By Barbara Hoffert – March 15, 2005
With The Sugar Camp Quilt (LJ 3/1/05), Jennifer Chiaverini continues a series that neatly stitches together social drama and the art of quilting. Librarians will be pleased to know that heroine Dorothea Granger proposes to raise funds for a town library by crafting and raffling off an Authors' Album quilt. The author's version, donated to help raise funds for the Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation, can be seen at http://www.jenniferchiaverini.com.
When you wrote The Quilter's Apprentice, did you envision Dorothea Granger's tale — and the entire “Elm Creek Quilts” series?
Quite the contrary; I never dreamed that my first novel, The Quilter's Apprentice, would become a series. I knew I wanted to write about friendship, especially how women use friendship to sustain themselves and nurture each other. I also wanted to write about women's work. Young writers are often advised to “write what you know,” and since I knew about quilters — their quirks, their inside jokes, their quarrels and kindnesses — the lives of quilters became a natural subject for me. I was very fortunate that my first novel captivated so many readers, who asked for a sequel. I was glad to provide it, and then one book led to another. Dorothea Granger first appeared as a minor character in my fourth novel, The Runaway Quilt. I was so intrigued by her determination and moral courage that I wanted to give her a book of her own.
What is your special interest in the Underground Railroad, which you also wrote about in The Runaway Quilt?
My personal heroes are people who face adversity with dignity, whose hunger for justice and compassion for others lead them to stand up for what is right even at great risk to themselves. What slavery and the Underground Railroad say about our country — that we are capable of both great moral failings and the potential for goodness-resonates strongly even today, perhaps especially today. Also, like many quilters, I was fascinated by the folklore about signal quilts used along the Underground Railroad. Some historians have disputed these claims, pointing out that many of these assertions were based upon incorrectly dated quilts, that the time and resources required for making a single quilt would have made their systematic use impracticable, that no testimonies of escaped slaves mention signal quilts, and that no signal quilts from that era have been conclusively identified. I was so captivated by the legends that I included some of them in The Quilter's Apprentice. In The Runaway Quilt, I provided an explanation for the evolution of the legend, honoring the oral tradition while also adhering to historical fact. The Sugar Camp Quilt develops this further.
Why did you choose the library as a special project for Dorothea — and the entire town?
Dorothea's appreciation for libraries and books mirrors my own. I have loved libraries ever since I learned to read, and my first real job was as a page at the Thousand Oaks City Library, which appeared in my fifth novel, The Quilter's Legacy. Working as a page through high school and on summer breaks from college was a very exciting, formative experience for me — not only because I was surrounded by books but because of the people I worked with. Life as a library page must have been a formative experience for my younger sister, too, because she went on to earn her MLS from UCLA.
Am I wrong to hear echoes of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy here?
You are absolutely correct, and it's a relief to know that someone other than my sister was able to recognize it. Jane Austen is my favorite author, and I was inspired to pay homage to her in The Sugar Camp Quilt after discovering that she, too, was a quilter. In a May 1811 letter to her sister, Cassandra, Jane Austen mentions collecting scraps of fabric for “the patchwork,” and a quilt that Jane made with her sister and mother hangs in her former bedroom in the Jane Austen Museum in Chawton, Hampshire, England.
Your novel blends serious historical issues with romance. How, as an author, do you balance the two?
I don't make a conscious decision to balance one mood, theme, or plot element against another. My writing process is more intuitive than rational — I prefer the process of discovery, of allowing the characters to interact and seeing where that leads. In the case of Dorothea and Thomas, it seemed only natural that they would fall in love as they discover each other's courage and compassion and selflessness, just as love often grows out of adversity.