Oberlin Alumni Magazine: fall 2001 vol. 97 no.2
Feature Stories
One Week in Manhattan
Defining Words
[cover story] Marriage: For Better? Or Worse?
Business Unusual
Plotting the Past
Message from the Dean
Around Tappan Square
The Business jof Cheating Stirs New Solutions
A Record Year for Legacies
Survey Says...
Cast a Vote for Alumni Trustee
A Student's Perspective
Distinguished Speakers
In Memoriam
Oberlin Revisited
Alumni Notes
The Last Word
Staff Box
One More Thing
Graphic: spacer

Plotting the Past


"FUN-kaaaay" jeered two teenage boys as they passed senior Tracy Chevalier '84 in Tappan Square on a freezing Oberlin winter day. Triggering their taunts was her intensely Oberlinesque outfit: huge hiking boots with thick wool socks, tights, long johns, and a bulky sweater topped off by a multicolored cotton tunic. It was a quintessential moment, remembers Chevalier, chuckling at the memory. * Fashion tastes, as do many things, change with time, and since leaving Oberlin, Chevalier's life has undergone some dramatic turns. Her second novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring (Dutton 1999), was a publishing phenomenon, praised by critics and picked up for motion picture production this year by British film director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donny Brasco). Falling Angels, Chevalier's third novel, was released in the United States last month following favorable reviews from the London press.

Inspired by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer's famous portrait, the novel transports the reader to 17th-century Holland and offers a fictional interpretation of who the mysterious girl in the painting is. In the novel, Griet is a 16-year-old living in Delft, obliged to work as a maid in the Vermeer household to help support her parents and younger sister. She is given the responsibility of cleaning Vermeer's top-floor studio and ultimately becomes the subject of one of his portraits. Chevalier says that she has recreated in prose the painting style for which Vermeer is revered.

"I decided early on that I wanted (Girl) to be a simple story, simply told, and to imitate with words what Vermeer was doing with paint," she says. "That may sound unbelievably pretentious, but I didn't mean it as 'I can do Vermeer in words.' I wanted to write it in a way that Vermeer would have painted: very simple lines, simple compositions, not a lot of clutter, and not a lot of superfluous characters."

A poster of the painting has hung on Chevalier's walls since her college days, and while gazing at it one day, she was instantly struck with the idea for her novel. "I suddenly wondered what Vermeer had said to the girl to make her look like that. The expression on her face is so ambiguous, so haunting and hunted and erotic--so many things all mixed up."

Chevalier completed the first draft of Girl in just eight months, an amazing feat considering the research involved in composing a historical novel. Never did she expect such an extraordinary response. "I think I unwittingly stumbled upon a story that people wanted to have told, because here is this girl--a famous image--and nobody really knew who she was. Now somebody has explained it."

A native of Washington, DC, the author lives in London with her husband, Jonathan, and their 3-year-old son, Jacob. On a warm August evening, relaxing in her home near Hampstead Heath, she reflects on how her life has changed with the success of Girl. "It has been crazy. There was never a point at which I thought I wanted to write full time. It may look from afar that that is what I did, but I honestly never thought I was ever going to make a bean as a writer."

An English major at Oberlin, Chevalier wanted also to study clarinet ("I didn't get accepted into the Conservatory," she says with a flicker of despondency). As a junior, she took part in the Oberlin-in-London program and spent a semester immersed in theatre, art, dance, music, and modern British poetry and fiction with 15 other English majors and Professor David Walker. "It was a terrific group of students...impressively good," remembers Walker. "That semester had a transformative effect on a lot of them."

Chevalier remembers it well. "It was an entire semester of theatre, literature, and art, and David was so good at getting us to think critically. It was just so blissful, a heavenly time, and he led us by the hand through it. I really have a soft spot for him because of that. I fell in love with London, and I wanted to come back."

But she first returned to Oberlin for her senior year and a spot in the English department's honors program with Professor Katherine Linehan. "Tracy was a delight to have in the seminar. I discovered very quickly that she had an unegoistic zest for learning and literature," says Linehan. Chevalier remains in contact with her former professor and feels indebted to her for having faith in her abilities. "She gave me a huge break, because my GPA was borderline. In the end, I did well in the program," says Chevalier, "and I think Katie was really pleased that I did. We have been friends ever since."

Although Chevalier excelled as an English major, she never took a creative writing class, and some of her former professors were taken aback by the evolution of her career. "I didn't know at all that she had a gift for fiction writing," says Walker, "because I had never seen any of her fiction. So the fact that she turned out to be spectacularly good at it was a very pleasant surprise."

Go to page 1 | 2 of PLOTTING THE PAST
Graphic: spacer  
Contents: fall 2001 OAM home Oberlin Online home