Jennifer Chiaverini Interviews

A Conversation with Jennifer Chiaverini, Author of The Cross-Country Quilters

1. Which came first—the quilting, or the ideas for the novels? How did your quilting inform the book and how did the book inform your quilting?

I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Ever since I learned to read, I’ve wanted to share stories with others the way my favorite writers shared their stories with me. When I was working on my first novel, The Quilter’s Apprentice, I knew I wanted to write about friendship, especially women's friendship and how women use friendship to sustain themselves and nurture each other. I also wanted to write about women's work, about the value we place upon it and how women's work is judged, whether it is it paid work outside the home, volunteering within the community, or raising a family.

Beginning writers are often advised to "write what you know," and since I knew about quilters—their quirks, their inside jokes, their disputes and their generosity, their quarrels and their kindnesses—the lives of quilters became a natural subject for me. Quilting wove together my two themes as completely and effortlessly as I could have hoped. Anyone who invests time and energy into a long-term project such as a quilt learns along the way to value the work of their hands and their creative choices. But perhaps even more importantly, quilting is a wonderful artistic outlet that draws one into a wider community of talented, supportive women and men who teach and encourage one another.

I was very fortunate that my first novel captivated the imaginations of so many readers who asked for a sequel. After that, one book led to another as I discovered other facets to my characters I wanted to investigate further.

2. How long have you been quilting? How did you get started, and why do you think it became so central to who you are, what you do, and what you write about?

When my husband, Marty, and I married in 1994, I longed for a beautiful heirloom wedding quilt to commemorate the occasion and decorate our first home together. Unfortunately, none of my friends or relatives quilted, and our tight budget would not allow us to purchase one. It quickly became evident that if I wanted a beautiful heirloom wedding quilt, I would have to make it myself.

The town where we lived at that time did not have a quilt shop, so I purchased an instruction book and fabric from a discount store and taught myself to quilt. My first project was a simple nine-block sampler, not the elaborate king-size bed quilt I had envisioned, but I was pleased with it and wanted to begin a new project right away. I bought more pattern books, browsed through quilting magazines, and sought advice from more experienced quilters on the Internet.

Since then I have made many more quilts, learned many different techniques, improved my skills, and even published two pattern books of quilts inspired by the Elm Creek Quilt novels -- but I still haven’t made that beautiful heirloom wedding quilt! I have told my husband not to expect it on the bed before our twentieth anniversary.

3. Why did you decide to populate this third Elm Creek quilts novel with an entirely new cast of characters? Will we see these characters again?

After Round Robin came out, many readers told me they wished they could attend Elm Creek Quilt Camp—and some readers encouraged me to build such a place! Instead, I did the next best thing: I wrote a novel allowing the reader to experience quilt camp through the characters’ eyes. Grace Daniels quickly became one of my favorite characters, and she has made several appearances in subsequent Elm Creek Quilts novels. The other four Cross-Country Quilters make brief appearances in The Master Quilter, and I’ve always thought that I’d like to revisit their group someday.

4. Do you think of the quilts you feature in each of your Elm Creek Quilts novels as characters, of a sort? How do you decide which quilts and patterns to include in which novels?

The quilts in my novels are as important to my characters as real quilts are to the quilters who make them. As you can imagine, I have to put a lot of thought into which patterns and styles I select so that they suit the character, setting, era, and mood of the book.

Sometimes a quilt will play an important role as a narrative device. In The Quilter’s Apprentice, a sampler quilt serves as a useful instructional project as the elder woman teaches her young friend how to quilt, but the patterns also evoke stories from the elder woman's childhood and life as a young bride on the World War II home front. In Round Robin, a round robin quilt allowed me to tell the story from different characters' perspectives as the central block was passed around the circle of friends and each contributed her border. In The Cross-Country Quilters, the Challenge Quilt symbolizes the characters’ personal goals and the friendship that binds them together, and also serves to motivate them to begin resolving certain crises in their lives. That motivation helps drive the narrative.

Often I will use a quilt to provide insight into a particular character's personality or past. You can tell a lot about a quilter from the style of quilts she makes, the techniques she uses, her color and fabric palettes, and whether she finishes quilts or has a closet full of UFO's (Unfinished Fabric Objects). My characters are no exception.

5. Which character was easiest for you to relate to? Is there one woman in the book with whom you identify the most?

If I have to choose one, I suppose I would choose Grace Daniels because of her passion for quilt history. I’ve enjoyed Grace so much that I’ve managed to pull her into almost every other Elm Creek Quilts novel that follows, even if her appearance comes only in a letter.

6. This is a novel about growth and change over one year. All of these women have an obstacle to overcome, be it physically, mentally, or emotionally, all in the course of twelve months, and quilting is at the center of it. Do you believe that quilting in and of itself can be healing in these ways? How so?

Quilting can, but so too can reading. I marvel at the stories my readers have shared with me through the years about how my books have become a catalyst for positive change or growth in their lives. Some readers, after reading of Sarah McClure’s uncertainty in a new town and how she discovered a welcoming circle of new friends at the local quilt shop, have joined local quilting guilds to build new friendships. Others, moved by Sylvia Compson’s wistful reflections upon missed opportunities to reconcile with her estranged sister, have summoned up the moral courage necessary to mend broken relationships within their own families. One woman from my home state of Wisconsin found inspiration in the story of Grace Daniels, who struggled emotionally and physically to pursue her quilting after a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Contending with the same illness, my reader decided that, like Grace, she would find a way to continue the work that she loved, teaching elementary school. When I work alone at my computer, telling stories of characters and places close to my heart, it’s sometimes easy to forget that my words might have a positive impact beyond my quiet room, and it’s gratifying and humbling when readers let me know.

7. As a writer, and a prolific one at that, to whom do you look for inspiration? Who are your influences, both classic and contemporary?

This is such a difficult question to answer because I’m sure to accidentally leave out one my best writer friends! Let’s just say that my favorite author is Jane Austen, and I enjoy reading a wide variety of classic and contemporary authors. I rely on friends and independent booksellers to recommend their favorites to me. Oh, and since my sister, a librarian, is beside me as I write this, I would be remiss not to mention her as my very favorite source for excellent book recommendations.

8. What are you reading right now—or what is on your nightstand, just begging you to pick it up?

I recently finished Kevin Brockmeier’s short story collection, Things That Fall from the Sky, and I’m currently reading Velma Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven. Both are wonderful, captivating books, and coincidentally, both were gifts from two of my favorite bibliophiles. I’ve been fortunate to have read a number of wonderful books this year—Keith Donohue’s The Stolen Child, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, and Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound were particular favorites.

9. What’s next for Elm Creek Quilts? Have you thought of writing on other topics besides quilting, or perhaps pursuing a children's book?

My next book, The Aloha Quilt, will take readers from Elm Creek Manor to Hawaii as Elm Creek Quilter Bonnie Markham helps an old friend launch a new quilt camp in Lahaina on Maui. I plan to continue the Elm Creek Quilts series as long as I enjoy writing them and readers enjoy reading them, and as long as each novel is fresh, intriguing, and can stand on its own as an engrossing story. As for books outside of the series, it would certainly be fun to write a children’s book for my two sons to enjoy. Or perhaps someday I'll put my academic training to use, delve more deeply into historical research, and write more nonfiction. I'm excited about the possibilities and grateful that my loyal readers have encouraged me to keep writing.
A Conversation with Jennifer Chiaverini, Author of The Aloha Quilt

As its title implies, your latest Elm Creek Quilts novel, THE ALOHA QUILT, takes place largely in Hawai’i. What circumstances takes the series there?

Another season of Elm Creek Quilt Camp has come to a close, and Bonnie Markham faces a bleak and lonely winter ahead with her quilt shop out-of-business and her divorce looming. A welcome escape comes when Claire, a beloved college friend, unexpectedly invites her to Maui to help launch an exciting new business: a quilter’s retreat set at a bed and breakfast amidst the vibrant colors and balmy breezes of the Hawai’ian islands. Soon Bonnie finds herself looking out on sparkling waters and banyan trees, helping to run Claire’s inn, planning quilting courses, and learning the history and intricacies of Hawai’ian quilting.

THE ALOHA QUILT focuses on Bonnie, an Elm Creek Quilts founder who has undergone struggles in her personal life in recent books. Of all the Elm Creek Quilters, she probably deserves a Hawai’ian getaway more than anyone, but do the other Elm Creek Quilters also appear in the novel?

Many of the other Elm Creek Quilters, including reader favorites Sylvia and Sarah, also play important roles in the novel. The story begins and ends at Elm Creek Manor, and Bonnie keeps in touch with her friends throughout the winter months. Readers will also meet new characters, such as Claire, Bonnie’s former college roommate and the founder of Aloha Quilt Camp; Midori, the chef of the Hale Kapa Kuiki Inn and Bonnie’s Hawai’ian quilting mentor; and Hinano, Midori’s nephew, ukulele player, luthier, and Bonnie’s tutor in matters of Hawai’ian culture and folklore.

In the novel, Bonnie learns about the uniquely Hawai’ian tradition of quilting. How does it differ from traditional quilting on the mainland?

Hawai’ian quilters do make quilts like those made on the mainland, often giving their quilts a delightful Hawai’ian flavor by sewing traditional patchwork blocks from batiks or other fabrics in the bright colors of the islands. The quilts Hawai’i is best known for, however, are the distinctive, intricate, large-scale, two-color appliqué designs inspired by the natural beauty and rich cultural traditions of Hawai’i. Instead of creating small blocks and sewing them together to create an overall design, a single appliqué is cut from a large piece of fabric folded into eighths, much like cutting out a paper snowflake. The fabric cutout is unfolded and carefully sewn to background fabric in a contrasting color to complete the top. The three layers—appliqué top, middle layer of batting, and solid backing—are sewn together with echo quilting, small, intricate quilting stitches that follow the contours of the appliqué in concentric lines a quarter of an inch apart. Other stitches outline details such as leaves, stems, and flower petals. Hawai’ian quilt designs reflect the people’s love for the natural beauty of their island home, their respect for their ancestors, and their desire to preserve their native heritage. Images of native plants and animals, traditional artifacts, and family crests often appear within the appliquéd patterns.

How did quilting first come to Hawai’i?

For centuries before European explorers came to the islands, native Hawai’ians made a cloth called kapa by soaking and pounding the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree. They made bed coverings called kappa moe by sewing together several layers of kapa with large running stitches and decorating the tops with traditional patterns made from natural dyes. When Christian missionaries arrived in the early nineteenth century, they taught young Hawai’ian girls how to do patchwork as a part of their domestic training.

Woven into the story are many facts about Hawai’i’s past and its former independence of which many non-Hawai’ian readers might not be aware, and one character—Hinano—is a committed activist. What are the circumstances surrounding the end of the Hawai’ian monarchy and why, for many, is it still controversial today?

As Hinano explains to Bonnie, in 1887, under the threat of deposition, King David Kalakaua was forced to sign a constitution that transformed the government into a constitutional monarchy and stripped citizens of Asian heritage and all but the most elite native Hawai’ians of their voting rights. Six years later, a coalition of politicians, planters, and businessmen with military support from the United States Marines and Navy overthrew Queen Lili’uokalani, who had assumed the throne after her brother’s death. Confronted with the threat of a vastly superior military force, Queen Lili’uokalani stepped aside under protest to prevent the loss of life, but she fully intended to regain her rightful place eventually, believing that the international community and President Grover Cleveland would support her. President Cleveland initially denounced the overthrow as an illegal act of war and worked with members of Queen Lili’uokalani’s government to restore her to the throne, but her political opponents in the Washington and in the newly formed Republic of Hawai’i simply waited out Cleveland’s second term, and under the more amenable President William McKinley, the Republic of Hawai’i was annexed as a territory of the United States. In 1959, Hawai’i became the 50th state, and in 1993, President Bill Clinton signed an official “Apology Resolution” that admitted the United States’ wrongdoing in the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai’i. Unfortunately, although the resolution acknowledged that the United States violated native Hawai’ians’ rights to self-determination, it didn’t propose any plan for restitution to the people whose nation had been taken away from them. Today, some people believe that Hawai’i isn’t a state at all, but a sovereign nation under prolonged occupation. Others believe that the Hawai’ian people ought to have the same rights to self-governance that many Native American tribes on the mainland possess. Still others note that people of all races were full partners in the Kingdom of Hawai’i before the demise of the monarchy, and in keeping with that tradition and the spirit of aloha, government assistance should be based upon need without regard to race, and that there should be no special land rights based upon native Hawai’ian ancestry. Obviously, this is a brief summary of a very complex issue, and in the novel, Hinano’s opinions on the subject are influenced by significant and tragic events in his past.

You write about the Queen’s Quilt, made by Lili’uokalani, Hawai’i’s last queen. Did you know about this remarkable quilt before researching the novel? What were the circumstances of its creation?

I discovered the extraordinary Crazy Quilt known as the Queen’s Quilt on the last day of my first trip to Hawai’i during a tour of the Iolani Palace in Honolulu. Two years after Queen Lili’uokalani was overthrown, a group of loyal supporters tried to restore her to power. When the attempt failed, Lili’uokalani was arrested and forced to sign a document relinquishing her claim to the throne forever. Soon thereafter, she was tried before a military tribunal in her own former throne room and convicted of knowing about the royalist plot. A heavy fine was levied against her, but a sentence of five years of hard labor was commuted to imprisonment in an upstairs room of her palace. Lili’uokalani was permitted a single companion during her imprisonment, a devoted friend named Eveline Wilson. To help pass the long months, the two women made an elaborate crazy quilt, a popular style at the time, with irregularly shaped pieces of fabric sewn together in apparently random arrangements and heavily embellished with embroidery. Stitched into the quilt is a record of the queen’s reign, overthrow, and imprisonment, as well as the names of many of her friends and loyal supporters. Symbols of the Kingdom of Hawai’i such as the Hawai’ian flag and the Hawai’ian coat of arms also appear throughout the quilt. The Queen’s Quilt is a priceless treasure of art and history.

You also write about Hawai’ian flag quilts. What are those?

Hawai’ian flag quilts used traditional piecing and appliqué methods to recreate the flag of the Kingdom of Hawai’i, which had a Union Jack in the canton in honor of Hawai’i’s historical relationship as a protectorate of Great Britain and a field of eight red, white, and blue stripes to represent the eight Hawai’ian islands. Hawai’ian flag quilts also often included images such as the royal family’s coat of arms or patriotic phrases such as “Ku’u Hae Aloha,” which translates to “My Beloved Flag,” or “Ua mau ke ea o ka’aina i ka pono,” which means “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” This famous declaration of King Kamehameha III was the motto of the Kingdom of Hawai’i and is now the state motto. Hawai’ian flag quilts began appearing in 1893 after the overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani. The Hawai’ian people were not permitted to fly the flag of the Kingdom of Hawai’i, so Hawai’ian flag quilts became a form of protest—and also a way for the people to commemorate their beloved queen and mourn the loss of their sovereignty.

Bonnie’s Hawai’ian stay coincides with some major holidays—Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. What singularly Hawai’ian holiday traditions do you introduce readers to?

During her stay on Maui, Bonnie discovers how island residents celebrate traditional American holidays in a Hawai’ian style, such as a big family luau for Thanksgiving instead of the traditional turkey dinner. With Hinano’s guidance, she also learns about ancient Hawai’ian festivals such as Makahiki, a four-month celebration of the New Year in honor of the god Lono. Makahiki was a time of spiritual renewal, peace, making offerings to the gods, and celebrating with games, feasts, athletic competitions, and music.

You capture the real life of Maui, not seen by many tourists. How much time did you yourself spend in Hawai’i researching THE ALOHA QUILT?

Not nearly as much as I would have liked! I visited Hawai’i four times while writing THE ALOHA QUILT, and I hope to return soon. Hawai’i’s natural wonders, fascinating cultural traditions, and racially integrated society truly make it the land of Aloha.