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Tracy Chevalier

From a Pearl Earring to the Black Swamp. Tracy Chevalier’s new book, At the Edge of the Orchard, encompasses American myths from Johnny Appleseed to the Gold Rush

T

racy Chevalier, best known as the author of Girl with a Pearl Earring and a series of crticially and commercially successful historical novels, was born in Washington, DC. The capital is a strange place. Most ‘DC people’ seem to have gone there, not come from there. “I know,” she laughs, “Washington’s a transient town. I am one of the few, it appears! Funnily enough my father wasn’t in politics or government, he was a photographer for the Washington Post – a different take on what goes on in the city. At the time, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was very provincial. Much different to now. It had the Smithsonian and touristy things, but very few theaters. It was also very tense racially. On TV it looks like a white, government town, but actually the population is 70 percent black. Actually it’s nothing to do with race – it’s economic and social, there’s a lot of poverty still. And it’s a ‘one company town’, if you’re in the government it’s probably a wonderful place to be, it’s the center of everything. But there’s no industry

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there. I go back to visit, but I couldn’t imagine going back to live thereafter going away to college.” College was Oberlin, Ohio: the first American higher learning institution to regularly admit female and black students as well as white males. Was that liberal heritage a draw? Without hesitation she says, “Yeah! I knew its progressive reputation, and it had an excellent English department. It fitted me perfectly.” While at Oberlin Tracy discovered art, particularly Vermeer “as a novice, but I’d love to go back and study it formally.” After graduating, Tracy ‘headed East, young lady’, to work for book publishers Macmillan and St. James Press. “I always loved books and wanted to write, or to be a librarian – my source of books when I was young was the public library. It was only when I went to college that I discovered there’s a thing called publishing. Most people don’t really think about where books come from. They have a direct communication with the writer, they don’t care about the

industry. In my junior year at Oberlin I did a semester for English majors over here in London and fell in love with the city. Publishing in the States meant moving to New York and for a DC kid New York was terrifying. So when I graduated I got a BUNAC work permit and three of us came over. We had a wonderful time. Then I met a guy… and that made me stay. It wasn’t a grand plan, but thirty years later I’m still here, and very happy.” An MA at University of East Anglia followed, under tutors including novelists Malcolm Bradbury and Rose Tremain, after the desire to write her own words overtook the editing work. It was probably the top creative writing course in the country. Short stories were followed by a first published novel, The Virgin Blue, then came the idea for Girl with a Pearl Earring. Some actors say they don’t like being remembered for one role – is it a burden or a door-opener? “Burden is too strong, but it’s hard to get away from it. I feel lucky – I still love looking at Vermeer paintings, I

The American Magazine March-April 2016 Issue 750  

The leading cross-media publication for Americans in the UK - and anyone interested in American culture

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