A Q&A with Jennifer Chiaverini

All You magazine had the pleasure of getting to know the author of The Cross Country Quilters, an avid quilter who lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband and her two sons. In addition to the 13 novels she’s written in the Elm Creek Quilt series, Jennifer has written two books of quilt patterns based on the quilts in her books, and designs quilt fabrics inspired by her characters.

 

AY: Can you tell me about your initiation into quilting?
JC: I grew up in Ohio, and nobody in my family quilted at all. But I always admired the beauty of quilts, the complexity of the patterns and the artistry that was evident in them. When I was engaged to be married in 1994, I really wanted an heirloom quilt to commemorate my wedding. But nobody was going to make me one and I certainly couldn’t afford to buy one, so I decided to make one for myself. Of course I had never quilted a thing in my life, and I only had the most rudimentary sewing skills―sewing on buttons was about the extent of it.. I bought a basic teach yourself how to quilt book, and followed the instructions step-by-step. What I ended up with wasn’t the beautiful heirloom quilt I had envisioned, but it was a nice little sampler. What it did do was to launch me into a wonderful community of quilters, and a whole new form of artistic expression.

AY: The Cross Country Quilters is the 3rd novel in your series, The Elm Creek Quilters. Why did you choose to base your stories in the world of quilting?
JC: I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and when I felt ready to start my first novel, I followed the advice I’d always been told: Write what you know. What I knew and was fascinated by at that point was quilters― the intense bonds of friendship that they enjoy, and the sharing of personal stories that happens when people gather to work on a group project. It’s not an idyllic world, there’s a healthy dose of competition and bickering too. But it’s ripe ground to write about things I care about ― the lives and work of women, and the friendships that nurture them. Little did I know what a huge response my first novel would have, and that it would turn into a whole series.

AY: Each of the characters in “The Cross Country Quilters” has such a rich inner life and history. Are any of them based on real people or true stories?
JC: Some of the characters are inspired by people I’ve known. Vinnie is loosely based on my own grandma, who’s outspoken and funny like her, and my favorite teacher when I was growing up had MS. After we moved away I never saw her again, and she’s stayed in my thoughts over the years. People often want to know much the book is true, and I always think, well I hope all of it is. Real life is secondary. I think we make up stories to try to tell the truth. These people don’t really exist, but I’m trying to get to some essential truth whether it’s about a relationship or something more internal. As a writer, I think my job is to tell the truth.

 



AY: Did you develop your characters before you sat down to write, or did they evolve?
JC: When I block out a novel I try to sketch the characters in a very basic fashion, but it’s through the writing of the story that I discover what they’ll do in a conflict, and how they interact with another character. That’s really how I get to know a character. And then it’s in the revising that I really flesh out the characteristics that I discovered in the first draft. I know them much better by the end of the whole process. Of course, the characters change throughout novel and learn something, (you hope). And they change each other too. All of those dynamics come into play―no character is completely static.

AY: The challenges begin and end at quilt camp. Is that setting significant to the journey these women go through?
JC: Yes. Quilt camp is where these women carve out space for themselves, apart from the day-to-day demands of their lives. It is in that space that they are able to take the first important step of acknowledging that something isn’t right and needs to be explored. We all know how difficult it is to find the time to focus on yourself, and in many cases being so busy becomes the cover up we use to keep us from seeing what’s rally bothering us, and fixing it.

AY: Completing the challenge quilt becomes so important to the women in the novel. Is there such a thing as a challenge quilt in real life, and what does it signify on a deeper level?
JC: Oh yes, there are many variations of challenge quilts. They’re quite popular.
For Grace, Donna, Megan, Vinnie and Julia, not only does the quilt represent triumph over the challenges they were facing, it’s also a commitment to nurturing the friendship they developed by working together to create an object of beauty. It’s a way of insuring that they’re not going to let these ties fall apart. On another level, their common goal of finishing the challenge quilt and being accountable to one another may have been the most motivating factor to keep them working toward resolving their issues. It was also the reminder that nobody was alone in her struggle.

 


AY: I was impressed with how the story unfolded in a structure that switched back and forth between different points of view. How did you pick that structure?
JC: It seemed to flow well from one character to the next. I let them all take a turn as the main character, the way they would take turns in an organic conversation between friends. The breaks seemed very natural. The women are also very different and it’s part of what makes their friendship so appealing. I felt like the bond of their friendship made it easier for me to shift the focus from one character to the next. It felt like an ensemble group that was very connected, with one picking up where another left off.

AY: It’s true that the characters come from such divergent backgrounds. To me it made their friendship seem a little unlikely.
JC: What they share is not only a passion for this wonderful art form, but also, mutual needs. They’re all going through some sort of crisis, and they sense this in the others, that this person is also struggling.

AY: Does the quilting community really draw such different kinds of people?
JC: Part of what makes quilting such an appealing art form is precisely that―it’s accessible to so many different kinds of people. It transcends so many of these arbitrary boundaries that we put up between ourselves. In real life, absolutely―quilting draws together people who wouldn’t otherwise ever become friends. It crosses socioeconomic, cultural and even gender lines.

 


AY: What is it about quilting that inspires such passion in people?
JC: It’s a very accessible art form. Even the worst quilt you’ll ever make will still keep you warm. Even if the points don’t match, every skill level can still make a beautiful quilt. Plus there’s always something to discover―the complexity and variation of patterns; each choice can create an unlimited number of variations. Then there’s the community. People come because they love the beauty of quilts, but it’s the way advice and encouragement is shared that makes them stick with it. People are really very enthusiastic passing skills and techniques on to newcomers. There isn’t that territorial hoarding of knowledge you see in more rarified art scenes.

AY: Each of the new friends faces a challenge in her life. What’s interesting is that many their challenges actually change throughout the novel.
It feels real that they name their challenges in the beginning, even though they aren’t yet sure of how great those challenges really are. In fact some of them are slightly off base, and it takes a while for them to realize the real extent of their issue. Each of the women thinks her challenge is externally motivated, and yet really, it’s about herself (with the exception of Vinnie’s).

JC: Just as in the real world, we may know that something’s not right―there’s a discontent in our hearts ―but pinpointing the source can be more difficult. We try to comprehend the problem as best we can, and as we start working on the goal, we begin to understand it better. And it’s often much more serious than we thought.
By doing the soul searching they shake off some of their denial, as in the case of Grace, who has MS. She needs to learn how to accept and tell the truth in order to be creative and whole again. To me, her character expresses the need that we all have to tell the truth.

AY: How does Donna’s challenge change? At first it was to stop her daughter’s wedding, but where does it end up going?
JC: Donna has to wrestle with herself and the example she has set―she doesn’t believe she taught her daughter to be submissive, yet somehow she knows she didn’t get the message through to her daughter that it’s not okay for her boyfriend to treat her like he did. Donna is a responsible mom who doesn’t flinch when the going gets tough, and she won’t allow her daughter to drift off. But she discovers that perhaps, being the mom who never takes anything for herself hasn’t made her the model of a strong self that her daughter needed. That’s part of why she feels so responsible.

 


AY: Are you still quilting, and if so, are you a part of a group?
JC: I’m always quilting, but my fictional characters are much better quilters than I am. Most of my quilting groups are online at this point. It’s difficult for me to go to an in-person group because of the demands of juggling my family and work, which now requires a lot off traveling. But we all still meet up at quilt shows.
Nothing replaces the warmth and friendship of being together in person, but you make do with the Internet.


AY: Has any of the feedback you’ve received from the novel surprised you?
JC: It’s been very gratifying to hear from readers with MS. Many were inspired by Grace to find a way to express themselves artistically, and they’ve been able to stick with it. I was just trying to tell one woman’s story―I didn’t foresee that it could help other women. Thanks in part to the Internet, women who have read my books have reached out to me to share their own stories. It’s been very inspiring.


AY: I understand you’re designing quilt fabrics?
JC: Yes, I am! I come up with the concepts―each fabric line is inspired by a character from a novel, and I work with Red Rooster Fabric, who executes the actual design. My quilting readers like to re-create the quilt that the characters in the book create, so I have a series of prints for “The Cross Country Quilters” based on the challenge quilt the characters made together. You can see it on my website, elmcreek.net, under “gallery.” The Pattern for the challenge quilt is available in my book, “Elm Creek Quilts,” published by C&TPublishing.