A conversation with Author Jennifer Chiaverini

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By: 
Matt Geiger

Jennifer Chiaverini’s new novel starts with a bang. Literally.

John Wilkes Booth has just shot history’s most beloved U.S. president in the back of the head. Booth, convinced he has rid the world of a brutal tyrant, is on the run, hiding in a tobacco barn while the authorities doggedly pursue him. It’s a rip-roaring scene, full of action and almost biblical undertones. As the posse closes in on him, Booth is still convinced he is working as “an instrument of [God’s] perfect wrath.”

It is violent and tragic, but perhaps the most surprising thing about the beginning to this story is the fact that, through some kind of literary alchemy, Chiaverini has managed to humanize Booth. He’s a villain, obviously. But he is also a human being.

It’s an impressive feat, and it’s one only possible for a novelist who, after 25 prior books, is at the height of her powers as a writer.

It’s historical fiction with empathy, and it is a fitting first act considering what is to come in “Fates and Traitors.”

Sitting in a Middleton coffee shop, the New York Times bestselling author of this drama is soft-spoken, introspective and, especially in light of the considerable success of her many novels, remarkably humble.

She is constantly amazed, she says, by “how infuriating and humorous and inspiring history can be.”

“I think historical fiction, like no other form, allows readers to see through eyes unlike their own,” Chiaverini says.

Her executive editor at Dutton, Maya Zin, called “Fates and Traitors” Chiaverini’s “best book yet.”

Chiaverini is quick to point out that the life of a successful author is not quite as romantic as some imagine it to be.

She wanted to be a writer from the moment she learned to read, she says. She still enjoys the process as much as she did when her Elm Creek Quilts books were a breakout hit that put her name on the literary scene.

As a writer of primarily historical fiction, Chiaverini knows she has an obligation to entertain and intrigue her modern readers. She is also acutely aware, she continues, of her duty to fairly represent the real people who populate her stories.

She spends much of her time in historical society archives, pouring over census records and digging through old newspapers.  Newspapers of yesteryear, unlike the pristine bastions of accuracy they are today, were notoriously unreliable. But reading them allows Chiaverini to know, in addition to what actually happened, also what her characters thought was happening in the world.

It is all part of the process. “There is no glamor in writing,” she says.

When it’s time to put it all into a coherent narrative, she tends to do so standing in the kitchen of her Middleton home, tapping away on her laptop.

“I can be an introvert,” she admits. “I like to be at home. I like to read books. The other stuff you do as an author, I do it because I have to. But I, like most authors I know, am a writer because I like writing.”

As she prepares for her upcoming book tour, her mind is actually on more familial issues. When she’s done with the interview, she’s going back to school shopping for her two teenage sons.

“Shoe shopping,” she chuckles. “My sons’ feet are literally poking through their shoes. I don’t think they care or were planning on telling me they need new shoes, but they do.”

While John Wilkes Booth has been the subject of much in the way of scholarship and speculation, in “Fates and Traitors” Chiaverini once again approaches her subject matter from a fresh viewpoint. Most of her books take place in times and places where women and minorities had little in the way of rights and even less in terms of voices. Her writing, even while tackling well-trodden historical territory, tends to look at the world through their eyes.

Chiaverini’s new book is no exception. While Booth is at its center, the novel is about the lives and viewpoints of four women with whom the notorious assassin is inexorably linked. A mother, a sister, a sweetheart and a confederate widow all breath new life into Booth’s story. It is a postmodern approach to a formative moment in the nation’s history.

Nothing is stodgy or one-dimensional. It is all very much alive.

“Sometimes people tell me history is boring,” Chiaverini says. “That it’s just a list of names and places. That makes me so sad, because to me history is narrative.”

It is a narrative that is often brutal and unfair, especially when an author like Chiaverini chooses to write about people who were systematically oppressed.

“It’s something the people I write about had to grapple with,” she says. “I can’t leave it out of the story. None of these characters are whitewashed.”

“The challenging part is when you have a main character you want readers to like, but you have issues that make it problematic,” she explains. “Like in ‘Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule’ [her 2015 novel] you have the fact that [Julia] Grant owned slaves. No matter how I approach it, I can’t get away from the fact that she thought it was okay to own other people. While you can dismiss it and say she was a product of the time, we also know there were a lot of people who didn’t think it was okay, even then.”

That nuanced approach to her characters means the “good” characters are flawed, and the “bad” ones have redeeming qualities. It’s what makes historical fiction, in many ways, more powerful than the average history book.

“You are making value judgments about what to include and how to interpret things,” Chiaverini explains. “Sometimes there is no record, and sometimes the record is wrong. Sometimes there are two accounts of something and they don’t match up.”

“Even though it says ‘novel’ on the cover, my readers still want me to get it right,” she continues. “To show what they did, or what they would have done in a situation.”

She thinks history has a lot to teach modern people. She sometimes struggles with questions about its relevancy, however.

“I’ve been wrestling with the question of whether historical fiction really matters,” she says, choosing her words deliberately. “Should I be writing about school shootings or global warming instead?”

But historical fiction’s saving grace, she suspects, is its ability to allow us to better understand the context of today’s problems. “Then,” she adds, “we have more tools to deal with them.”

For instance, Mary Lincoln – the first lady who was left selling her wardrobe to make ends meet after her husband’s murder – can teach us about what a world without social security and other safety nets looks like.

History, Chiaverini says, can also have a humbling effect.

When she is buried in old texts, researching for an upcoming book, she sometimes catches herself thinking: “Wow, some things don’t change.”

“An ugly divorce back then looks a lot like an ugly divorce today,” she says.

“History shows us sometimes we do exactly the wrong thing,” Chiaverini continues.  “Then and now.”

It’s actually an optimistic sentiment from an author who knows a lot about what it means to be human, with all the good and bad that entails.

 

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