My France interview with Tracy Chevalier

The author TRACY CHEVALIER has written six acclaimed novels, including the bestselling Girl with a Pearl Earring. Born in Washington DC, she has lived in London for more than 20 years. She talks to Guest Editor Kate Mosse about life, inspiration and her favourite French hideaways

Your first novel, The Virgin Blue, was about an American woman searching for her French ancestors. Was it inspired by a visit to France?

Not directly, but it was inspired by a Swiss family reunion. My father’s parents were from Moutier in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, and in 1993 we had a big reunion with cousins whom I had never met. I discovered that the Moutier Chevaliers were descended from Huguenots who had fled from the Cévennes in southern France after the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572. I went to the Cévennes to research the story and made it the setting for The Virgin Blue.

Do you have a favourite part of France?

I like the Cévennes for its history, remoteness and emptiness, though I go much more often to Paris and to the Ariège département in the Pyrénées south of Toulouse (pictured below, left) where my sister has lived for the past 18 years.

Do you have a favourite shop or restaurant you always visit?

In Paris, I usually stay in the Marais (pictured below, right) and wander around the shops there; favourites include Antoine et Lili in Rue des Francs-Bourgeois for bright, unusual clothes, and Bookbinders Design in Rue Vieille du Temple for notebooks. I also go to Patrick Roger in Boulevard Saint-Germain-des-Prés or La Maison du Chocolat for chocolates. In Ariège, we like to eat at the Hôtel Eychenne in Saint-Girons.

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Do you have any secret destinations, off the tourist track, that you particularly enjoy?

I have come to appreciate Ariège. It has good walking, good food, gorgeous views of the mountains and an interesting history. For example, lots of soixante-huitards – people who dropped out of society in the 1968 student protests – live up in the hills there and come down to sell items at the market in Saint-Girons. They make a colourful, unusual addition. My sister’s website – www.ariege.com – is full of wonderful information and tips about places to visit.

Do you speak French?

In a raggle-taggle sort of way. I had an excellent French teacher in high school in America called Madame Kitzes who made us speak loads. I’ve forgotten a lot of vocabulary, but I manage to brazen it out... especially after a glass or two of wine. My top French-speaking moment was many years ago; I was staying at a youth hostel in Amsterdam and got talking to a French woman in the bed next to mine. I’d had a lot of wine and rattled on. In the morning she discovered I was American (I guess once I was sober my accent went back to normal) and was astonished, as she had thought that I was French.

Tracy Chevalier’s new novel, The Last Runaway, will be published in March 2013 by HarperCollins: www.tchevalier.com