Q&A With Jennifer Cody Epstein

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Q&A With Jennifer Cody Epstein 

To start off this week is my latest Q&A with bestselling author of historical fiction Jennifer Cody Epstein. Jennifer is the author of Wunderland, The Painter from Shanghai, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment & her current novel The Madwomen Of Paris. 


Q: Would you like to tell the readers of the blog and I a little bit about The Madwomen of Paris? 


A: Sure! The Madwomen of Paris is a Gothic tale of hysteria, hypnosis, and theatrical spectacle set at the 19th century Salpêtrière asylum in Paris, at a time when hysteria was considered a true epidemic, affecting as many as one in five women. In the book—as in real life—the asylum was headed by Jean-Martin Charcot, today considered the father of modern neurology. Charcot’s real claim to fame is his brilliant early insights into Parkinson’s disease and ALS. But by the late 1800’s he decided to demystify hysteria as well, and used the Salpêtrière’s overflowing hysteria ward as his personal laboratory. He also used hypnosis as one of his central tools, regularly putting hysterics into trances in order to prompt and study their symptoms, and parading them in front rapt Parisian audiences in medical lectures. 

The Madwomen of Paris focuses on two women struggling to survive in  this strange universe. One is Josephine, a young girl who is dragged into the asylum covered in blood, but has no memory of her life before that. The other is Laure, an asylum worker who befriends Josephine and tries to protect her from the dangers of the asylum. Thanks in part to Laure (but also because of her striking beauty, susceptibility to hypnosis and intriguing  hysterical symptoms like vivid hallucinations, alternate personalities and even something like telepathy) Josephine quickly becomes the star of Charcot’s lecture stage. But she also begins to have memories of a horrific crime she thinks she’s committed—one that could, if true, send her to the guillotine. Josephine and Laure join forces to solve this mystery, and ultimately try to escape the asylum itself together—with shockingly unexpected consequences. 

 Q: I enjoy reading history, especially historical fiction. What do you enjoy the most about writing in this genre?

A: For me, it’s a kind an ideal trifecta: I love writing. I love exploring places that aren’t familiar to me. And I love losing myself in research. Before I began writing novels for a living (well, sort of a living) I was a journalist, and spent about five years reporting overseas. I started in Tokyo working for Knight-Ridder’s financial news wire, which made people who knew me laugh since I didn’t know anything about finance. But I’d been an Asian Studies major in college, had lived in Kyoto for two years by that point and  spoke Japanese fairly decently, so had enough tools to land the job From there I went on to The Wall Street Journal in Tokyo then NBC’s short-lived startup in Hong Kong, and they were all exhilarating experiences; I really loved writing stories about things I had to learn about to understand—whether they involved international finance, Japanese lifestyle trends or Vietnamese refugees trapped in Hong Kong refugee camps. 

Ultimately, though, I’d always known I wanted to write fiction, and so left NBC in 2000 to get my MFA at Columbia. I didn’t initially think I’d be writing historical fiction. But—somewhat unexpectedly—I discovered that it offers the same thrilling combination of research, writing and continual learning that journalism does. I also love the process—as challenging as it often is—of fitting together fact and fiction in a way that can give readers a more vibrant and sensory way to experience the past than they might have reading, say, a nonfiction book. It’s like working on a puzzle, which is fun in and of it. But when you get it right, it’s almost like travelling in time.  

Q: What is the research process like when writing your historical fiction books? How do you choose a topic?

A: It’s varies from book to book. I start by reading pretty much everything I can get my hands on and highlighting/underlining extensively, and finding people to interview who might have helpful perspectives, experiences or expertise in the subjects I’m working on. I’ll also do physical research; for The Painter from Shanghai (about the Chinese painter Pan Yuliang, who was sold into a brothel as a child but ended up painting the most extraordinary post-Impressionist art) I took a couple of oil painting classes, and had friends in both Paris and Shanghai scouring the streets of those cities and taking pictures for me. For The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, which is about the Tokyo firebombing, I got access to an actual B-25 bomber plane and climbed around in it (I was also offered a ride in one, but that struck me as a little risky!). 

Once I’ve done all of this I put everything I think I’ll need into note form on the computer. Then—and I realize this is super old-school— I print those notes out and put them on index cards, which I order by subject or character. For Madwomen, for instance, I had stacks of cards for each of the book’s characters, and then another stack for details about Paris as a city, and another for life in the asylum. As I’m writing, I draw on these to add detail and dimension. Of course, I’m continually finding new things that I need to research as I’m writing, and so will also be looking those up as I go. 

In terms of topic—that’s a little more intuitive. Most of the time, in fact, it almost feels as though the topics find me; like when I was wandering around the Guggenheim and found one of Pan’s paintings and a brief summary of her extraordinary life—both of which completely riveted me. Similarly, with Madwomen I stumbled on a bizarre but fascinating photograph of one of Charcot’s “celebrity” hysterics, Augustine Gleizes. At first I had no idea what was going on with the image. Once I began researching it, though, I knew that this was a world I really wanted to explore in a novel.  

Q: What is the topic of your next novel, if you are allowed to reveal any details?

A: It’s still in its very early, very vague stages. As of now, though, I’m thinking it will be set in more recent history than my others; probably in the 1960’s. And it will involve adoption, a topic that I’ve got a personal interest in since I’m actually adopted myself. 

Q: Where is your favorite spot to plot, write, research and edit your work?

A: Anywhere that’s relatively quiet and free from the distractions of home! Over the years I’ve worked in a lot of different places; in dedicated writers’ spaces in Brooklyn (which sadly, are becoming rarer since most writers can’t afford to live here anymore); in the apartments or vacation homes of generous friends, and on writing retreats. Two of my favorite places were at residencies; there was a caretaker’s cottage at the Catwalk Art Institute in Catskill, New York that I loved, and a studio I was assigned on a Virginia Center for the Creative Arts residency in Amherst, Virginia. The latter was filled with light. and looked out on a very green expanse of farm that had so much life in it; there was a groundhog who visited several times a day, and a bunch of red-tailed hawks. That was amazing. 

Q: Does Hollywood have the rights to your work? The entertainment industry is in desperate need of original content again. 

A: They do not as of yet—historical fiction can be a tough sell, since it’s expensive to make. Hopefully, though, The Madwomen of Paris will seem like a better bet for producers. For one thing, it’s all set more or less in one location, and wouldn’t require many fancy costumes since most of the characters are in uniform most of the time. Plus, it has two pretty amazing strong female roles. So here’s hoping ☺