Last week I went up to London to interview international bestselling author Tracy Chevalier as part of the Romantic Novelists’ Association 60th anniversary celebrations. A number of people who weren’t able to get to the talk were interested in hearing about it, so I thought I would report back on it here as Tracy had so many fascinating things to say about books, reading, writing and art.
Tracy Chevalier was born in Washington DC, the daughter of is best known for the book Girl with a Pearl Earring, which was made into a film in 2003. It’s based on the famous artwork of the same name by Dutch artist Vermeer, which hangs in the Mauritshuis in the Hague in Holland. As so much of Tracy’s writing life has been defined by art, we decided to base the interview around eight pieces of art or crafts that she chose to represent various aspects of her life, rather as Desert Island Discs does with music, and it proved to be a very interesting way to structure an interview.
Before we started, I asked Tracy about her well-known refusal to be pigeon-holed as a historical author and whether in an age when publishers and booksellers like to be able to pin authors to a particular genre, this had caused any problems. She felt that this had originally sprung from the desire not to be defined too tightly as writing one thing or another in case it restricted her. She did admit that all of her books had a historical element to them and said that these days she was a lot more relaxed about being described as a historical novelist. We talked a bit about how certain genre had a certain image and how difficult it was to change people’s often-biased views of historical fiction or romance. With regard to romantic elements in her writing, Tracy said that it wasn’t essential for her books to include a romantic relationship but that for her, all writing is about the relationships between the characters and how they learn and grow. In the end it’s all about storytelling: “Our DNA is wired for us to tell ourselves stories all the time, to make sense of the world and bring order.” She also commented that her books are so often about strong female characters who might be at odds with society and need to find their own path. Although these are often in a historical setting, there is a very strong resonance with women today.
Tracy’s first novel was the dual time book The Virgin Blue, which was based on her own family genealogy and was set in the present and 16th century France. As an author of dual time fiction, I was curious to find out whether she had enjoyed structuring a book that way and if she had any tips for authors! Like so many other authors she said that she had found it very complicated weaving the two stories together and that the main problem with dual-time fiction was that so often readers preferred one of the storylines to the other, whether it was the modern or the historical story. I have to say I completely agree with this and it’s something I wrestle with too!
It was Girl with a Pearl Earring that made Tracy famous and she said that when the book came out, she had no idea that it was going to strike a chord with so many people or become so popular. It was incredibly exciting seeing it turned into a film but the increase in fame also brings with it different issues. When she wrote her next book, half of the reviews grumbled that she hadn’t written about another painting! Others said that the next book wasn’t as good; ignoring negative feedback is something all authors have to do sometimes if they want to follow their own path.
It isn’t just art that inspires Tracy’s books. She also has a great interest in other crafts such as tapestry weaving, quilting and sewing. She’s known to research her books with hands-on experiences; when she was writing Remarkable Creatures, based on the story of Mary Anning, the early 19th century fossil-hunter, she went to Dorset to spend some time fossil-hunting on the beaches so that she understood the process and the experience of it. With The Last Runaway, where her heroine is a quilter, she too learned to quilt and it has become a real passion for her. She used a picture of the Gees Bend Quilt to illustrate this part of the talk and took us through the fascinating history of these quilts and the process of how they are made.
Tracy’s latest novel, A Single Thread, is her “cathedral book” she said. We were given an insight into the process by which she decides on a shape and subject for her novels. She wanted to write about a cathedral, but there are so many beautiful ones that she was spoilt for choice. She chose Winchester because it had such a rich history and thought she was going to write a book set during the English Civil War when parliamentarian troops threw the bones of kings and queens of England through the stained-glass windows, smashing them. Instead the story that grabbed her was of the women who embroidered cushions and kneelers in the cathedral in the early 20th century. Her heroine, Violet, is one of the “surplus women” who are single as a result of a shortage of men after the war, and is in need of carving out an independent life. It’s a quirky and fascinating bit of social history wrapped up in a story about women, friendships, embroidery and bell-ringing!
Tracy left us with the thought “Write about what interests you rather than what you know” as well as many other insights into her writing habits, process and inspirations. It was a thoroughly absorbing afternoon and a pleasure to interview her. The “desert island art” idea in particular was a lot of fun, though we should have asked her what luxury item she would have taken with her as well!
If you had to choose one picture of any sort, painting, photograph or piece of craft work, to tell the story of your life, which one would you pick? I'm still trying to decide what I'd choose for mine…