This week Tracy Chevalier, best-selling author of The Girl With the Pearl Earring, spent a day as resident writer in a beautiful new writer's hut. Country Calling caught up with her to ask about her favourite secret places in Dorset and the book that made her a household name.
We love the idea of a writing hut at the bottom of a beautiful garden. Where do you lock yourself away to write and could you describe your working day?
Sadly my garden is not big enough for a hut! I write at home in London. I write long-hand and then type in what I’ve written onto the computer at the end of the day. My office is a little room overlooking the tiny garden. Recently I’ve found the computer too distracting and the room too messy, so I’ve ended up following the sun around the house, writing on the stairs (!) where the sun hits them in the morning, then in the living room, and in the afternoon in a chair out in the garden.
I write like it’s a job – a great job, but one I still have to put in the eight hours at. Once my son’s gone to school I check my email, look at the news and twitter, then leave the computer and begin writing. I start by reading what I wrote the day before, then push on from there. It takes me a while to work myself into the story, the atmosphere, etc. I try to write 1000 words during a writing day – about three pages. Doesn’t sound like much, but it is when you have to make everything up! And do it again the next day, and the next, and the next...
Dorset has been the inspiration for two previous novels and now your latest novel centres around a Quaker who emigrates from Dorset to America. We also think there is something very special about the county which is steeped in history and tradition. What is it about Dorset that inspires you?
I love Dorset because it’s understated, and on a human scale. When you think of well-known English countryside – the Yorkshire Moors, the Fens, the rugged Cornish coast, the Lake District’s bleak mountains – they are all extremes of things. Dorset is not extreme. It consists of snug hills and valleys that a human fits into perfectly. I love walking in Dorset – the hills are there for variety but they are never too steep or high to climb. The coast too is glorious. And there are nooks and crannies that I am still discovering after 20 years of coming here.
When you published Remarkable Creatures, the story of Lyme Regis fossil collector Mary Anning you set yourself the target of making fossil hunting sexy! Can you describe what you love about hunting for these prehistoric stones?
I just love being out on the beach with a purpose. It gets me looking at the stones more closely, so even if I don’t find any fossils, I start noticing the colours and textures of everything around me. Fossil hunting is also very calming: after a while you stop thinking about your day and your life and your problems, and just focus on what’s around you. It’s meditative, and I always feel better afterwards.
You write historical novels that show painstaking research. Are you ever tempted to try contemporary fiction?
I am tempted, but have not yet thought up a story I want to pursue. Once you’ve discovered you can do something reasonably well – in this case write historical fiction – it is hard to step away from that and go in a different direction. Plus, one of the things I like about historical fiction is that it takes me away from daily life; in writing it I escape myself. Contemporary fiction would not do that in the same way.
The Girl with a Pearl Earring, your second novel, sold 4 million copies and made you a household name. The inspiration was a Vemeer paitning. Did you have any idea it would so capture public imagination as you wrote it?
Hah. No. I was stunned. I think my publishers were too! I suppose I didn’t quite realise the hold that particular painting has on people. So many wrote to me and said so, and thanked me for capturing the essence of the painting in writing. I feel very lucky, and I know that I owe a lot to Vermeer.
Country Calling showcases the best of life in the West Country. You have a cottage in Dorset - could you share with us some of the places you most love?
Ah, there are so many, I’m going to make a list:
Sherborne Abbey – the most beautiful religious building in the country
Eggerdon Hill and Bulbarrow Hill – two ancient hill forts with glorious views
Lyme Regis and its fossil beaches – so atmospheric, with fossil treasures right there waiting for you to pick them up
The Dorset Gap – a crossing of five old paths in the Piddle Valley, along the Wessex Ridgeway. When you stand there you feel like you’ve time travelled several hundred years back. And there’s a box there with a notebook where walkers are encouraged to sign their names.
Moreton - the church there is where TE Lawrence was buried, and has curious engraved windows by Lawrence Whistler. The whole place just has a strange atmosphere about it. Lovely stream for wading and summer picnics, and the Moreton Tearooms has fabulous cakes.
The Brace of Pheasants at Plush – this list wouldn’t be complete without a classic country pub. Great food, beer, garden and atmosphere.
Tracy Chevalier spent a day in this writer's hut in a wild flower garden near Dorchester working on her new manuscript. She has been advising Plankbridge Hutmakers on the creation of the beautiful shepherd's hut which has been built to honour Dorset's most famous writer, Thomas Hardy, and will be on display at this year's Chelsea Flower Show.