Tracy Chevalier is the best-selling author of seven novels, including Girl With a Pearl Earring, Burning Bright, and, most recently, The Last Runaway. Originally from the Washington, D.C., area, she now lives in London.
Q: Your new book The Last Runaway focuses on a Quaker woman named Honor Bright, who moves from England to Ohio in 1850. What type of research did you need to do to write this book, particularly on the topic of slavery and the Underground Railroad?
A: For all of my books I read a lot, and The Last Runaway was no exception. There are a lot of books about American slavery and in particular the Underground Railroad. Most of them stem from an early book, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom, by Wilbur Siebert, published in 1898. Because it was a secret network, there is little documentation on the Underground Railroad, but Siebert interviewed a lot of people who helped runaway slaves, and based the book on that.
I also did a lot of “on the ground” research in Ohio, driving around little back roads, taking pictures, visiting old houses. That is my favorite kind of research.
Q: This is your first book to be set in the United States, where you grew up. Why did you decide to write a book with an American setting, and why did you pick the pre-Civil War era?
I always knew that at some point I would set a book in the USA. The first six have been set in Europe. I have lived in England all my adult life and yet still feel a little like an outsider, and I think that distance helps me as a writer to be a little more objective, maybe see more clearly. Now I have been away from the US for 28 years, I have enough distance to be able to write about it. I chose pre-Civil War Underground Railroad because I was drawn to the heroic actions of ordinary people who helped runaway slaves.
Q: You write on your website that you took up quilting during your research for The Last Runaway. Have there been other types of arts or crafts that you learned in the process of researching your books, some of which, perhaps most notably Girl With a Pearl Earring, involve the creation of art?
A: I love doing “hands-on” research for books, learning how to make something with my hands the way my characters do, to make the writing about it more authentic. For Remarkable Creatures, about a fossil hunter, I went fossil hunting (and found some 200 million year old dinosaur fossils!). For Burning Bright I learned to make Dorset buttons – buttons 19th-century English women made to supplement their income. And for Girl with a Pearl Earring, I took a painting class and painted some pretty terrible paintings! It did teach me how Vermeer would have handled paint, so it was worth the terrible art.
Q: Are you already working on your next novel?
A: Yes! It’s set in both the UK and USA and explores migration and how we bring trees with us wherever we go. It’s still early stages so I can’t say more.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb