She writes her books with the carefulness and the patience of a jeweler. She invents fascinating people and stories which remain in her readers’ hearts and minds forever. Shortly after her latest novel The Last Runaway was publishd in Romania, renowned author Tracy Chevalier has offered us an exclusive interview, in which she talks about the torment and the splendour of her vocation.
You once said you set your stories in the past in order “to escape yourself”. What did you mean by that?
Readers often read to escape their daily lives. I read for that, and I write for that too. I don’t want to go over my daily life in words – I want to explore worlds I don’t know. Some writers do that by going to another country, or to the future (science fiction), or to genres (crime); I do it by stepping into the past.
When and where do you like to write?
I write during the day when my son is at school. Sometimes I write in my study, other times at the dining room table if I need to spread out. I have even written on the stairs when the sunlight hits it. I write longhand in a notebook using a blue fountain pen if possible (then type it into the computer), so theoretically I could write anywhere – a cafe like JK Rowling with her first Harry Potter, or on a train or in a park. But I prefer to be home, with the house silent.
Usually I read what I wrote the day before, which jumpstarts me into the new day of writing. I try to write 1000 words a day – about three pages. It doesn’t sound like much, but more than that and I start writing drivel.
Do you write even when you don’t have the proper mood for that?
Yes, I write even when I don’t feel like it. Otherwise I’d never finish a book!
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Would you agree with Ernest Hemingway? How much suffering is there in writing?
I know what he means! It is really hard facing the blank page every day and pulling a new world out of yourself. I know from the outside it must seem like the world’s greatest job, and it is. But it is painful too – you have to set aside your self and your life, focus and get the balance right between telling a story and using the right words to the best effect to tell that story. Hard! I feel like an idiot every day that I write. I thought after writing a few books it would get easier, but if anything each book has gotten harder to write.
When you read your books, what do you criticize yourself for?
I am my worst critic. I constantly question how I have worded something. My sentences are so unimaginative. I pride myself in writing simply and sparely, but sometimes I wish I could come up with fresh, unusual metaphors. Recently I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and on every page there was a treat of a metaphor. It made me want to give up!
Which one of your characters would you consider your most accurate alter-ego?
In each of my books there is a character who has a bit of me in her or him: Griet in Girl with a Pearl Earring, Jem in Burning Bright, Elizabeth Philpot in Remarkable Creatures. The character most accurately like me I suspect is Maude Coleman in Falling Angels: an awkward girl, clever and plain, who loses her mother and has to learn some confidence. Though outwardly I appear confident at public events, I have had to learn how to do that. Underneath it all I am still that awkward girl who feels slightly out-of-step with society.
I read about the moment of inspiration for The Last Runaway – you, trying to make a call on a street in New York and realizing you couldn’t hear a thing because the place was so crowded and noisy. How do you find your silence in this agitated world we’re living in?
I go to Quaker Meeting for Worship on Sundays sometimes. There I sit for an hour in silence, and it is bliss. We also have a cottage in the English countryside, and I love the quiet there. We had friends from New York come to stay and they didn’t sleep well because they said it was TOO quiet – no sirens, no traffic, just birds and a black sky and stars.
On a day-to-day basis, I have tried to stop talking so much. I cut short what I’m saying (often in conversation we just repeat ourselves anyway), and think before speaking, wondering if silence might be as effective a response sometimes. (It is – try it, it really surprised people when you don’t speak!)
There is something really beautiful in The Last Runaway regarding the Quakers’ beliefs. In her childhood, Honor has been taught that “everyone has a measure of the Light in them, and though the amount can vary, all must try to live up to their measure”. When did you feel you found your own measure of Light in life?
I am still looking for it! Sometimes I think I’ve found it, then I have a bad day and hate people and feel it’s gone. It’s a constant struggle.
I know that for every novel you write, your research includes classes in the domain you are writing about. For The Last Runaway you decided to take a quilting class. What did quilting teach you about yourself?
Quilting is a way of reaching that silence inside. I love it because it gives me a way to express myself nonverbally. Most of my life involves words – reading, writing, speaking – and it is wonderful to find a way to a place where I don’t have to think with words. Doing it reminds me that I really need that to be a balanced person.
Does making a quilt resemble to writing a novel in any way?
Yes, making a quilt does resemble writing a novel. I think the art of creation is similar whatever you’re making. Sometimes when I’m working on a quilt it reminds me of when I’m writing: that focus on one small thing (a few stitches, a piece of fabric) while trying to keep in mind how it fits into the whole. I do the same thing when I’m writing a sentence – just one sentence in among the thousands of sentences that make up a novel, yet it is important to get it right.
How do you see your novel Girl With A Pearl Earring today?
I feel incredibly lucky to have written Girl with a Pearl Earring. If that’s the book I will probably always be known by, then I’m lucky to have it be about a subject I still feel passionate about. I still love Vermeer’s paintings, and I still look at the painting of Girl with a Pearl Earring every day (a copy of it hangs in my office) and find it surprising and mysterious.
What has this book brought to you? And what has it taken away from you?
The book (and the film) have brought me a readership, for which I am so grateful. It has also put a lot of pressure on me to produce, and that can be hard. Just today I got an email from a fan who said, “Loved The Last Runaway. Where’s the next one? Write faster!” I feel like I just finished that book!
What is your next book going to be about?
I’m working on a novel about immigration between the UK and the US, and how people brought trees with them back and forth. I once described trying to make fossils sexy in Remarkable Creatures. I want to do the same for trees in this next book.
What are your daily pleasures?
Coffee, silence, green. Also good television – The Killing, The Bridge, Breaking Bad, Mad Men. This is a golden age for television.
IF YOU LIKED THIS INTERVIEW, PLEASE CONSIDER MAKING A DONATION
Special thanks to Mrs.Eva Papastratis/Curtis Brown.
FOTO: SVEN ARNSTEINSemnat de Corina Stoica