Tracy Chevalier

The Last Runaway

July 2014

Finally that thing has happened that always needs to happen for me to write a book - to really write it, to get into the flesh of it and bring it to life. I have fallen in love with my subject.

Not just the characters - I am always in love with my characters, even awful ones.

No, I now officially love my subject. Some book subjects have been easy to love - Vermeer paintings, medieval tapestries, quilts. Others are harder: fossils, cemeteries.

I am writing a novel about trees. Trees are easy to love - some of them. I am particularly partial to beeches. I also love apples and by extension their trees, and the first half of the novel is about them and Johnny Appleseed in Ohio.

The other half is about Californian redwoods and sequoias. In writing about them I've ended up writing about William Lobb, an English plant collector who first introduced redwoods and sequoias to Britain in large numbers in the 19th century.

Lobb was also very big on pines. Pines. The very word makes me sigh. I've never been a big fan. I have always found conifers - trees with needles rather than leaves, that remain green all year round - boring.

Until now. I happen to be in Geneva for the week, writing. And two weird things have happened. First: there are tons of giant sequoias, shooting above all the other trees in Geneva's parks. This is unusual, as they are certainly not native to the country.

I went out looking at them and the other weird thing happened: I fell in love with conifers. The lack of leaves allows you to see more of the sky behind them so there are great silhouettes, and the trunks and branches are more exposed so you can see the trees' architecture. They have become beautiful to me, as a person does when you love them.

Being in love makes it so much easier to write. Thank you, Geneva!




June 2014

I haven't written much here recently, for which apologies. But I've been at my desk, head down, writing stuff like this:


Yes, I write longhand. No, I'm not crazy. I do type it in to the computer every few days. But the first creative attempt feels better with pen and ink. Screen and keyboard feels too much like work. Computers are crucial for editing, though. I don't know how Austen, Dickens, Twain did it without computers, much less typewriters.

When I'm not writing, I'm messing around in the garden, or in the little patch of public land in front of our house, where I've been guerrilla gardening. See?



Since starting this garden, I've met more of our neighbors and chatted to more strangers than in the 12 years we've been here. And the bees are coming back.

Happy Summer to those of you in the Northern Hemisphere!

April 2014

On April 1st a quilt art show I've been working on for the past year opened at Danson House, a Georgian mansion in Bexleyheath, just outside of London. It's calledTWDIBtitle

I expect that will get people's attention!

Quilts were originally made for beds, and the exhibition space is in 5 bedrooms, with a theme in each room of different bed activities: Birth, Sleep, Sex, Illness, Death.

Here are a few photos:




That's a Grayson Perry quilt on the right, with an 18th century cot quilt on the left to soothe the eye.



In March I wrote about the Sleep Quilt made by Fine Cell Work prisoners. Here it is on a prison bed in the show.



Visitors pondering quilted responses to Death.


You can have a guess as to which room this is in!




A Tree of Life in Danson House's glorious stairwell.



A close-up of that quilt.

Things We Do in Bed runs from 1 April to 31 October 2014. (Note that Danson House is closed Fridays and Saturdays - wedding days!) If you are anywhere near London, do come. I suggest visiting William Morris' Red House too - it's just 5 minutes from Danson House


March 2014

It’s funny where writing has led me. I’ve given tours in cemeteries and gone fossil hunting in the name of research. The Last Runaway drew me into the seemingly tame world of quilts. Not so tame, it turns out. Quilting has led me into a prison cell.

I am curating a quilt/art show for Danson House, a Georgian Mansion outside of London. It opens next month, when I will write more about it. One of the pieces for the exhibition is a quilt I commissioned from the UK charity Fine Cell Work, who teach prisoners how to sew, embroider, and do needlepoint. The prisoners make cushions, quilts and other handiwork, which are for sale on the FCW website. Have a look, it is a wonderful charity, and the merchandise is gorgeous.

The prisoners – mostly men, surprisingly – make a little money to save for their families or for when they get out. But even more importantly, the work gives them a sense of purpose and pride. I have visited prisons four times now, and each time I leave with a feeling of wonder at how stitching can have such a therapeutic effect.

The quilt for the show is now complete. It is called Sleep Quilt and is made up of squares prisoners designed exploring their conflicted feelings about sleep. Here it is:


You might think sleep would be a balm in prison, and certainly some prisoners use it to make their sentences pass more quickly. However, many more suffer from broken sleep or insomnia, for prison atmosphere is hot, stuffy, noisy, and tense. FCW stitchers made squares depicting their hopes, their sorrows, their guilt. Like this one, possibly the square that makes me the saddest.


Two weeks ago I went to prison to pick up the Sleep Quilt from “John,” who had hand quilted 10 hours a day for a month so that it would be ready for the show. This was in between bouts of pumping iron! It’s funny, you’d think he would be teased for doing something “feminine” like sewing, but actually he is well-respected on his wing for his work. I spent a little time in his cell, looking through photos of some of the beautiful quilts he’s made:

FCW-Brixton-visit-1-reduced                                     (this and subsequent prison photos taken by Isabella Panattoni from Fine Cell Work)


I gave John a little gift to thank him:



Then we had a kind of ceremonial handover of the Sleep Quilt:





I also met some of the other guys who had made squares for the quilt.


They were clearly really proud of it. FCW volunteers told me the project brought out a lot of issues, and had a strong impact on the prisoners, who don't get much chance to express feelings about things like sleep.

And me? I cried.




January 2014 - New Year, New Desk

Most New Year’s resolutions are about discipline and control. Eat less, exercise more, learn to do this, stop doing that.

I feel lucky that I have recently had a new desk made for me, and it is a beauty:

Cherry wood, burgundy matt formica, curves and cubby holes. Best of all, it has space for the computer but also for an area in which I can spread out and really write - because I still use pen and paper. There’s even a level above the desk and behind me where I can put all the stuff I’ve used during the day, so that the writing part remains clear. Does this mean I am going to be more productive? Will this desk give me discipline and control? I certainly hope so.

But I also know that it requires more than a new desk to get me to focus and write well. After all, I managed to write 5 novels on a nasty pine table that was the wrong height and too small, so that I usually ended up working on a hard-cover book in my lap with my feet propped up on the radiator. Really what I need to do is to turn off the internet connection so that I stop messing around online. That is my work New Year’s resolution.

My other two resolutions are much more fun: I am going to go for a walk every day, and I am going to take ice skating lessons.

Happy New Year!