‘I want to scream for th­ese women’

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - INSIDER | BOOK CLUB - KERRY PAR­NELL

To write a best­seller is ev­ery au­thor’s dream — but what hap­pens af­ter­wards? Does the suc­cess make it eas­ier, or add ex­tra pres­sure? Ac­cord­ing to Tracy Che­va­lier, whose global smash-hit Girl With A Pearl Ear­ring just turned 20 years old, you should not try to re­peat the for­mula. “I sud­denly had an au­di­ence and that is a won­der­ful feel­ing,” she says.

“But the hard thing about fol­low­ing a suc­cess is not to lis­ten to peo­ple sug­gest­ing I write a se­quel or about an­other art work. I have to con­vince peo­ple to trust me and fol­low my some­times es­o­teric choices of sub­ject.”

While Che­va­lier hasn’t re­peated the premise of Girl With A Pearl Ear­ring, a his­tor­i­cal novel which sold three mil­lion copies, set around the Ver­meer paint­ing, she has cer­tainly not been short of ideas, with her 10th novel out now.

A Sin­gle Thread tells the story of a group of women em­broi­der­ers in Eng­land’s Winch­ester Cathe­dral, in the 1930s. The story fol­lows Vi­o­let, one of the “sur­plus women” as they were known, left sin­gle from World War I and is a blend of his­tor­i­cal fact and ro­mance, with a sprin­kling of magic.

Che­va­lier, 56, says plots usu­ally come when she is not look­ing. “Ideas spring upon me sud­denly. I’ll see some­thing — a paint­ing, an ar­ti­cle about some me­dieval ta­pes­tries — and it will spark a thought that there’s a story there,” she says.

“Once I start re­search­ing it takes at least six months be­fore I be­gin writ­ing.” The Amer­i­can-born, Bri­tish-based au­thor says she ini­tially went search­ing for other sto­ries in Winch­ester Cathe­dral, but came out with a dif­fer­ent idea.

“Jane Austen is buried there, there are English Civil War sto­ries in­volv­ing it, and in the early 20th cen­tury a diver sin­gle­hand­edly saved the build­ing by spend­ing five years shoring up its foun­da­tions,” she says.

“I was check­ing out th­ese sto­ries and I came across a huge num­ber of bright­ly­coloured cush­ions and kneel­ers in the cathe­dral.

“I found out they were made by a group of vol­un­teers — mostly women — in the early 1930s, and I just knew I wanted to write about them.”

In do­ing so, she faced the chal­lenge of telling the story of a qui­etly-de­ter­mined 1930s woman, with­out im­bu­ing her with too much modern-day think­ing. “One of the hard­est jobs of an his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ist is not let­ting modern per­cep­tions creep into the char­ac­ters,” she says.

“I had to po­lice my­self. It was par­tic­u­larly hard, as sin­gle women then were treated with such con­de­scen­sion, their lives so ground down, that I wanted to scream for them.”

The prose, as with all her nov­els, is fluid and easy to read, which is, of course, any­thing but sim­ple to pro­duce. Che­va­lier writes her books by hand, typ­ing them up at the end of the day.

“I like the feel of pen and pa­per, I feel much more con­nected to the words than if I’m typ­ing, it’s more or­ganic,” she says.

“I draft and re­draft a lot. Each time I’ll look at a sen­tence and think, ‘OK, do I need all th­ese words? Is there any­thing I can cut out?’ Each word has to work for its place. It’s hard, but it smooths the prose out, and that makes it more fluid.”

She says each novel takes her around three years to com­plete and she comes up with an idea three-quar­ters of the way through the pre­vi­ous one.

Che­va­lier is al­ready on to her next book, about Vene­tian glass beads. “This one I sense is go­ing to be a big­ger, bag­gier book, span­ning six cen­turies,” she says. “I still have a lot of re­search to do.”

With her pro­lific work ethic, it’s sur­pris­ing Tracy is also a vo­ra­cious reader.

“I love read­ing, it is like breath­ing. I al­ways have a book on the go,” she says. “I am in the mid­dle of Mar­garet At­wood’s The Tes­ta­ments. I was wor­ried it would be a flop — se­quels can be such let­downs — but it’s ge­nius.

“I also rec­om­mend Ann Patch­ett’s The Dutch House. When I started it I just went, ‘Oh, I can re­lax, I’m in good hands here’,” she says, which is ex­actly how a reader would de­scribe her nov­els. A SIN­GLE THREAD, BY TRACY CHE­VA­LIER AND PUB­LISHED BY HARPERCOLL­INS AUS­TRALIA, IS OUT NOW

Au­thor Tracy Che­va­liereva­lier has turned her at­ten­tion to the “sur­plus women” of World War I in A Sin­gle Thread.

From pre-war Eng­land to the heart of Holo­caust Europe. Our Book of the Month for Septem­ber is The Collaborat­or, a novel based on a true story by Syd­ney’s Diane Arm­strong, who es­caped the 1940s Nazi hor­ror as a child. To get a copy for a 30 per cent dis­count go to Book­topia and use the code NCBT19; and tell us what you’re lov­ing (or not) at the Sun­day Book Club group on Face­book.

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