It’s Tuesday afternoon and a snake of sweaty students pile into Portland C11 – but it is not just any other day because Tracy Chevalier, author of best selling novel Girl with a Pearl Earring, has come to visit.

A slightly formidable, straight-talking woman with long dark blonde hair stands at the podium, wearing an orange turtle neck and matching necklace. You could definitely imagine her as a librarian, which is what she would probably be doing if she hadn’t been an author: ‘I loved reading as a child. I either wanted to be a librarian or create books.  If you don’t enjoy reading, none of you should be in this room.’

What is exceptional about Chevalier is her passion and her absorption in art and research. She tells us Girl with a Pearl Earring was inspired by the ‘miracle’ of Vermeer’s painting of the same name. Chevalier was transfixed with the expression on the girl’s face; ‘I still can’t tell whether she’s happy or sad.’ However when Chevalier researched the girl, there was no information to be found on who she was, and very little information on Vermeer himself.

Some critics believed the girl to be Vermeer’s daughter, but Chevalier decided this was unlikely, as in 17th century Dutch painting, girls painted with their mouths open suggested they were sexually available. Chevalier filled in the gaps with imagination informed by research, and created the storyline of Girl with a Pearl Earring in three days, later to become her most famous novel.

However, success did not come easily. This was not Chevalier’s first novel and succeeding as a writer required perseverance:  ‘You’ve got to ask yourself: how many stones do I have to see sink before I give up and become a massage therapist or something?’ Fortunately, Chevalier did persevere and created a beautifully crafted, well-researched and engaging novel.

Chevalier champions the value of research: ‘Don’t write what you know; write what you’re interested in, or else it turns into autobiography. You’re not as interesting as you think. When you get away from yourself, you become more aware of things.’ She goes back to her research to avoid coming to ‘dead ends’ when writing. ‘The research makes the reader trust you.’

How does Chevalier motivate herself to write? ‘I started researching [Girl with a Pearl Earring] the day I found out I was pregnant. So I knew I had eight months.’ The natural deadline helped her to decide to write a book that was not too long or complex. ‘I wrote a book about Vermeer using his style,’ she says. Writing the novel certainly seems like a productive way to spend a pregnancy, and the results of her work were more fruitful than she could have imagined, with the novel being made into a film in 2003.

How did she feel having Girl with a Pearl Earring made into a film? She describes the book and film as ‘like cousins’, saying it was important for her to take a step back and let the director get on with it. ‘There were two producers interested and I chose the one who spoke the least amount of bullshit.’ Chevalier tells us: ‘Kate Hudson was going to play the girl. She would’ve been dreadful. Reese Witherspoon was going to play her, then she said “I just don’t like that ending, can they have pictures going into the future with her baby.” ‘Luckily they weren’t swayed by Hollywood and went with Scarlett Johansson’, who was just eighteen at the time.

Yet Chevalier is not entirely satisfied with the finished version of the novel itself. ‘I made a terrible mistake,’ she admits. She reveals she wishes she had cut the line ‘”He spoke her name as if he held cinnamon in his mouth” usually refusing to read it out loud and breaking this rule here, Chevalier declares ‘What the fuck is that?!’ She looks disgusted with herself. It is refreshing to know that even great writers have regrets.

Chevalier emphasises the importance of ‘fixing’ one’s work, calling editing essential. She changed her original ending of the book upon her editor’s advice, and stresses the importance of getting the ending right while leaving the reader wanting more: ‘A great piece of art is like a song that stops on its penultimate chord.’

Alix Hattenstone

Images by Flickr

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