Q&A with Jessie Chaffee

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Get to know 2018 Festival speaker Jessie Chaffee, author of Florence in Ecstasy.

If you could make everyone in the world read one book, which would it be?

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys is the book that has most influenced me as a writer. Rhys is best known for The Wide Sargasso Sea, a retelling of Jane Eyre from the perspective of Mr. Rochester’s wife, Bertha (aka “the woman in the attic”). Good Morning, Midnight, written decades earlier, is read less frequently, but it’s a masterpiece. Rhys’ depiction of a woman’s contention with her identity and the ghosts of her past as she descends into alcoholism is equal parts horror and beauty. I’ve read few other writers who capture so completely and tangibly a fraught interior emotional landscape in the way that Rhys does. My debut, Florence in Ecstasy, is in many ways an ode to her work.

What is your favorite aspect of participating in book festivals?

Meeting readers! So much of writing is solitary, but once your book is out in the world, it becomes communal, and I love that. Speaking with writers and readers around the country has not only been deeply meaningful, but it has changed the book for me and has taught me a great deal about my own writing, and writing in general.

Which other speakers are you excited to see or hoping to meet at the Festival?

It’s been wonderful sharing a “book year” with many writers I admire. I can’t wait to see Lisa Ko, Garnette Cadogan, Jason Reynolds, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Tracey Baptiste, Nic Stone, and many more. I’m hoping to meet IRL writers I’ve only corresponded with online, including Bethanne Patrick, SJ Sindu, and Cara Hoffman. And I’m looking forward to seeing Clifford Garstang—we met at a writing residency while I was working on Florence in Ecstasy, and it’s a wonderful bit of synchronicity that he is moderating the panel I’m on!

Which part of your book are you most proud of?

Florence is a city that I love, and it was important to me to capture it with as much depth as possible—its richness and beauty, its complexities and contradictions, its hidden spaces. I also wanted to highlight the women of Florence’s past—the Medieval and Renaissance mystical saints whose stories my protagonist, Hannah, becomes obsessed with. For a lot of these women, claiming a direct relationship with God, speaking their minds, and controlling their bodies and their lives 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 seeking (though in a secular sense) a different path for herself. Many of the women saints have disappeared from history in a way that their male counterparts have not, and so I was grateful to be able to bring their voices into the novel.

What are you working on next?

Inspired by the research I did for Florence in Ecstasy, I’m working on essays that explore the connection between faith and the body, and the ways in which women became powerful leaders in faith-based institutions that were otherwise dominated by men. I’m digging into some of my own family history because my great-grandmother, for whom I’m named, was ordained in the Congregational Church in the 1930s.

In the 2018 Virginia Festival of the Book, Jessie Chaffee will participate in Fractured Characters: Fiction on Thursday, March 22.