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Saturday, October 14, 2006

INTERVIEW WITH TRACY CHEVALIER

Published in the Book Review newspaper Knizhnaya Vitrina in May 2006

Elena Dedukhina: You did a year-long MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia. Do you think that every aspiring writer nowadays should take such a course by all means if he/she wants to become successful and recognized?

Tracy Chevalier: Not necessarily. These courses will certainly help some aspiring writers, as
mine helped me, by providing: 1. a break from real life so that I could concentrate all my time and energy on writing; 2. structure in the form of assignments and deadlines; 3. a built-in critical audience to read my work and make suggestions on how I could improve my work. Some people need this
sort of discipline; others don't.

Elena Dedukhina: How strong the influence of the tutors usually is on aspiring writers taking such courses?

Tracy Chevalier: It depends on the personality of the tutor. Some are dominant people who imprint their tastes on others; others - like mine, Malcolm Bradbury and Rose Tremain - are supportive without being overwhelming.


Elena Dedukhina: What is the most valuable lesson did you take from your tutor, Rose Tremain?

Tracy Chevalier: Rose Tremain writes historical novels too, and she told me not to overdo the research. Read and take notes, then put those notes away and simply write. The important thing is the story, not all the research you've done. It was
the best advice she gave me.


Elena Dedukhina: Nowadays it seems that without some share of mystery the book might not work all in all; a simple, anita brookner's kind of narrative will not survive; or it won't grab attention of the potential readers and thus the whole work can be declared as a complete disaster for it's not going to be sold in thousands and millions copies after all. Your novels, at least the one that Russian readers are familiar with - The Virgin Blue - has also that kind of mystery and suspense. How much is it important for you to create a mystery in your works? In each work individually?

Tracy Chevalier: I think it's true that as readers we have become impatient with mood and description, and are looking for the more muscular thrill of a plot that keeps the pages turning. I am like that as a reader, I admit; I get very bored if the words create an effect without a story to keep me interested.
I'm rather embarrassed to admit that I don't read a lot of poetry, as I get impatient. I prefer Tolstoy over Mandelshtam, in other words.

So I am very aware of wanting to tell a story that keeps people reading. My favourite compliment is when a reader tells me they had to stay up late reading my books to find out what happens!

It's not always a mystery, however, that keeps a plot going. Sometimes as a reader you know what's going to happen and yet it is so satisfying to read it happening. The Virgin Blue is probably the most mysterious of my books; the rest certainly have plots but they are maybe more predictable. I see each book as a journey that characters take, and that journey changes them. The reader reads because they want to witness those changes.


Elena Dedukhina: It's apparent that the colour (the meaning of it) plays a considerate, if not to say a major, part in your novels (that's exactly what I like most in your works - the colour, the light you create through the narration). You even admitted that before starting working on each novel you "chose the notebook to reflect the book" you were working on: dark red
velvet for the Unicorn, orange for Girl... etc. How did you come to that? Was it something that came naturally or was it something that you initially set for yourself in order to distinguish yourself from the rest writers' population?

Tracy Chevalier: I have always been visual, and I love colour, so it was natural to include it in my writing. I didn't think about it consciously, it just happened. It's interesting: I have spoken to other writers and we've found that there is usually one word we get hung up on as we're writing, a word we use a lot
and have to find synonyms for. For some it is "said", others "take", others "go". For me it is "see". My characters are always looking, watching, staring, studying, etc. And that's because it's such an important thing for me.

Elena Dedukhina: The plots of your novels were sprung out of the art objects – pictures (Girl With A pearl Earring), tapestries (The Lady and the Unicorn), sculptures (Falling Angels)... What if one day your inspiration will dry out in that direction? Will you be waiting for it coming back to you or there are plenty of other topics you will be interested in, and you'll get yourself engaged into exploring and writing about? What are they, other topics?

Tracy Chevalier: I often worry (I think most writers do) that I will stop having ideas for novels! It is a scary thought. But I have been lucky so far. Each time as I'm writing a book, about halfway through I have the idea for the next one. I never know when I'm going to have it, I just get a spark - usually when
I've seen something, a painting or a tapestry or a statue. But it's not always art. I have just finished a novel about the poet/painter William Blake, and with him it was a combination of words and images. And my idea for the next book has nothing to do with art, but is going to be about a 19th-century woman fossil collector. I had that idea by seeing an engraving
of her collecting fossils, and then going and finding fossils myself. So it was a combination of seeing and touching.

Elena Dedukhina: Many Russian readers became aware of your works after they had seen the film based on your novel 'Girl with a Pearl Earring'. Generally speaking, a lot of people think that a film version of a book gives some kind of a second life to any novel for it triggers public interest to it. Don't you think that such dependence on a vision art makes a contemporary author more, let's say 'tractable', because he/she is always keeping in mind the possibility of gaining extra points if the work is worthy attracting people from the film industry?

Tracy Chevalier: I never write books thinking they might become films. I think it's a terrible idea for a writer to do that, and they are idiots to do such a thing. Books and films tell stories in such different ways, and if you try to write a "filmable" book you will compromise your storytelling and the book just won't be as good. Of course it's tempting, for indeed more people see a film than read a book, and so it brings your work to a wider audience, but that is rare and lucky, and is not something a writer should strive for.

I felt very lucky that the film of Pearl Earring turned out so well, but I can think of plenty of good novels that were made into terrible films. That doesn't help the book much, does it? So I think writers should concentrate on writing, and not think much about possible films.


Elena Dedukhina: You came to Britain from America and started your writing career in Britain, so it's safe to say that you're a British writer. Now, from your own point of view, what are the main differences between contemporary British and American literature world (in all senses)? Why do you think so many quite established American writers feel the urge to go to Britain and
Europe in search of their inspiration? And have you ever felt the reverse urge - to go back to America in order to set your next novel in that land? Why?


Tracy Chevalier: I think the main difference between British and American writers is the size of their perspective. Americans have a tendency to think they own the world - for better and worse! So they write generously and with confidence that
many people will read what they have to say. However, they tend to set their works in contemporary America, and expect people all over the world to take interest in that. British writers are much more circumspect and self-deprecating. Their perspective is narrower and more focused. On the other hand, they know more about the world, and so are likelier to set books in places other than Britain.

In other words, Americans are flashier, more generous, and sometimes arrogant and tedious; British are more regional, more repressed, yet much worldlier and more knowledgeable.

I guess I would love to think I take the positive aspects of each!

I think American writers like to bust out of the American way to free themselves from the insularity of America and be challenged by different perspectives. It's funny, but I have never been in the least tempted to set a novel in America, either in the present or in the past.

Copyright © Elena Dedukhina 2006
Copyright © Knizhnaya Vitrina 2006

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