What is it like to live a principled life?
This is the question at the heart of Tracy Chevalier’s new novel, The Last Runaway.
Hundreds of miles from home, Quaker heroine Honor Bright is forced into a life she didn’t expect when she lands in Oberlin, Ohio. Without any family or close friends, the only comfort she can hope to find is in her faith community, but even that proves difficult. When she accidentally becomes involved in the Underground Railroad, she has to choose between adhering to the expectations of her new family, or following her belief in what is right.
All of us face this choice at some time or another—whether to listen to our hearts, to the Spirit that speaks within us, or whether to go along with what our community thinks. In Honor’s case, she lives during American slavery, and following her own set of principles not only saves lives, but attempts to restore some dignity to a country struggling to meet actions with ideals.
As a Quaker, I was immediately drawn to The Last Runaway. Contemporary fiction writers don’t speak much about spirituality or faith, but many still admire Quakers for not having a creed and for their devotion to silence. The attempt to connect with our inner selves during a Quaker meeting is not much different from the leap of faith it takes to create art. The final work of beauty—a form of ministry as well as truth—is something for a community to celebrate and share. I was glad to see that much-loved author Tracy Chevalier was similarly inspired.
I spoke with her at her home in England about what inspired the Quaker heroine Honor Bright, how technology affects us in the modern world, what it’s like to be a foreigner, and the challenges of writing historical fiction.
What is your personal history with Quaker practices and testimonies?
I grew up in Washington D.C. and went to Quaker camp for seven summers in Maryland. My brother and sister and I loved the Quaker camp system; we had meeting everyday for 15 minutes and got to know the principles of the Quaker faith. I loved the simplicity and silence of it. After that, I occasionally went to Florida Avenue meeting in D.C. and Bethesda Friends not far from our house. My stepmother became a Quaker, and my sister is a Quaker who co-founded a meeting in Toulouse, France. (There are apparently only 250 or so Quakers in all of France).
Throughout my adult life I’ve dipped in and out of meeting. I live in England, so I occasionally attend Hampstead Meeting. My husband is Jewish, so we’ve sort of gone down that route, but in the back of my mind is the Quaker silence and simplicity, of not needing anyone else to mediate between you and god.
How did you come up with the idea to create a strong but quiet Quaker heroine?
The reason I was attracted to writing a Quaker main character is partly to do with my increasing desire for silence in a world that has gotten very noisy. I’m 50, and five years ago my hearing started to worsen. The higher tones are going, and I find it’s hard to have a conversation on the street. Also, everybody wants to use their cell phones, and I don’t think the newer technology is as good as a landline. People are using cellphones on the move, in places where noise level is high. It’s harder to feel like I’m communicating.
I know that silence at a meeting is different, but there’s a physical silence that I crave, a mental silence I’m looking for. Our lives have become so distracted and distractible; we get news for 24 hours nowadays, and it’s exhausting. I love going to meeting partly to be quiet but also to give the space for my mind to move into a nonverbal state. I thought I’d like to explore this more, and the way I always explore something is by writing a novel about it.
One of the things people seem to be afraid of in contemporary culture is being alone with themselves. We are so bombarded with technology that we are almost afraid of silence, a chance to take stock and face whatever feelings or thoughts come up. A Quaker meeting has this focus on silence and going inward, which might be what draws people to it, but it also might be what keeps people away.
I think you’re right that people are afraid to be with themselves. We have so much more to distract ourselves with from the internet and constant connectivity. It makes it even harder for us to be willing to sit down and be alone. That’s why I’ve taken to not writing in the room where my computer is.
Writers are more used to silence or being alone. The thing that is difficult for a writer writing about Quakerism is the silence—what I’m looking for is a nonverbal feeling, but as a writer, I’m often looking for the best way to describe something. One of the biggest challenges writing this book was trying to find a way to describe that silence. After meeting, I’d write down some notes, but in the end you can’t really describe what it is.
How did the idea for The Last Runaway come about?
The idea came partly from a Bench by the Road project. It was based on a conversation with Toni Morrison saying there are no monuments to slavery, and she was putting benches at places of historical significance. Oberlin was instrumental for various reasons. It was the first college in the states to admit African American and women and a major stop on the Underground Railroad.
Three days later in Bethesda Meeting, mulling over issues of silence, I thought it would be great to write a quiet Quaker. I was thinking about how so many Quakers worked on the Underground Railroad.
I like the way you interspersed your narrative with letters from Honor writing home. It helps modern readers realize just how long it took for people to communicate back then, how much patience was required. Now we are instantly gratified by texting, calling, social media or emailing. Do you think there is still something to be said for the old-fashioned letter? Do people tend to reveal more of themselves in handwriting?
I started the letters as a kind of experiment to see what I wanted to do. I’m more comfortable writing in first person, and I didn’t want to give that up entirely. I knew that Honor was going to be a quiet person—originally I wanted her to speak less than she does in the book, but it was too impossible. She is a closed person, so the letters help the reader get to know her better. They would also provide a comment on immigration—what someone new to a country sees and how she sees it. Because email is so instantaneous, it’s hard to imagine writing a letter that takes two months to get somewhere.
Honor’s community and her family would normally know her information. It’s new for her as well to write a letter that has to cross an ocean—a kind of exercise in patience and understanding that she really is in a new world. She can’t rely on her family anymore—by the time they could write back, the news would be old. She really is on her own and has to use her own support system in place.
In a lot of ways, your novel deals with the loneliness of living in a foreign land, both for Honor, as an immigrant from England, and slaves, who are trying to get to a place of freedom. Was this influenced by your own experience moving to another country?
There is a feeling of disjointedness as an immigrant, feeling out of step. When I moved to England, even the smells were different. I noticed one smell all the time and it was a chemical they put on wood to keep it from rotting. I also always smelled coal fires burning, which is different from my experience in America.
It was a lot of fun putting an English person in America. I did a lot of research, accounts of people from England visiting America. Some of the things Dickens and Trollope said about America are still true. They said Americans were so patriotic that they wouldn’t put up with outsiders criticizing their government, and they had ferocity of holding onto their independence; the feeling of going it on your own. All of that is still true today—down to little things!
Since you tend to write historical fiction, where does your research end and your imagination take over? If I were writing this kind of novel, I might be so overwhelmed with information that I’d be unable to use my imagination and create a story.
I struggle with this all the time, possibly more when I am basing the books on real people. Girl with a Pearl Earring was based on Vermeer, and we know some of his biography (not all that much). Remarkable Creatures was about an English fossil hunter. I always think that the biography is the skeleton and the fiction is to flesh it out. In The Last Runaway, all the people were fictional, so I could make them do what I wanted.
If you set a book in a certain time or a certain place, you’re always going to be constricted by that time or place. You could say that about any writing, really; a contemporary novel has real things you have to deal with—if you set it in New York, you’d have to mention 9/11, because the city is shaped around that event. Because I set The Last Runaway in 1850, I had to deal with the fact that there was no railroad, no train.
I like the facts because they ground me. They’re helpful because it’s very hard to completely make up a story. I do a bunch of research before I start writing, then I start writing and do more specific research. I do enough to feel comfortable writing in the period, but I don’t always have the story worked out. I have an idea of the direction, and things will come up along the way that I don’t realize I want to make a bigger thing out of later.
Belle Mills, an important character in the book, was not an important character in the first draft—I wasn’t even sure she was going to come back. I wanted to use her more, though, and the more I used her, the more I had to find out about how to make a hat and a bonnet. Originally she was in Hudson, Ohio, and I wanted her to be closer to where Honor ends up. Things shift as you’re writing.
Artists and writers can be very wary of criticism and attack when they try to deal with America’s past and the problems of prejudice that still exist today. Two examples are Kathryn Stockett, who wrote from an African American woman’s point of view in The Help, and Quentin Tarantino, for telling the story of a slave seeking revenge in Django Unchained. Did you find this subject matter difficult for those reasons?
I was aware of it while writing, but the difference is that I didn’t try to get in the head of an African-American narrator. I used a character who is a foreigner, so everything to her is new. It’s a trick an author can do to put a character in a new situation—it makes it easier for reader to empathize and follow along. Honor has never met a black person or a slave and it’s all new to her, so when she describes the African Americans she meets, by necessity it’s going to be a bit clumsy, and that’s perfectly acceptable because it’s within certain boundaries.
I didn’t find The Help offensive, but I can understand why other people had concerns. On the other hand, isn’t that what writers are supposed to try to do? I’ve written inside the heads of male characters and French characters, and why not? But because of the painful history of race relations in America, it’s become something very difficult to do and not ruffle some feathers. Luckily, I haven’t had any criticisms about my black characters. Actually, a review that was otherwise negative said I write black characters pretty well. (Laughs.)
One of the scenes in the novel involves premarital sex between two Quakers, and that might be surprising to some readers.
We have a tendency to retrospectively place a Victorian value system on everyone in the past, even though plenty of people had sex before they even thought of getting married. Just because they’re Quaker doesn’t mean they’re not lustful. I’ve also heard that in various societies, some couples didn’t marry until the woman was pregnant—they wanted to make sure the couple fit well together. I wanted to be more open minded about sexuality in the novel.
One of the things that makes this book so powerful, I think, is your ability to give depth to these characters, to help us understand what the conversations might have been like surrounding the Underground Railroad. What were some challenges of writing a Quaker abolitionist at this time in American history?
When you talk about Quakers, you don’t want them to be a type rather than real people—that’s why they’re mixed up with good and bad in the novel. One of the biggest challenges I faced was writing a character that never lies. So often I would need her to tell a lie or a lie of omission. That was a really tough one.
It’s not easy to write credible Quaker characters. The shorthand for a Quaker is just too good to be true—they’re very honest, never lie—and I think that makes it seem like Quakers are not flawed people. I realize I might offend many Quakers, but this book, for better or worse, shows that not all Quakers are perfect people.
One of the big surprises in doing research was finding out about the “Negro pew” in Arch Street meeting and other meetings. It was then that I realized Quakers were as prejudiced as everybody else. There were Quakers who kept slaves until 1776 when Philadelphia Yearly Meeting decided that Quakers had to give them up. That surprised me because I assumed all Quakers would be opposed to slavery.
We like to assume that our ancestors would have done the right thing in certain situations. A lot of people like to assume that if they were Quaker in the 19th century, they would have worked on the Underground Railroad, but a lot of Quakers didn’t. The last thing they wanted to do was bring attention to themselves by speaking out against the law, the huge jeopardy involved. All of this made for much more interesting subject matter. Quakers always being good and doing the right thing is not a story.
Interested in the Maladjusted Book Club? Visit the book club page to see past selections. Leave a comment if you’re interested in a particular summer 2013 pick!