Ilkley Literature Festival #1 – Tracy Chevalier

The Ilkley Literature Festival goes from strength to strength, this year spanning two and a half weeks, with over 200 author talks, workshops and fringe events.


I attended two author talks this year, the first being Tracy Chevalier.

the-lady-the-unicorn-chevalier-hpThis is where I have to confess that although I do read historical fiction from time to time and enjoy it, it’s not a genre  I am well-read in. Hence, I have only ever read one of Tracy Chevalier’s books, The Lady and the Unicorn, so far. I was impressed with the historical  detail and found the book absorbing, and would happily read more of her work – but up to now, I have been bested by that old enemy TIME, and a TBR list that makes my head spin just thinking about it!

I attended the event mainly to accompany my daughter, who is a keen reader of historical fiction and has read several of Tracy Chevalier’s books – and I’m so glad I did.

Ms Chevalier began by reading an extract of her latest novel, At the Edge of the Orchard, about a pioneering family in 1830s Iowa and later the California Gold Rush.

As many of us have been, she was captivated in her youth by the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, but At the Edge of The Orchard is a grimmer tale about a family of imperfect characters forced to grow an orchard within three years of settling to keep the land, and their ensuing hardship and battles with their environment. With Ms Chevalier’s American accent perfectly suited to the passage she read, I was quickly drawn in . . . and oh dear, that’s another book to be added to the TBR list!

ilkley-lit-fest-tracy-chevalier-hpThe author went on to talk about her research in general – mindbogglingly extensive! – and how the idea for this book grew out of research  for a previous book, The Last Runaway, when she developed an interest in trees and how and when they were introduced into different countries, especially apple trees.  As a writer, I was amused and pleased to hear that she is easily distracted by her research, the internet . . . anything to avoid actually writing, and that she has to take herself away from the computer and write longhand in a different room to get anything done!

She explained how her characters only find their own voices as the story progresses, once she has spent time with them and seen how they respond to the events in the book – and so when she has finished, she must go back to the beginning  to make those ‘voices’ match up with what they eventually became.

For the second half of the hour, she moved on to discuss an anthology of short stories she has recently edited, entitled Reader, I Married Him. As part of her collaboration with the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth to celebrate Charlotte Brontë’s bicentenary, she asked women writers to use the line from Jane Eyre to write a short story. The stories in the anthology sound varied, with writers of wide-ranging ages and backgrounds coming at the challenge from very different angles.

In the Q & A session at the end, Ms Chevalier was asked if she would ever write contemporary fiction. With an amusing foray into the fine line between history and nostalgia – are the 1970s history yet? It depends what age you are! – she explained that she believes we are all more than a moment; we are a product of everything in the past.

remarkable-creatures-chevalier-hpAs I mulled this over, I realised that this idea certainly adds more import to a work of historical fiction – it isn’t just a glimpse into lives in a bygone era but can be a commentary on so much more. 

I found Ms Chevalier compelling and unpretentious, knowledgeable and interesting … and I left the event vowing to find time to read more of her books. My daughter has particularly recommended Remarkable Creatures,  a story about Mary Anning, fossil-finder in early 19th century England, her trials in what was a man’s world, and her friendship with Elizabeth Philpot. It has been added to the pile of books on my bedside table . . .





10 thoughts on “Ilkley Literature Festival #1 – Tracy Chevalier

  1. Helena Fairfax says:

    It sounded an interesting talk, Helen, and Tracy Chevalier sounds a down-to-earth person and fascinating to listen to. Remarkable Creatures is also on my TBR, and I really like the sound of At the Edge of the Orchard. I used to love Laura Ingalls Wilder, too. What a great idea to write a darker version. Thanks for the write-up!

  2. rosgemmell says:

    What a fabulous talk, Helen! I would love to have heard Tracy Chevalier as I’ve been a fan for ages and I too can recommend Remarkable Creatures. Haven’t read her latest as the subject doesn’t grab me the same way but I will eventually. So pleased to hear that her characters develop as the story goes on – I like working that way too and have never been able to do character profiles before writing their story. She sounds inspiring – thanks for sharing the experience.

    • Helen Pollard says:

      Thanks for visiting, Rosemary 🙂 If you get the chance to hear her speak sometime, you would enjoy it, I’m sure. Yes, it’s good to hear that someone works the same way as you, isn’t it?!

  3. Rae Cowie says:

    Sounds a fascinating talk, Helen. Wonderful to learn just how much behind the scenes work is required by someone at the top of their profession. I love the sound of At the Edge of the Orchard, as I too was a huge Laura Ingalls Wilder fan. Thanks for sharing.

    • Helen Pollard says:

      Thanks for visiting, Rae 🙂 Yes, it was good to hear that she struggles with the same time management as the rest of us! And the research she does is quite phenomenal, by the sound of it. Yes, I think I could be tempted to read At the Edge of the Orchard as a kind of darker reality version of the Little House books.

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