Today, Hartford Books Examiner is honored to be in the company of three extraordinary pioneers in publishing: Carole DeSanti, Gina Barreca, and Roxanne Coady.
These literary luminaries will be on hand tomorrow evening, September 12th, as DeSanti presents her debut novel, The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26), at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison. (See event details below.)
DeSanti is currently Vice President, Editor at Large at the Penguin Group, where she is known for her championing of independent, high-quality voices in women’s fiction. Her authors include Terry McMillan (Waiting to Exhale), Deborah Harkness (A Discovery of Witches) and Dorothy Allison (Bastard Out Of Carolina); she also edited Ms. Barreca’s They Used to Call Me Snow White…but I Drifted, an exploration of women’s use of humor. DeSanti 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 Hedgebrook. The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. was clandestinely written over a period of time spanning more than a decade.
Barreca is an author, editor, and columnist for the Hartford Courant and frequently discusses topics such as gender, power, politics, and humor on television. She did her very first reading at R.J. Julia (for They Used to Call Me Snow White…but I Drifted) and regularly appears on Faith Middleton’s Book Show with Roxanne Coady. Barreca holds degrees from Dartmouth College, Cambridge University, and the City University of New York; she is Professor of English and Feminist Theory at the University of Connecticut.
Coady is the owner and CEO of R.J. Julia – one of the preeminent independent booksellers in the nation. She is also the founder of the online retailer JustTheRightBook.com and Read to Grow, a statewide literary organization for which she also serves as Chair. Additionally, Coady serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the Greater New Haven Convention & Tourism Bureau and the Foote School. She is co-editor of the anthology, The Book That Changed My Life: 71 Remarkable Writers Celebrate the Books That Matter Most to Them.
The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. debuted last March. Publishers Weekly praised the book as a “sweeping, fascinating epic…full of drama and beauty,” and noted, “Readers will find passion in the writing; DeSanti’s descriptions are full of lush, sensual detail.” Further, Library Journal enthused, “DeSanti is famed for discovering and promoting exceptional women authors…which suggests the kind of writing you’ll find in this first novel.”
From the publisher:
Love and war converge in this lush, epic story of a young woman’s coming of age during and after France’s Second Empire (1860–1871), an era that was absinthe-soaked, fueled by railway money and prostitution, and transformed by cataclysmic social upheaval.
Eugénie R., born in foie gras country, follows the man she loves to Paris but soon finds herself marooned. An outcast, she charts the treacherous waters of sexual commerce on a journey through artists’ ateliers and pawnshops, zinc bars and luxurious bordellos. Giving birth to a daughter she is forced to abandon, Eugénie spends the next ten years fighting to get her back, falling in love along the way with an artist, a woman, and a revolutionary. Then, as the gates of the city close on the eve of the Siege of Paris, Eugénie comes face to face with her past. Drawn into a net of desire and need, promises and lies, she must make a choice and find her way to a life that she can call her own.
Now, Carole, Gina, and Roxanne offer an inspired discussion on books, writers, and readers – and the community that exists between them…
HBE: How have your experiences as an editor contributed to your pursuits as a writer? Also, how do you feel about assuming the role of author versus a more behind-the-scenes presence?
Carole DeSanti: Writing and publishing are two very different beasts. It took me awhile to understand their separate natures, and keep them in their own pens – well, largely it was a matter of penning up the editor. My work of negotiating contracts, setting deadlines, shaping a final manuscript, thinking about design, production and presentation – all of these functions I was so familiar with – interfered with and derailed writing. As a writer, I didn’t need more discipline and structure – I had plenty of that in my job. I needed freedom and inspiration. I needed to learn to listen to the unconscious, and to have absolute trust and faith in the creative process itself. The characters and the voices in this novel did not care about outlines or deadlines, about budgets, about dressing up and looking nice for other people – about what others thought, at all. They wanted to introduce me to another way of living and thinking. They urged it on me; I resisted. Perhaps – looking back — that seemed safer. So many beginning writers are anxiously thinking about finishing, publishing, marketing and selling their work before giving themselves the gift – the necessary luxury – of working through the project to its depths. It might feel safer – but it’s not. I had to learn to let go.
It’s been wonderful to bring Eugenie R. into the world, to become its ambassador and public, 21st century voice. I’ve come to this point as a full-fledged adult and I appreciate that very much — I was never the kind of person who could have “grown up” in public, so to speak. My partner and I joke about sending Eugenie off to college. It’s lovely to see her making her way – but it can be a little lonely around the house, without her pestering me with questions, such as “when are you coming back to chapter 23?” or “When are you going to understand what it was like during the Siege of Paris?” And, as my mother would have put it, as a more public person I have to remember not to “dress like a bum” on the weekends!
HBE: What served as the inspiration for THE UNRULY PASSIONS OF EUGENIE R.? How did your own personal areas of interests influence the storytelling?
Carole DeSanti: My first trip to the Gers, a very beautiful part of France (which later became Eugenie’s homeland) interrupted a stressful period in my life – and stunned me into realizing that the world was very much wider, wilder and more varied than it had seemed. I had, at that time, given up an earlier dream of writing, but a tiny spark ignited in the creative part of myself that had been drowned by life’s exigencies – debts, deaths, losses, the work week. After I came back, I read the work of historians like Alain Corbin and Eugen Weber who are also profound thinkers and great writers. And Zola’s novel Nana inspired the book, too — because I felt the absolute importance of writing a character like Nana – but from the inside, to know how a woman in her situation would feel…
As a working person with a demanding career, I think it was a matter of re-discovering, and honoring my interests – in history, in travel, in a kind of literary archeology, in how societies work and what makes people tick in them. Then, building the kind of life that made room for those things.
HBE: What are your expectations for your inaugural R.J. Julia event and what does it mean to you to have Gina and Roxanne present?
Carole DeSanti: Gina was one of the first readers for Eugenie R., and I was nervous about sending it to her. For one thing, I know she loves humor, and this novel is not funny (in the main); for another, she is a literary scholar who writes critical introductions for classics like Portrait of a Lady – to name just one. I knew that no weakness of the book would go unseen by her gimlet eye. So for Eugenie R. to have her ongoing support and friendship is a dream come true. Coming to RJ Julia is another one: Roxanne Coady – whom I’ve not yet had the pleasure to meet – is a legend in publishing; she’s graciously hosted many of the authors I’ve worked with and what she’s done for books and reading is beyond measure. So, rain or shine, crowd or coterie, I expect that we’ll have a wonderful time. After all of the years of archeology, note-taking, examining dance slippers and 19th century syringes and 150 year old loaves of bread – not to mention writing and revising like a maniac — every moment of bringing this book to readers is a celebration.
HBE: Tell us about the collaborative process with Carole DeSanti as editor. What attributes does she possess in that capacity that translate to her new role as novelist?
Gina Barreca: As an editor, Carole was as much in love with language as any writer; she was hungry for a good story with an edge, whether that was at dinner, on the page, in a proposal, or in the final manuscript. Carole commissioned my first book–The Used to Call Me Snow White, but I Drifted–when we were both 30 years old, meaning that we were barely old enough to cross the street when you think about it…but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t both tough and demanding. She kept insisting that I illustrate rather than explain my points about women’s voices and women’s humor. She didn’t want me to tell the reader that women were funny; she wanted me to prove it. When I opened Unruly Passions, I was sort of waiting a little bit to see whether I’d be able to accuse her of not doing what she insisted her authors do–but I couldn’t. On every page of the novel, Carole shows us Paris. She opens for us the doors to brothels and art studios, letting us feel, smell and immerse ourselves in the nineteenth-century. She lived up to her own expectations and let me tell you: that was nearly impossible.
HBE: What unique insights might your educational background allow you when considering the subtext of THE UNRULY PASSIONS OF EUGENIE R.? How would you suggest that readers approach (and perhaps re-approach) the book?
Gina Barreca: If I were feeling particularly scholarly on any given day, I could get all prissy and say that my training in feminist theory and gender studies, as well as my background in Victorian literature and culture, enables me to find hidden treasures on every page. But to be honest, every reader can find these treasures: like the best of all narratives, Unruly Passions insists that the reader see the underpinning (and the undergarments) of the true tale. At the heart of this novel is the question of what drives this complex, damaged, yet strong and loving woman to doubt herself and distrust the world. And it has the glorious depth and breath of every classic novel, in that once you finish the book, something in you wants to start all over again to see what you missed the first time around. That’s the very definition of a great story: you want to hear it again so that you “catch” the parts you might have hurried over in your rush to take it all in the first time you read it.
HBE: You maintain a rapport with Roxanne Coady and R.J. Julia. How do you see this as representative of the “community” that can exist between booksellers, writers, and readers?
Gina Barreca: I don’t know if many writers ever have the privilege of being able to name, thank, and then celebrate with the two people without whom they never would’ve had a successful book: with Roxanne and Carole in on room, I can do that. Carole gave me permission and encouragement; Roxanne gave me the most significant “imprimatur a first-time writer could receive by inviting me to do my first reading at the then new R.J. Julia’s and she gave me the guts to admit out loud my ambition to get readers for my work. I didn’t want simply “to write,” which was the fashionable thing for authors to say. I wanted to sell the hell out of my books. Roxanne not only helped me realize that was cool–she’s helped me do it for 23 years. The community of readers Roxanne has nurtured through the bookstore and through the outreach she does in all aspects of her literacy work has changed the intellectual and cultural landscape of Connecticut. We’ve all benefitted from that: publishers, writers, booksellers, and–most of all–readers.
HBE: Tell us about your introduction to Gina Barreca and her work. To what do you credit your continued relationship and how do you view this as symbolic of R.J. Julia’s mission?
Roxanne Coady (via phone): How I met Gina was our rep. from Viking Penguin was going through that litany that they do talking about books and came up to a book and said, “You can skip this. It’s by an academic about feminism.” And I thought, “Well, I like the title of it, which was ‘They Used to Call Me Snow White…but I Drifted.’ And so I asked him to send me the book, which I thought was hilarious – and then thought, well, why not have this academic come down here and do an event? And I think Gina and I became friends in about two seconds. We had one of the funniest events that the store has had. And that’s how we met, though the rep probably tried hard to make sure that we wouldn’t given his description of the book.
Our continued relationship, I think, is because we both have curly hair and like to laugh. Is that symbolic of R.J. Julia’s mission? Yes! (Laughs)
HBE: What is it that makes R.J. Julia author events so special – and how do you feel that this evening in particular will benefit readers of these authors’ works?
Roxanne Coady (via phone): I think that our readers are very enthusiastic audience members and we often hear from authors around the country that they enjoy our events for all these reasons: one is there’s something wonderful about the space here; it just puts everybody in a very connected kind of a mood and there are moments that are…just magical. And they have really read the book, really want to read the book, and are really interested in literature and the author so they ask fun, fascinating questions.
As for this event in particular? Well, they [audience members] probably know Gina and it’s always fantastic to hear her. And they’ll get to meet Carole, another smart woman writer, and they’ll get to be in our space and feel the magic of it.
With thanks to Laura Rossi Totten, Principal/Director of Publicity for Laura Rossi Public Relations, for arranging this interview and to Carole DeSanti, Gina Barreca and Roxanne Coady for their valuable contributions of time and thought.
Gina Barreca will facilitate a discussion with Carole DeSanti Wednesday evening, September 12th, at 7 p.m. This event is free but reservations are required, and can be made online or by calling the store at 203-245-3959. R.J. Julia is located at 768 Boston Post Rd. in Madison.
Ms. Barreca will also appear at the Mohegan Sun this Thursday evening, September 13th, as part of the casino’s Winning Authors series and the Connecticut Author’s Trail. There will be a live discussion in the Cabaret Theatre at 7 p.m. followed by a book signing at 8 p.m. The casino is located at 1 Mohegan Sun Boulevard in Uncasville.