Dartmouth Park author Tracy Chevalier: ‘Why I’ll never write a sequel to Girl with a Pearl Earring’

Award winning writer Tracy Chevalier talked about her latest novel The Last Runaway at the Hampstead

Award winning writer Tracy Chevalier talked about her latest novel The Last Runaway at the Hampstead & Highgate Literary Festival. Picture: Nigel Sutton - Credit: Nigel Sutton

It’s been 17 years since her most famous novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring, was published to worldwide critical acclaim, but the book’s ghost continues to haunt Tracy Chevalier.

“You don’t ever want to be predictable,” she says. “People always ask me if there’s going to be a sequel to Girl with a Pearl Earring, but why would I want to do that? That book is gone for me.”

No-one familiar with the Dartmouth Park author’s previous seven novels could accuse her of lazily treading the same ground.

Her books may all be historical fiction, but that is where the similarities end, with stories ranging from that of a 1800s fossil hunter in Dorset in Remarkable Creatures (2009), to a tale of medieval tapestry weavers in The Lady and the Unicorn (2003).

So her latest, At the Edge of the Orchard, marks a first for the 53-year-old as it is set in exactly the same time and place as her 2013 novel, The Last Runaway: 1850s Ohio.

“It’s not what I normally do,” admits Chevalier. “But then I thought about it and said to myself: Tracy, no-one knows what you are going to do next. That’s the great thing about being unpredictable.”

The idea of being labelled predictable seems to preoccupy her, as she quickly adds: “But this book is very different to the last one in its themes, so it doesn’t really bother me.

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“But I can say definitively that the next book will not be set in 1850s Ohio.”

Her latest tome is in two distinct halves, with the first telling the story of an American pioneer couple who fight over which apples they should grow in their orchard on a malaria-ridden swamp and the effect this has on their children.

We then follow their youngest, Robert, as he leaves the family nucleus for gold rush-era California to pursue the American dream.

Throughout, their story is told through their relationships with trees: apple, and giant sequoias.

Centring her novels around inanimate objects is a common theme for Chevalier. In Girl with a Pearl Earring, it was Vermeer’s famous painting. In 2001’s Falling Angels, it was the gravestones of Highgate Cemetery.

“Things just inspire me, whether it’s a painting, or a cemetery, or a tapestry,” she explains. “There’s always something there, a story to be told. I think it’s natural to start from a concrete point.

“I’m not the type of writer who decides she is going to write an experimental novel about ‘existence’. That’s not how it works.

“I start from a totally concrete thing, like a painting or an apple tree, and then from there move to the more general.”

Chevalier spent six months researching her novel before even beginning to write, which she says is a crucial stage of her creative process.

On top of reading extensively about real-life pioneer apple grower and folk hero, Johnny Appleseed – and why he might not have been the saintly figure he is now portrayed to be – she also took trips to California and Ohio’s Black Swamp, where much of the novel is set.

“I want people to get an accurate sense of what it was like to live then,” she says. “Fiction can tell the truth more readily than non-fiction, I think.

“In fiction, people can feel like they are really there. They experience it, and are sucked into that world.

“But to really believe it, you have to be as accurate as you can. That applies to all fiction.

“It seems more obvious with historical fiction, but it’s the same with contemporary fiction. Both have to get it right. There’s nothing worse otherwise,” she adds.

“I was reading a novel set in London, and it said the character got on the Northern line but got off at Finsbury Park. I just thought, no!

“Those mistakes can ruin a book.”

Some of her research in the name of historical accuracy was a lot closer to home than Ohio or California, though.

Unlikely inspiration came from Hampstead Heath, as well as her own neighbourhood.

“One thing I learned was that Dartmouth Park used to be an orchard, and there are a lot of pear and apple trees left from that time,” she says. “There’s also a redwood on Hampstead Heath. It’s not as big as a sequoia, but I often went and looked at it. I collected cones and gathered bark, whenever I needed inspiration.”

Trees and the hundreds of apple varieties have become somewhat of a passion for her since this book, another hobby to add to her love of quilting and fossil-hunting on wintry, English beaches.

Many of these activities feature in her novels, but she says that the books came first.

“It’s always writing that leads me to the hobbies, rather than the other way around,” she explains.

Despite only releasing her latest book on Tuesday, she is already hard at work on her next project: a novel-version of Shakespeare’s Othello, set in a 1970s American school playground, where all the characters are 11-years-old.

Tasked with reinventing one of the Bard’s classics by the Hogarth Shakespeare project, inspiration for the re-imagining this time comes from recent history – namely her own childhood experience of growing up in Washington before she moved to the UK aged 22.

“It is about being an outsider, and having outsider experiences,” she says. “I went to a school mainly full of black kids, where I was one of the only white kids, so I’m writing it based on that experience.

“But instead of reversing it so that Othello is white, he will still be black, but I channelled my experiences into it.

“I’ve found that it’s so much easier doing the research if you’re writing about something that’s based on your life,” she admits.

“It’s like Shakespeare came up with a story just for me!”

She imagines the book, to be published next year, will be the closest she ever gets to writing a “modern-day” novel.

And surely no-one could have predicted that.

At The Edge of the Orchard is published by Harper Collins priced £16.99.