Jennifer Chiaverini next book combines her fascination with history with unheralded heroes, real-life characters

Jennifer Chiaverini enjoys writing about people whose stories have only been mentioned in the margins and footnotes of history.
Jennifer Chiaverini and Switchboard Soldies cover
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Chiaverini

Jennifer Chiaverini enjoys writing about people whose stories have only been mentioned in the margins and footnotes of history. The New York Times bestselling author incorporates history into her writing to spotlight real-life figures, movements and events that haven’t always been given their due. “Almost all of the time, those people happened to be women who played such an important role,” says Chiaverini, who has lived in Madison since 1997.

The idea for her upcoming historical novel — “Switchboard Soldiers,” out July 2022 — came when she was working on her previous book, “The Women’s March,” which tells a story about the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession and allows readers to learn a bit about Woodrow Wilson, who Chiaverini notes “wasn’t exactly a nice guy […] a misogynist, a pretty intense racist and very much against suffrage.” In her research, she was astonished to discover that this fervent opponent of suffrage eventually changed his mind. “He thought women had proven themselves worthy of the vote based upon their contributions to the war effort while the U.S. was fighting World War I,” she says. “It must have been very impressive to prove to Woodrow Wilson that women are more than just ornaments. I wanted to learn more about what they did to change this president’s mind so completely.”

She soon learned of the contributions of women operating telephone switchboards during the war, a vital task that they were considered better than anyone at. After swearing military oaths, following army protocol and serving as loyally as any other soldier, these women were designated as civilian employees under contract by the government instead of as veterans. “I was just so shocked and outraged on their behalf that I really wanted their contributions to be better known,” Chiaverini says.

This is often how it goes for Chiaverini — her fascination with history and her desire to highlight unheralded heroes and interesting real-life characters lead her from one story idea to the next. But her novel publishing debut had to do with a different passion: quilting. Her first novel, “The Quilter’s Apprentice,” came out in 1999 and soon became book one in the Elm Creek Quilts series.

Chiaverini was an agentless author stockpiling rejection letters until she received an offer on her unsolicited manuscript from Simon & Schuster. Now it’s her titles that have piled up. The 52-year-old author has published 31 novels, seven quilt pattern books and one Elm Creek Quilts series companion book. She’s drawn some historical figures into her quilting book series, but eventually the stories she wanted to tell diverged from the series’ framework, and she published her first standalone historical novel, “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker,” in 2013. “Enchantress of Numbers,” “Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule,” “Resistance Women” and several others followed.

“Switchboard Soldiers” will be her 40th work, and she’s not done yet. “I consider myself extremely fortunate that I was even able to break into the business of publishing, much less to still be doing it all these years later,” she says. “I know how lucky I am.”

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