Tracy Chevalier's work is "renowned for its rich evocation of times past", said journalist Jackie McGlone as she introduced Tracy to the packed main theatre at EIBF today, and in talking about her books in general but with particular emphasis on her latest novel The Last Runaway, that historical novelist's flair for capturing a period and for telling a compelling a story was very much in evidence.
We spent a most entertaining hour hearing Tracy read - with accents! - from the book and then discuss her research and writing and even reveal a little of what her next novel is to be about (more on that later), and she was such a relaxed interviewee and a funny, engaging person that the hour sped by far too quickly.
If you haven't already read The Last Runaway this post gives the gist, and you'll see that both Quaker culture and quilting are major elements of the story. Back in March, Tracy kindly wrote a guest post for me on how she learned to quilt as part of her research for the book, and she talked at some length about this today. She likes to give her characters something to do with their hands, "a daily activity which anchors them", and when she took up quilting herself (stitching entirely by hand, never with a machine) she found the work and its rhythm put her in "a non-verbal place, contemplative and quiet." In this respect it reminded her of the fossil-hunting she'd done as background to Remarkable Creatures when 'switching off ' and letting the mind wander while walking on the rocks helped the eye to focus and spot the fossils; and so in writing she feels the writer must not be self-conscious, but get out of their own way, taking a straightforward, uncomplicated approach without over-thinking the work.
Related to this, Tracy spoke of the need for quiet in our increasingly noisy world where stillness is rare. Attending Quaker summer camps as a child, she learnt to sit in silence, and as she still attends Quaker Meeting, the quiet there allows "the words to drain away from [her] mind". She spoke of Sara Maitland's A Book of Silence, of her own efforts to say less in everyday life, and of the companionable silence in which close friends can sit happily together. She is a good advocate for a quieter life, and her work - as I alluded to here - is the best advertisement for an economical style.
As an American in Britain (albeit one who las lived here all her adult life), Tracy's view of the cultural differences is a wry one. She talked amusingly of the British sense of humour and liking for irony, even our love of tea: "a cup of tea punctuates a moment; that's what it's there for."
Asked whether, given her love of research, she had ever considered being a historian and writing non-fiction, she told how difficult she found it to write even a short factual piece; in contrast, writing fiction is like "doing a Jackson Pollock - there's room to play!" As to her next novel, it's about emigration and a family moving from the UK to the US and back over many, many years. Its focus is "what we take with us", in this case trees, specifically fruit trees, in order to "retain the taste of our homeland". "We think trees stay in one place, but they follow us around," Tracy says. I can't wait to read it and I hope that when it's out, Tracy will return to Edinburgh to talk about it - I know she'll be very welcome if she does.