The pressure she feels, though, comes not from the people whose stories have been told, but from those whose stories have been overlooked — like that of the model for Vermeer’s famous painting in “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”
In “A Single Thread,” Chevalier weaves a tale about Violet Speedwell, a woman who moves to Winchester in 1930s Britain after her fiance dies in World War I, then falls in love with a married man whom she meets while volunteering to embroider cushions for the cathedral.
As we visited the sites of particular scenes from “A Single Thread,” Chevalier talked about the intersection of writing and history and how she crafted “A Single Thread.”
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: How often did you come here to research the book?
A: Maybe 10 times. That’s the magic — research and imagination. You’re putting those two things together. I try to absorb the atmosphere of a place. Everyone thinks I lived in Delft before writing “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” but I spent only four days there, and that was maybe too long — it’s really small.
Q: How did you discover the Winchester Broderers, the group of women who embroidered cushions for the cathedral?
A: I thought I was going to write about that window right there — it’s called the Great West Window. It’s all higgledy-piggledy. During the English Civil War in 1642, Cromwell’s soldiers came in and shot out all the windows (though the story I like better is that the damage was done by people throwing the bones of buried kings through those windows). People gathered up the glass and hid it until the Restoration, and they deliberately replaced it in this crazy way to remind us of the fragility of both art and the cathedral, of our faith, our lives.
But then I went up into the library and I saw a display of embroidery, about the cushions and kneelers embroidered in the 1930s for the choir stalls. It talked about the hundreds of volunteer women who got together as a group and worked on them, organized by this woman named Louisa Pesel. I had a vision of this quaint volunteer group. Suddenly that’s what I wanted to write about. Everybody looks at the Great West Window, but nobody ever looks at those cushions.
Q: I had such a hard time putting this book down. And yet it struck me that the story is really simple.
A: Not a lot of car chases.
Q: How do you keep readers engaged?
A: I don’t tend to be experimental with prose or structure, but I’m quite a visual writer. I have a tendency to imagine a scene in my head and then write it down, almost like a film. Readers respond to color and light and descriptions. And I like to give daily life its due respect and space. If you overhear conversations, they’re usually about small things, minutiae, and actually we find each others’ minutiae interesting. I just had to figure out a way to frame it so that people would be drawn in by the cathedral or the 1930s or the surplus women idea. Once they get to know Violet, they just want to know what happens to her.
Q: Tell me about Violet’s love interest, Arthur the bell-ringer. Why him?
A: I knew I wanted Violet to meet a man who was connected to the cathedral in some way. I had in mind that he could be a bell-ringer, because I like the idea of them being slightly apart from the rest of the cathedral. Then I watched the bell-ringers practice, and thought, Yes! And I love the idea of “rope sight.” When you’re standing in a circle, you have to be aware of what you’re doing and what everybody else is doing and how you fit in. It’s the perfect metaphor for how we should live our lives. I wanted to call the book “Rope Sight,” except it sounded like a thriller.
Q: In the book, Violet thinks about many invisible jobs in a cathedral, comparing it to a department store. These jobs must have been rich fodder for fiction.
A: Yes. We’re sitting here, and there are vergers walking up and down, there is a chaplain, there’s a cathedral scribe over there. Behind us, people can light candles, and toward the end of the day there’s someone who scrapes up the spilled-over wax. I don’t see any flowers today, but there are flower arrangers. There’s a group here called the Holy Dusters. I did not make that up! And of course there are the bell-ringers, like Arthur.
Q: Jane Austen died here in Winchester and is buried in the cathedral. “A Single Thread” does seem an Austenesque story: Violet is a slightly older single woman who might find a husband. Is it?
A: A little bit of “Persuasion” there. I chose to write about the 1930s because the cushions and kneelers were made then. When I started looking into what women’s lives were like at that time, I found it fascinating because of this concept called “surplus” women. There were almost 2 million more women than men after World War I, women who thought they might get married but didn’t, and society wasn’t really ready for that. For Violet, there just weren’t many opportunities. Quite famously, Jane Austen and her mother and sister were reliant on the brothers to look after them after the father died, and it was always a bit precarious. This is true for Violet. So there’s a lot of Austenesque scenarios in my book, too.
Q: You must be thrilled that “Girl With a Pearl Earring” is being made into an opera.
A: Yes. It’s amazing and completely unexpected, because it’s not like I went out and said, “Hey, does anybody want to make an opera out of my novel?” The Zurich Opera House contacted me and said a Swiss composer wanted to adapt “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” It’s been fascinating. The music is very avant-garde. We’re not talking Puccini. I think it’s going to be great.
Q: Are you going to the premiere?
A: May 24, 2020. I have to figure out what to wear!
Carole Burns, author of the story collection “The Missing Woman,” is head of creative writing in English at the University of Southampton in Britain.
At 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Tracy Chevalier will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington.
A SINGLE THREAD
By Tracy Chevalier
Viking. 336 pp. $27