Tracy Chevalier. Photo by Sven Arnstein.
You know how that saying goes, “it’s stranger than fiction”? Novelist Tracy Chevalier says a lot of inspiration can be found in the truth of that idea, even for fiction writers.
“Sometimes the real stories in life are more amazing than anything you could make up,” Chevalier said in a phone interview last week from her home in England.
Take, for example, the story in her latest work of historical fiction, “The Last Runaway.” Honor Bright is a young Quaker who recently journeyed from England to a U.S. embroiled in a conflict about slavery. Honor becomes increasingly drawn into the dangerous work of those around her helping slaves escape to Canada on the Underground Railroad.
While preparing to write Honor’s tale, Chevalier heavily researched the lives of American Quakers. Reality provided the cornerstone for her work.
“Quakers were not meant to lie, so some Quakers would blindfold themselves while helping runaway slaves,” Chevalier said. “Then, if a slave hunter asked, ‘Did you see this slave,’ they could honestly answer no. I use stories like that all the time. Research is fertilizer for the stories.”
Another activity she researched for “The Last Runaway” has become a beloved hobby for the writer — quilting. Honor Bright is an excellent seamstress and quilting plays an important cultural and emotional role in the book. Thus, Chevalier joined a group of women who quilt together regularly.
“I love it actually,” Chevalier said. “I really love it because I have a very verbal occupation. I read, write or talk. Quilting is a nonverbal creative activity.”
Readers can expect that kind of, shall we say, method writing for her next novel too, which will draw from the legend of Johnny Appleseed, she said.
Chevalier will be in Columbus tonight, speaking as a part of the Thurber House’s Evenings with Authors series. Tickets to her visit sold out fast, but you can hear the influential author speak at Oberlin College’s commencement next Monday (live stream here). Chevalier received her undergrad degree at Oberlin, the fledgling version of which is the setting for “The Last Runaway.”
Evenings with Authors: Tracy Chevalier
Columbus Museum of Art
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 21
480 E. Broad St., Downtown