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    A Conversation with Tracy Chevalier
Back to Story   by Sue Angell
     
   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 be inspired by a Vermeer painting, a medieval tapestry, or a cemetery. When I'm looking at something that inspires me, a spark in my mind goes off and I think 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 the Unicorn?

TC: I had known about the unicorn tapestries that inspired this book since I was a teenager. I had gone through this kind of unicorn 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 tapestries—we 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 fill 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 women—the 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 come across 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.


SA: All of your books focus heavily on the topics of art and religion. Why?

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 it 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 inspired me.


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 dream—especially if they think their book is going to sink to the bottom of the pond—is 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 asked 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 all 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 the film?

TC: I think many readers are nervous about the film, just as they are nervous about any book they really have a liking for being made 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 be 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 book—it'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 way—sometimes 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 character 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 Angels?

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 me—writing 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 properly—like 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 to 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 one of these things will give you a structure that will help make writing a part of your daily life.

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