Tracy Chevalier has written six novels, including the bestselling Girl with a Pearl Earring

Short Story Collections

Why Willows Weep (editor)
(The Woodland Trust, 2011)

reviewed by James Murray-White

Interview with Tracy Chevalier

The Short Review: Where did the idea for this anthology come from?

Tracy Chevalier: My husband Jonathan Drori is on the Board of Trustees of the Woodland Trust, and they asked him to talk to me about what writers might do to help raise the profile both of UK native trees and of the Trust and the work it does preserving and encouraging the growth of UK woodland. We came up with idea of a collection of modern tree fables. In part it was because they are short and this was something authors could write quickly - since they are donating them we didn’t want the task to be arduous. But also we wanted something that would bring out emotional responses to trees. Fables can be playful and fun, rather than focussing on the dry facts about trees.
    That said, when you read Why Willows Weep you do find out quite a lot about the characteristics of trees. For instance, rowan berries have a lot of vitamin C in them, ash wood burns well, maple is used to make stringed instruments, blackthorn flowers the earliest of all the trees, and the cuckoo starts singing around the time when cherry trees blossom. If you read the lovely fable Why the Ash Has Black Buds by William Fiennes, he lists loads of things trees are used for that we forget about, from beams to coffins to bagpipes.

TSR: How long did it take you to get all the stories together?

TC: It took me and Simon Prosser at Penguin about 6 months to commission and receive them all. Some writers accepted the assignment and turned one in two days later! Others took several months. Then it took a few months to edit and produce.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

TC: We asked lots of writers, showing them the list of the 23 UK native trees they could choose from. I expected certain trees like the oak and the willow to go right away, but actually they didn’t. Writers were very clear about which tree they wanted. People have their favourites, I guess. We included them in alphabetical order by tree name; that seemed the most democratic.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

TC: Ah, I am going to be called old-fashioned. I like stories with beginnings, middles and ends. I adore stories with twists. My favourite short story ever is The Necklace by Guy De Maupassant. My favourite contemporary short story writer is Lorrie Moore.
   I sound like I’m dodging the question, aren’t I? It’s like asking “What is art?” I want to say a story captures a change in something, but then, some stories aren’t about change at all...Clearly I am going to have to read The Short Review religiously to be able to answer this question!

TSR: Do you have a reader in mind when you put together this anthology?

TC: I tried to be really open-minded about readership, but I suppose I was thinking of people who say “I like trees” but don’t know what they mean by that. I’m hoping that after reading Why Willows Weep, people will understand why they like trees, and feel an emotional connection to them that will lead to caring for their welfare and preservation.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read this  book, anything at all?

TC: What is your favourite tree, and how do you feel about it now you’ve read about lots of trees?

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?

TC: I am delighted. Why Willows Weep is selling well and I’m thrilled that people are taking such an interest in trees.

TSR: What are you working on now?

TC: I’m finishing a novel set in mid-19th century Ohio. It’s about an English Quaker woman who emigrates to the USA and ends up helping on the Underground Railroad, which was a network of people helping escaped slaves get to Canada.

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

TC: In-Flight Entertainment by Helen Simpson, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy, The White Road and Other Stories by Tania Hershman.
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Find out what other authors, from Aimee Bender to Sana Krasikov, said about their collections, what the word "story" means to them, and how it feels to know that people are buying your books! More interviews >>>