Book Talk: Tracy Chevalier finds inspiration in museum

Updated: 2010-01-07 09:38
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Book Talk: Tracy Chevalier finds inspiration in museum

NEW YORK - The idea for Tracy Chevalier's latest novel "Remarkable Creatures" came to her in a dinosaur museum in Dorset, England.

Chevalier's novel tells the story of Mary Anning, a fossil-collecting woman in the 19th century, whose discoveries challenged the predominant thinking of her era.

The acclaimed historical novelist, best-known for "Girl with a Pearl Earring," said it wasn't the first time that inspiration had struck in a museum.

Once she has stumbled on a topic she wants to explore, the key is lots of historical research, she said.

Chevalier told Reuters that she is sometimes envious of contemporary novelists who write based on their own experience -- but added that the amount of historical research needed for even small details stops her writing from becoming "sloppy."

Q: How do you come up with the ideas for your novels?

A: "I don't ever go looking for an idea. It just seems to spring up on me when I least expect it and it has happened a few times when I'm at a museum.

"This time it was at a dinosaur museum in Dorset. There was a display about Mary Anning and she just struck me as an unusual person. The fact she was working class and didn't start out as a scientist but she was collecting fossils to sell them to make a living and fell into this scientific discovery.

"And the fact she was struck by lightning as a baby, I just though that's a great way to start a novel, so I decided right then and there that I was going to write a novel about her."

Q: You seem to be drawn to the stories of working class women at unique points in history?

A: "I suppose it is a way to tell a familiar story through a different set of eyes. But in this case, it's the fossil that is representing a challenge to an old way of thinking. You could say everybody in the 19th century had creationist thinking about the world and saw the bible as a literal history of the world and it hadn't occurred to people to question that.

"(After) the discoveries Mary made, and other discoveries ... people started questioning these beliefs. That also drew me, that it was such an unusual period of time, a breakout period for science. I'm not a scientist at all, so that was quite challenging, but I enjoy a challenge. "

Q: How much research goes into your novels?

A: "A lot. Sometimes I envy contemporary writers, though perhaps that's unfair as all novelists have to do some research. If you're setting a novel in the banking world of New York, unless you are a banker, you'd have to do research.

"But what's harder about what I do, I have to learn the day-to-day social details, Even if you weren't a banker, you'd probably know what kind of clothes they wear, or places they go to. I need to research every detail. "

Q: Why did you place such emphasis on female friendship in "Remarkable Creatures?"

A: "I wanted it (to be) as much a book about the people, and about what women can get from friendship. We have this stereotype of Jane Austen novels where the women at the end find the man they marry. The two women in 'Remarkable Creatures' never married. In a way it's also an exploration of what women in that period, if they didn't marry, what did they do instead. It's an alternative to Jane Austen."

Q: What are you working on now?

A: "I'm finally setting a novel in the States. It's going to be in 19th century Ohio and it's about an English Quaker family that emigrates to Ohio and end up working on the Underground Railroad helping to free slaves."

Q: Where did that idea originate?

A: "I was visiting Ohio and Toni Morrison was there unveiling a bench. Years ago in an interview she said 'slavery has no monuments to it, not even a bench by the side of the road'. Some people took up that comment, and decided to put benches in places that were important to the history of slavery.

"It made me think about the Underground Railroad. And at the same time I was thinking about Quakerism. I went to Quaker camp when I was a child and it had a real effect on me. So I was thinking about how little silence there is in the world these days and how I miss silence. I put the two together and so the story is about a quiet 19th century woman who works on the Underground Railroad. So it all came together that way. "