|| Sue Angell: I've read that you
prefer writing about what interests you, rather than writing about
what you know. With books that are historically all over the map,
where do you get the ideas for your stories?
Tracy Chevalier: When I'm inspired to write something, I
just have this gut feeling that there is a novel there. I might
a medieval tapestry, or a cemetery. When I'm looking at something
that inspires me, a spark in my mind goes off and I
to myself that whatever I'm looking at would make a good novel.
It's hard to say what exactly it is that strikes me about a particular
thing; it's just something that seems bigger and more mysterious
than it appears at first glance.
I find that what appeals to me is what I don't know, rather than
what I do know. I just can't imagine writing about something that
is familiar to me. Writing a novel is a long process that can be
very boring, especially if you are covering old ground. I'd much
rather write about something that I don't know anything about, because
then the process becomes a kind of journey for my intellect. People
are always saying that you should write about what you know, but
I just shudder when I hear that.
SA: You often talk about how the idea for Girl with A Pearl
Earring evolved. How did you come up with the idea for The Lady and
TC: I had known about the unicorn tapestries that inspired
this book since I was a teenager. I had gone through this kind
craze, or obsession if you will, when I was in my teens and had
a book of illustrations that included the tapestries. I even went
to see the tapestries when I was 20, at the Musée de Cluny in
Paris. After that, I forgot about them.
A few years ago, I came across an article about the tapestries in
an art magazine. I took one look at the illustrations that accompanied
the article and thought, "Aha!" The feeling that these
tapestries were something I could write about came over me, and
the article reminded me of all the gaps in knowledge we have about
them. Very little is actually known about the tapestrieswe
don't know who made them or why. All we know is that
they were made for a wealthy noble family. Of course, in my mind,
that rang alarm bells of joy, because it meant that the field was
open for me to write whatever I wanted about the tapestries, within
reason. I'm always looking for that unknown, I think, so I can
in the gaps fictionally if I can't fill them in with facts.
SA: Can you talk about the book's plot?
TC: The book is about an artist named Nicholas who is hired by a nobleman
to design the tapestries. Both the wife and the daughter of the
nobleman become the inspiration behind Nicholas' designs. During
the story, Nicholas also develops a relationship with the wife and
daughter of a weaver. The book is about his relationships with these
womenthe noblewoman and her daughter, and then the tapestry
weaver's wife and daughter. It's also about how the women's lives
are reflected in the tapestries, yet at the same time are very different
from what we see in the tapestries. The women in the tapestries
are idealized and beautiful; they appear calm and are doing lovely
things. The reality of these women's lives, however, is that they
don't have a lot of choice in what they do. In that regard, the
book reveals the secrets that are woven into the story of the tapestries.
SA: All the women in your books are living in historical
periods that don't offer them many choices, yet the characters
as very strong-willed and determined. Do you set out to create
characters like this, or does it just happen as you write the story?
TC: It happens during the writing process. I don't set out with an agenda.
On the other hand, I prefer to write about the past and I prefer
to write about women, because I am a woman and it is easier for
me. But in writing about women, especially women in the past, I
have to choose someone who is not happy with her lot. I doubt that
I'd write about somebody who was completely content. I like to tell
stories about change, so the women I write about are inevitably
going to be unhappy with their lives and wanting to change them
in some way.
SA: Do you think this might say a little bit about you,
or about the Obie in you?
TC: (laughs) Possibly. I suppose. Again, I don't try to be overtly feminist.
It's just what comes out during the writing process.
of your books focus heavily on the topics of art and religion.
TC: People today just don't understand how important religion was
in the past. Because of that, I'm always trying to overcompensate
by focusing on religion and being aware of how it really was the
most important structure in people's lives. If I'm going to write
historically, it would be hard to get away from religion.
As for the art, well, I've always been visual. Strangely enough,
I didn't take any art history classes while I was a student. Lately
I've been thinking that if I were to come back to Oberlin and do
it all over again, I'd be either an art history or an East Asian
studies major. Both of these disciplines offer such amazing resources
to students, and I never took advantage of any of them. I wish I
had gone to college when I was 30 and knew better!
At any rate, I think our generation is a generation of visual stimuli.
We grew up on television and movies. I know that I have a tendency
to be inspired by things that I see, rather than by things that
I read or hear. Although I'm not an artist, I look at art and
inspires me. And the great thing about this is that when I'm writing
and I get stuck, I just go back to the object that originally
SA: When did you decide that Girl should be made
into a movie?
TC: When the book was about to be published and the question of film
rights came up, I had no idea that it was going to become a big
success. I thought it would sell a thousand copies and then die
a slow death. But I think that every writer's dreamespecially
if they think their book is going to sink to the bottom of the pondis
to have it made into a film. A film is always going to reach a wider
audience, but there's also that fascination we have with the process
itself. There's something incredibly thrilling about seeing your
own vision made into something with music and real faces. It's very
compelling. I also think that people are very overwhelmed and excited
by the film world. It's a very glamorous world, and there is this
feeling that having your book made into a film means you've "arrived."
It really is silly, but I felt that way, too.
On top of all that, Girl's a very visual book. I could easily
imagine it being made into a film. The story is spare and pushes
straight through. I sold the film rights with all of that in mind,
also aware that only 5 percent of books that get optioned for
film rights actually do get made into films. When the book was
about two months from being published in the U.K., my film agent
if I would like him to shop the book around. I told him that the
one thing I didn't want was for it to be sold to a Hollywood studio.
I just didn't think that Hollywood could handle the material. Hollywood
would have Griet and Vermeer sleep together. Hollywood would sex
it all up and make it a very different kind of experience. I didn't
want that to happen. At that point we both sort of laughed, because
we thought that it would be unlikely that Hollywood would be interested
in a book about a 17th-century Dutch painter. Of course, that
changed once Girl became a success. Hollywood did come sniffing
around, but the film rights had been sold by then. I like to think
that if we had waited and I had been able to choose between getting
a whole lot of money from Hollywood and getting very little money
from a British production company, I still would have gone with
a small British production company.
Anyhow, I met with a production company that really seemed to understand
the story. They understood the power of it, the restraint, and the
subtlety, and they wanted to maintain all of that. At first I considered
whether I wanted to have anything to do with writing the screenplay,
but then I decided not to get involved and quite deliberately took
a step back. I've seen writers who get involved with the whole filmmaking
process and they just get terribly upset, because writers are writers
and not filmmakers. It's a different medium. I also thought of it
as protection; if I didn't have anything to do with the film and
it turned out badly, I wouldn't feel responsible.
Luckily, I got on very well with the screenwriter. She asked me
a few questions while she was writing the script and then showed
me the first draft. It was more of a courtesy than anything; so
I, quite courteously, made just a few small remarks about it. I
didn't feel that it was my place to try to change things and was
very happy with what I saw of it. There were several things that
surprised me, but I learned so much about how films are structured
and how certain things have to be heightened to work in film. You
can't be as subtle in a film as you can in a book. On the other
hand, the cinematography is wonderful. It's like looking at a different
painting in every scene.
SA: I'm nervous about seeing the film, because I have my
own private movie of the book in my head. Were you nervous when
you first saw
TC: I think many readers are nervous about the film, just
as they are nervous about any book they really have a liking for
into a film. We all have little movies in our heads of the books
we've read, and when they get replaced by a real film, it can
for better or for worse. If it's any consolation, I was worried
about that, too. But I feel like I still have the book in my head.
I have the Scarlett Johannson Griet and I have my own picture of
Griet that hasn't been influenced by Scarlett Johannson at all.
She's still her own self, and I hold on to that image. In the end,
I think she's the Griet who will last in my imagination, rather
than the film's version of Griet.
SA: Why did you think Girl with a Pearl Earring would
sell only a thousand copies?
TC: Well, it's about a 17th-century Dutch painter, you know! It's a
very restrained book, a very little bookit's not the great
American novel. The characters don't sleep together. It's about
restraint, it's about subtlety, not about things you think of 20th-century
people doing. There are people who don't like the book, who have
said: "I've read 20 pages of this and nothing's happening!
Is this all it's going to be? This girl and her point of view all
the time? Forget it! I'd rather read something more exciting!"
I completely understand that. I don't think every book should be
read by every person. It's like John Grisham. I don't read him,
but I definitely understand that he has a place for people who want
a certain kind of read at a certain time. And I'm the same waysometimes
I want to read something slow and considered, and then there are
other times that I like reading something fun and fast and sassy.
Not that I think John Grisham is fun and fast and sassy, but he
is different. You need many different kinds of books. People need
to have different things to read at different times in their lives.
SA: I can't imagine the book ending any other way. What
happened fit the period exactly. But at the same time, Griet's
seemed surprisingly modern, reminding me of how I felt at 16.
TC: One of the things that surprised me most about Girl is that
many teenagers have read it and contacted me to say how much they
liked it. I never thought teenagers would be interested in reading
a book about a painter. But so many girls have written and said
that they understand exactly what Griet is going through in the
novel. I feel that way myself. It's a rite-of-passage novel, as
much as anything else, and it's about growing up, leaving home for
the first time, and trying to think for yourself, while at the same
time dealing with the outside world imposing its own codes of conduct.
We have all been through that. It's not something that I consciously
thought to do, because I think if I had, the book would have been
too self-conscious and no teenager would have read it.
SA: All your other books have received fantastic reviews.
What are the critics saying about The Lady and the Unicorn?
TC: It's had a couple of glowing reviews and it's had a stinker of a
review. But my U.S. publisher thinks it will be as popular as
Girl with a Pearl Earring. He has very high hopes for it.
You know, Falling Angels [the follow up to Girl] was
a harder book for people to read, because it was a very different
book from Girl. It's just not as accessible to readers. In
The Lady and the Unicorn, I decided to lighten up. I also
decided to turn the tables on everybody, you know, "Oh, a medieval
book. It's going to be all about plague and death!" But nobody
dies. It's done in a way that I think is going to appeal to readers
of Girl. It was a very deliberate decision on my part to
make Falling Angels as different from Girl as possible.
I think that if I had written The Lady and the Unicorn right
after Girl, I would have been known as the author who writes
about obscure art. I didn't want to get stuck writing the same story
over and over again.
SA: What are you currently working on?
TC: I just started work on a novel about William Blake. He's not going
to be the main character in the book, but he is important because
the book is going to focus on how his ideas and visions affect the
people around him.
There's a story about how Blake and his wife used to sit in their
garden, naked, pretending they were Adam and Eve, reading poems
to each other. I find that such a wonderful image! After hearing
that, I thought to myself, "What if a boy on one side of a
fence and a girl on the other were peering over and staring at this
thing, but see each other instead?" The story also will follow
the events that influenced Blake during the writing of the poems
for his Songs of Innocence and Experiences.
SA: Is the book told from multiple points of view, like Falling
TC: I don't know. I've just started researching it, so I have a long
way to go. But, you know, The Lady and the Unicorn is told
from multiple points of view, too. I've done two books like that
now, and I think it's time for me to do the thing that is hardest
for mewriting in the third person. I feel like I'm not going
to be a real writer until I can crack that one. So I decided that
in this novel I will tell the story in third person, and tell it
properlylike a real writer. Sometimes I still feel that somebody's
going to catch me out and say, "She can't do that! She's not
a real writer!"
SA: I've heard the story about you quitting your editing
job to enroll in a creative writing program. What advice would
you give to people
who secretly harbor the desire to be writers, but are afraid of
the obstacles that stand in their way?
TC: The key to writing is to write consistently. Maybe not every day,
but every week. You have to do it as a constant part of your life,
because if you don't, you won't ever get very far. Writing has to
be something that feels like the natural thing to do. I did a very
drastic thing, quitting my job and going back to school full time.
You don't have to do anything that drastic, but you do have to make
some sort of commitment to writing.
For example, take a night class in creative writing. Before I enrolled
at the University of East Anglia, I took a night class in writing.
You could also sign up for a writer's retreat, where you go away
and take workshops taught by professional writers. People need to
set aside a time where writing is important enough to them that
they are willing to see how it feels. I think this sort of thing
is very useful, especially if you want to figure out if writing
is something you're willing to spend more time doing.
You could also join a writer's group. Get together a bunch of people
who are in a similar situation and share your writing with each
other. I was in a writer's group for a while, and we used to meet
every month. One of us would turn in something for the others
read, and then we'd get together to discuss it. That's basically
what we did during my MA classes, and there's no reason why that
can't be done on a less formal levsel. It's kind of like a book
club or a reading group, except that it involves writing. Any
these things will give you a structure that will help make writing
a part of your daily life.
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