her, she doesn’t get too interested in them, or fall in love.
You’ve made your living as a book editor, and you’ve worked with a number of bestselling authors—Terry McMillan, Tracy Chevalier, Melissa Bank, Deborah Harkness, Marisha Pessl, Dorothy Allison —How has that helped your own writing process—or not?
My publishing life has been a great big laboratory. Early on, I wanted to use the resources of the book publishing industry, which I felt offered the most unencumbered route to expression, on behalf of women writers about whose work I felt strongly. This was a larger, more consuming, and more contradictory project than I ever could have imagined. It’s an awfully thorny matter (I wrote a piece on this called The Haunted Room, a look at what Woolf’s “room of one’s own” means today). I came to writing later in my life, after having spent my early 20s and most of my 30s – the time when many writers seem to feel the freest — entirely blocked and frozen. I had to learn to “trust the process,” I had to understand there was any sort of process at all. My friend Arthur Levine, who is also an editor and a writer, says that everything he has learned as a writer has made him a better editor, and I agree. I’d go further to say that the reverse is absolutely untrue. I had to dismantle a lot of my ideas about publishing and editing in order to write. They were not helpful at all.
But in terms of placing the book, you must have been helped by your publishing contacts?
Yes, to an extent—but I could not short-cut through the difficult process of taking my work into the world and finding a home for it, even though I would have liked to! I tried to find a publisher for one of those unwieldy, early drafts—an editor who would take it on and work with it even though I knew that publishing didn’t really do that, these days. That draft was roundly declined by a whole lot of people in New York and it was excruciating. The “closing date”—the date an agent sets for responses to a project on the market—was September 11, 2001. I watched the towers fall, and the rejections roll in, and it felt like the end of the world. I put the book down for almost five years after that—it needed to rest, and I needed to change some things about my life. Then, in 2005, I dug back in, tore it apart, and went back into all of the research. I went back to France and re-visited every location in the novel. Some aspects of the early version still stand—the important parts. As an editor, and as a writer, I believe in revision, revision, revision. Going back to the well. In the end, it landed with the perfect editor, Adrienne Brodeur, in the ideal way, and I learned an enormous lesson about commitment, perseverance, and how time plays out.
So, now writers have self-publishing options, e-books, and access to a marketplace or readers without publishers and gatekeepers controlling them—do you think you would have gone that route back in 2001 if you could have?
Basically, I do approve of wider options for writers, although the urgency of authorship is not necessarily a good guide to making publishing decisions. All writers are very biased about their work, we are all beset by many needs, delusions, hopes, fears, etc. For a novel like this one, it was important and useful for me to go through the harrowing process of seeing that some very good readers were not “getting” the book, that I needed to go back to square one and do more work. We can be impatient and the “e-era” encourages that. It’s not necessarily the best thing for writing, though. Also, there are some great and talented people in the publishing industry and it would be a loss not to have the opportunity to collaborate with them—it’s a wonderful piece of the whole picture.
What do you want readers to take away from The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R.?
I hoped to write about a woman’s adult development that was as complex, beautiful, and mysterious as the unfolding of history itself. This is the story of a woman who was marginal to the large historical movements of her day, and yet her life was deeply and irrevocably entwined with them. What I want readers to understand is that a woman’s interior life, the way her consciousness forms and evolves—is not inconsequential. Indeed, for each of us—and most of us are not great players in history —it is the most important work that we can do, in all circumstances. That is because all we do, all of our thoughts and how they lead to actions in the world leave legacies. Even if we never write a word, or make paint or compose music, or have the privilege of expressing our selves and being heard—even if we do not have children and raise them—our being in the world leaves a legacy. Life itself is the truest art. As women, especially, we need to restore to ourselves a sense of consequence—of desiring that what we do, and how we are in the world, to be true to our best selves, to our essence.