Q&A with Elm Creek Quilts author Jennifer Chiaverini

So if you want to check out the Cliff Notes version of this interview, read my story in the Quad-City Times. But if you’re like me and can’t get enough of Jennifer Chiaverini and the Elm Creek Quilts series, here’s the transcript from my interview with the New York Times best selling author.

Stephanie Soebbing: What passion came first, writing or quilting?

Jennifer Chiaverini: Writing. I’ve always wanted to be a writer ever since I learned how to read. But I became a quilter before I began writing the Elm Creek Quilts novels.

SS: So how old were you when you started quilting?

JC: 25.

SS: And how did you get into it?

JC: When I got married I wanted to have a beautiful heirloom wedding quilt to commemorate the occasion, but I didn’t have any relatives in my family who quilted so I couldn’t beg a wedding quilt from one of them, and I was teaching part time and working on launching a writing career in the other part of my time, so I couldn’t afford to buy a beautiful heirloom wedding quilt. So I realized that if I wanted one, I’d have to learn how to make one myself.

SS: Is that what inspired the first book?

JC: When I wrote “The Quilter’s Apprentice” I wanted to capture everything that I loved not only about the history tradition and artistry and folklore of quilting, but also to capture the spirit and camaraderie of the quilting community. I found, especially as a beginning quilter, that quilters are very welcoming to beginners. They are very willing to share their knowledge and to help newcomers working with their skills. Because of that quilting is a very accessible art form, and I don’t know if other traditional arts have that sort of welcoming, encouraging, very positive environment. But it certainly appealed to me very much and it is something I wanted to capture in fiction.

SS: You’ve done very well writing contemporary and historical fiction. What made you want to set “The Wedding Quilt” in the future?

JC: Most of it is set in the contemporary era. Readers will get to see resolution to several different contemporary story lines that have been kind of continuing in the most recent of the contemporary novels. They also are given, flash forwards in which they can see the main character Sarah at a little bit more mature age and you get to see the wedding of one of her children, her daughter Caroline. So most of the story is set within the contemporary era.

SS: Quilting trends have always been influenced by political and technological advances, was it intimidating to try to predict what would be popular 17 years from now?

JC: No I didn’t think so. Quilting to me it’s not an art form that intimidates. It’s an art form that embraces. Even today you have quilters who are working with very contemporary, very modern designs, and then you have quilters who are working on equally lovely works of art using reproduction fabrics and very traditional patterns. That’s a trend that has continued over generations, so it’s not something that I really anticipate changing dramatically. I think we’ll continue to see quilters who pursue modern visual forms in their work. You’ll see the work of quilters who prefer traditional forms and traditional color palettes and then you’ll see emerging I’m sure artists who work with any kind of combination of those two different trends.

SS: I think your readers knew you’d have to deal with Sylvia’s death eventually in this series. But it is only briefly addressed in “The Wedding Quilt.” Do think you might revisiting her final days in another plot line?

JC: I don’t really think so. I don’t think that’s something that my readers would want me to dwell upon. Since the flash forwards do take place in 2028 and Sylvia was born in 1920 I think most readers will be reasonable and that Sylvia would not be around at that time. But I don’t think they necessarily want to see every agonizing minute of the death of someone that they have come to care so much about and think of sometimes as a real person. I don’t think that that’s something I necessarily want to dwell upon or that my readers would want me to dwell upon. I think that part of the story is set in 2028, and I tried to give my readers Sylvia’s death in a way that would not give them undue unhappiness. She lived to age 93, she died in her own beloved home surrounded by her friends and family and that’s not a bad way to go.

So I know there will probably be some readers who are very unhappy and displeased with me for even suggesting that, but it was something that since my books are realistic fiction, it was something that I did have to deal with and I tried to deal with it with as much grace and compassion for my most sensitive readers’ feelings as I possibly could. But it was something that had to be addressed.

I hope people will find the joy and the love and the compassion in that brief scene and not dwell too much upon the unhappiness of it. I hope they also take away that her friends went on, life went on for them, it went on happily for them. They miss Sylvia very much but she is always going to be a part of Elm Creek Quilts because she profoundly touched the lives of everyone who ever resided there.

SS: I did think that even more touching than that scene was when her final quilt was given to Caroline.

JC: You touched upon one of the ways that Sylvia continued to be a presence in the lives of the people that she loved and that loved her. I know every time Caroline sees that quilt and every time James reads Sylvia’s memoir, they are going to remember her and it’s going to be very much as if she were still an active part of their lives. I think in a way she always will be because of how profoundly she influenced them.

SS: I’ve read that your next novel will be set in California during the 1920s. Does that mean your loyal readers are going to learn more about Elizabeth?

JC: We do get to hear a little bit more about Elizabeth, but “Sonoma Rose” focuses on Lars and Rosa, which were two people that Elizabeth tried to help in “The Quilter’s Homecoming.” At the end of that book they fled the Arboles Valley, and were presumed dead. But at the end of “The Quilter’s Homecoming” we realize that they weren’t, they’ve just gone off to northern California and they’re running a successful vineyard under assumed names.

It wasn’t until after that book came out that I thought that through a little more. I thought well, wait a minute, I had them running off and running a vineyard during prohibition and somehow they were successful and you wouldn’t think that would really be the ideal time to embark upon a vineyard and a winery. So that kind of lingered in the back of my thoughts. I thought, well, I have them succeeding how on Earth did they do that. So I thought it would be fun to go back and see how exactly they were able to do that and what happened to them when they left the Arboles Valley.

I’m also considering, but I haven’t started this at all, but I’m also considering writing another novel sometime in the future that shows Elizabeth during that same period back on Triumph Ranch once she and her husband Henry finally do have a place to call Triumph Ranch and how they make a go of it during the Great Depression. So that’s another idea, another story line that branched out of “Quilter’s Homecoming” that I would like to explore someday.

SS: Your next book is the third in your three-book contract with Dutton, will it be the final book in the series?

JC: I’m continuing to write and I’m hopeful that another book deal will be forthcoming, but it’s a tough economic times for book sellers and for publishers so of course that translates into tough times for writers. I don’t have a book at the present time, but I’m still writing and I’m not losing hope that the series will be able to continue in one form or another. I owe all the success I’ve had so far to loyal readers who have supported my work by buying the books and coming out to see me on book tour. I’d love to keep writing the series and I hope that I’ll be able to keep publishing them too.

SS:When I read the part about quilt campers asking the Elm Creek quilters for signatures on fabric I wondered if you pulled that anecdote from real life?
JC:That does happen to me sometimes at book signings, so yeah, that does happen from time to time.”
SS:So they prefer their fabric to getting the book signed?
JC:Oh no, usually they get both. They get their book signed for their library shelf and then they get their fabric signed to put into an autograph quilt.
SS:How do you find time to write one to two books a year, make the quilts to go along with them, design fabric lines and pattern books?

JC: I have no social life. (Laughing) We make time for the things that are important to us. I would say that it is true that in recent years I have been trying to do too much and I am trying to step back a little bit and prioritize. But I try to be very organized, I have a lot of support from my family and I just work very hard. I work very hard and I love what I do. I’ll just be very grateful if I get to continue doing it.

SS: You probably are asked this a lot, but did you ever think when you wrote the first book that it would develop into this big of a franchise?

JC: I really had absolutely no idea. I never could have imagined that. When I wrote “The Quilter’s Apprentice” I had no idea that it was even going to be the first book of a series. It has been very successful, it’s allowed me to do the work that I love. I’m grateful every single day for my loyal readers who have made that possible, because really without their support it never would have happened.

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