Best-selling author Tracy Chevalier has set her new book "Burning Bright" in late 18th-centuryLondon, where a family encounters printer and poet William Blake.
Chevalier, who wrote "Girl With a Pearl Earring," says her work on "Burning Bright," which is being released this month in the United States, was an attempt to understand Blake.
"I found his prose hard to understand and I found his paintings scary," Chevalier said in a recent phone interview. (She appears at Bay Area book signings today and Sunday.)
In the book, she attempts to give the reader the perspective of being Blake’s neighbor.
The book follows the Kellaway family — parents Thomas and Anne, and children Jem and Maisie — as they move from the countryside to a boarding house in London next to where Blake lives. They meet Philip Astley (considered the man who invented the modern circus) and a London local, Maggie Butterfield.
The children, Jem, Maisie and Maggie, befriend William and Kate Blake. The novel explores the relationship between innocence and experience, as Jem and Maggie inspire Blake’s "Songs of Innocence and of Experience."
"Unlike for Adam and Eve, innocence and experience are not mutually exclusive," Chevalier said. "There can be both."
While much of the novel is fiction, some basic facts hold true: Astley’s circus performed in London in the late 1700s, Blake lived in London with his wife, Catherine. The list goes on. Chevalier, an American who lives in England with her husband and son, spent a year doing research before she wrote the book.
Maps, she said, were the greatest help. On one map she found a small street called "Lover’s Lane"; on a later edition of the map, the street was labeled "Cut Throat Lane." Chevalier also spotted a mustard factory near Hercules Road. All of these details became integral to the novel.
The transition from innocence to experience is a story we know. One of "Burning Bright’s" most engaging episodes describes the nightlypub crawl through London in 1792 and 1793, with cow blood sloshing, and Blake singing in a funny, high-pitched voice.
Tracy Chevalier will read from "Burning Bright" at 3 p.m. today at Bookshop West Portal, 80 West Portal Ave., San Francisco, (415) 564-8080; and at 7:30 p.m. today at Kepler’s, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, (650) 324-4321. She’ll appear at 7 p.m. Sunday at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, (415) 927-0960.