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How to Turn History into Empathy with Jennifer Chiaverini

Tyler Clementi Tyler Clementi How to Turn History into Empathy with Jennifer Chiaverini
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Want to create empathy for people who lived more than one hundred years ago? Learn from Jennifer Chiaverini, a New York Times bestselling author who visits the Book Loft on March 9 for a reading and book signing event.

Chiaverini is bringing her newest book, Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule, with her. The historical fiction novel imagines the relationship between Julia Grant, wife of Union general Ulysses S. Grant, and her slave, Madame Jule.

Chiaverini was inspired to explore this story when performing research for an earlier novel about President Lincoln’s wife. The author discovered that Julia Grant often traveled to military headquarters to be with her husband, bringing Madame Jule into a tumultuous, war-torn scene where other African Americans were enjoying their first freedom.

“That just kept a hold on my imagination ever since I read and I was writing these other books,” says Chiaverini.

Eager to accurately share what those experiences were like, Chiaverini turned to research: “I do a significant amount of research. I try to focus on primary sources.” While Julia Grant left behind a memoir that went unpublished in her lifetime, there was “very little in the historical record about Jule.”

“That’s when the fiction really enters into historical fiction.”

To compensate for the lack of Jule’s own voice, Chiaverini researched the firsthand accounts of other African Americans that were in the same locations during the Civil War era. Chiaverini was able to bring Madame Jule to life by incorporating Julia Grant’s accounts of Jule into her characterization.

Characterization is important to Chiaverini: “A lot of my novels are character driven.” The novelist uses her characters to create understanding and empathy for the real people they represent. For Chiaverini, “[historical fiction] really allows you to experience and empathize with a character.”

Chiaverini foregrounds the story in history. She says, “A list of dates and a list of facts can only carry you so far.” Chiaverini uses historical fiction to speculate and share characters’ experiences.

Though her genre is historical fiction, Chiaverini’s writing isn’t stuck in the past; she wants to affect the present. In her work, Chiaverini attempts “inspiring more compassion and greater understanding for a lot of the issues that we are still facing today.” For Chiaverini, history is alive.

More information about Chiaverini’s March 9 visit and her complete interview can be found on crafttheshow.com.

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