Carole DeSanti, v-p and editor-at-large for the Penguin Group, is well-known as a champion for women’s voices in literature, having worked with Terry McMillan, Tracy Chevalier, Marisha Pessl, and many others over the years.

“The fact that she’s done such a great job for all these other writers makes it all the better that she’s been secretly writing this book the whole time,” says Adrienne Brodeur, consulting editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who acquired DeSanti’s The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. from Robin Straus of the Robin Straus Agency.

The novel follows young Eugénie’s struggles with life and love through an absinthe-soaked Second Empire transformed by social upheaval. DeSanti first became interested in the historical milieu of the novel’s setting—1860s and ’70s France—two decades ago, collecting materials with no particular goal.

In 1999, she took a leave of absence from Penguin and applied for a fellowship at the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center to do more research. “I had heard a sentence from this voice: ‘How does a woman learn to doubt herself?’ I kept getting a feeling from her,” DeSanti says. So for several years she worked on the story on weekends and vacations, eventually taking another leave.

She laughs at the description of her writing process as clandestine, but says it applies to how she had to change her thinking. Says the author, “I had to learn to not have business ideas about what works in the marketplace, the credos we think we have to live by, so I could write.”