SHORT STORY AUTHOR AND NOVELIST
AUTHOR GAIL SPILSBURY INTERVIEWS JULIETA
IT'S ALL ABOUT ARTS MAGAZINE
Issue 28 • June 2020 • Facebook.com/TalkArts IT'S ALL ABOUT ARTS
A Portuguese Novelist Who Writes in English
Portuguese author Julieta Almeida Rodrigues wrote her new historical novel Eleonora and Joseph: Passion, Tragedy, and Revolution in the Age of Enlightenment in English. Gail Spilsbury interviews Rodrigues on the years it took to research and write the book—on both sides of the Atlantic.
GS: Given that your previous books of short fiction are contemporary, what inspired you to write a historical novel, and how was that process different for you?
JR: I feel I had to get a few things out of the way, so to speak, before I was able to write a novel. I needed to write my short stories about Soviet Russia, a period in history we will never see again. I left the Soviet Union in 1986 with my ex-husband, a diplomat, after nearly three years in the country. Afterward, in Lisbon, where I'm from, I almost threw out the nine hundred pages of notes I had jotted down while there. In retrospective, I'm very happy I didn't do that. These Russian stories, titled On the Way to Red Square (2006), are both personal and societal. I have a doctorate in sociology and education from Columbia University, and I always look at reality from the viewpoint of sociology.
A few years after my Russian stories, I wanted to better understand Portugal, the country where I was born, raised, and primarily educated. Catholic countries tend to be hypocritical, and I wanted to leave behind a testimony of that hypocrisy. This led to my second volume of stories, The Rogue and Other Portuguese Stories (2014).
Ideas are like cherries in a bowl, and before I finished writing the Portuguese stories, I was reading Peter Gray's The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. I kept thinking: Gee, this is powerful. Gray's book convinced me that the Enlightenment was the most fascinating period in human history. I felt inspired to write something with that period as the backdrop. Thus, my new book, Eleanora and Joseph, gave me the opportunity to learn something that truly enthralled me.
The decision was the easy part. The work that lay ahead was immense. I wanted to address a period that fascinated me, but of which I knew very little. So, I read for years. The reading brought me to the American Founding Fathers and the French Revolution. In 2013, I attended a conference at the Chawton House Library in the United Kingdom, titled Women's Writing in the Long Eighteenth Century, which included a focus group on female biography as a feminist praxis. By then I had already chosen the two protagonists for my novel, prominent Portuguese figures in the Southern European Enlightenment—Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel and Abbé Joseph Correia da Serra. A lot is known about the Northern European Enlightenment but less about its southern side. At the conference, I spoke about Eleonora and her contribution to the revolutionary newspaper Il Monitore Napoletano. As a result, I was invited to be a visiting scholar at the New School in New York, not just once, but twice.
My time in New York was invaluable, for I was able to explore my character Correia's long-term friendship with Thomas Jefferson. The prolific correspondence between the two men has been published, and Jefferson became my third main character. I also joined a group of writers who belonged to the Historical Novel Society, and soon after we began opening our meetings to professionals helpful to our goals—literary agents, editors, publishers, copyright attorneys, and so forth. In New York, during the academic year, I found a stimulating environment where I could write without pause. In the summers, I went home to Portugal and continued working. In many ways, I feel a traitor to my calling, the short story, for it has always been my preferred literary genre. It is, for me, the filet mignon of literature; there is nothing like a Chekhov or a Flannery O'Connor story. However, undertaking the novel, I felt curious to explore my mind in another way—leap into the adventure of something bigger, larger than how I had expressed myself up until then.
GS: Why did you write the book (and your short stories) in English?
JR: I started writing in English when I was a PhD student at Columbia. I already knew the language from my schooling in Portugal. Later, I married an American diplomat and we spoke English at home. At our postings in foreign countries, we attended many diplomatic events, and I got to meet people from those cultures and learn about their country—an amazing opportunity, and also an opening up of my own interior world. Generally, I was living in an English-speaking environment, and English became the language with which I felt most comfortable. I also had a son, whose first language was English.
It would have been impossible for me to do the writing I've done the past decades had I remained in Lisbon. I was a university professor there, after my PhD and before my marriage. I enjoyed teaching and the dialogues with students, but the career is demanding and leaves little free time for one's imagination. One of the things I love about writing full-time is the freedom of my working day. The mind needs that space for the creativity that goes into writing books.
One of the reasons why writing in English has been so much fun for me, is the possibility of reinventing myself, an idea at the core of Jefferson's "American Society," albeit more difficult to achieve today than before. For someone who writes in a non-native language, an excellent editor is a requisite. Such an editor understands, at a profound level, what the writer means when, perhaps, a word choice or a phrase isn't how the native speaker would express it. Such an editor is also a translator—a translator of intention.
We will see what the future brings. I am toying with the idea of writing my next project in Portuguese. I have an idea for a book that again deals with the Enlightenment—a particular historical event in Portugal that has been told many times over, but in a misleading way. I would like to set the record straight, and sometimes fiction does that better than history. Think of Barbara Chase-Riboud's novel, Sally Hemings. She explores here in the most conclusive manner how Sally Hemings was Thomas Jefferson's mistress, with whom he had several children (the book came out much earlier than the DNA proof about her youngest son). In her afterword to the book, in the anniversary edition, we read how those in charge of a person's legacy—in Chase-Riboud's case Jefferson's—try to damage your reputation if you dare to contradict the established historical record.
If I write this new book, I'd like to use Agatha Christie's approach in Murder on the Orient Express. I want to use several voices recounting the same historical event. This technique will lead to a single possible conclusion: the established truth is highly questionable. As a consequence, the current historical record will, most certainly, be revised once and for all.
GS: What was the best part of writing Eleanora and Joseph for you? And the worst?
JR: The best part of writing the book, as any writer will tell you, is the writing itself. The freedom the process gives you, and living in the imagined realm. My first moments of writing a new book are moments of elation. After this initial period, much of writing is a process of rewriting, which requires a lot of patience.
The most difficult part of writing this book was to integrate the story within the history. I had an original idea, a plot, characters, and settings both in Europe and America. But the history was always taking precedence over the story. I needed to figure out how to tell the story in view of all the research I had done. One day, during a discussion of my book in my New York writing group, one of my colleagues said he had counted more than twelve historical figures in one single chapter. We all had a good laugh, myself included. It took me a while to figure out the process, which was to tell the story but with the history as the background. My next historical novel is going to be much easier to write.
GS: You also came up with great literary devices for this particular tale—one of them reminded me of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and how discovering a relic from someone's past (Hester's red letter) led to uncovering the story. During the five or six years you worked on the book, did anything change for you, such as your stroke of genius inventing Pimentel's memoir, which turns up in Jefferson's library, igniting the story?
JR: A lot changed for me. Writing gave me a great deal of self-knowledge. How else to describe this? You write, ultimately, to get to know your characters, and along the way, through them, you learn about yourself in a myriad of ways. There are also interesting surprises that come up. My novel is at the intersection of narrative, memoir, and biography. By the time I finished writing the book, the figure I enjoyed most was Thomas Jefferson, his complexities and genius. He was flawed, like any human being, but he was also a remarkable man. His Declaration of Independence shaped America, and the world, in a way that only a few people in history have done. I loved the aspect of his character that masters his own silences. He strikes me as a man full of contradictions—someone called him a sphinx—with a brilliant, visionary mind.
All along, I also knew that Pimentel had been a remarkable woman. She's a tragic character, but stands as an example of the best virtues the eighteenth century cultivated. As we read her memoir, the fictional memoir I created for her, we see how she was true to herself, to her principles, and to her revolutionary ideas. Whether or not she was a feminist is not the issue in this book. Feminism is a twentieth-century concept, and she lived two centuries earlier. Surprisingly, I didn't like Correia da Serra as much as I had anticipated. This was somewhat disappointing, because he is revered in Portuguese-American circles. He was not only a distinguished botanist, but also a close friend of Jefferson. Not many Portuguese can claim such an illustrious friendship across the Atlantic Ocean. As I went along in my research, I found Correia's character so devious and deceitful that, at times, I was embarrassed for him. Being Portuguese, I knew where he was coming from, but that didn't excuse him. He was also a priest, and this might have had a bearing on my interpretation of his life.
As for my literary devices—the discovery of Pimentel's memoir that gives rise to alternating chapters for the two protagonists in their own voices—it was the writing itself, not the research, that decided this approach. The material I had collected needed to be there, but in the background, not the foreground. I struggled with this issue, but eventually realized that alternating the chapters between Pimentel and Correia was the way I could best present the plot. A book, a good book, is a coherent whole, and I needed to find a way to have a present and a past in this historical novel. Thus, the double narrative served the plot's purpose. Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel is telling her story in the form of a memoir at the end of her life. She's in prison, facing probable execution, and decides to reflect on what turned her into a revolutionary. She had to go back in time in order to do this, starting with the memory of attending the funeral of Correia's mother in Naples. This encounter establishes the first link between the characters and their separate narratives. I then had to find a way to contrast her life with Correia's. In my story, the dialogues between Correia and Thomas Jefferson embody the present time. Here, my question was: What happens to Correia da Serra with the passage of time? He becomes more conservative, so I had to find a way to show this. I chose his dialogues with Jefferson, as they discuss Pimentel together, to elucidate this point. As Correia and Jefferson always meet in Monticello, I used Correia's views on slavery and his position as the ambassador from the Kingdom of Portugal and Brazil to monitor his intellectual development. The fun part of the book was to have several events told from either Pimentel or Correia's point of view. It is just like our own lives—few people share the same recollection of an event.
I loved writing those scenes from different viewpoints. It was like examining a life that had been lived twice. This is why I say that writing is all about self-knowledge. You use characters to debate the ideas that are in your mind. The challenge is to make the debates real, plausible. If you succeed, the book will be a success. I tried to stick to the history as closely as I found it. But this is, somehow, a detail, and the reason I chose not to include a bibliography in the novel. The best history, as much as the best literature, uses the imagination. Just think of a history book like Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama. It is much more then a collection of facts and historical events. It's an interpretation that, even if faulty, clarifies reality.
GS: At what age did you start writing stories, and who have been your mentors along the way—living or through literature?
JR: I wish I could tell you I started constructing stories in my mind at the age of five! No, it wasn't this way. I lived a life, and then I started writing. I loved reading as a child, and my father had a great library that I devoured. But I never envisioned becoming a writer, until the day I sat at my desk and filled pages. I like to use a computer, and the way I can move around a line, a sentence, or a paragraph. They say "cancer is a turning point." In my early forties, I had cancer, as well as a small son. I didn't want to die, and I knew that I needed to consider what I wanted to do next in order to build a purposeful life. I wanted to find something new, engaging, and fullfilling. And I realized that my two greatest needs were easily achieved and equally precious to me: one was silence and the other was having solitude. Virginia Wolf, of course, knew all about this. I found friends with similar interests to mine. These friends had authenticity, cultivated the truths that escape most human beings, and had the courage to think outside of the box. Writing is a lonely road and a most treasured road! It fulfills the soul.
For more information about Eleonora and Joseph: Passion, Tragedy, and Revolution in the Age of Enlightenment visit the author's website, julietaalmeidarodriguesauthor.com, or New Academia Publishing, http://www.newacademia.com.
FROM AUTHOR LORETTA GOLDBERG'S BLOG
LORETTA INTERVIEWS JULIETA
JUNE 23, 2020
Julieta Almeida Rodrigues talks about her new novel: Eleonora and Joseph. Passion, Tragedy, and Revolution in the Age of Enlightenment.
LG: What a thrill to see Eleonora and Joseph about to be published, and with such an inspiring cover! A bit about your background for my readers and friends who don't know you: you bring extraordinary personal experience to this novel. You depict intriguing historical characters of the Enlightenment in Southern Europe. You came of age during Portugal's 1970's revolution/democratization period and, later, lived in the Soviet Union as the wife of an American diplomat. In addition, your PhD from Columbia University is in sociology and education. So, let's talk.
JR: With pleasure!
LG: Your two characters, Eleonora and Joseph, have taken different paths, although they have read the same philosophes and are both Masons. Eleonora was an active revolutionary, tolerant of violence in the end, not only by the Portuguese Prime-Minister, the Marquis de Pombal, but also by the French entering Naples in 1799; while Joseph is a compromiser, functioning within the institutions whose corruptions and cruelties triggered revolution in the first place.
What are your personal feelings about revolutionary violence in relation to your characters, and the social transitions you yourself witnessed?
JR: In the twenty-first century we are repulsed by violence in the West, and most of us are proud that so many countries have abolished capital punishment. In the circles I move in, liberal, we are for the rule of law. These are evolving processes and parliaments take care of them. In Portugal, the population is proud that when on April 25, 1974, the April Captains abolished the Salazar regime—thus ending half a century of a dictatorship—only one person died, and that was by accident.
I am aware that previous historical moments required, or demanded, different outcomes. But I am not for violence of any kind, either domestic or of a public nature. I am horrified, like so many others, to hear about the viciousness that took place either in Brazil or the United States during the time of colonization and slavery. The killing of native populations was equally despicable. This savagery was both physical and mental, and I am not quite sure which one was worse.
A difficulty in answering your question has to do, in my view, with the bloodshed of the French Revolution, which I mention several times in my novel. Could the liberalization of the West have taken place without it? I sincerely doubt it. Also, could the Civil War in America be won without bloodshed? I doubt it. So, processes that we condemn these days, might have a justification in light of the political and social conquests of the past. Eleonora, my heroine, knew this. Thomas Jefferson, another one of my characters, knew this as well; he thought bloodshed was justifiable, at least at the beginning of the French Revolution.
Were the French Revolution—or the Civil War in America—world events that made the world a better place? Undoubtedly. So the best we can do nowadays is to pay homage to historical events whose magnitude changed the face of the earth and consider that the humanistic advances we take for granted are themselves the fruits of the cruel loss of human life.
Joseph Correia da Serra, as time went on, became more and more conservative. To serve King D. João VI as the ambassador from the Kingdom of Portugal and Brazil meant being in agreement with the Kingdom's repressive policies. My book describes his way of thinking over time. But Correia's life had been a compromise all along. Maybe to behave differently, and have the life style he craved, he would have needed to be born into an aristocratic family, or a bourgeois family with money.
Ah, the advantages of the evil metal to do as one pleases—then as much as now!
LG: In your years of research you must have come across events or vignettes you were aching to put in the novel, but omitted for reasons of flow or structure. Does one particular omission grieve you most?
JR: Oh, yes! This is a great question. I was fascinated by the love affair between Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton. Here is a former prostitute by the name of Emma Hart whose current lover, Charles Greville, decides to pass her on—like a commodity—to his uncle who happens to be the English envoy to the Kingdom of Naples. Apparently Hamilton had enjoyed Emma's company when the three had briefly met in London. Assured now that the widowed, childless, and old uncle will leave his fortune to him, Greville needs to find a suitable wife. So he dispatches Emma to Naples—accompanied by her mother—to entertain his uncle. Emma doesn't understand what is going on, and writes constantly to Greville begging to be back with him. Until, a few months later, Greville confesses there is no return ticket. Emma is devastated.
In between, Lord Hamilton enjoys Emma's company; it seems Emma is just one additional lovely piece to his art collection. Breaking diplomatic protocol, he brings her to the Royal Palace every time he is invited by Ferdinando and Carolina, the Bourbon monarchs. Emma is not only young and attractive; she is also smart and accommodating. After a while, she figures out she had better, for her own good, start to enjoy her new life.
Then the naval Hero of the Nile, Lord Nelson, enters the scene. After being wounded in battle, he recovers in Villa Sesso, the ambassador's residence, under the assiduous vigilance of the now married Lady Hamilton. The two fall madly in love. Great passion ensues, their actions and letters the living proof. Since these two are vile creatures, and for different reasons, it was fascinating to me to feel their palpable love and devotion. That Lady Hamilton dies penniless in Calais, France, forced to flee from England due to her debts and having never told Horatia that she is her mother (the girl knows only she is Nelson's child, in Emma's custody now), seems a fitting end to this deplorable character. As I show in Eleonora and Joseph, the close friendship between Emma and Queen Carolina plays a prominent role in Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel's demise and eventual execution.
At present, Lord Nelson's statue stands in Trafalgar Square, testimony of his supposedly naval greatness. Yes, he did win the Battle of the Nile in Aboukir Bay in Egypt against France, giving Britain control of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea and an easier access to its empire in the East. But if you know a bit of the history of Naples in 1799, you find out that Horacio Nelson was responsible for the death of most of the Neapolitan Jacobins, shortly after Cardinal Ruffo retook the city for King Ferdinando. Nelson believed in the divine right of kings. Suffice is to read Captain Edward James Foote's account of events—Nelson entrusted in Foote the British signing of the Jacobin capitulation, and there were several other nations present—or the accounts of the parliamentarian Charles James Fox to realize Nelson's atrocities in Naples in 1799. Nelson was a war criminal.
So the love affair between such vile people is like a beam of light that one seems unable to remove from before one's eyes, despite their sordid malignancy towards the world they inhabited. If the topic hadn't already been exhausted, I would be tempted to take it on.
LG: What did your working day look like? Where did you work?
JR: I was glued to my desk. I got up, had breakfast, started writing, and wrote for years without stop. As all writers know, writing is rewriting. It felt like I was ploughing a piece of land. I say this because nature remains, maybe, the greatest source of inspiration to me. My ambiance, my décor, is totally relevant to my ability to work.
When I wrote the dialogues between Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Correia da Serra that I placed in Monticello, I would go back, sometimes, to the diplomatic receptions I had attended in the past. These were great ways to get to know the world of ideas, different cultures, and, ultimately, the intricacies of character. In a particular country, I would meet the same people many times over—officials high and low in the state apparatus, politicians in vogue at the moment, and housewives, women who, like me, had plenty of free time on their hands. So I would observe and engage with them. As I wrote those scenes, I might recall a conversation from my past, like in a movie.
As to Eleonora and her memoir written from prison shortly before her execution, I had to get into a "prison of the mind" state of being. Somehow, I found this easy to do, and I still do not know exactly why. Perhaps it relates to my having been brought up in a confining nun's school in Lisbon. I feel very sensitive to the line drawn between close-mindedness and freedom of expression.
Then, once in a while I would need a break to recharge energies. Many times I went to a library and got lost in books. I read selectively, always with a view to what I am writing. I remember one time in Bobst Library at New York University. I was on the second floor, reading something by Hillary Mantel, an autobiographical piece about her adolescence. It was brilliant, so brilliant that it took my breath away in several places. The library faces Washington Square, has comfortable armchairs, and I always turned to face the view. The area has a fairy-tale quality, the way the flowerbeds are set up in harmony with the gorgeous antique lamps, and the busy pedestrians traffic. It was a late evening in the winter and the lamps were already lit. I raised my eyes and suddenly noticed it had started to snow. I remember thinking that a break from writing doesn't get any better, ever.
In Butler Library at Columbia University, where I did my graduate studies, I usually went to the same spot every time. I am not going to describe its precise location because I would literally hide there, and I would like to continue thinking of it as my own private space. The tiny area has a view to the floor below where students are reading or writing. It's a sort of balcony, with a rail, and has a large semicircular window. I usually brought my lunch with me and stayed there for eight to ten hours in a row. When I left, the feeling was always the same: I could see the material I would examine the following day, the field I would be ploughing.
LG: What lies ahead, what's your next project?
JR: I have written several books in English in the past, and I might want to explore my writing in Portuguese now. This will be a more or less permanent return to my roots. I have a theme I would like to explore, an historical event in Portugal that I would like to recount using different voices from the past.
There is a lot to explore in Lisbon, a city I have not lived in for decades. I would also like to know better my colleagues at the Center for Lusophone and European Literatures and Cultures, at the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Lisbon. I am a member, and I would like to participate more often in their activities. The University of Lisbon has a great English Studies department, and I would love to offer my contribution to its Institute of American Culture (ICA). The institute has majors and minors in North American Studies, and some of the professors have taught at Georgetown University, as I did in the past. This institute does a great job in bringing together writers, artists, and university professors from the United States.
As always, I'm excited for my next adventures.