Contents Links for Learners Eye On Entertainment Editorial Ask a Franciscan Bible's Supporting Cast Faith-filled Family Book Reviews Subscribe
Jennifer Chiaverini: Elm Creek Quilts Catholic Novelist
By Mary Jo Dangel
This best-selling novelist weaves family, faith and career into the pattern of her life.

Q U I C K S C A N

Fun on the Road
Family First
Catholic Moral Code
Something's Cooking
The Elm Creek Quilters


PORTRAIT BY SIGRID ESTRADA, COURTESY SIMON & SCHUSTER; QUILT PHOTO COURTESY C&T PUBLISHING

JENNIFER NEIDENBACH CHIAVERINI always wanted to be a writer. But The New York Times best-selling novelist never expected that her first novel, The Quilter’s Apprentice, would lead to a series about a fictional group of quilters, a collection of how-to quilt projects inspired by the fictional series and her own line of fabrics. Library Journal says Jennifer’s fictional series “neatly stitches together social drama and the art of quilting.”

It all started when Jennifer was planning her wedding to Marty Chiaverini (SHEV-er-EE-nee) and longed for an heirloom wedding quilt to brighten up their apartment. But Jennifer didn’t have any close friends or relatives who quilted, and her budget prevented her from purchasing such an item. Thus, the young woman whose sewing was limited to basic mending taught herself how to quilt.

Jennifer and Marty met in a creative-writing course when they were undergraduate students at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a B.A. in English. She continued her education at the University of Chicago.

After their 1994 wedding, the newlyweds settled in State College, Pennsylvania, while Marty was working on his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Penn State. She taught part-time for the English department and followed her dream to become a writer. Today, Jennifer, Marty and their two sons live in Madison, Wisconsin.

Jennifer heeded advice to write about what she knew. The Quilter’s Apprentice was published in 1999. The setting is the fictional Elm Creek Manor, an ancestral estate in Pennsylvania that appears destined for developers until a quilt camp is established there. Published by Simon & Schuster, the book became an instant regional best-seller and sold out at quilt shows across the country.

SPONSORED LINKS

Fun on the Road

St. Anthony Messenger caught up with Jennifer prior to her presentation and book signing in April 2008 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cincinnati, Ohio. She was on a whirlwind national tour to promote The Winding Ways Quilt, 12th in the Elm Creek Quilts series, described by Publishers Weekly as “powerful and poignant.”

The staff at Joseph-Beth sets up additional chairs to accommodate the large group in attendance. In addition to numerous fans (mostly women), a large number of Jennifer’s relatives are present: She was born in Cincinnati, where she lived as a toddler until her family moved to Waterford, Michigan, and then to Thousand Oaks, California.

Jennifer’s widowed mom, Geraldine (Jerry) Riechman Neidenbach, joins us during the interview and snaps lots of photos during Jennifer’s presentation. Now that Jerry has retired from teaching math, she can leave her California home and travel with her novelist daughter.

“I encouraged Jennifer when she wanted to be a writer,” Jerry recalls. “So when her books were accepted by Simon & Schuster, I said, ‘There’s just one thing: I want to go on book tours with you.’ So I’m living my dream.”

Having her mother along helps out in practical ways, Jennifer explains, such as “reading directions when I am driving in an unfamiliar city.” And when the writer is exhausted after an event, she says, “It’s nice to have my mom there to remind me of important things that would otherwise fall through the cracks.” There’s another reason Jennifer enjoys traveling with her mom: “It’s just great having her along because she’s a lot of fun.”

Jerry notes her family’s many Franciscan connections: She worked at Franciscan Missionary Union (FMU) in Cincinnati as a high school and college student, until 1964. She and her sister graduated from Cincinnati’s Our Lady of Angels High School (OLA), when it was operated by the Franciscan Sisters of Oldenburg. After college, Jerry taught math and biology at OLA for two years. OLA has since closed and merged with nearby Roger Bacon High School, sponsored by the Franciscan friars who publish this magazine. Jerry’s father and two brothers graduated from Roger Bacon.

Jennifer’s love of quilting has influenced her mom as well as readers of Jennifer’s novels to learn the craft. Samples of Jerry’s handiwork and photos can be found in Jennifer’s how-to books, published by C&T. These books include instructions for sewing projects inspired by the fictional quilts described in Elm Creek Quilts novels. Jennifer notes that quilting, with its many geometric patterns, is the “perfect pastime” for her mother, who once taught geometry.

Jerry’s needlework isn’t limited to stitching quilts: Jennifer proudly displays a purse her mother made her from one of the Elm Creek Quilts textiles that Jennifer created for Red Rooster Fabrics. The women who started Red Rooster Fabrics contacted her at a book signing in Paducah, Kentucky, site of the Museum of the American Quilter’s Society and a prestigious annual quilt show.

“They suggested that we work together and design different fabric lines that would be inspired by the books or characters,” Jennifer explains. “If it’s a historical book, I’ll do research into art trends that were popular at the time.”

Although Jennifer’s husband and sons have accompanied her on some book signings, this time they stayed home because of school, soccer and other commitments. “They are very supportive of what I do and proud of me,” she explains.

She says she “does all the usual stuff that moms do,” such as bake sales and Cub Scouts. “I volunteer at both of my sons’ schools,” she adds. At the time of this interview, Nicholas, eight, was preparing for his First Communion and Michael, five, was in preschool.

“I do my writing during the day, when the boys are in school,” she explains. “I try not to do too much work on the weekends,” which are reserved for family. “I try to have a good balance. I think in our lives we make time for things that we think are important to us.” For Jennifer, that’s her family.

She confirms that their home holds many examples of her needlework. Unlike the characters in her novels, Jennifer doesn’t belong to a quilting bee. “When I make quilts, I make them myself,” she says. But one group effort she coordinated was a fund-raiser for Capital Candlelighters, a nonprofit in Madison that serves families whose children have been diagnosed with cancer. Jennifer contacted some of her favorite authors for autographs on fabric, which were stitched together into a quilt that was auctioned.

A similar quilt is described in her seventh novel, The Sugar Camp Quilt. Set in Pennsylvania during the turbulent years before the Civil War, this novel threads together historical fact, fiction and legend about signal quilts used to help escaped slaves. In this novel, Dorothea Grainger proposes creating and raffling an author’s quilt to raise funds for a library. Jennifer notes that this book paid homage to one of her favorite authors, Jane Austen, who was also a quilter.

“Dorothea’s appreciation for libraries and books mirrors my own,” said Jennifer in an interview with Library Journal. “[M]y first real job was as a page at the Thousand Oaks City Library, which appeared in my fifth novel, The Quilter’s Legacy.” Her sister is a librarian at La Reina, a Catholic high school for young women in Thousand Oaks.

Although the characters in her novels are fictional, Jennifer admits that, on a subconscious level, they may be composites of people she has known. She says that her characters feel real to her, but “what’s more important is that they feel real to my readers, especially the core characters they think of as friends.”

Publishers Weekly says the Elm Creek Quilts series “imparts a healthy dollop of history in a folksy style, while raising moral questions in a suspenseful narrative.” Although those moral questions may not appear to be specifically Catholic, Jennifer acknowledges that her Catholic background influences her.

“My parents were raised Catholic,” she explains. That influenced the way they taught Jennifer and her siblings “right from wrong, their faith, to be open-minded, value everyone and love everyone....It is what Marty and I are trying to pass along to our own children.”

Regarding her education, Jennifer says, “I specifically chose Notre Dame because it was a Catholic school.” She recalls that the “wonderful theology and philosophy classes they offered were very important in my formation, my intellectual development.”

Being Catholic “is part of my moral code, my ethical beliefs and the way I make decisions and choices,” such as “who we are going to vote for or what products we are going to buy,” says Jennifer, a member of St. Bernard Parish in Middleton, Wisconsin. “My Catholic values come into focus, even though I’m not talking about them.

“Forgiveness is a very important Catholic theme, and it’s something that comes into almost all of my books,” she stresses. For example, Sylvia, the fictional owner of Elm Creek Manor, is a woman in her 70s who has “a significant lack of forgiveness in her life.” The novels show that Sylvia has “a lot of anger and missed opportunities for reconciliation.”

Explaining why her books aren’t packed with graphic sex and violence, Jennifer says, “I certainly aspire to do much more than that. I think you can have a complex story dealing with the ordinary and difficult business of people’s lives.”

She describes her novels as contemporary and historical, rather than romances or mysteries. “My characters may seem squeaky clean...but they are very flawed and struggle with moral decisions,” she explains. Whether they make the right or wrong decisions, “they feel the consequences.”

Jennifer says these flaws mirror “the way normal people live their lives. Not all of us are killing people. Most of us are not doing drugs or having illicit sexual relations, but a lot of us don’t forgive.”

Regarding her publisher, Simon & Schuster, Jennifer says, “I’m very lucky that my publisher has never asked me to throw in that kind of stuff in the hope of it selling to a bigger audience.”

Apparently, her loyal fans buy enough books to keep her publisher satisfied. “My readers seem to feel as if they are already getting something that is very flavorable and nourishing, and so they don’t need extra spice thrown in.”

Although Jennifer’s fans might be satisfied without the extra spice, many of them have requested recipes for dishes described in her novels. Thus, Jennifer whets the appetite of her audience at Joseph-Beth Booksellers by announcing an upcoming cookbook that will feature recipes for foods mentioned in the Elm Creek Quilts series. The Quilter’s Kitchen: An Elm Creek Quilts Novel With Recipes is expected to be released in October 2008.

The crowd cheers and applauds this announcement. Some of the women present display samples of their own projects that are inspired by Jennifer’s books. “My readers are very creative people in their own right,” she says.

“I think quilting has really come a long way,” she notes. “It’s getting a lot more respect and admiration—respect as an art form.” Jennifer deserves some of the credit for that growing respect.

No doubt, she will be designing and piecing more quilts in the future. And she hasn’t exhausted her material for future novels: She says she would like “to write something my boys would enjoy and want to read.” Then there’s “the Revolutionary War period in American history,” which fascinates her as a topic.

And her fans keep demanding that the Elm Creek Quilts series continues: “I’m very grateful that both my publishers and my loyal readers have made that possible because it’s been a lot of fun: I’m really enjoying it.” She’s not the only one.

 

IN HER DEBUT novel, The Quilter’s Apprentice (1999), Jennifer Chiaverini introduces Sylvia Bergstrom Compson, a 75-year-old widow preparing to sell Elm Creek Manor, built in the 1850s by her great-grandfather. Sylvia is assisted by Sarah McClure, a young woman she teaches to quilt. They bond as they reveal the threads of their varied lives. And they decide to start a quilt camp.

Subsequent novels in the Elm Creek Quilts series explore the friendships, frictions, losses and loves of these women and others whose stories are woven into Elm Creek Manor’s past, present and future. Contemporary quilters include a mom who won’t allow her kids to skip Mass, a wife who discovers her husband is cheating on her and a mother who attends quilt camp in hopes of bonding with her estranged daughter.

Jennifer pieces historical elements into plots that involve the many people connected to Elm Creek Manor, especially the quilters. The Quilter’s Homecoming follows the adventure of newlyweds Henry and Elizabeth Bergstrom Nelson, who take their wedding quilts with them when they leave their families in Pennsylvania during the 1920s to become ranchers in California. In a desperate attempt to pay their bills, Elizabeth sells their treasured quilts.

In The Quilter’s Legacy, Sylvia embarks on a nationwide search of antique shops and quilt museums when she can’t locate quilts made by her mother, Eleanor, who died in 1930. Flashbacks thread stories about these heirloom quilts and Elm Creek Manor with the suffrage movement, the sinking of the Titanic and the 1918 flu epidemic.

In its review, Publishers Weekly said Jennifer’s “gift for visual imagery...and gentle humor...blend seamlessly into prose that, like the needlework she portrays, proves intricate, lovely, comforting and uniquely American.” The Winding Ways Quilt, 12th in the series, greets the arrival of newcomers into the circle of quilters as two of the founding members depart to pursue other opportunities. Much like a quilt, each member is a unique part of a magnificent whole.

Jennifer Chiaverini’s Web site (www.elmcreek.net) includes information about her and her books, in addition to photos, related links and a reader’s circle where registered guests can log in.

Simon & Schuster’s Web site (www.SimonSays.com) also has information about Jennifer and the Elm Creek Quilts series, including a reading guide.

 

Mary Jo Dangel, assistant managing editor of this publication, is a quilter wanna-be who greatly admires the skilled artistry of the craft. She is grateful for the overdue respect quilters are receiving.


. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Ask a Franciscan  |  Book Reviews  |  Eye on Entertainment  |  Editorial
Editor’s Message  |  Faith-filled Family  |  Links for Learners
Bible’s Supporting Cast  |  Modern Models of Holiness  |  Rediscovering Catholic Traditions
Psalms: Heartfelt Prayers  |  Saints for Our Lives  |  Beloved Prayers
 Bible: Light to My Path  |  Web Catholic  |  Back Issues


Return to AmericanCatholic.org

Paid Advertisement
Ads contrary to Catholic teachings should be reported to our webmaster. Include ad link.

An AmericanCatholic.org Web Site from the Franciscans and
Franciscan Media     ©1996-2014 Copyright



 Find 
 FIND