Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Talking Through the Trees with Tracy Chevalier

Tracy Chevalier Interview
Cover image of At the Edge of the Orchard; http://www.tchevalier.com/
At the Edge of the Orchard (release date March 15th, 2016) is the latest novel from Tracy Chevalier, the NYT best-selling author of Girl with a Pearl Earring. Within this settler saga set amidst the juxtaposition of opportunity and struggle in the mid-nineteenth century, the quests for survival, growth, and flourishing in unforgiving and foreign landscapes, belong as much to the varieties of trees as they do to the individuals that foster them. 
Like the inner rings of the trees increasing over time, there is an internal ripple effect stemming from the dire discord of James and Sadie Goodenough, coming to bear as their youngest, Robert, must finally choose a course for his own destiny.
Rich with cultural and mythical symbolism as an “origin fruit,” the apple beats as the heart of the story with its timeless dichotomy of sweet and sour connotations—redemption, health, eternal youth, love, knowledge, sin, death, temptation and destruction. Apple trees were one of the first specimens of trees to be actively cultivated, and over millennia, have journeyed around the world.
As we in our native MA interview Chevalier who resides in England but is  returning to her country of origin on a visit  for her US book tour, it seems fitting to note that the earliest apple orchard in North America was planted by British settler, Reverend William Blackstone (Blaxton) right here in Boston, MA. At the Edge of the Orchard travels across the Atlantic to take root in our hearts and minds just in time for spring.
Coinciding with the book’s release, we are featuring this excerpt from our interview here on Inscribing Industry, our magazine’s associated blog. Our full interview will appear in the magazine website’s spring-summer anniversary issue due out on May 22nd which celebrates eight years and eighty countries. (See magazine link following interview excerpt)
In the exchange below, we ponder the formative uses of adversity in nature and man, gain perspective about the power of our roots as we place ourselves along the continuum of the past, and sift truth from myth through the textual history of the unsaid. 

Interview with Tracy Chevalier by Nicole M. Bouchard

             On parallel catalysts for growth applied to nature and mankind
In your soon-to-be-released novel, At the Edge of the Orchard, apple trees and sequoias flourish in environments far from their native lands. There is a dedication at the beginning of the book—“For Claire and Pascale, finding their way in the world”—that could easily also speak to a number of the protagonists in your novels who come into themselves once they cross oceans, city lines or thresholds, reminiscent of your own journey toward destiny from America to England. Plants and trees require space and light to grow. People require the kind of space that delineates their identity, be it a literal distance traveled or an interior journey precipitated by change,  inviting 'light' or 'illumination' of insight. Yet, another key component of growth, is metaphorically reflected in the findings of your research for the novel that revealed how sequoias require fire to not only release their seeds but to gain access to nutrients that help them sprout and develop. Further seemingly destructive forces that benefit plant life include lightning and lava. It begs a question about the seemingly destructive agents of change that benefit us. Given the dynamic forms of change that your memorable characters encounter, the internal and societal obstacles they overcome that shape them, do you feel that in likeness to trees and plant life, that the greatest growth of an individual is achieved by “space,” “light,” and  trial by fire?

Wow, that’s a good way of putting it! I admit, when I write a book, I do it by instinct, and analysis comes after. But that makes a lot of sense. One of the fascinating things I learned about redwoods and giant sequoias, for example, is that they actually NEED forest fires—the heat makes the cones burst and the seeds disperse. Plus fires clear the undergrowth and create nutrients (such as carbon) in the soil that helps the seeds to germinate. Now that we are controlling forest fires so much more, there are fewer seedlings growing in sequoia and redwood groves. That means further down the line there may be fewer trees to replace the old ones that die off. Interesting, eh?
In the same way, I suppose you could say that people grow through adversity—the old adage that “Suffering builds character.” I could never write a novel about characters that just are as they are—that would be boring. At least one character has to change, to grow—usually through suffering in some way. Robert Goodenough, the protagonist of Orchard, certainly does suffer. But that is how he grows.

             Pertaining to roots
Whereas the question above addresses change, travel and formative growth, roots are what anchor us; roots are a constant we carry and if the rest of life is a journey, roots that we set down are ultimately a destination we choose. The next to last few sentences of At the Edge of the Orchard seem to connote the idea of patience in the quest to find one’s place in the world: "Seeds could keep for a long time. All they needed was the right place to take root." Ella Turner of The Virgin Blue discovers the right place to take root when she returns to and embraces her original French roots. The story was inspired by your own family’s reunion and familial lore about fleeing religious persecution in the 16th century. You discuss on your website the concept of the stories, the “hopes and tragedies and obsessions” that are carried as emotional baggage along with the literal in moving place to place over the centuries. In terms of emotional inheritances, how do you believe one should go about embracing and learning from their roots while not being held by the heaviness of them so there is choice in where new roots are set down (as with Robert Goodenough in Orchard)?

I think our relationship to the past is always tricky. As you say, you want to know about it, learn from it, but not be weighed down by it. I do think that gaining an understanding of the past is crucial to becoming a more rounded person. It makes you place yourself along a continuum, and you become less self-centered once you realize you are just a speck along that line. It’s humbling, but it’s also freeing, because it’s not all about you! Once you step away from being the main actor in the play, you naturally lighten and can enjoy everything around you so much more.

•             Human truths in historical fiction
You’ve discussed wanting to include a more realistic, true-to-life portrayal of John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) in Orchard after learning what lay beyond the commonly accepted myths of him. Michael Hirst (writer/producer of the Tudors series and writer for the film Elizabeth) shared in our 2010 interview his process of expressing the multi-dimensional humanity of historical figures, and how he ultimately found his Queen Elizabeth when he discovered the part of her that had not been portrayed, the unknown image of a young, vulnerable girl before the iconic queen all in white was painted with every previous portrait destroyed. He said, “I don’t choose subjects—they choose me.” A life-size portrait of Henry VIII taken from the set of Elizabeth resided in his office before he knew he would do The Tudors. In a similarly serendipitous vein, you came upon Nicholas Tournier’s work while writing Virgin Blue, his work fitting your story prior to your discovery of him. In your TED talk “Finding the Story Inside the Painting” you discuss the framework of what’s said in fact and what remains unsaid, our quest to fill in the answers/gap. Do you find that it is the historical fiction writer’s task to share their human interpretations of historical figures, attempting to use fiction to get closer to the unsaid, unspoken emotional/psychological truths—and, in the words of French New Wave cinematographer Robert Bresson,  to “make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen”?

Yes, exactly that—I couldn’t have said it better myself! I love using historical figures to “anchor” my books, but I always look for the gaps and silences or the curiosities in a biography, and see if I can fill those gaps or tease out those curiosities. I probably never would have written Girl with a Pearl Earring if we had known loads about Vermeer. But the very sparsity of biographical detail (including who any of the people in his paintings were) made him much more tempting.
As for Johnny Appleseed: well, his story of spreading the healthy joy of growing and eating apples always seemed a little too good to be true to me, even as a child. Though I was pleased to hear that he did indeed go barefoot and wear a tin pot for a hat, I also loved the fact that he was quite a shrewd businessman, anticipating where settlers would go next and being there to sell them apple trees. He was also a Swedenborgian, one of life’s strange religious sects, and he plowed his profits back into spreading the word. Best of all, the trees he sold usually produced sour apples only good for making alcohol. He wasn’t spreading healthy eating, he was giving people the means to get drunk so they could get through their hard-scrabble lives. The truth is always more interesting than the myth!
Join us at The Write Place at the Write Time (www.thewriteplaceatthewritetime.org) for our spring-summer anniversary issue due out May 22nd to read the full interview!