Girl With A Pearl Earring author Tracy Chevalier: 'Women in historical settings have often been ignored'

  • Tracy Chevalier, the acclaimed author of Girl With A Pearl Earring among other books, is instinctively driven toward historical fiction.

  • I read, I look at archives, I go to the place, I talk to experts: Chevalier told Firstpost in an interview.

  • Then she starts studying the history of the time more generally, piecing together what everyday life must have been like.

  • What they were wearing, what they were eating, how they got around, what time they went to bed, are all questions she considers

As a child, each week, Tracy Chevalier would go to the children’s library and take out a big stack of books. The librarian knew her, and would set aside a book for Tracy to read. “We’d talk about it when I brought it back. She was lovely,” Chevalier told Firstpost, recounting those early library visits. The interview took place when the acclaimed writer was in Mumbai for the Tata Lit Live! festival.

Her love for books sparked, Chevalier herself wrote through her teens, authoring short stories when she was in her twenties, and eventually deciding to pursue a Masters in Creative Writing. The first proper “grownup” short story that Chevalier was happy with is called Ginger. It’s about a young woman whose boyfriend has just left her, and how she ends up becoming obsessed with an Egyptian mummy at London’s British Museum.

Given Chevalier’s biggest hit, Girl with a Pearl Earring, and much of her other work, this material influence of objects makes itself apparent from the start. “I’m really keen on the senses. It’s what I see, feel, smell, taste, touch,” she says. This means she's instinctively driven toward historical fiction and it’s this specific object that she starts her research with: “I read, I look at archives, I go to the place, I talk to experts.” And then she starts studying the history of the time more generally, piecing together what everyday life must have been like. “What they were wearing, what they were eating, how they got around, what time they went to bed,” are all questions she considers.

While it’s easy to get drawn into a trap of research, never really knowing how much is enough, experience has taught Chevalier to recognise that moment. “I’ve done a lot of research, but I’ve got this yearning to find the perfect book that’s going to explain everything about that period or that subject. And I realise that actually, the book I’m looking for is the one I have to write,” she says.

 Girl With A Pearl Earring author Tracy Chevalier: Women in historical settings have often been ignored

Tracy Chevalier. Photo credit: Facebook @tracychevalierwriter.

The writing tends to be three or four pages a day, long-hand in a notebook to avoid online distractions. “When I write, it’s like facing the blank page every day and it’s absolutely exhausting. And I tend to procrastinate a lot,” she says. Given the constant challenge writing presents each day, while a young writer might want to stop, Chevalier has been around a long time and knows how it’s done. “And also I know I can do it. I think a lot of it is about confidence, about keeping going.” She may be struggling, but she’s always struggled, and tomorrow is going to be another day to write; “now I know, I’m a writer… Also knowing I have a readership and that readers like the books, makes it a lot easier.”

While the loopholes she finds through research help guide her plot, Chevalier pays especial focus to character-building. “It’s hard, but you do it with time,” she says. In the start, one doesn’t know their characters, because one hasn’t been inside their head, given them a voice, or moved them around in a scene. “The more time you spend with them, the more you get to know them. And I find when I write a draft of the novel, about the first third of it needs more editing than the second two-thirds because that first third I’m just finding my tone and the voice and the characters.”

Much of Chevalier’s writing focuses on giving a voice to those who don’t normally get to tell their stories, particularly women. “Women in the past, in historical settings, have often been ignored,” she says. “They had no political, social, or economic power. And so they were not the ones to write history.” These are the stories she’s looking to tell.

And though each character is coming from her and will have some similarities, they’re all slightly different since they’re in different situations; “the key is to find also the uniqueness in each character,” she says. Chevalier has long been lauded for the insight into the human mind her writing presents, which she says comes from observing the world around her. “I live you know, I see it, I see it around.” In writing characters or situations she hasn’t experienced herself, she calls upon her imagination, which is aided through her not taking herself very seriously. “It’s just a matter of training your imagination to think outside yourself,” she says. The other thing she has found helpful in embodying experiences of others is motherhood. “Having a child really knocks you off the centre-stage of your life. You’re not the star anymore. Your child is. And this is a really good lesson.” It allows her “to move away from my own psychology, into others.”

Stylistically, Chevalier has always maintained that her books are primarily meant to entertain. “I think the best entertainment has a little bit of education in it too. But it’s education that’s slipped in, so you don’t even notice it.” Reading such a work doesn’t feel like hard work and the reader cares about the characters, while also absorbing a different time and place, being an overall pleasurable experience. Throughout the writing process therefore, Chevalier is always thinking about her readers, always questioning herself about whether her words will be easily understood. “Am I being too obscure, too oblique, do I need to make this a little clearer? I like to leave gaps in the writing, so there’s space in there for the reader to fill in, that I don’t just spoon-feed them. But sometimes you can leave too many gaps.”

Besides the questioning, Chevalier is also editing herself carefully. While the first two drafts are the hardest, involving a lot of heavy lifting, she then focuses on each sentence, with each word needing to justify its reason for being there. “Do I need this word? How would it be if I pulled it out? What effect does that word have on the sentence, on what I’m trying to express? And do that questioning with everything. It’s exhausting, but you have to do it. Because otherwise, it’s just sloppy writing.”

After all this, Chevalier has no idea about the quality of her work or the type of feedback she might receive, and falls firmly into the category of writers who feel like “nothing is ever good enough.” Her editor then, plays a crucial role. “You’re told by your editor that it’s good enough.” Good editors, she’s found, genuinely engage with her writing, without trying to make a point. “There’s a real art to being a good editor” and the best ones, she says, have the clarity that she can’t, being too close to the work. “I usually know there’s something wrong but I don’t know what it is, and they put their finger on it.”

Once a book is published, she stays decidedly away from online reviews. Because of the internet, everyone has an opinion now, and “on social media, they’ll be very critical, anonymously, and that can be very hurtful.” While she reads a few newspaper reviews, she generally stays away from it all online. “I don’t need people to be nasty. It’s not going to help me.” On the other hand, genuine engagement and connection with her readers is Chevalier’s barometer for measuring success. “It’s nice to get good sales, it’s nice to be long-listed or short-listed for a prize, but the best thing is actually going to a festival and meeting your readers and talking to them.” It’s the emotional responses her words incite from readers, the connection they feel, that make her feel like she’s succeeded. “It may not be numbers, but it’s definitely people’s response.”

Chevalier also makes it a point to find the time to read, although she concedes that the internet is generally affecting people’s concentration and ability to read. “I’m affected too, and I lived before the internet!” Her choices span books that might help her own writing to those that are completely different from her own. (On her reading list at the time of this interview: Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, literary crime fiction by Tana French, Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which she was rereading before a Lit Live! panel.)

“A lot of writing, it’s either a good story or it’s poetically, or carefully written, but not both. The best books are both, get both,” she says. “And that’s what I’m looking for.”

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Updated Date: Nov 26, 2019 10:50:57 IST

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