Author Tracy Chevalier brings tale set in Ohio’s Black Swamp to TMA

. January 26, 2017.
Bestselling author Tracy Chevalier set her latest story in Ohio; now she returns to discuss her process.
Bestselling author Tracy Chevalier set her latest story in Ohio; now she returns to discuss her process.

When her historical fiction novel, Girl With A Pearl Earring became a bestseller, author Tracy Chevalier knew she’d found her calling. The book, her second, detailed a handmaid-turned- art muse for Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, bridging real world charac- ters with fiction, ultimately becoming a 2003 Oscar-nominated film starring Scarlett Johansson. It’s been a style that has worked extremely well for the American-born, London-based writer who recently released her eighth book, At the Edge of the Orchard. Detailing a family’s trials and tribulations as they produce apples in the Black Swamp region of 1800s Ohio, the book utilizes real historical figures, such as John Chapman (better known as Johnny Appleseed), to spar with the fictional Goodenough family as they attempt to survive the rough conditions.

Now Chevalier travels to Toledo to delight fans with a reading from the novel. Known for her extensive research to ensure historical accu-
racy, Chevalier, who graduated from Oberlin, spoke with the Toledo City Paper to educate us on Ohio before Tony Packo’s.

Why did you set the story in Ohio?

My book before this one was called The Last Runaway, and it was also set in Ohio; it was in the area around Oberlin. And then I had the idea that I wanted to write about a pioneer fam- ily going west and ending up in Ohio and then going further west. When I worked out the dates, I knew I wanted to write about Johnny Appleseed, and I was thinking, “Where was he?” and “What areas was he in?” and the Black Swamp kept coming up.
It’s a part of Ohio I’d never been to, and, of course, the Black Swamp doesn’t exist now, but it was the last part of Ohio to be settled in the 1820s and 1830s, because it was so horrible. I really liked the sound of it, so I set it there.

Where did you go in Ohio to research?

I just spent a couple days in that area driving around, and it was really fun. They drained the swamp, so there isn’t a whole lot left, but there are a couple of nature reserves that still have swampy bits to them. I went to the Blue Heron Reserve in Vickery and Maumee State Forest, and Camp Perry and Crane Creek, just to get right out on the lake. So I got lit- tle senses of it around there. And I also visited Sauder Village. I actu- ally learned a lot there, just seeing the places built like that. In the gift shop there, I found a bunch of books about the Black Swamp.

Was this one big research trip or did you have to fly out multiple times?

Sadly, it was one big research trip. I had to be as efficient as I could. Living in London, it isn’t that easy to get over there. And I’ve been to parts of Ohio a lot, just not that area. The book is also set in California, so I had to go out to California at one point. You have to take what you can get. It’s surpris- ing how much you can build up from reading, and looking at old pictures and drawings. Especially reading first- hand accounts of living in a place like the Black Swamp. But you have to use your imagination quite a lot of the time.

Is the location of the book the reason that you’re com- ing back to Toledo to do a reading?

Yes, I asked to come to Toledo, when we were putting together a book tour, because I thought it would be really cool to actually come back to the area. If I have time, I’m actually going to drive down to the area where I set the farm. It’s odd because I wasn’t sure where I was going to set it. I was driving around, looking at places and then I went home and started writing, and I ended up sort of choosing it as a pinpoint on the map instead of using anything I saw. So I want to go back and see the place I chose. Also, I only had lunch in Toledo, the city itself, and I’d like to go back.

Was there anything that sur- prised you in your research of Ohio?

I was surprised at the level of isola- tion, the kind of things they had to put up with. The Black Swamp is a gift to a novelist because there were so many problems living there, that’s why it wasn’t settled for a long time. Most of Ohio was settled in the late 18th cen- tury, early 19th century, and the Black Swamp was years later. People ran out of places to settle and they had to set- tle for it. It had terrible mosquitos and swamp fever, a kind of malaria that families would get every summer, kind of like clockwork. And they’d just have to soldier on. For a long time, there weren’t many neighbors nearby who could help out. You hear about pioneer living and it was kind of romanticized, this wasn’t romanticized.

Tracy Chevalier will be doing a reading and discussion of the book At the Edge of the Orchard.
7-9pm. Thursday, February 2
Toledo Museum of Art, 2445 Monroe St.
419-255-8000 | toledomuseum.org