A historical novelist in a historical city

‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’ author Tracy Chevalier talks to ‘The Jerusalem Post’ about social mobility, feminism – and writing about the past, of course.

Tracy Chevalier 521 (photo credit: Jonathan Drori)
Tracy Chevalier 521
(photo credit: Jonathan Drori)
History is just a story, Ms. Chevalier. Discuss.
“Well, I think history itself is just this amorphous blob of information, and in order for humans to be able to take it in, we have to be able to fashion it into a beginning, middle and end. So we make stories of our lives as we go along.”
Mid-morning, Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem.
There’s something unfair in obliging Tracy Chevalier, historical novelist, to pass up a tour of the Old City to talk about... well, history. But she’s up to the task.
“We construct narratives of everyday life in order to give it some sort of shape and meaning, so we can make sense of it. And we do this on a much larger scale with history because it’s this...”
she makes an aptly expressive sound, similar to a wet splat on concrete. “And we have to find a way into the past somehow.”
Tracy Chevalier’s route into the past comes from exploring the personal perspective; crafting stories that provide the lever for her readers to prise apart the contradictions of history. It is a style that has served her well: from 1997’s The Virgin Blue to 2009’s Remarkable Creatures, the underpinning characteristic of Chevalier’s popular fiction are characters straining against the restrictions of their social milieu.
“I like to write about people who change,” she says.
“And this usually means that I’m choosing [to write] about somebody who is unhappy in their current circumstances... it’s got to be someone who is pushing against the boundaries of their life.”
Chevalier – in Israel this week, a guest of the International Writers’ Festival in Jerusalem – is most commonly described as a historical novelist, so it’s something of a surprise to learn that she only discovered her metier in the form by chance, more or less – and that indeed, for a while she actually had very little interest in history itself.
“I wasn’t particularly interested in history until I was about 30,” she explains. “I was more interested in the here and now and the future: what am I going to do in the future, and what am I doing now.”
Chevalier was born in Washington, DC, in 1962. She describes herself as having been a bookish child, writing on her website that “As a kid, I often said that I wanted to be a writer because I loved books and wanted to be associated with them.”
She studied English at Oberlin, a liberal arts college in Ohio, and after graduation moved to England, intending to stay for six months. Nearly 30 years later, she’s still there. She wrote occasionally, mainly short stories, through her first few years in London.
But after working for a number of years as a reference book editor she took the plunge, taking up a place in 1993 at the prestigious creative writing MA at the University of East Anglia.
“For the first time in my life I was expected to write every day, and I found that I liked it,” she says.
After graduation, she continued work on what became her first novel; and through this, she began to develop the sense of what she enjoyed most in writing.
The Virgin Blue is half contemporary and half historical. When I wrote it, I originally meant for the history to be just a tiny bit of it. But I discovered that I liked the challenge of creating a world out of nothing, out of something I didn’t know at all.”
WRITING ABOUT the past brought out the best in her as writer, Chevalier thinks.
“Writing about contemporary life, you get very lazy as a writer. If you’re describing a living room, you could just describe your living room or a friend’s living room or all the living rooms you’ve seen,” but history demands a deeper commitment. “You actually have to read about it and think about it.
What did they sit on? What did they eat? What time did they eat? What time did they go to bed, how did they light their houses, what was their personal space like? All of those questions. Things most people don’t know anything about. And it forced me not to be so sloppy.”
The Virgin Blue, which chronicles the stories of two women born four centuries apart but linked by mysterious family parallels, was a modest success. Her second novel, Girl With a Pearl Earring – inspired by the enigmatic subject of the eponymous Vermeer painting – pushed her into the spotlight.
Published in 1999, it has since sold four million copies and was adapted into an Oscarnominated film starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson. It was followed by Falling Angels (2001), The Lady and the Unicorn (2003), Burning Bright (2007) and 2009’s Remarkable Creatures.
It’s no coincidence that Chevalier’s principal characters – Griet, the unfortunate servant girl caught in the snares of the lascivious Van Ruijven in Girl With a Pearl Earring, or the the unlikely friendship between Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot in Remarkable Creatures – are women. But in the same way the label “historical fiction” conveys but a part of what her books present, Chevalier is wary of the label of a feminist writer. That the people she writes about are women, she says, is more a reflection of fact than ideology.
“I naturally gravitate towards women because I am a woman,” she observes. “And women in the past had less power, would have been frustrated with the boundaries placed on them – if they had enough consciousness to be frustrated, to be pushing.”
It’s one thing to shape compelling stories of adversity and triumph out of the “amorphous blob” of history, but something else altogether to use it as the base for personal manifesto.
“I think the trick is not to put a 21st-century voice on [my characters].”
Which is to say that as a writer, one has the obligation to remain faithful to the period, the social circumstances, the cares and concerns as they presented to her characters? “Yes, exactly. But I think that’s true about any historical writer, whether they are writing about women or whatever... the danger is that the 21st century kind of creeps in. I suppose I am a feminist writer: but I don’t write [in] my first sentence ‘this is a feminist novel.’ It’s just not how it works.”
ONE GETS the sense that if there were a theme Chevalier is particularly drawn towards in her novels – and she insists that she sees her books first and foremost as entertainment – it would be the issue of social class. It crops up repeatedly in the relationships between her principals; Chevalier, it’s fair to say, has very acute antennae for the peculiarities of class-bound societies.
Take Remarkable Creatures, for example. Chevalier is talking about Anning and Philpot, who form an unlikely but enduring friendship through their shared love of fossils. Much of the book is set on the beaches of Lyme Regis in southern England, where the two hunt for their quarry.
“Because a lot of time is spent on the beach, out of sight of society, they could do what they wanted. And that gives the place a really special meaning, because it is a place of freedom.”
It’s an interesting observation, and one can’t but wonder whether the subject of class particularly engages Chevalier because of her American roots. She has lived in London for the better part of three decades, and even though “if you ask me this on different days, I’ll give a different answer,” generally speaking she acknowledges the apartness that comes from her years elsewhere.
Given all this, does she think that class still dominates in England the way it does in her fiction – which is to say, does her fiction hold up a mirror to the sometimes subtle but still-present contradictions of the current age? “Thinking about England, it is less intense, but class is still there,” Chevalier replies.
“But, you know, I’ve lived in London for 28 years and... I feel a lot has changed. People often say that America really influences Great Britain, and... certainly in the States there has been a lot more social mobility and the acceptance of social mobility.”
This, perhaps, puts a finger on the tensions that provoke the critical moments in her work – people trying to advance beyond their allotted station in life. The difference between then – her fiction – and now is that prospects and aspirations are much higher now than they were before.
But, to play the devil’s advocate, is this always necessarily a good thing? Expectations can be dashed and often are, the disappointments serving to reinforce the invisible barriers of class.
“But isn’t that the first thing that has to change?” Chevalier counters. “That people believe that they have a right to it. They may not get to it, but the belief....” and we return to the United States. “You know, the American Dream. A lot of people don’t reach the American Dream, but the fact is that it is there, and people aren’t looked down upon for trying to make more of themselves.”
CHEVALIER HAS just submitted the manuscript for her next novel to her agents and editors. While she has been happy to talk about its progress on her website, she says nobody saw anything of it until it was complete.
Not a soul. I’m a little surprised: it sounds like a remarkable leap into the unknown. Even for a writer with her track record.
“I know,” she agrees, “and the only thing thing that keeps me going is saying ‘Tracy, you’ve done six of these before, it’s going to be OK,’ but I’m absolutely terrified when I press the ‘send’ button.”
What we do know of her next book so far – it’s still without a title, Chevalier laughs, describing frantic email exchanges with her agents and editors – is that it is set in Ohio, and concerns a Quaker woman, an immigrant to America from England, who becomes involved with the Underground Railroad, the surreptitious network of volunteers from the 19th century that smuggled runaway slaves out of the US and into Canada.
The inspiration came from a famous comment made by Toni Morrison, the distinguished novelist and Nobel Prize laureate.
Morrison had once observed that there was no monument to slavery, not even “a bench by the road.” The challenge was taken up by the aptly named Bench in the Road project; Oberlin, which was a key point for escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad, is the home to the second memorial established by the project.
“I had the idea because [Morrison] was unveiling the bench there, and it got me thinking about the Underground Railroad,” Chevalier says. “A couple of days later, I was at a Quaker meeting with my stepmother – she was a Quaker, and I grew up going to a Quaker camp – and the two ideas just kind of came together in my mind, about silence, what it means to be silent, and about Quakers, a lot of whom worked on the Underground Railroad.”
It’s the first book Chevalier has written that is set in the US. Has being away for so long given her the distance, the perspective, to strip away the familiarity that might hinder her writing? “The way I’ve gotten around my worry of writing about the United States is that my main character is English. She goes to the States, and kind of has the opposite experience to me. She talks about the strangeness of America and how she grows used to it, and it’s kind of like my reflection. I suppose it’s like I’m working though my own feelings as an outsider, by making her an outsider in the States.”
And with that, she is off to join the tour of the Old City – the historical novelist doing what she likes best, being the outsider looking in on a world full of possibilities.