On Wednesday night, I had the pleasure of attending a reading and talk by Tracy Chevalier about her new book, Remarkable Creatures. Ms. Chevalier is one of my favorite contemporary authors, and a major source of inspiration for me. Naturally, I sounded like a blubbering idiot when I got to meet her, but she gracefully received my stuttered admiration, and consented to let me post her picture on my blog.
Aside from her quiet, beautiful prose, my good feelings for Chevalier are stirred because I was introduced to her work by my late grandmother, Mary Shephard, or, “Nanny.” Nanny was a great reader, and encouraged my love of reading. I could always count on her to give me books way too mature or downright inappropriate for my age, and for that, I loved her. Some of my favorite Nanny books were Flowers in the Attic, It, Like Water for Chocolate, Angela’s Ashes, and Girl With a Pearl Earring. But I digress…
Girl With a Pearl Earring was a revelation to me. It marked the start of my love for historical fiction. It also started my interest in art inspiring art. That Chevalier could look at a painting, wonder about the girl in it, and wonder about the painter’s relationship to the girl, and from that, write an entire novel, was a marvel to me.
Remarkable Creatures is the story of a friendship between two, fossil-hunting women of separate classes, in Lyme Regis. Chevalier came up with the idea for the book while she was at a museum with her son. Tucked in the corner of the museum, was a tiny exhibit about female fossil hunter, Mary Anning. Anning survived being struck by lightning as a baby, and went on to discover some of the first complete, extinct reptiles in England. In Chevalier’s research for the book, she spent a lot of time fossil hunting in Lyme Regis, and grew to love it. When she found some of her own fossils, Chevalier said she felt Mary Anning there with her.
At her talk, Chevalier interspersed readings with discussion on her technique and inspiration, and finished up with questions. I was interested to learn that it takes her two to three years to research and write a novel, and often her ideas for the next novel come somewhere in the conclusion of a work in progress. She does a lot of research so she can write from a place of confidence, but is careful not to put too much of that into her prose. She only uses about ten percent of her research in her books, and works hard to balance history and story.
Chevalier writes her first drafts in longhand. Since she writes historical novels, I wonder if that helps her capture the mood of the time period. She keeps artifacts and visuals around her when she writes, and generally draws her inspiration from things she has seen, or places she has been.
During the Q&A period, someone mentioned her effective use of figurative language, and referenced a sentence from Remarkable Creatures that Chevalier had read aloud. Her character was struck by lightning and said, “I felt like a stocking turned inside out.” Chevalier went on to say she actually didn’t like that metaphor because it made the reader stop and think. She also referenced a metaphor in Girl With a Pearl Earring that bothers her. Chevalier’s goal is to have smooth, readable text, so when figurative language makes the reader pause, she thinks she hasn’t met her goal. As a writer, it was reassuring to hear about her difficulties, uncertainties, and criticisms from her editor, and she was generous in discussing all of it.
Chevalier’s work in progress is about Quakers in Ohio, and the Underground Railroad. I look forward to reading and reviewing Remarkable Creatures. For more information, go to Tracy’s website or follow her on Twitter.