Tracy Chevalier on her new novel The Last Runaway

Tracy Chevalier heads back to America for a novel about slavery, Quakers and quilting. She sews it all together for Lee Randall

You have to listen closely, but the sound is unmistakable: a soft pop, then the whisper as thread is pulled through taut cotton. The needle darts in and out of view, drawing its pattern above the textiles until, after many attentive hours, a patchwork quilt is born. Assembled from rich memories – this square from a wedding dress, this from a shirt worn that first day of school – a beautifully wrought quilt is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s also a tidy metaphor for the novelist’s art of pulling together disparate bits of story to create a bigger picture of a time, a place, and an idea.

In her seventh novel, Tracy Chevalier writes, for the first time, about her native America. The Last Runaway is the story of Honor Bright, an English Quaker who travels to the free state of Ohio in the 1850s. Unexpectedly stranded, she’s forced to patch together a new life. Ohio, strange and alien, is near enough to the Canadian border to be on the flight path of runaway slaves. Honor is, as her name suggests, powerfully drawn to help them, but doing so imperils her newfound security.

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During her research, Chevalier – who has lived in London since 1984 – read Frances Trollope’s book Domestic Manners of the Americans. “I found it hilarious. She describes so many things that remind me of the way the British see Americans, still. Funny little things, like Americans eat faster. Fanny Trollope has so much fun with it; she says American women are flat-footed and they don’t know how to make conversation: they’re not sparkling, they don’t have any interest in anyone else. I’m not saying that Americans are like that, but there are elements that I recognise. I had a lot of fun playing around with how Honor would respond to America and what that says about us now.”

More crucially, the quiet, meditative act of quilting – and the silence so integral to the Quaker way of life – is a key to unlocking Chevalier’s book. “Yes, in fact I went to a meeting yesterday. It’s like a form of meditation. [At a meeting] we are meant to be listening for something inside us. Waiting in expectation. Sometimes I just close my eyes and listen to whatever sounds I can hear. At first it’s the traffic, birds, wind in the trees, then the more you focus on that the more those other thoughts go away. It’s this idea of sinking down and stripping away the thoughts. I can’t believe how fast an hour goes. I always, at the end, want more, and that’s a good place to finish. In the old days they used to sit for three hours. In Honor’s day it was two hours. Every century they drop an hour. I keep wondering if they’ll cut it down to –” Speed Quaker? “Ha ha! Yes, or have a meeting on Facebook!”

Chevalier attended Quaker camp as a teenager, but I had no idea she was still active in the religion. “Sometimes I go for months without going to meetings, but when I go back I feel really comfortable. I’m not heavily into it but more and more as I get older, I appreciate the silence aspect of it. The world seems to have gotten really noisy for me.”

Is there, I ask, a cultural aspect to being Quaker just as there is to, say, Judaism? Laughing, she reminds me that her husband is Jewish, and her son had a Bar Mitzvah. “The core of the Quaker experience is a real concern for the world. Quakers are supposedly Christian and a lot of them believe in the Christian God, Jesus and the Bible, but a lot don’t.

“At a meeting if you feel moved to speak you can. Some speak about something very personal, some speak from the Bible, and someone else might talk about the state of politics in the Middle East or something that happened in Afghanistan. I really admire that they don’t try to hive off the religious elements of their lives from all the rest of the things they’re concerned with. There’s not this separation of the personal and the political.”

So it’s even more interesting to discover, as Honor did, that some Quaker meetings observed segregation. “I was really surprised when I learned that. It made me think, ‘This is going to be a more interesting book!’ For a little while I was thinking, ‘The Quakers are so perfect. You would never meet a nasty Quaker.’ It was a relief to discover they had their faults too – and this was quite a big one, this contradiction.

“Most of the early abolitionists were Quakers who started newspapers, journals, societies, and drives to raise money to help free people. And there were free black Quakers living in the North. But when they went to meetings they didn’t sit on the same bench! It was remarkable to me that this seeming concern for people’s equality didn’t extend to that.”

Having heard that maps of the Underground Railroad (the slave escape network) were incorporated in quilts, I was surprised that it didn’t factor in the novel, which describes quilting in such tempting terms that I itched to pick up a needle.

She seems relieved that I’ve asked. “That story is bullshit! It’s from a book called Hidden in Plain View. This idea that they stitched signals into quilts is basically a yarn spun by an old African-American woman selling some gullible white woman her quilts. The entire book is based on one woman’s testimony and is not corroborated by any other oral or written information.

“People just can’t resist mythologising things. I feel like that a little bit about the Underground Railroad, too. You and I both learned about it in school: Harriet Tubman, what an incredible woman. But you know – she led 300 people to safety. That’s 300 lives that became better, but it’s out of millions of slaves. Thirty thousand slaves escaped using the Underground Railroad. Put that against the millions. In 1860, when the census was taken, there were 3.9 million slaves. And that doesn’t count all the slaves who had lived and died before then. We’re talking about a very small number of people escaping, in the great scheme of things.

“I think the Underground Railroad has become a big part of American history because white Americans need to feel that their ancestors did the right thing. And black Americans need it because they want to think: my ancestors ran away, they were brave and courageous and took their lives into their own hands. But the reality is that the Underground Railroad wasn’t as huge as we may think.”

Another reality Chevalier’s coming to grips with is the way publishing has changed in the three and a half years since we met to discuss Remarkable Creatures. “There’s been a huge shift, and not just with the eBook. When The Last Runaway was published in the US there was no book tour and no face to face with any American journalists.”

Most of her publicity was by phone and Skype. There were e-mail interviews, and she contributed to blogs. “Which is fine, but it takes some getting used to. And in the States they don’t review books the way they used to. They’re also taking literary blogs much more seriously. I’m a bit ambivalent about it. I don’t know how someone establishes a reputation as a blogger.”

Donning my devil’s advocate horns, I parry that much the same can be said of newspaper reviewers. “I guess. It’s the same for writers: how does one novel rise above the others? This is the perennial question. How do you get a book to be taken up? How do you get that word of mouth success? They have to get out in front of people.”

Besides her own website, she visits a Facebook page maintained by her publisher, a Twitter account, and Pinterest boards, where you can see pictures of quilts and bonnets similar to those described in the novel. But she’s wary of the often crass self-promotion that social networking sites engender. “I had no idea so many people would actually follow an author on Facebook. It would never occur to me to go see what writers I like are doing, but obviously it occurs to a lot of other people. Four years ago that was not the case, so I’m having to quickly catch up.”

Isn’t the plethora of book festivals reassurance that people want to connect? Yes, but she continues: “People think, ‘I don’t have to go see that painting because I have a perfectly good view of it on my computer.’ ‘I don’t need to go to the cinema because I can see that film on my phone.’ Even in human interactions – ‘I don’t need to see this person because I can Facebook them.’ When I was researching Burning Bright years ago, about William Blake, I got to go to the British Library and hold the notebook he had written his poems in. Yes, there’s a facsimile online but it’s not the same as being in the room with it. Or being in the same room as Girl with a Pearl Earring and seeing it in the flesh.

“People are buying books but they’re not going to book stores any more, they’re downloading them. So far, in the States, I’ve sold more eBooks than physical copies of this book. So there’s no footfall. That’s why the big chains and the publishers are terrified. People still want to read stories, so it’s just a question of finding out what’s going to fill that space. I’m hoping it’s not just Amazon, because there’s something soul-destroying about trying to browse online. If I order something online it’s only because I know about the book already. I don’t find out about the book by going to a website.”

Nevertheless, we’re both cheered that many are consuming more books since the advent of e-readers, and we’re both Kindle owners. “I have to decide, am I going to buy a book in hardback, on Kindle, wait for the paperback to come out, or go to the library. What I put on Kindle are usually books I’m not sure I’m going to like that much, because I don’t want to clutter up my limited shelf space. The books I really love, I want to have physically. I think the way publishing’s going to go is that we are going to own the right to read the book in whatever form. What I’d like to see is that we pay a certain price to get a physical copy and a download. Instead of pitting them against each other, why can’t they just be bundled into one?”

• The Last Runaway is published by HarperCollins, £14.99.