February 19, 2021
Myfanwy Cook: What inspired you to write the novel Eleonora and Joseph. Passion, Tragedy, and Revolution in the Age of Enlightenment, published July 21, 2020?
Julieta Almeida Rodrigues: This is a question I'll enjoy answering. It is clear we both love the short story and, believe me, it required a leap of faith for me to engage in a new, lengthy project, something that required a new set of literary tools. I recall being in my office in my former Washington, DC, house, and looking out the window toward the backyard with its small wooden gate. How I loved that view, it was the quintessence of domesticity! And I said to myself: I now know I can write short stories, but can I write a novel? And if so, what would the theme be?
The Enlightenment came to mind immediately, my favorite period in history. I wanted the novel embedded in a philosophy of liberty, something that Voltaire so well knew in the eighteenth century. How did exactly philosophes exercised, or used, their free will during this era?
Then, I wanted to pay homage to the three countries I've enjoyed living in the most: Portugal, where I was born; Italy, where I lived for a few years; and the United States, where I attended graduate school and later settled in.
Next, I needed characters in interaction for a plot. I read very selectively, but I also have a wide range of interests. As I looked at that wooden gate in my backyard, suddenly, the biography of Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel came to mind. Why? I don't really know, but that's the way my stream of consciousness worked. I saw her tragic fate against the backdrop of Naples, a city I had often visited during my years in Rome. Then, Joseph Correia da Serra emerged as well—he, too, had spent part of his youth there.
I could now start a story about these two major figures of the Southern European Enlightenment. Their lives were intertwined, but each one of them viewed liberty in a very different way. Next, I needed additional context, I wanted the United States to be part of the novel. So I started reading Correia da Serra's correspondence in America, later in life he moved from Paris to Philadelphia.
This is how Thomas Jefferson, my third character, emerged in the plot. Reading widely stimulates a writer's imagination. Correia da Serra's letters with Thomas Jefferson show they had a close relationship. Their interchanges were illuminating and exciting. So I was hooked: I had not only found my third character, but also a second narrative. Years before, I had visited Monticello and still had vivid memories of a room dedicated to Correia.
Beyond the work of the imagination, writing a historical novel depends on craft: mapping the spirit of an epoch, looking closely at biographical sources, making sure key facts are accurate, filling in the gaps in the historical record with plausible arguments, and getting to know one's characters intimately. As I wrote my dual narrative, Eleonora, Correia, and Jefferson, became a part of me. At the same time, I was transported to a different era.