Plotting the Past
Working in an assortment of jobs after graduation and during her first years in London, Chevalier ultimately settled into the post of literary editor for a reference book publisher. She soon tired of editing the works of others, so she dug out a few short stories she'd written over the years and applied to the University of East Anglia's creative writing program. Not long after completing a master's degree there, she published her first novel, The Virgin Blue, in 1997. (Published only in the United Kingdom and currently out of print, The Virgin Blue will soon be published in the United States.)
"The first novel is a very special thing because you don't really know what you are doing," she says. "It's like you have a big slab of stone, and you're carving out something...you've written the book because you want to write it, not because you are expected to. And since nobody has read your "last" book, they don't make comparisons."
Her newest novel, Falling Angels, is set in England at the turn of the last century and details the changing relationship between two families who own adjacent plots in a London cemetery. "Falling Angels was a nightmare to write in every way," says Chevalier. "I cried over that book in a way I have never cried when I write. Part of the difficulty was trying to follow the success of Girl, and I didn't know what to do after that. I didn't dare try to repeat it by writing Daughter of Girl with a Pearl Earring."
Highgate Cemetery, a 171-year-old graveyard near her flat, became her inspiration. Crumbling and overgrown with weeds, Chevalier was drawn to its decay and neglect, yet also to its gothic excess. Wondering what kind of society would celebrate death so explicitly, she began researching the history of Victorian cemeteries and the social customs that accompanied death. "I'm more comfortable looking at the past because I am uncomfortable pronouncing on contemporary life. I think people are willing to suspend disbelief when a book is set in the past. I need to have more leeway when writing, and historical settings give that to me."
And Chevalier believes she has an added advantage: she herself is "displaced." As an American living abroad, she says, "I think I am an outsider, standing on the sidelines of both countries, just watching. That gives me an edge to look at the world around me in a slightly different way."
Chevalier has begun work on her fourth novel, based on the Lady and the Unicorn medieval tapestries that hang in the Cluny Museum in Paris. "This time I'll be going back to artwork," she says. "I was just doing some research this morning, and I loved it. 'Oh yes,' I thought. 'I'm on the right track.' It's a nice feeling." *
Tracy Chevalier can be contacted via her website at www.tchevalier.com.