MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Writer Tracy Chevalier spins fiction from history. In her best-selling novel, "Girl With A Pearl Earring," the setting was the 17th century studio of Dutch painter Vermeer. Other of her novels have focused on weavers of medieval tapestries, fossil hunters in 19th-century England. And now, her latest is about a pioneer family trying to scrape out a life in the swamps of Ohio. It's far from idyllic. It's called "At The Edge Of The Orchard." And Tracy Chevalier joins me now from London where she's lived for many years. Tracy, welcome to the program.
TRACY CHEVALIER: Thank you for having me.
BLOCK: And talk a bit about why this time period appeals to you. These are pioneers in the 1830s, and then a bit later in the book, one of the characters moves out West to chase the gold rush.
CHEVALIER: Well, it started with Johnny Appleseed actually. And I hadn't realized that Johnny Appleseed lived a very different life from what the storybooks told us as kids. You know, we always grew up with him - thinking that he handed out apple seeds far and wide in Ohio and Indiana and promoted healthy eating and healthy living. Actually, Johnny Appleseed anticipated the arrival of settlers in Ohio. He would go to the places he thought people would settle in a few years' time, plant a nursery of apple trees and then sell them to settlers when they came. He was a businessman. He was making money. And the other thing is that he sold apple trees that produced apples that were made into cider and applejack, not sweet apples for eating. And when I read about this, I thought, oh. I had this vision of a couple - a pioneer couple arguing over apples, one of them wanting sweet apples to eat, the other wanting to grow sour apples so that there'd be a lot - enough cider to go around to obliterate the difficult lives they were leading.
BLOCK: There is nothing romantic about this couple, James and Sadie Goodenough. There's is a violent relationship. They have 10 kids. Sadie, the mother, is a drunk. She's abusive to her kids and her husband - hard to like this character.
CHEVALIER: She is, but there are also - I hope I've written her - there are times when I'm hoping the reader will feel slightly sympathetic. She's in a marriage she should never have made, and she's kind of stuck in this swamp. And she is, yes, self-centered and a terrible mother, but she also is misunderstood, I think, at times and frustrated. And that frustration comes through. And unfortunately, the battle between her and James has really huge consequences on the children.
BLOCK: And it all comes down really to these apple trees. The husband, James, is obsessed with apples, growing the sweet apples. She, Sadie, the mother, is - well, she's a drunk. She's looking for applejack. She likes the spitters - not the eaters - the spitters.
CHEVALIER: Yes, and Johnny Appleseed is a little bit like her drug dealer because he comes along twice a year in his canoe to see how they're doing. And he sometimes takes off the barrels of apples and brings them back pressed for them as cider. And, you know, I don't think he does it maliciously, but he is, as I said, he's a businessman. So he's got a slightly different take on it all.
BLOCK: And why don't you describe what Johnny Appleseed looks like in your novel as you paint him?
CHEVALIER: Actually, some of the myth is true. He did sometimes wear a tin pot for a hat. His clothing was interesting, shall we say? He often wore a coffee sack that he cut holes out of and a rope for a belt. So, yeah, he was a strange guy. He was actually making all this money, not for himself, but really because he was what they called a Swedenborgian, a very peculiar Christian sect. And Johnny Appleseed spent a lot of time proselytizing. And he'd go on this kind of rant, and a lot of the settlers - I read some hilarious accounts of them going, oh, this guy, we don't understand a word he's saying, but, you know, he's kind of entertaining, so he's harmless.
BLOCK: Well, partway through the novel, the action shifts even farther west. One of the sons - one of the Goodenough sons, Robert, makes his way out to California. This is in the time of the gold rush. Ultimately, what the son - what Robert Goodenough does is fascinating. He hooks up with a guy who's collecting redwood and sequoia cones and seedlings and saplings to send to England. And this is a thing. I had no idea that this was an actual thing that happened.
CHEVALIER: Yes, there are, in a way, two tree men in this book - Johnny Appleseed in Ohio and William Lobb in California, but both dealing with the commerce of trees. William Lobb was an Englishman who went exploring in South and North America. He was sent out by a nursery who wanted him to find new plants and trees that Victorians could plant in their gardens. And at the same time - when I was writing the book, I knew I wanted Robert Goodenough to come into contact with redwoods and sequoias - that these would be the kind of trees where he might find some sort of peace. And when I read about William Lobb, I thought - oh, he's there around the same time as Robert Goodenough, so maybe I could have this real person meet this fictional person.
BLOCK: I want to talk a bit more about the research that you do when you're writing your novels. I've read that you took a painting class when you were writing "Girl With A Pearl Earring," that you actually hunted fossils when you were writing about a 19th-century woman fossil hunter. What did you do to really immerse yourself in apples, in particular, for this latest novel?
CHEVALIER: I ate a lot of apples.
CHEVALIER: Not a bad thing. Oh, yes. But my favorite apple that's in the book - that's mentioned in the book - is called the Pitmaston Pineapple. And it tastes of nuts and honey, but it also has a kind of pineapple finish - faint taste of pineapple at the end. And - but I love them so much that I have planted my own Pitmaston Pineapple tree. And in a couple years, I'm really hoping it bears fruit.
BLOCK: Tracy Chevalier's new novel is "At The Edge Of The Orchard."
Tracy Chevalier, it's good to talk to you. Thanks so much.
CHEVALIER: Thank you.
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