A portrait of Jennifer Chiaverini superimposed over one of her quilts

Best-selling author Jennifer Chiaverini to present at Great Wisconsin Quilt Show — read a Q&A with her!

July 27, 2022 Tara Lovdahl Leave a Comment

Madison’s own internationally best-selling author Jennifer Chiaverini is the author of the “Elm Creek Quilt” series and ties her love of quilts and Wisconsin into many of her books. 

She will present about her quilts and novels at The Great Wisconsin Quilt Show, Sept. 8-10 at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison. Presented by PBS Wisconsin and Nancy Zieman Productions, proceeds from The Great Wisconsin Quilt Show support PBS Wisconsin programming and community outreach. 

In anticipation of the event, Chiaverini spoke with PBS Wisconsin about her connection with her readers and fellow quilters.

PBS Wisconsin: What sparked your interest in quilts?

Jennifer Chiaverini: Many years ago when I was going to be married, I wanted to have a beautiful heirloom wedding quilt to commemorate the occasion. However, I did not know how to make quilts and I didn’t have any relatives who knew how to quilt at that time and I certainly didn’t have the money to be able to buy the beautiful heirloom quilt that I had envisioned. So I bought myself a little booklet called “Teach Yourself how to Quilt,” and I followed all the step-by-step instructions.

I’ve just always loved beautiful quilts. And I always enjoyed stories, you know from Laura Ingalls Wilder talking about the quilts that they worked on and other important quilts in folklore and history, and that sparked my interest into wanting to learn how to make one of my own.

PBS Wisconsin: What inspires your quilt designs today?

Chiaverini: Well, I’m the author of the “Elm Creek Quilts” novel series. And so, a lot of times when I’m making quilts, I’m making the quilts that my characters make in the stories. I like to bring the quilts on my book tour and post them on my website so that, in addition to the description of the quilts in my novels, my readers can also enjoy seeing the finished piece. 

Most of the quilts I make are not necessarily what I would make, but it would be what this fictional character would make. So it might be something that is very evocative of their era if it’s a historical novel or something that is inspired by their personality if it’s from a contemporary story.

“Loyal Union Sampler” from Chiaverini’s website, jenniferchiaverini.com

PBS Wisconsin:
And some of your books have ties to Wisconsin?

Chiaverini: Even in the “Elm Creek Quilt” series, I tried to bring in Wisconsin when I could get away with it. My more recent historical fiction also has Wisconsin ties. In “Resistance Women,” one of my narrators is Mildred Fish-Harnack, a Milwaukee native who attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

And then even in my most recent book, “Switchboard Soldiers,” I focus on so many unsung heroines of the First World War. These were women who were telephone operators with the U.S. Army Signal Corps. I included a few actual historical figures in that book, and one of them was from the Green Bay area. She was a telephone operator in Madison and also Milwaukee, who ended up enlisting to go overseas to run those very complicated and absolutely essential switchboards so that the U.S. Army could communicate.

PBS Wisconsin: What’s your favorite source material in researching for your historical novels?

Chiaverini: I like to use historic newspapers not only because that gives me some important factual information of that time, but it also gives me a sense of what my characters would have been learning. You know, how would they have gotten their news? What would have been available to them? You know, I have the benefit of hindsight and all kinds of historical scholarship between my day and the historical era that I’m writing about. But I want to know what my characters were aware of in real time.

Newspapers are a wonderful way for me to see what stories they would have been reading. Sometimes the stories would unfold in bits and pieces and sometimes with inaccuracies that were corrected later. So I can see that as well, not only the information they were getting but what weren’t they getting.

“The Aloha Quilt” from Chiaverini’s website, jenniferchiaverini.com

PBS Wisconsin:
Can you tell us what you will be presenting at The Great Wisconsin Quilt Show?

Chiaverini: In my lecture, I’ll be discussing a sampler quilt that was first inspired by a fictional quilt in my ninth novel, “Circle of Quilters.” I made this quilt, and I made a pattern book of it called “Harriet’s Journey.” And the name comes from the fictional character that made the quilt in the novel. 

And Friday, I’ll be giving a special evening program in which I’ll be talking about all of my novels and I’ll be talking about my whole journey as a writer. I’ll open up the floor to questions about my newest books or how I got started, or the writing process.

It’s usually a very lively Q&A that really is the most fun part of the discussion. They let me know things that readers would like to hear more about, and sometimes someone will ask a question about a favorite character and if my answer is, “I don’t actually know what did happen to that character,” then I’ll start wondering about it and maybe I’ll give that character their own book later on.

For example, a lot of “Elm Creek Quilts” focus on the Bergstrom family. Sylvia Bergstrom is the heart and soul of the novels. But then at one event, a reader asked me, “What about Sylvia’s mother? What about her family?” I thought, “I actually haven’t written much about Sylvia’s maternal ancestors.” And so I wrote a book called “The Quilter’s Legacy” to explore some of those questions.

PBS Wisconsin: Plus, a collection from “Elm Creek Quilts” will be displayed?

Chiaverini: There will be a collection of 18 quilts with descriptions of how each one figures into a particular novel. And so you’ll get to see what Sylvia and Sarah and Anneke and Gerda were all working on in all of the different novels in which they appear.

“The Runaway Quilt” from Chiaverini’s website, jenniferchiaverini.com

PBS Wisconsin:
And you quilted some of the quilts, but not all of them?

Chiaverini: Well, some of them I’ve made, some were collaborative projects with “Elm Creek” readers. For some of the sampler quilts, people donated blocks so that we could put them all together and make a quilt. So you’ll see some of my work. And then you’ll also see the work of a lot of quilters from Wisconsin and across the country and around the world.

PBS Wisconsin: That’s such a special connection that you have with your audience.

Chiaverini: Yeah, it’s always a lot of fun. That’s one of the things that comes through, I think in the “Elm Creek Quilts” novels, that one of the great joys of quilting is quilting together and sharing what you know with other quilters and learning from one another and collaborating on a wonderful masterpiece. And that’s something that I’ve done in my own quilting. And it’s certainly something that I try to bring out in my novels as well. I’m looking forward to returning to the Quilt Show in person, and I look forward to meeting long-time and brand-new readers there.

3 thoughts on “Best-selling author Jennifer Chiaverini to present at Great Wisconsin Quilt Show — read a Q&A with her!”

  • Antoinette Caeth says:

    I have loved your novels for so many years, my friend gave me my first novel of yours that featured three books in one, I’m sorry but I forgot the title. She also gave me your first quilting book too so I’ve made quite a few if your patterns!!! Love your work, keep it up!!!

  • Susan schoolcraft says:

    The Elm Creek Series are the reason I am quilting now. I had just moved to a new State and just happened on this series while visiting the local library. Read one after the other until I was caught up and had to wait for the new releases. I then took plunge and started my quilt journey.

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