Thursday, February 12, 2015

Tracy Chevalier and Alice Walker

It is impossible to report on everything that has happened in this long and very interesting day. Randall Platt’s class on Point of View, Voice and Character will be the subject of a subsequent post as will Louisa Roger’s pitch practice session. Both classes were extremely helpful.

Photo by Jon Drori
In addition to those two classes, there were two keynote speeches by Tracy Chevalier and Alice Walker. I can only hit the highlights of what each of them said.

Chevalier, author of GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING and other historical novels, was celebrating having just completed her eighth book. Her topic: “The Past Is a Foreign Country: Why History Matters,” which is taken from the L.C. Hartley line in THE GO-BETWEEN, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Chevalier disagrees with the latter part of Hartley’s statement. While “they” may have had different clothes, eaten different foods, etc., there are aspects of the human experience which do not change. The task of the historical fiction writer, she believes, is to find those links with the past that are universal.

There are three schools of thought as to why history is important. The first is that we learn lessons from the past. As Santayana (and Churchill) said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed
to repeat it.” To this Hegel responded, “History teaches us that history teaches us nothing” and Henry Ford added, “History is more or less bunk.” Chevalier looks at present day events and takes it as self-evident that people and governments do not learn from past mistakes.

The second reason to study history, she said, is that it is part of our identity. Our individual and collective memories are essential to our understanding of ourselves as people, communities, the world. She quoted Marcus Harvey: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”

The third reason – and the one Chevalier embraces most heartily – is that history “makes us into three-dimensional people.” It takes us out of ourselves and makes us think about others.

She was asked whether she viewed historical fiction as self-exploration. She responded that she writes historical fiction because she wants to set “self” aside but added that that can never be completely done. All writing, she said, is autobiographical even though it doesn’t seem that way.

More about Tracy Chevalier can be found at her website:

I am happy to report that Alice Walker has not lost one bit of her passion, her righteous anger, or her outspokenness. This “keynote”, as it was called, was actually a continuation of a conversation between Walker and author Carol Merchasin.

Walker fell in love with Mexico twenty-five years ago and has returned every year since then. She spoke of her love of the indigenous art in which, she said, she could “feel the folk spirit.” She loves the weaving, the pottery (especially that in which you can see a handprint), the brooms, all the handmade art of the country.

She recalled the furniture her grandfather made for their family: tables, chairs, benches – all handmade and showing the hand of the maker. She related this to writing and urged: don’t walk away from something that is not ‘perfect’.

“What is more magical than writing?” she asked. If you can bear your own scrutiny, there is “incredible beauty” in it. Moreover, she believes, you can’t lie in writing which is why fiction is the “highest truth.”

Asked about the intense criticism she received when THE COLOR PURPLE was published, she said the answer was simple, “Don’t read the reviews!” You can’t read reviews while you’re in the throes of creativity, she insisted. You yourself will figure it out. You have more understanding of what you’re doing than your critics. “You’re bringing a gift” and all they can do is sit on the sofa, eating chips, and “react.”

The correct attitude is to say, like Martin Luther, “Here I stand”. After all, she added with a grin, “in the fifth or sixth year of criticism, you realize you can bear it!” Her advice: “You mustn’t get stuck in other people’s opinions of what you’re doing. What do they know about what you’re trying to do?”

This stance applies also to the folly of “seeking awards from people you don’t know: Why would you want them?” When she won the Pulitzer Prize, she said, “They thought I’d go all the way to New York City to get it. I told them to just mail it.”

For more on her political activism, go to her website at

P.S. When asked what she’s reading now, she said she had just finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS and proclaimed it to be a really wonderful book. I guess I’d better put it high up on the reading list.

1 comment:

  1. Today's post is highly inspirational and just what I needed to hear at precisely the right moment. Thank you for sharing your experience. Alice Walker possesses such self-confidence. I need to be more like her. Our writing (I must make myself believe that and say that MY writing) is a gift and who gives a sh#t how other people "react" to it. Wonderful post!