The day Tracy Chevalier received the letter of acceptance confirming her place at UEA, she received a phone call from her sister telling her to go up to the roof of her London apartment building. As she climbed the steps to the open sky, she was greeted with a panorama of some seventy- five hot air balloons stretching endlessly across the city’s skyline. It was as if they were there to celebrate her new venture. Later that same week, Chevalier was making the journey down to the South Coast to visit friends. Her little 2CV found the long drive too much to bear, and the faint smell of smoke soon turned to big, engulfing flames as she pulled over. It was not that same celebratory spirit she’d initially felt the universe offer her. Her car was swallowed up by flames in front of her, but she’d got into UEA, and that delicious year of freedom on the horizon – to take her own writing seriously in the shape of an MA in creative writing- was all that mattered.
A UEA graduate, much of the conversation this evening with Andrew Cowan was spent reminiscing. Under the tutorship of the likes of Malcolm Bradbury and Rose Tremain, it was while studying for her MA that Chevalier first entertained the possibility of penning historical fiction. She became interested in giving voice to ‘ordinary women’ with ‘extraordinary lives’ as she puts it – the unsung characters of the past with stories to tell, a theme which runs through everything from the international bestseller Girl with a Pearl Earring to her more recent endeavours like The Last Runaway.
Her most recent undertaking, A Single Thread, again takes up the mantle of voicing the story of an ordinary woman, this time finding her place in 1930s England – specifically a sewing group in Winchester Cathedral. It is a testament to Chevalier that her works never feel like clumsy stereotypes in their imaginings of historical worlds. The narratives are careful negotiations between conjuring up the realms of the past and yet rendering the voices and feelings of the characters perceptible. But it isn’t easy, Chevalier noted. She labours to ensure she does not impose twenty-first-century opinions upon her characters, while also maintaining that she does not fall into the trap of making assumptions of backwardness. She is attuned to the human spirit whatever the period. Violet, of her latest novel, is a single woman in the thirties, but this doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have desires like everybody else. Chevalier challenges the notion that one’s milieu defines one’s sexual urges. ‘The Victorians hang over us’ she says, but this is to efface women’s real experiences to assume that that same infamous conservativeness of the era prevailed for centuries. Violet lives alone after her fiancé had died in the war, and she was left a ‘surplus woman’. Chevalier informs us single widows like Violet were known by this term. Violet still likes sex, and Chevalier isn’t afraid to tell us that.
Chevalier revealed her next novel to be in the works, this time focussing on the glass blowing trade. As with her other characters that have special skills – quilting, sewing, painting to name but a few – Chevalier is determined to learn once again the tricks of the trade to help make palpable her depictions of them. ‘I have to go to Venice a lot,’ to learn the skill behind making glass beads, she tells us. ‘It’s a tough life!’ she laughs.
The Autumn Literary Festival resumes Wednesday the 23rd with Steve Jones.