Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Q&A with Tracy Chevalier




Tracy Chevalier is the author of the new novel The Glassmaker. Her other novels include Girl with a Pearl Earring. She lives in London.


Q: What inspired you to write The Glassmaker, and how did you create your character Orsola?


A: Two things inspired me.


First: Years ago at an event a reader came up to me and said, “You should write about Venetian glass beads. They were made by women at their kitchen tables and got used in trade all over the world. There are interesting stories to tell. Here are some books about them.” I nodded, took the books and put them away on my shelf. But they remained at the back of my mind.


Second: When I was deciding what to write next my husband said to me, “Why don’t you set a book someplace fun that we want to visit a lot?” The beads came to mind, and I said, “How about Venice?” “That will do nicely!” he replied.


I was of course particularly interested in women’s stories that aren’t traditionally told, so it was the image of women sitting at kitchen tables making beads got me to invent Orsola Rosso, a member of the Rosso family of glassmakers.


The story follows her struggle to learn to handle glass in a male-dominated environment. We follow her and her family over the course of 500 years of Venetian history.


Q: Why did you decide to include a time travel element in the novel?


A: Early on I knew I wanted to cover a lot of Venetian history, from its heyday as a Renaissance center of trade to its decline and reemergence as a tourist destination. But I fretted about Orsola and her family and friends naturally dying early in the book.


One night I was lying in bed and I just thought, “What if they don’t die?” And so I came up with the idea of time moving differently in Venice from the rest of the world.


I did it for a practical reason – I wanted to keep my characters alive for the reader and me – but it soon started to feel very natural to have time flow differently in such a timeless city as Venice.


If you’ve ever been there you’ll have experienced it: the buildings and the canals and the boats and the lack of cars make you feel completely disconnected from the rest of the world, as if time has stopped. I didn’t stop time, but I slowed it way down.


Q: Given that the book encompasses more than 500 years, how did you research all the different time periods?


A: That was hard, particularly as a lot happens to Venice, and there are thousands of books about it. I asked a lot of people and narrowed down the research to the books people kept referring to.


And of course I visited a lot. And it took many visits to uncover layers of information, especially on Murano, the glass island where most of the glass workshops are. They don’t give up their secrets easily, and I had to be patient and listen and probe a lot to get an accurate picture of glassmaking. Even now I suspect I haven’t heard everything!


Q: Did you learn to work with glass during your research?


A: I did! I made beads several times – not very well, but I got the idea of how it’s done. And I took an afternoon workshop in glassblowing. It was a lot of fun but scary too as the furnace and glass are so hot.  All this was so that I could describe the process more accurately. I always do what my characters do if at all possible, for that reason.


I also had a lesson in rowing a boat similar to a gondola. That was very hard too. And I thought I’d have a young Venetian man as my teacher but who showed up? A petite middle-aged American woman! She was great, actually.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am taking a break from writing a long, complicated book that spans 500 years!


My next novel takes place in northern England over two months in 1826 and is based on a real event. An old man called Joe the Quilter was brutally murdered in his cottage, and they never worked out who did it. I was surprised that a man would be a quilter. I’m writing about the effect of the murder on the surrounding community. Despite the grisly violence, I’m really enjoying it, as it’s a little easier to handle than 500 years of Venetian history.


As always, people make things in the book: my heroine Agnes suffers from a mysterious illness (MS, in fact, though she wouldn’t know that back then) and finds herself limited to doing embroidery. So of course I am doing embroidery!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: A plea: my author Facebook page got hacked and taken down (modern life, eh?), and I lost all 50k followers. I have had to start from scratch and am building up followers reader by reader. Now on 485, so I have a way to go! Please follow me:




--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Tracy Chevalier.

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