Canvas to page to film, The Globe and Mail June 25, 2003

Before she put pen to paper, author Tracy Chevalier sat quietly with the Girl with a Pearl Earring -- often called the Dutch Mona Lisa -- in the Mauritshuis section of The Hague.

''It's in a small room, and is hung looking across at View of Delft," remembers the 40-year-old writer. "My eyes were like ping-pong balls, darting frantically back and forth from painting to painting. I found it very hard to leave the room."

Chevalier -- whose eponymous novel was inspired by Girl with a Pearl Earring by the Flemish painter Johannes Vermeer -- recalls sitting for hours in the museum, assessing the portrait of the 17th-Century unknown girl/woman. Years before, Chevalier had bought a poster of the famed art work. And for the better part of a decade the author says she was bemused and bewildered by Vermeer's enigmatic subject. Was she 12? Or 22? Where did she come from? What would she do with her life? Why was the girl, turned three-quarters around, looking at the painter in that way, tempting on one hand, but also timid.

It was these questions that motivated Chevalier to write Girl with a Pearl Earring. A book that Chevalier says she knew was "half-decent" when she was finished writing the final chapter in the fall of 1998. But never dreamed would take off, largely through word-of-mouth, to sell more than 2-million copies. In November, Chevalier's novel becomes a film, starring the British actor Colin Firth (Bridget Jones Diary, Shakespeare in Love) as Vermeer and Hollywood newcomer Scarlett Johansson (The Horse Whisperer, An American Rhapsody) as the mysterious "girl," whom Chevalier named Griet, and fictionalized as a maid who worked for the painter, and eventually became his muse.

"Even after all that time in the museum, I felt I didn't get enough of her. I couldn't get her," says Chevalier, who was recently at the Banff Television Festival to talk about her experience transitioning a novel into a screenplay. 'I couldn't get her. It's like an itch that can't be scratched. The expression on the girl's face is a very ambiguous one. It's impossible to pin down what she's thinking. I couldn't get the thought out of my head that she had a lot of growing up to do. So as much as anything else, I guess my book -- and the upcoming film -- is a coming-of-age story."

It's a brilliant morning in a coffee shop on the main street of Banff, and Chevalier, a little bleary-eyed, admits it's now more than five years since she wrote Griet's story, but she still does not tire of speaking about her. She and her husband, a BBC veteran for 20 years, had arrived in the Rockies from London the night before.

Their four-year-old son, still on British time, had risen at 4:30 a.m. "So we went for a walk, looking for bears and elk," says the author, somewhat ruefully. "We didn't find any."

Her husband, now a television consultant, comes to the Banff TV fest each year. Chevalier tagged along because she was invited to host a master class along with Olivia Hetreed, the woman who wrote the script for the film, produced by Archer Street Productions, and to be distributed by Vancouver's Lions Gate Films.

Chevalier, dressed in a wrinkled white t-shirt and tweedy jacket, readily admits she was nervous about letting her book go into the hands of a screenwriter. (This is Hetreed's first feature film, after years of writing television scripts such as the 1997 British telefilm, The Canterville Ghost). But she finally settled on Hertreed and the Archer Street folks because they were un-Hollywood and promised to stick to the "emotional truth" of the novel.

"Every writer dreams about their book being made into a film. I had hopes for this because it's a very visual story, but I was also very nervous and somewhat ambivalent because so many books that become movies fall flat," adds Chevalier.

Shot last November in Luxembourg, the film was originally to star Ralph Fiennes and Kate Hudson. Kirsten Dunst was also reportedly interested in the role, but all fell through because of a lack of financing. As the book took off, the money for the film eventually firmed up. Chevalier says she's ecstatic with the actors who are playing the leading roles, adding that Griet is a tough character to play since her role actually has very little dialogue. "It's a very visual book, and a very visual film," the writer says. "Griet does a lot of watching, and very little talking. Scarlett plays it perfectly."

At the Banff session, Hetreed described the film as a domestic thriller. The first-time director Peter Webber calls it a movie about painting. But with a twist. "It's also about money and sex and obsession and power and repression watching people who want to shag each other's brains out and not being able to," he said recently. "That's much more interesting than seeing people do it."

Chevalier agrees, adding that it was intriguing to watch the actors inhabit her characters, and give them a life of their own. "Colin and Scarlett are very different from each other in how they approached their roles Colin became a complete Vermeer egghead. He travelled all over Europe to see Vermeer's paintings. He took painting lessons and learned how to make his own brushes and grind his own paint. He was very engaged in the script."

Very little is known of Vermeer, who died at 43, bankrupt, and leaving behind a wife, 11 children and 35 paintings. Chevalier says Firth, 42, read everything he could lay his hands on about the artist. "And I thought, yes!" Because he became obsessive in a way that I believe Vermeer would have been obsessive about his paintings.

Thankfully, Johansson, who was sporting a mullet at the time the movie was shot, hid that hairstyle under the servant's headscarf.

Chevalier grew up in Washington, and started writing short stories in her 20s, at night and on weekends when she was working as an editor in London. To date, Chevalier has written four novels. Her first was The Virgin Blue, then Girl with a Pearl Earring and Falling Angels, She has just finished a novel about a series of six tapestries called the Lady and the Unicorn, made near the end of the 15th-Century, which now hang in the Museum of the Middle Ages (the Cluny Museum) in Paris.

"I can't seem to write a contemporary novel I suppose I'm more comfortable in the past, where I know what is important and lasting. If I write about today, I worry that it will date in 10 years' time."

Girl with a Pearl Earring, she recalls, was her fastest book, and perhaps the easiest to write. She started it in February, 1998, and finished the following October, working full-time. "Two weeks later I had my son. There's nothing like a fixed biological deadline to focus the mind! I don't think I'll ever write anything so quickly again."

When she wrote this book, Chevalier bought some linseed oil (mixed with pigment to make paint) and "left the bottle open as I was writing so that I could smell what they would have smelled."

These days, Chevalier says she tries to put the success of Girl with a Pearl Earring out of her head when she writes. "If I thought about it much I'd be paralyzed with the fear of everyone's expectations of me," says Chevalier. "I still feel like a novice. Sometimes I read what I've just written and think, Yuck. Each book is just as hard to write as the previous. I might have a good writing day, but the next day I still have to face the blank sheet of paper. It's a painful process but I wouldn't trade it for anything. Its kind of like running you feel terrible for those first 10 minutes but then it gets better and afterwards you feel great."