“Once you know the surface of a thing, you need no longer dwell there, but can look deeper. That is why I don’t draw from life – it is far too limiting and deadens the imagination.”
Tracy Chevalier ascribes these words to 18th century artist and poet William Blake, a character in her latest novel Burning Bright, but she could be speaking for herself as well. In an podcast interview on Meet the Writers, Chevalier talks about the idea of writing not what you know, but what you want to know more about.
“Don’t write about yourself,” she advises prospective writers, “you’re not as interesting as you think.” Many young writers turn to autobiography for their subject matter, which often “isn’t all that interesting,” Chevalier states. It’s important for a writer to stretch their imagination, for this keeps the work fresh for the writer and the reader.
Chevalier has certainly never written an autobiographical novel…her best known novel, Girl With A Pearl Earring, was based on the famous portrait by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. Burning Bright was inspired by Chevalier’s interest in the ouevre of William Blake, whom she found “deeply eccentric and interesting.”
“I really wanted to understand him better,” she says, and thus decided to make him a character in a novel so she could “find out what he was all about.”
Although Blake is not the central character in Burning Bright, his presence is felt throughout the novel, which centers on young Jem Kellaway, his naive sister Maisie, and their street-wise friend Maggie Butterfield. It’s 1792, the Kellawayfamily has moved to London from a tiny town in Dorset, and Maggie becomes their guide in dealing with city life. Blake and his wife are the Kellaway’s next door neighbors, and Blake becomes interested in Jem and Maggie’s relationship and the way it will lead them from “innocence to experience.”
As in Girl With A Pearl Earring, Chevalier demonstrates a keen eye for period detail, masterfully evoking a sense of time and place. The foggy back streets of London peopled with all sorts of characters come alive in her capable hands.
Maggie seemed unable to keep still, hopping from one foot to the other, her eyes caught by passerby: an old woman walking along who cried out, “Old iron and broken glass bottles! Bring ’em to me!”; a young file going the opposite way with a basket full of primroses; a man pulling the blades of two knives across each other, calling out above the clatter, “Knives sharpened, get your knives sharpened! You’ll cut through anything when I’m done with you!” He pulled his knives close to Maggie’s face and she flinched, jumping back as he laughed.
I’ve always enjoyed historical novels, and am appreciative of the research which provides their foundation. So it was fascinating to hear Chevalier talk about her writing process. Her books always begin with a “spark of interest,” in something – a painting, a tapestry, or a collection of poetry. “So I begin researching whatever it is I’m interested in,” she explains, “and eventually that reserach throws up things I want to find out more about.”
For Burning Bright, it was Blake’s poems, Songs of Innocence and Experience, that gave Chevalier the focal point for the novel. “I find I write a lot about growing up,” she says. “Growing up is about giving up our innocence and becoming more experienced, and what happens in the course of that process.” Jem, Maggie, and Maisie traverse that road during the events of Burning Bright and Blake observes the process, chronicling it in his poetry and artwork.
I happened upon this book quite by accident – my friend purchased it last week while we were vacationing together, and I (having nothing to read on the airplane coming home) borrowed it from her. I was immediatly engrossed in the story, and my reading experience was enhanced by listening to Chevalier’s interview. I’m quite addicted to these author interviews, and plan to continue searching them out as companions to my reading.
I’m off now for one of my favorite Sunday afternoon pasttimes – a trip to Bargain Books, followed by an evening of quiet reading.
Ahhh. Life is good.