LITERARY TITAN INTERVIEWS JULIETA ABOUT ELEONORA AND JOSEPH AND HER NEXT NOVEL - NOVEMBER 17, 2023
November 16, 2023
Author Interview - Julieta Almeida Rodrigues
Eleonora and Joseph: Passion, Tragedy, and Revolution in the Age of Enlightenment follows an aristocratic woman who becomes an advocate for liberty and plays an important role in forming the Neapolitan Republic. What was the inspiration for the setup of your story?
Good question, thank you! Many years ago, one sunny Saturday morning, I was walking in the streets of Naples and found in the Spanish Quarter a school that bore the name of Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel. I was surprised: this was a Portuguese name, not Italian. I had never heard of Eleonora; she wasn't well known in Portugal as I was growing up. So, I looked up her name. Later, I read The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag; the novel takes place in Naples during the time of Eleonora's life. At the end of the book Sontag has several monologues and one of them is by Eleonora. I enjoyed Sontag's book but didn't like Eleonora's voice: it didn't sound quite right to me. I thought I could do a better job with her literary voice, after all I am Portuguese like Eleonora. I hope I don't sound presumptuous, but this is exactly how I felt. So, I decided to write the novel. It took me years to complete the job.
Your novel is rich with historical details that are not well-known to the average reader. What kind of research did you do for this novel to ensure you captured the essence of the story's theme?
I am a very disciplined person, but writing a historical novel takes a huge amount of work. Huge! I also love history, and so, this combination of discipline and love for a given theme can be quiet rewarding. Moreover, I love the freedom of imagination that fiction allows me. For credibility's sake, a historical novel needs to be both accurate and plausible. These are different issues. Accuracy has to do with knowing the period well enough not to make gross historical mistakes about events, dates and so on. Plausibility is about filling in the historical record in such a way that what we don't know as an historical fact (or event), could indeed have occurred. Good historians share this approach with historical novelists: think of a book like Citizens by Simon Schama, a professor at Columbia University.
Therefore, you look at historical sources and go back and forth all the time about issues. Compare sources. Check again and again, look at information from different angles. Take notes, build private maps of many lives and historical facts. Then you create your own road map. If lucky, you get close to the truth. I wrote close to the truth – not the truth itself. That doesn't exist and historians know this as well as historical novelists. That someone was born in such a such date is just a fact, but the truth of someone's life is something very different. It requires digging up, examining that life in dept, looking at it from many different angles, with vision and perspective.
What was one scene in the novel that you felt captured the morals and message you were trying to deliver to readers?
Another good question! We can't look at the past as if the events we are describing took place at the time we are writing. The past is the past, no way around it.
An example comes to mind, and it has to do with Jefferson's Monticello.
We rightfully condemn slavery today but, as horrible as it was, it was an accepted practice for centuries. I read recently a great book, Wicked Flesh by Jessica Marie Johnson. Descriptions like those of the Middle Passage are gut-wrenching. But the book also shows how people in captivity were also able to take some advantage of the conditions they were in.
I needed to be very thoughtful when describing Joseph Correia da Serra's views of Monticello when he and Jefferson go for walks there. Jefferson was a complex man, full of contradictions. To such an extent that when he died, his family had to sell his slaves to pay a few of his debts. And later, Monticello itself had to be sold, too.
This is, somehow, beyond belief, but it did happen. There were, however, much crueler slave owners in Virginia than Thomas Jefferson. Nevertheless, to say - as I read somewhere - that he raped Sally Hemings for a lifetime is a distortion of their lives. It represents a total lack of understand of the historical period. Slave owners did sleep with slaves, and the practice was much more generalized than one tends to believe. Reproachable? Yes, certainly, and also a crime in Virginia. But Sally Hemings did succeed in having her children freed when they grew up. She wasn't sold either, she lived as a free woman in Charlottesville after Jefferson's death.
So, the difficulty of this kind of analysis is to find the balance of a life, any life. In the past, as much as in the present. One only needs to consider one's own life (one among many other lives, mind you!) to notice the challenges that 'balance' presents.
What is the next book that you are working on, and when will it be available?
I have just returned from Istanbul, where my next novel takes place. It's another historical novel, the set-up is Constantinople in the late 18th century. I had a great time, and a dear Turkish friend helped me enormously, but I am dealing with an artist whose work is far greater than his extant oeuvres. That is not what I was hoping for…
The soul of a place is important, but the way it touches you as an author, that's important too! I still need to figure out how to deal with my, somewhat, disappointment. How can I say this? I wanted a particular 18th-century garden to be still there – but it isn't! Crazy, right? So, this is how it goes: you have to imagine a setting as accurately as you can, if your work is going to be any good. Again, you need to go back to the period you are dealing with and try to figure out how it could have been. I wanted clues to help me along the way with my writing, but I was left with very few, close to none.
I don't really like to discuss what I am writing about; I will present the work when it is finished. Then, as now, Istanbul is a fascinating city, the true meeting of East and West. I love the set-up I chose. The city is grandiose, cosmopolitan, exotic, and adventurous. But I still have a lot of work ahead. If I work consistently, I might have the novel finished within a year.
Literary Titan, thank you so very much for this opportunity.