Tracy Chevalier: 'Writing about history reminds us to slow down'

PUBLISHED: 13:00 13 October 2015 | UPDATED: 14:25 13 October 2015

Award winning writer Tracy Chevalier. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Award winning writer Tracy Chevalier. Picture: Nigel Sutton

© Nigel Sutton email pictures@nigelsuttonphotography.com

For her appearance at Archway With Words, the Dartmouth Park novelist is digging up her 2009 book, Remarkable Creatures, she tells Alex Bellotti.

With the rise of e-books and digital publishing, there is a tendency for audiences to demand more of authors. As Tracy Chevalier is well aware, the moment she releases one book, she is being asked by fans when the next one is coming out, but the oft-described ‘historical fiction’ writer has a rather adverse reaction to it all.

“It’s all a lot faster and I think that may have the effect of saying, ‘Let’s not look backwards, let’s look forwards’,” says the 52-year-old. “I feel that as a result I’m all the more adamant to write about history, just to remind us to slow down and maybe look behind us a little bit.”

Best known for her 1999 novel Girl With A Pearl Earring, which spawned a 2003 film adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson, the American writer will be talking at Archway With Words about another work from her back catalogue, Remarkable Creatures.

Written in 2009, the book tells the real-life story of Mary Anning, a 19th century fossil hunter who discovered some of the earliest dinosaur remains in England. Having spent her whole life as a working class woman living in Lyme Regis, much of Remarkable Creatures revolves around Anning’s friendship with her middle-class friend and rival Elizabeth Philpot, and how the relationship develops as their fortunes turn in different directions.

“The idea of extinction was very opposite to what Christians believed at the time, which was that God created everything at the same time, so why would God create something and then let it die out?” Chevalier says. “So it had a huge impact on science, on philosophy and religion and a lot of it started with [Anning’s] discoveries.”

The writer didn’t want the novel to be “simply a political document”, so like her other historical stories, its central relationship forms its timeless emotional heart.

Nonetheless, to research the story, Chevalier had to go beyond simple trips to the library.

“There’s always some sort of passion I become fully involved with when writing. Of course I would go and look at records, but the best research is done out on the beach fossil hunting.

“If I was going to write about Mary Anning doing that, I needed to do it myself. The other things is that the landscape around Lyme Regis is so striking that it becomes a character in itself and in order to write about it you have to spend a lot of time there.”

Having lived for 16 years in Dartmouth Park, Chevalier has also spent a lot of time in Archway.

While delighted to be involved in the festival, which she believes is helping to shed Archway’s “slightly maligned” reputation, she has a striking early recollection of the area.

“I was almost mugged in Archway when I first lived here in the ‘80s. There’s a tunnel that goes under the road, and I was walking through that when some guys came over, asked me what time it was and surrounded me.

“I just looked at them and said, ‘I am not f***ing into this today! I’m not going to let this happen to me today – I’ve had a bad day and this is just not on! They went, ‘Oh’ and parted ways, letting me through. It was really funny!”

Tracy Chevalier will be talking about Remarkable Creatures on October 15. Visit archwaywithwords.com

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