Can you dig it?
A lightening bolt of inspiration inspired Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl With a Pearl Earring, to write about an unusual fossil hunter from Lyme Regis.
“Where do you get your ideas from?” is a question frequently asked of authors. For historical novelist Tracy Chevalier, it’s easy to answer: “Girl With a Pearl Earring came from a painting. Falling Angels was inspired by a tour around a cemetery. And Remarkable Creatures was sparked off by a trip to a museum with my son…”
More specifically, it was a display about Mary Anning, an early 19th century fossil hunter from Lyme Regis whom Chevalier had never heard of. “I read that she was struck by lightning as a baby. Although she survived, the woman holding her was killed, and that seemed pretty amazing…” So began Chevalier’s sixth novel, Remarkable Creatures. “My biggest challenge was to make fossils sexy,” she jokes.
For Chevalier, 46, it all begins with research. “I’ll get to know my subject as much as I can. For instance, what Mary would have worn, what her world would have looked and smelt like – although much of that research ends up not being used. It’s real case of ‘kill your darlings’,” she laughs. “I’ll discover great details that I’m desperate to include, but which just won’t fit in.”
It’s her light touch – there is no sense of wading through superfluous historical detail – that makes her novels such a pleasure to devour. “I throw myself into that world,” she says. For Pearl Earring – the movie of which starred Colin Firth as Dutch painter Vermeer, and Scarlett Johansson as his young maid Griet – she took painting classes and travelled to Delft, where the novel was set. For Remarkable Creatures, she made numerous trips to Lyme Regis. “Soon after I’d finished the book, I took some friends there. Usually, I’d have been taking notes and thinking, ‘Should I say the cliff’s that colour? Should I mention that house?’ It was lovely to be just be there, without thinking about the damn book.” Yet the post-writing period isn’t all pleasure. “It’s a welcome gear switch after spending so long writing, which can be exhausting and painful. But then, after a while, I’m longing for the solitude of writing again…”
A ‘nerdy’, book-loving child, Chevalier grew up in Washington DC with yearnings to be a writer, although she didn’t pen stories until her twenties. After gaining a BA in English at Oberlin College, Ohio, she moved to London in 1984, expecting to return home after six months to ‘get serious’. Instead, she enrolled on an MA course in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, where she was tutored by Rose Tremain and Malcolm Bradbury and wrote her first novel, The Virgin Blue. She remembers a fellow student remarking, “If the reader doesn’t understand, that’s their problem.” This struck her as utterly wrong. “A book is a contract between me and the reader,” she says. “To me, success means being able to create an imaginary world that people are willing to live in. When I’m reading, I love to be completely hooked.”
I mention one of her reviewers on Amazon who warns: “Don’t read this on the bus – you’ll miss your stop.” “That’s great,” she says, “but you know, I don’t read those reviews any more. You can get a hundred five-star reviews and it’s the one bad one that sticks in your mind. Joe Public doesn’t mince words.” Does she worry that her current book won’t be as well received as her last? “Yes, of course. I’m never sure if a book’s worked. I’ll send it off to my agent and editor and wait for that phone call. They might say it’s fantastic or a piece of trash and I’d accept either opinion.” She likens it to being a parent: “You love your children and think they’re witty and smart. It’s impossible to be objective. With a book, I only know it’s finished when I can’t do anything more to make it better.”
Chevalier works from the North London home she shares with her husband and their ten year-old son. She sounds slightly unsure of what her next project might be: “I’m struggling a little and I’ve never been in this position before. Usually, it’s “boom” – the idea hits me. I read an interview with Ian McEwan where he said that he always had six or seven ideas simmering away, and it was just a matter of choosing one… I could have screamed!” she exclaims. “I never have six or seven ideas. I have the one that worms into my head, then it feels as if I have no choice but to hop on that road and start a new journey.”
It’s a journey her legion of fans will be keen to make with her.
Tracy Chevalier, Charlotte Square, 18 August 11.30am From £7 0845 373 5888
If you like this, try Gaynor Arnold & Jenny Diski at Charlotte Square, 18 August