One writer’s Kew: apples and redwoods
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