Today, we present Part Two of the series featuring the author and illustrator of the historical fiction children’s picture book, Thérèse Makes a Tapestry.
Alexandra S. D. Hinrichs, an SCBWI member, is the author of this beautiful book. Set in the time of King Louis XIV’s reign of France (1643-1715), Thérèse’s father is a painter who travels with the king; their family lives at the Gobelins Manufactory where world-famous tapestries are made (and are still being made today!). Although women and girls are not permitted to weave, Thérèse practices at home. The book reveals how Thérèse surprises those around her.
Alexandra’s background includes historical researcher for American Girl, substitute youth services librarian, and children’s bookseller. She has two young boys. This is her debut children’s picture book.
CHRISTINE VAN ZANDT: How did you get involved in Thérèse Makes a Tapestry for the J. Paul Getty Museum?
ALEXANDRA S. D. HINRICHS: My family had just relocated to Maine from Wisconsin where I had completed two graduate degrees, and worked two to three part-time jobs in addition to teaching. Writing children’s books is THE thing I always wanted to do for as long as I can remember, but I wasn’t finding much time for my own writing.
A former co-worker at American Girl had given my name to an editor at The Getty. I crossed my fingers. The Getty approached me and asked for a writing sample, then hired me to create a story proposal and outline. I counted my lucky stars! I’m still counting them.
CVZ: How long did it take from idea to actual book?
AH: About two and a half years. During the first year, I would write an outline and submit it, get feedback, rewrite entirely or incorporate revisions, and resubmit. Finally, Thérèse was approved. I had a book contract underway! I worked hard to write the full story and get it as polished as possible by mid-fall, because I was pregnant again. My second son was born in October, then, in February, my mother was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.
Revisions took place in between (and sometimes at the same time as) nursing sessions. My mother’s illness and my intense focus on our close relationship made me think more deeply about Thérèse and her mother. I dedicated the book to my mother, intending for that to be a surprise. However, during a visit in July, she took a sudden turn for the worse. The incredible team at The Getty overnighted a final color draft so that she could see the book—and the dedication—in print. I am so grateful; she died two days later.
CVZ: How did you create the character Thérèse?
AH: My editor for this project (the marvelous Elizabeth Nicholson) told me The Getty wanted a book to accompany their French tapestries exhibit (Woven Gold: The Tapestries of Louis XIV, December 15, 2015 through May 1, 2016), preferably, about a girl who wove a tapestry. There were a lot of story possibilities within that framework. First, I researched cultural and social histories of 17th-century France, tapestries and their making. This led me to the Gobelins Manufactory where, I learned, the weavers and their families lived on site. I thought, how cool would it be to experience it through a young girl living there? At that time, women and girls were not trained as master weavers at the Gobelins; they supported the weavers in other capacities. So I needed a girl who was a dreamer, strong-willed, smart, and resourceful. And then I met Thérèse.
CVZ: Were you already interested in tapestries or did you learn along the way?
AH: I learned to weave (in the most basic manner) on a low-warp loom at the summer camp I attended for many years. My mother also wove before I was born, and she saved her loom for me. I’d always loved the rich, musical words that accompany weaving: warp, weft, heddles, treadles, shuttle, bobbin, yarn. I had incorporated them into some of my early poetry.
That said, there was much to learn. Thérèse weaves on a high-warp loom, which is very different, and nearly four hundred years ago! As you saw, Christine, the tapestries are enormous and took years—sometimes a decade or more—to complete. I also learned about processing wool, dyeing, spinning, using a dévidoir, making gilded thread, the roles the various artists played, and the politics that went into tapestry making during Louis XIV’s reign.
CVZ: How did you feel when you finally saw the Chȃteau of Monceaux / Month of December tapestry which specifically ties to your book?
AH: Amazed. And emotional. I had viewed images of this tapestry in books and on various screens (never more than a few inches wide), then, there it was, and larger and taller than any wall in my house! The tapestry is gorgeous—luxurious, yes, and just awe-inspiring with the amount of detail, the range of colors, the gilded threads which shine in a way that can’t be captured by photography.
Seeing it also brought the story to life in a whole new way for me. The small tapestry that Thérèse weaves for her father reflects the Chȃteau of Monceaux / Month of December. At the end of the story (spoiler alert), the king requests a larger version of the tapestry to be made for him. Renée Graef’s final illustration shows the family in front of this new grand version. I visited the tapestry two more times during my trip; it was hard to say good-bye! The tapestry was the perfect way to celebrate the end of this very special project.
CVZ: What’s next for you as a writer?
AH: More picture books, maybe for a slightly younger audience. I hope to work with The Getty again, and to publish elsewhere. In many ways, I’m starting from scratch. I need to learn how to write a query letter, I don’t have an agent, I will need to make my way through the slush pile(s). So, I’m crossing my fingers all over again! I’m also looking for a writing group—there are a lot in the southern part of the state and in the rest of New England, but not in central Maine. I may have to start one . . . anybody interested?
CVZ: Readers – You can find Part One of this series—the interview with illustrator Renée Graef—on the Kite Tales site, dated Wednesday, January 20, 2016. You can also read more about this book and the exhibit in my January 19, 2016, article on Good Reads with Ronna.
More about Alexandra S. D. Hinrichs:
Alexandra S. D. Hinrichs earned MAs in History and Library & Information Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has worked as a historical researcher at American Girl, a children’s librarian, a curator for Zoobean, and a children’s bookseller. She lives in Bangor, Maine.
Christine is the co-editor of SCBWI’s Kite Tales
She is the owner of Write for Success Editing Services
Twitter: @ChristineVZ, @WFS editing