Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Tracy Chevalier at Wakefield Lit Fest

On Saturday night I drove over to Wakefield to see one of my favourite historical fiction writers: Tracy Chevalier. The evening was so warm that it felt like the middle of summer, making it a shame to be inside, but it was worth it.
There was a definite buzz about the Unitarian Chapel as we waited for the lady herself to appear. And we were not disappointed – after a short intro by the Festival Director Tracy took the stage and gave an entertaining talk including three readings from her new book The Last Runaway. Before, during and after the readings she gave us plenty of background to her book and explained what had inspired her to write it.
Set in Ohio in the 1850s, the story centres around Honor Bright, a single Quaker woman from Dorset who has travelled to North America to join her sister and start a new life. Dealing with themes of loss and slavery, The Last Runaway is Tracy's seventh published novel. Interestingly, it's the first historical novel she has written that's not set in Europe.
Tracy told us she's lived in the UK for 30 years now and to write this book she recalled her own experiences of being an 'immigrant' (her words) - for example, the way things smell and taste differently in another country. She said that tea tastes awful in the US as the water tastes so different to the UK. She explained that being in another country makes you notice the little things rather than the big things (such as politics etc). She finds that everyday foods like butter and milk taste different, trees look different etc. Since settling in the UK she finds she misses little things as well, like fireflies.
Tracy treated us to three passages from her book – the first was when the heroine has just arrived and is noticing all the strange things about her new home. The passage included observations such as the birds being very different to those at home. As always Tracy's writing is simple yet highly evocative and I could imagine arriving in this strange new place and noticing all these little details for the first time.

One of the reasons that Tracy made her heroine a Quaker is partly related to some hearing problems she has (she can't hear the full sound spectrum when there's a lot of noise going on) which has drawn her towards seeking more silence in her life. She's drawn to Quakers as she used to go on a Quaker camp when she was a child and they would spend 15 minutes sitting together in silence every day. These days Tracy spends an hour each Sunday doing the same thing – she finds silence helps her to focus and she wanted to make her protagonist a Quaker for that reason.
Tracy said that novels are about lies, or at least about withholding the truth. This presented her with a problem as Quakers aren't supposed to lie. However, she says that her protagonist ends up lying quite a lot in the end! One of the main themes of the book is slavery – it's set prior to the Civil War, when slavery was legal in the southern states but illegal in the northern ones. However, the northern ones still bought produce (e.g. cotton) from the southern states.
At this time there were always runaway slaves - a lot of them tried to reach Canada, where they would be free. The only way to get there was to get help from the 'underground rail road', made up of people willing to help the slaves escape. Runaway slaves often went to Ohio where they would be safe as long as their owner didn't come to claim them. Honour is opposed to slavery but has never been forced to put her principles to the test.
Tracy likes her protagonists to do things with their hands – she decided that Honor would be a quilter, which meant that she, Tracy, had to learn quilting. Tracy held up a quilt she had made which had been entirely hand stitched – it must have taken her an age to do and I was very impressed! She said she likes making quilts because they are both practical and creative.
After Tracy had finished her third reading, which left us in suspense as to what happened next, she opened up to questions from the audience. I was brave and managed to get a question in at the start (often I never ask anything, but this was Tracy Chevalier of all people!) I asked her if she had any tips for aspiring authors and she gave a really in depth answer about what it's like to be a writer. She explained that not every day is easy - there are days when it's hard to get started and she just stares at a blank page and really has to make the effort to 'pull the story out of herself'. She also explained it's important to have a regular writing routine and make sure you stick to it, whether that be writing at the same time every day or at the same time each Sunday. She also said it was important to get others to read your work and to accept criticism, and to edit A LOT. She explained the first draft is almost the 'easy bit' - the real work is the rewriting/editing.

In response to other questions, Tracy revealed that she doesn't have a detailed plan when she writes, just an idea of how she'd like it to start and finish. As she's writing she tries different ideas as she goes along. She thinks that the best part of writing is not knowing what will happen on the way.
It was noted that all her novels are historical, which she acknowledged but couldn't really say why as she had never studied history. However, in her thirties she started to take an interest in her own family history. She had started to feel settled and wondered where she had come from, which she thinks might link in with historical fiction. She confessed she just can't 'do' contemporary stories and that the only way to get away from herself was to delve into a story in another time and place. She thinks that to be a 'three dimensional' person you need to be aware of the past and where you have come from.
Tracy said she spends a lot of time doing research – she researches until she feels comfortable writing about the time and place in which her story is going to be set. At the moment she is looking into how trees can be transported from A to B and so she needs to find out about tree grafting, something which she will be (physically) doing in the Spring.
She said that very often she thinks she's finished her research but it never really stops – she still has books on Vermeer that she's not yet read! Fortunately she loves learning about new subjects.
When asked if her books contained any kind of message, Tracy said no but she would like her books to inspire people to look back on the past and be aware of where they came from.

As for what she uses to write, Tracy said she uses a particular type of fountain pen to write longhand (!) on plain (NOT lined) paper and in a notebook (again, not lined) which 'feels' like her subject. For example when when writing the Last Runaway she used a notebook with a design and colours that she could imagine her heroine wearing.
And when asked whether she prefers 'real books' or e-readers, she said that although she can see the benefits of e-readers, she preferred real books every time!
With the questions over it was time for the book signing. Yours truly had stupidly left her purse at home, after changing bags earlier. Fortunately I had a copy of Tracy's first book, The Virgin Blue, in my bag and I joined the queue, noting I was the only one without a copy of the new book. When I finally got to the front and handed over my book with an apology, Tracy was very gracious about it, referring to the book as 'an old friend' and kindly signing it for me (phew!)
All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable evening with a highly talented and charismatic lady.


  1. I love hearing authors speak. It gives extra insights into their stories. Sounds like you had a great time! And I'm totally with Tracy, ereaders have their place, but I'll choose a print book over and ebook any time!

  2. Me too! It's fascinating to hear how they work and what's inspired them to write a particular story. Some of the things Tracy said rang very true but I'm still amazed that she writes longhand! Re. ereader Vs books, I agree with both you and Tracy! :)

  3. It was obviously a very good author talk and what an excellent blog post. Will be copying your blog ip in on my post today so that my followers can read all about the Ilkley Literature Festival

  4. Thanks Karen much appreciated! :) Next blog post will be this weekend after my first stewarding experience - hope Google Blogger tells you this time (I've sent them a message about it!)