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In Arts & Entertainment

Madison author Jennifer Chiaverini is the author of 20 novels, including 19 in her Elm Creek Quilts series.

Madison's Chiaverini finds inspiration in Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker


It's hard to say if anyone could have foreseen what "The Quilter's Apprentice," the debut novel by Madison author Jennifer Chiaverini has wrought.

That 200-ish-page book was the first in what is now a series of Elm Creek Quilts novels that runs 19 bestselling books long. Her first non-series book, "Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker" – based on the life of Mary Todd Lincoln's seamstress and confidante Elizabeth Keckley, who was a former slave – is due out on Jan. 15.

Chiaverini was born in Cincinnati and lived in a number of places before settling in Madison, where she lives with her husband, rocket scientist Martin Chiaverini, and their two sons.

In advance of her appearance at the Racine Public Library, 75 Seventh St., at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 24, we asked Chiaverini about her new book, about the real-life Keckley and about the fortuitous timing of Spielberg's "Lincoln" movie.

OnMilwaukee.com: Can you tell us a bit about how you first heard of Elizabeth Keckley and what drew you to her story?

Jennifer Chiaverini: More than a decade ago, I was researching antebellum and Civil War era quilts for my fourth novel when I discovered a photograph of an antique masterpiece. Arranged in the medallion style, with appliquéd eagles, embroidered flowers, meticulously- pieced hexagons and deep red fringe, the quilt was the work of a gifted seamstress, its striking beauty unmarred by the shattered silk and broken threads that gave evidence to its age.

The caption noted that the quilt had been sewn from scraps of Mary Todd Lincoln's gowns by her dressmaker and confidante, a former slave named Elizabeth Keckley. I marveled at the compelling story those brief lines suggested – a courageous woman's rise from slavery to freedom, an improbable friendship that ignored the era's sharp distinctions of class and race, the confidences shared between a loyal dressmaker and a controversial, divisive First Lady.

What I would give, I thought, to have been present as Elizabeth Keckley measured Mary Lincoln for a new gown, to overhear their conversations on topics significant and ordinary, to observe the Lincoln White House from such an intimate perspective. From that moment, my interest in their remarkable friendship was captivated, and it never really waned.

OMC: You must have done a ton of research for the book. Did you ever consider writing it as non-fiction?

JC: No, I never did, perhaps because in a sense, Elizabeth Keckley had already done so. A few years after I learned about the Mary Todd Lincoln Quilt, I was researching a Civil War novel set on the Pennsylvania home front when I realized that many of my secondary sources cited the same work – "Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House," Elizabeth Keckley's 1868 memoir.

Struck by the familiar name, I immediately found a reprint and plunged into her story, which told of Keckley's harrowing years as a slave, her difficult struggle for freedom and her ascendance as the most popular dressmaker of Washington's social elite, including the new president's wife. Sewing in the Lincoln family's chambers within the White House, dressing Mrs. Lincoln for balls and receptions, Keckley observed Abraham and Mary Lincoln in their most private, unguarded moments, and with them she witnessed some of the most glorious and most tragic events in the nation's history.

OMC: What was the allure of telling her story as a historical novel, as opposed to non-fiction?

JC: After I finished reading Keckley's brief memoir, I wanted to delve more deeply into her history, to learn about the woman she was beyond her friendship with Mary Lincoln – to discover what had happened after the closing passages of her memoir, and to uncover the details of everyday life in wartime Washington she had omitted.

How had Elizabeth Keckley spent that tense and fateful day when the increasingly divided nation awaited the results of the election that would send Abraham Lincoln to the White House? What emotions had swept through her when the Confederate Army advanced upon the city and invasion seemed imminent? What sights, sounds, and smells had she encountered every day as she walked from her boardinghouse to the White House, while all around her the capital became first an armed camp, and then one vast military hospital?

And perhaps because I am a writer, one question more than any other would not let me rest: How had the publication of her memoir – still in print today and acclaimed by historians for the invaluable insights it provides into the Lincoln White House – transformed her? Fiction allowed me to explore possible answers to those questions in a way nonfiction could not.

OMC: The book is also about Mary Todd Lincoln, too, isn't it? Was there anything you learned about her during your research that surprised you or maybe challenged the image you'd had of her?

JC: Despite the volumes of historical and psychological research devoted to Mary Lincoln, she remains an enigma. She was the first wife of a U. S. president to be called First Lady, and she was then, and remains to this day, one of the most controversial. Regrettably, descriptions of her tend to fall into the extremes of caricature: She is either portrayed as an unstable, shrill, vicious, corrupt shrew who made President Lincoln utterly miserable, or as a devoted wife, loving mother and brilliant political helpmeet whose reputation was savaged by biased male historians.

As a friend and confidante who observed Mary Lincoln closely in moments of triumph as well as tragedy, Elizabeth Keckley knew her as a real woman, full of flaws and virtues and surprises like any other. It was this far more nuanced woman that Keckley depicted in the pages of her memoir, and since Keckley is my narrator, I shaped the character of Mary Lincoln according to her perceptions.

OMC: It is fortuitous, perhaps, that the Lincoln film is everywhere in the media right now, isn't it? Do you think it will help draw some extra attention to the book?

JC: I'd be very happy if it did! I wasn't aware that the movie "Lincoln" was in the works while I was writing "Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker," but since the film has inspired renewed interest in the Lincoln White House, I can only hope that people will want to learn more about Elizabeth Keckley, too.

OMC: After 20 novels in the New York Times bestselling Elm Creek Quilts series, this is your first stand-alone work of historical fiction– though it still involves sewing, doesn't it? Is there some overlap, in terms of style and approach, in that the Elm Creek Quilts books are also very rooted in American history? What is it about the antebellum and Civil War eras, especially, that intrigue you as a writer?

JC: The antebellum and Civil War eras were a tumultuous and transformative time for our nation, showing the best and worst of humanity in stark contrast. Looking back, we discover great moral failings alongside true heroism in the struggle for justice, equality, and freedom. My personal heroes are people who face adversity with moral courage and dignity, whose hunger for justice and compassion for others lead them to stand up for what is right even at great risk to themselves. My favorite characters to write about either possess similar qualities, or are given the opportunity to summon up these qualities and do what is right but fall short.

What slavery, the Underground Railroad, secession and the Civil War say about our country – that we are capable of both great moral failings and tremendous goodness – resonates strongly even today, perhaps especially today, and as a creative person, I am drawn to explore and try to understand that conflict.

OMC: Will you return to the series now or do you have some other ideas outside that
realm that you're working on?

JC: Moving forward, if the story I want to tell fits within the framework of the series, it will be an Elm Creek Quilts novel, and if not, it will be a stand-alone book. My next novel, "The Spymistress" (due out from Dutton in October 2013), will explore the suspenseful, clandestine life of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union loyalist who was General Grant's most valuable spy in her native Richmond, Va., the Confederate capital during the tumultuous years of the Civil War.

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