Interview with Tracy Chevalier
Tracy Chevalier has not only created rich, fictional worlds around Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (Girl with the Pearl Earring) and English artist William Blake (Burning Bright), but she’s placed characters of her own invention within time’s true events. Now, with her latest historical novel, The Last Runaway, she does the latter, turning her eye to 1850 Ohio and the Underground Railroad. Chevalier’s new book, her first not set in Europe, follows a young Quaker woman named Honor Bright, who, after immigrating to America from England, starts hiding runaway slaves. The author and expat (she’s lived in London for 25 years) talks to interviewer Florence Kane about quilting, being an outsider, and researching with all five senses.
Goodreads: How did the idea for The Last Runaway come to you?
Tracy Chevalier: It’s quite funny. Now, the more I look at it, I think my interests as a teenager are reflected somewhat in my books. I was interested in Vermeer and unicorns, so I wrote The Lady and the Unicorn. I was interested in William Blake, so I wrote Burning Bright. And in this instance, I grew up going to a Quaker camp, so I used to go to meetings as a teenager. I still do, although I’m not officially a Quaker. I have a lot of respect for the values. And it seemed really natural to me that I would write about that. I also knew I wanted to write about the Underground Railroad. Then I found out there were a lot of Quakers who worked on it.
GR: You studied at Oberlin College, which is close to the novel’s setting. While there as a student, did you know of its history with the antislavery movement?
TC: I was aware of it. Oberlin is very proud of its history. When the college was founded [in 1833], they immediately admitted both women and African Americans as students. And that was something that no other college in the country had done. And it was always a very principled place. I knew there had been an Underground Railroad stop there because there are a couple of sculptures, one on campus and one in the town, which is of these railroad tracks emerging from the ground. But I didn’t look at it at the time and think, “Oh, I’m going to write about this in 30 years.” I would have been amazed. But then I’ve been amazed at all the things I’ve written about in the end.
GR: Your heroine Honor Bright is a fish out of water when she arrives in America. Were your own feelings of moving to the UK similar to hers?
TC: Having her go to the States sort of allowed me, strangely enough, to explore my experience of being an American here, at least in the early days. And I think there’s that feeling when you move to a new country where you’re just kind of out of step with the society you’re living in. The things that they refer to, you don’t really understand. The way they pronounce things—oregano instead of oregano. I would ask for something, and I’d be pronouncing it my way, and they’d just kind of be looking at me. I could just see people not exactly wincing, but a little kind of flinch. It takes years to iron all that stuff out. Sometimes it’s just so damn tiring being the outsider. On the other hand, for me, I know that it probably made me the writer I am, so I accept it. I think at the end of the book, I think Honor is starting to let go of the grip in her mind on England and on her past life and starting to look forward. America at that point was full of people who’d moved from other places, so it wasn’t like she was alone in that. One of the great flexibilities about the States is that it is, or it certainly was, able to embrace so many different people from so many different places and make them feel like they belong.
GR: Have you ever considered writing a novel of pure fiction, a nonhistorical one?
TC: I certainly have. I don’t know exactly what I’m writing next, but I have a feeling that it is not going to be completely historical. I’m not sure. I think I’m still too much in the early days to say what it is at the moment. It probably won’t be completely contemporary, but there will be more links toward contemporary. I’ve been toying with the idea of interlinked stories along the lines of [Elizabeth Strout‘s] Olive Kitteridge.
GR: Goodreads member Janet Hogan Chapman says, “I love Tracy’s books. What research techniques does she use?”
TC: All of my books start with a spark of an idea. I usually start by researching around that specific spark. So I’ll start reading a lot; I get a lot of books out on the period. I could do all of the research just reading. But of course I don’t like to do it that way. First of all, I have to go visit. So I was driving around the cornfields of Ohio for quite a bit. And I would just pull over to the side of the road and get out and stand and smell and look. And just look at the way the light fell on the fields. Sometimes I took pictures, sometimes I didn’t. Anybody seeing me or tailing me would just wonder, What on earth is she doing? And I couldn’t tell you what it was that I felt. I just took in the sense of what that part of Ohio was. It’s funny because you look at things so differently when you are writing a novel. Suddenly everything becomes interesting. Things I knew nothing about before—like the way a barn is built, the way a barn holds hay or straw, or how you put the pigs. And now suddenly I wanted to know everything. So the research is kind of a combination of all sorts of things. Books primarily, but a lot of “on-the-job training,” too, I like to call it. I need to be there. I need to walk around, I need to smell and see with all of my senses—the way my characters would.
GR: Honor is a talented quilter. Did you know anything about quilting before writing her character?
TC: No! What I did was take a quilting class. And after that was over, I joined a quilting group, which I still go to every Monday. I just last week finished my first quilt, big sized. I work entirely by hand because I wanted to do what my character did. There’s nothing like holding the needle and pricking your fingers and realizing how you hold your thimble and how you keep from getting blood on the material. Honor, she gets ready all of her needles first before she does anything. And I learned to do that, too, from one of my quilting ladies. And it’s those sort of details you don’t know until you’ve done it. A lot of people think, Oh, quilts—they’re so quaint, or they’re sort of artsy-craftsy. And I don’t look at them that way at all. I think they’re something very different and really fundamental to our lives. And when you see a really old quilt, you feel completely connected to the woman who made it.
GR: Goodreads member Diane asks, “[Did she find] anything in her research for The Last Runaway that changed her initial perception of the subject of slavery during that period of time, and did it change her book while she was writing it? For example, when I was reading Booker T. Washington’s autobiography he said that he didn’t know of any Negroes who were treated badly, beaten, or abused. He had heard of stories like that, but he didn’t know of any personally. That really did shock me. And he went into great detail to describe the close bonds between the two races that he either knew of or experienced.”
TC: That is really surprising. I think that the reason for that is…the reason we mostly hear the bad things, the bad relationships between black and white people at that time is because that’s more newsworthy. If that relationship were to be a good one—and I hesitate to even use that word, because it’s hard for us to imagine that—but then that’s not something people would write about. I suppose the most surprising thing I discovered was the Negro pew at the Quaker meeting. I had always thought of Quakers as honorable, and that all of them would not be prejudiced and would be opposed to slavery. And most of them did oppose slavery. Having said that, in the early 18th century a lot of them kept slaves. So that was a bit of a surprise. So then I thought in a weird sort of way that makes it more interesting. You don’t want to have good guys who are all good. And I think this is a book where Quakers are presented in a more realistic way. But it did surprise me that they weren’t obviously opposed to slavery, that it took a while for them to reach that position, that even when there were black members at meetings, they hesitated having black and white people sit together. The white superiority and black inferiority, and you just think, How on earth could they have thought that way? But the civil rights movement didn’t bring equality to black Americans until the ’60s, and that’s not very long ago, so the shock continues. It’s really surprising.
GR: Goodreads member Allison Kopczynski asks, “As a writer of historical fiction, what is the biggest challenge for you in separating the fact (history) from fiction?”
TC: That’s a really tough one. I think the hard part is being true to the facts without having them weigh down the story. Most of the time we don’t live our lives in the arc of a novel: a beginning, middle, and end, and some sort of resolution. Our lives are not really made up that way, and when you translate somebody’s real life into a book, you have to find a way to honor the facts and yet also satisfy the storytelling. And sometimes that means not bending the truth but molding the truth into a kind of sculpture people can look at.