One writer’s Kew: ap­ples and red­woods

The Daily Telegraph - Gardening - - Write On Kew -

Tracy Che­va­lier tells Olivia Parker how her love of Kew Gar­dens sowed the seeds of her lat­est novel

Tracy Che­va­lier’s ca­reer has pro­vided her with a cu­ri­ous col­lec­tion of hob­bies. Some the au­thor keeps up for years, oth­ers fade, but each is a prod­uct of the painstak­ing re­search she con­ducts prior to writ­ing a new novel.

She learnt fos­sil hunt­ing for Re­mark­able Crea­tures, the story of 19th-cen­tury col­lec­tor Mary An­ning, and quilt­ing for The Last Run­away, her 2013 novel about a Quaker girl mov­ing to Ohio. Ver­meer, whose paint­ing Girl with a Pearl Ear­ring in­spired her best-known book, will al­ways re­main a fas­ci­na­tion.

But the fruits of her re­search for her lat­est novel, At the Edge of the Or­chard, will likely stay with her for the long­est, she says. The story cen­tres on Robert Good­e­nough, who grows up in the 1830s in Ohio’s un­for­giv­ing Black Swamp. His set­tler par­ents strug­gle to make a liv­ing from their ap­ple trees and ar­gue fu­ri­ously over whether to grow more sour “spit­ters” – only good for drink­ing – or “eaters”.

As an adult, Good­e­nough roams across Amer­ica, get­ting caught up in the Cal­i­for­nia gold rush be­fore meet­ing Wil­liam Lobb, a real-life Bri­tish plant col­lec­tor who in­tro­duces him to seed gath­er­ing.

“At the Edge of the Or­chard was about dis­parate pieces of my life com­ing to­gether,” says Che­va­lier, 53. “Trees have been bub­bling around in the fam­ily for a long time.” She hasn’t led a par­tic­u­larly ru­ral life, al­though she has fond mem­o­ries of climb­ing beech trees as a child. She now lives with her hus­band and son in north Lon­don but was born and raised in Wash­ing­ton DC, where her fa­ther was a Wash­ing­ton Post pho­tog­ra­pher.

She first came to Eng­land in 1982 to study – she moved over for good in 1984 – and fell in love with Kew Gar­dens. She will speak about her new book later this month at the Write on Kew lit­er­ary fes­ti­val.

“I went to Kew back when they had turn­stiles and you had to put a 10p coin in,” she says. “I re­mem­ber be­ing amazed by the pagoda. Most peo­ple re­mem­ber the Palm House but the pagoda just seemed so sur­pris­ing. You looked down that long av­enue and saw it at the end. I thought it was hi­lar­i­ous.”

Che­va­lier’s love af­fair with both Kew and trees blos­somed when she met her Bri­tish hus­band, Jonathan Drori, in 1991. For­merly BBC head of com­mis­sion­ing, Drori had grown up vis­it­ing Kew ev­ery week and was un­til last year a trustee. “He would sprin­kle the con­ver­sa­tion with ref­er­ences to plants and trees and I grew used to that. It didn’t seem un­usual to me to ex­tend that into my own writ­ing,” says Che­va­lier.

At the Edge of the Or­chard first took root in her mind while she was edit­ing a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries about trees for the Wood­land Trust. Some time later she read about the Amer­i­can nurs­ery­man John Chap­man, who was known as Johnny Ap­ple­seed, in

In­spi­ra­tion: Tracy Che­va­lier out­side the Palm House at Kew Gar­dens, top; gi­ant se­quoia trees, Cal­i­for­nia, right

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