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Tracy Chevalier: 'I make quilts – five years ago I'd have thought, "How boring!"'

Interview,Adam Jacques
Sunday 12 June 2011 00:00 BST

I was astonished with the success of 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' Does a book about a Dutch painter and a servant girl in love with him sound like it's going to sell 4 million copies? But the love people have for Vermeer and the passion for that painting somehow unlocked people's curiosity.

I was seduced by Vermeer's painting My sister had a poster of it when I was 19 and I loved how the eyes followed you around the room, it made me feel incredibly important. So I went out the next day and brought the poster. But I've always noticed this disconnect between her mouth, which looks happy, and her eyes, which look terribly sad and, 15 years later, lying in bed looking at the print, I wondered what the painter did to make her look like that...

I have a British passport but I wouldn't say I'm British I've been in the UK for 26 years [Chevalier was born in Washington DC] and it took me a while to realise that just because we speak the same language, it doesn't mean we think the same. The English are slower to warm to people, so it took me longer to make friends over here. But once I made a few friends they became friends for life. Americans often have a lifestyle that they have got to go where the job is, so they have less of a need for putting down roots and can be more fickle with their relationships.

Each book I write teaches me a new hobby When I wrote Remarkable Creatures two years ago I knew nothing about fossils, but once I started researching all I wanted to do was be out on the beach searching for them. Now, working on this new book about a Quaker woman who makes quilts, I've started to make them myself. There's so much history to them and they're so beautiful and meaningful, so now I can't get enough of making them. Five years ago I would have thought, "How boring!"

I love exploring London I feel this great joy discovering things about the city. I particularly love running along the canals; you go past pubs, cafés, the backs of people's houses, parks and even industrial wasteland, stopping along the way for various fortifying drinks.

Less is more As I get older I use less jewellery – necklace or earrings each morning, not both; my clothes are getting more basic – fewer colours and simpler cuts; and my make-up is stripped back to basics. Younger women tend to be busier, wearing more layers and more make-up. I don't know if it's because older women are more confident, or just that we don't care any more. But that pared-down approach is the same with the sentences I write; I take out adjectives and adverbs and keep the description to a minimum.

Population growth keeps me awake at night I don't understand how the planet can cope with the exponential increases. It's a difficult issue as the only illustration of population control is China's one-child policy, which everybody sees as very repressive. The overall situation is nobody's fault, but there is going to have to be a solution as the planet isn't going to be able to cope.

It's a mystery to me why women are not taken as seriously as men in Publishing The Orange Prize [for women's writing] is trying to right an imbalance in the prize-giving world; we publish over half of all novels each year, so how come we have not been given the prizes? I used to think that female authors wrote mostly about domestic issues, but reading a year's worth of novels by women has blown that out of the water.

The way we respond to stories is almost pre-coded into our DNA We expect the classic arc and are all so used to it it's hard to get away from it. As a reader I happen to like turning pages and wanting to know what happens next.

Tracy Chevalier, 49, is a historical novelist. For more on the Orange Prize visit

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