Why Literature Matters – interview with Tracy Chevalier
Tracy Chevalier talks to the RSL’s Literary Advisor Maggie Fergusson about why literature matters to her.
When did literature begin to matter for you?
I was a voracious reader as a kid in the 1960s – I think a lot of kids were in those days. I used to go to the library every week, and get a big stack of books, and the children’s librarian knew me and would sometimes set aside a book for me specially, and ask me about it afterwards. So from very early on I had somebody who cared about my reading habits, and I think that makes a big difference.
My mother got sick when I was three and died when I was eight and because she was in bed a lot I had to entertain myself. Books became a comfort and an escape – and that continued after she died. I think this consolidated my feelings about books: right from an early age, I knew that I wanted to be involved with books somehow in my life – either by writing them or by being a librarian (because that’s where I thought the source of books was). And later I figured out there was this thing called publishing, and I wanted to go into that. So it’s always been uppermost in my mind that that’s what I would do.
Did you come from a family where literature mattered?
Yes. My parents encouraged me in the very beginning. They routinely read to my siblings and me before bed. This was not unusual in those days – books had more of an obvious important place in people’s lives than they do now. Now, there are so many other things vying for your attention. But back in the sixties there were books and television, and that was about it. Having said that, my brother isn’t a great reader. So I think coming to love books and literature is partly cultural, what goes on in a family, but partly instinctive too. You often hear that in a family there’s one big reader, and then others who don’t read at all.
When did you begin to like particular literary genres?
In my pre-teens and teens I got very keen on fantasy of a certain sort – Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising – medieval, faux medieval. I loved Lord of the Rings. I think it was a kind of escapism.
When did you first begin to think seriously about becoming a writer?
I was 30 when I did my degree in creative writing at UEA. I did my undergraduate degree in the States, then moved to England and worked in publishing for several years. I was always writing stories on the side. Then I decided to flip it and have writing be my primary activity, and freelance editing to make ends meet. I think it was good that I did it when I was 30 – I knew what the working world was like, I knew what deadlines were about. I was slightly more practical than some of the younger people on the course.
I was lucky enough to be taught by both Malcolm Bradbury and Rose Tremain. I think it might have been their last year working together. By then Malcolm was a little tired, and not that accessible. Rose was a more aware teacher. She became a mentor to me and a model to me. When I started the course I read Restoration, and it was the first historical novel I’d read when I thought, ‘Yes, I see how you do this’ – how you make historical fiction fresh and relevant, rather than writing like Georgette Heyer. It had a profound influence on me.
Your second novel, The Girl With The Pearl Earring, became a huge bestseller. How did that affect your writing life?
You have to remember that when I was writing it I had no idea it’d be a bestseller. I thought it might sell 500 copies, and then get remaindered. And it wasn’t a bestseller overnight. It was a word-of-mouth bestseller, and those take a while to get going. So it took a couple of years for it to sink in. Then the film came along, and that consolidated my reputation. It was a great boost. I was able to stop freelance editing, and from then on I had a built in audience and readership.
I’m very lucky, because I’m so aware that the market for books is getting smaller and smaller. There’s such a spectrum of types of publishing now – crowd-funding, self-publishing etc. There’s so much competition online.
You give a lot of your time to helping other writers through organisations like the Society of Authors. Do you have a strong sense of duty to the world of literature?
Most writers don’t really think about doing these things, and I think there’s just a small pool of us willing to take on stuff, be on boards etc. I was invited to join the committee at the Society of Authors in 2006. It wasn’t something I sought out. But before I knew it I was Chair, and then I was asked to do Public Lending Right, and then the Royal Literary Fund, and I’m also a trustee on the British Library. It’s another strand of my life – and it does feel like giving something back. Not everybody has the time or the inclination to do this kind of work. Board meetings can be long and boring; there’s a lot of petty politics. But I think if you can do it, it’s very worthwhile.
Why does literature matter?
Literature Matters because it’s still the best way to get inside the head of someone completely different from you, and see the world from their point of view. Doing that strengthens you and makes you more empathetic. You become a citizen of the world.