8 Great Questions: Jennifer Chiaverini

The historical novelist sings the praises of Station Eleven and welcomes elegant potatoes to her table.


Jennifer Chiaverini’s enthralling Enchantress of Numbers introduces us to Ada Byron King, a woman destined for fame as the only legitimate child of Lord Byron, the most brilliant, revered, and scandalous of the Romantic poets. But her mathematician mother, estranged from Ada’s destructively passionate father, is determined to save her only child from her perilous Byron heritage.

Banishing fairy tales from the nursery, Ada’s mother provides her daughter with a rigorous education grounded in mathematics and science. Any troubling spark of imagination—or worse yet, passion or poetry—is promptly extinguished. Or so her mother believes.

When Ada’s introduced into London society as a highly eligible young heiress, she at last discovers the intellectual and social circles she has craved all her life. Little does she realize how her exciting new friendship with Charles Babbage—the brilliant, charming, and occasionally curmudgeonly inventor of an extraordinary machine, the Difference Engine—will define her destiny.

Recently, Jennifer checked in with Read It Forward to discuss the empathic power of historical fiction, her enjoyment of reading on—and about—a flight, and how librarians make the best book matchmakers.

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Featured Image: Lorenzo Gritti; Author Photo: Michael Chiaverini

What’s the book on your bedside table?

I’m several chapters into The Round House by Louise Erdrich. I recently read her latest novel, Future Home of the Living God, and as soon as I finished, I decided to read everything she’s written.

What’s the one book you tell everyone to read?

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a marvelous book. Her depiction of a global pandemic is harrowing, and the characters’ experiences of the devastating aftermath are brutal and utterly believable—and yet somehow, the novel is ultimately uplifting and redemptive. That’s a masterful accomplishment by a truly gifted writer.

Name three characters from literature or authors (dead or alive) that you’d want in your ideal book club?

I’d choose the authors Margaret George and Mary Doria Russell, not only because they’re amazing, intelligent writers and women I admire very much, but because I’ve met them and I know they’d contribute wisdom, insight, and humor to any discussion, literary or otherwise. I’d also invite Jane Austen, because I’ve never met her but wish I could, and when else would I have the chance except in a hypothetical situation like this?

What word do you love and why? What word do you hate and why?

I love the word welcome because it sounds like an embrace, and the kindness and empathy it conveys are so desperately needed today. As for words that I hate, if I started listing words I’ve come to despise most recently, this conversation would careen sharply into a political rant, so instead let’s go with spud. I don’t like the word spud. It sounds like a combination of spit and dud. Who needs that? I prefer the more elegant word, potato.

What’s the one book you read as a kid that has stuck with you?

My favorite children’s librarian at our local public library recommended Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting to me when I was about seven years old. I’ve never forgotten it, or its timeless themes of family, mortality, and how the choices we make determine our fate and reveal who we are.

What’s the one book that never fails to delight or inspire you?

My go-to novel for comfort, relaxation, and diversion is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. As often as I’ve read it, I always discover something new.

If you could only read one genre for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?

I hope I’m never forced to restrict myself to only one! I read widely and voraciously across many genres, both fiction and nonfiction, and it would be a tragedy to miss out on so many great works. If I had to choose, though, I’d pick historical fiction. Historical fiction engages the imagination differently than nonfiction history, immersing the reader in a character’s perspective, making their experiences more immediate and real and relatable. Historical fiction—perhaps more than any other genre—evokes the reader’s empathy for people quite different from oneself, developing a capacity for understanding that ideally extends beyond the printed page into the reader’s own life.

What’s the last book you read on a long flight?

The last book I read on a long flight was How to Stop Time by Matt Haig. The last book I read about a long flight was TransAtlantic by Colum McCann. Both were wonderfully enthralling and immersive novels, and I highly recommend them.

JENNIFER CHIAVERINI is the New York Times bestselling author of Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, Fates and Traitors, Enchantress of Numbers, and other acclaimed works of historical fiction, as well as the beloved Elm Creek Quilts series. She lives with her husband and two sons in Madison, Wisconsin.
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