Carole DeSanti, known for her championing of independent, high-quality voices
in women’s fiction as an editor at Penguin, has been clandestinely writing The
Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. for over a decade. She has been profiled in
Poets & Writers’ Magazine, published in the Women’s Review of Books, and
awarded fellowships at the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center and
An Interview with Carole DeSanti
Q: 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; 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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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.
Q: Are you fluent in French?
Not quite, but I managed to get along and find what I needed for the book. Friends helped; serendipity helped, and looking and listening was key.
Q: 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 were 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.
Q: 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 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.
Q: One of the big topics in the novel is the system of legalized prostitution in 19th c. Paris. Do you agree or disagree with this system, which is still debated today?
Technically it was not legal, it was what they called “tolerated,” which was why brothels were called “tolérances. ” … This is really a two-part question: what are women doing, and what is society doing? The #1 reason anyone goes into what we now call sex work is for survival. Women feel that they can be independent if they can use their bodies to provide an income, and that this may be a viable trade-off. Being independent as a woman is a problem still, and female bodies are desired, desirable and can be “used.” But, this kind of attitude toward the self is not so sustainable over the course of a lifetime; I think that our souls more or less go into revolt. We do not want to be treated, or to treat ourselves, mechanistically and materially, only. For many women then and now these jobs are felt to be temporary – but then it is easy to get trapped in habit; and what seems like a good solution can turn against you. As for what society is doing – I have yet to see a way of setting it up that doesn’t primarily serve those who already have power and privilege, even if the rationales are well-intended, to ameliorate problems, etc. I don’t see it helping young women, especially.
Q: Do you feel we have developed a “courtesan” culture in the contemporary US today?
When I think back to when I began this project, things things strike me as very different now. Stripping, sex work, pole-dancing, etc., are much more publicly discussed as though they are fine and viable options; some people defend the right to these choices and claim they can lead to upward mobility. For example, these days, you’d think a young woman can start out as a stripper and become a screenwriter or some other kind of celebrity, but even though Diablo Cody won an Oscar, this is not going to happen very often. Looking at the media parade of young and young-ish women dressing and behaving to out-do and out-scandalize each other and the rest of us, commoditizing themselves (which we call “branding” now), it’s very much like Paris in the 19th century, actually; there is a whole system that we “tolerate” and that many take part in and profit from. It’s a result of larger economic forces, really. But for me, the important question is what women are thinking and feeling. Each and every individual one. How she is making choices about her life: from a sense of freedom, curiosity, inspiration — or limitation, hopelessness or futility? Also, what is fun in your late teens and twenties can become a trap later on, leading to a feeling that it’s necessary to self-alienate and separate love from desire, and the “self” from the body, in order to survive or to be loved and cared for. This is a private conversation between a woman and her deepest inner life. We are taught to look “at” women, even if we are women. We are encouraged to say, “Look at her,” rather than “what do I feel?” This can lead to some skewed decision-making. We start to look at the lives of woman as theater, as performance or as accidents waiting to happen. If you apply this to your own life, you can really make some choices with unhappy consequences. For me the interesting questions are: What are the choices? And what are the consequences?
Q: 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.
Q: 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 a little over four 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.
Q: 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 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.
Q: And your literary inspirations, influences, favorites?
There are so many, I’ll just mention a few that I think had something to do with this novel: going back to some of the books I read as a young person, Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time, the first piece of fiction that brought history alive for me. The Brontës; but especially the relationship between Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, which taught me that you could go back IN to literature, as a creator. Woolf’s Orlando, which knocked me over when I read it the first time; Flaubert’s Bovary. Valerie Martin’s Property. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic, and feminist literary criticism…and the great and key influences on the writing of Eugénie R. in particular were Zola’s Nana, of course; back to back with Céleste Mogador’s Mémoires, and Veronica Franco’s letters…
Q: 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, is true to our best selves, to our essence.