Novelist Tracy Chevalier wows Sidmouth audience

RESEARCHING her latest book about Lyme Regis fossil hunter Mary Anning got author Tracy Chevalier hooked on searching for fossils.

RESEARCHING her latest book about Lyme Regis fossil hunter Mary Anning got author Tracy Chevalier hooked on searching for fossils.

So when she came to Sidmouth last Thursday to talk about Remarkable Creatures, a novel based on the discoveries of Mary, and her friendship with the older, more educated Elizabeth Philpot, Tracy couldn't resist a detour from her Dorset home to spend time fossil hunting near the landslip between Lyme and Charmouth.

"I didn't find that much," said Tracy, who first heard about Mary on a visit to Dorchester Museum with son Jacob, now 11.

Famed for her novel Girl with A Pearl Earring, Washington-born Tracy said: "I took him on a rainy half-term day. We needed something to do and it was at the end of his dinosaur craze.

"He has accompanied me on this journey, and did come to Lyme Regis, though he got a little bored by the end. He is reading the book now and is loving it, which is rather nice."

She has been most thrilled by finding plesiosaur bones during her cliff forages and says: "I needed to do what she did to get into the character."

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Tracy packed out Kennaway House's Cellar Bar for her talk, the third in a series of five Readers and Writers events.

Taking questions after her talk and readings, she offered a piece of 'fools gold' - pyrites - for the most unusual question.

She also announced Remarkable Creatures - whose title was suggested by her husband - will make it to the big screen, after signing an option with Australian film company, Galvanised Filmgroup.

Talented screenplay writer Jan Sardi, Oscar-nominated for Shine, is working on the script and Tracy, thinks Kate Blanchett or Emma Thompson would be perfect for the part of Elizabeth.

"If you get the right actor it will not make any difference," said Tracy, who is glad not to have any involvement with the screenplay process.

Mary Anning is credited with discovering the first Ichthyosaurus specimen; acknowledged by the Geological Society in London, as well as the first, almost complete Plesiosaurus.

Lyme Regis holds Anning Day each year. Tracy attended one during her research and was so impressed by the actress playing Mary's part, she booked her for her launch of Remarkable Creatures.

During her research at Lyme, Tracy became very aware of Jane Austen's link to the town, where she set part of Persuasion.

"I certainly felt her presence. Jane Austen met Mary Anning's father, who tried to overcharge her for fixing a little travelling chest, and any time you write about women who are unattached at the beginning of the 19th century, inevitably Jane Austen is going to come up.

"I think I see this book as a kind of alternative to Jane Austen. This is what happens when you don't find Mr Darcy, what does a woman do when she doesn't marry? Jane Austen never really adopted that, even though she didn't marry.

"The book, in a way, is very aware of the place of women in society."

Tracy's next novelcentres on a Quaker family, working on the Underground Railroad in 19th century Ohio. Her research will take her back to the US to spend time in Ohio and she hopes it will be published in 2012.

"This is the first one set in the States, it is quite a change for me," she said. "I always like to do that don't get me into a rut. I don't really repeat myself very much."

*The next writer to make an appearance at Kennaway House's Readers and Writers season is Irma Kennaway, who is travelling from her home in Italy to talk about her life and work on Thursday, June 24 at 7pm.

Trained in fashion and textiles, Irma is the great, great, great granddaughter of the first Sir John Kennaway and has written an illustrated travel sketchbook retracing his life in India.

She is also finalising a novel based on this story.