Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Melanie Benjamin talks about Mrs. Tom Thumb

 I first interviewed Melanie Benjamin for her exquisite novel Alice, I Have Been, about the real Alice in Wonderland. When I was on my book tour, and in the middle of the worst blizzard in Chicago, not only did Melanie come out to hear me read, she drove me back to my bed and breakfast AND she waited until I got in, which was a good thing, because the door would not open with my key. That's an amazing person! I couldn't wait to read Mrs. Tom Thumb, because I had loved Alice, I have Been so much, and I was completely knocked out by the story. (It's already an August Indie Pick.) Lush, beautifully written, filled with drama and one one of the most vividly interesting women around, Mrs. Tom Thumb is just spectacular.

I'm honored to have Melanie here--she's just a wonderful writer, and a terrific friend.

Where did the idea for Mrs. Tom Thumb come from?

I was half-way through the 2nd book of my contract when I knew it was a dead end; I couldn't finish it. Yet I had a deadline mere months away! Before I told my editor, and gave her a heart attack, I knew I'd better come up with another idea and maybe a chapter or two. So I started Googling like mad, paging through lists and lists of historical events, figures, women - I did know the time period that I wanted to write, as well as the setting. Since ALICE was set in England, I wanted my next one to be an American story. On one of those lists I saw the name "Lavinia Warren Stratton - aka Mrs. Tom Thumb." It rang a bell and I remembered that she was in a small scene in one of my favorite books, E. L. Doctorow's RAGTIME. She was feisty, even in his book. So I started researching her and was immediately enchanted by her story and her voice. 

As far as what she has to teach us - it's both an uplifting, and cautionary, story. Uplifting in that she truly never saw any limits, any obstacles - but cautionary in that she started to believe her own hype, in a way. She very willingly traded on her stature in order to see the world, but then somehow deluded herself into thinking others didn't see her, first and foremost, as a dwarf.

Can you talk about your writing process?

When I write, I really try to "become" the protagonist; it's the only way I can capture the voice. So Vinnie's voice was entirely different from Alice's, and thus, the book has an entirely different quality. ALICE was more lyrical, more dreamy - befitting the ALICE IN WONDERLAND books. MRS. TOM THUMB has a verve, a pulse - I think it's a uniquely American story, written in a uniquely American style. As Vinnie herself would have told you, she was a proud patriot, and I truly tried to capture something of that in the book. As far as what surprised me - her relationship with Barnum. That became the driving point of the book; I began to understand he was the only person in her life with a personality as big as her own. And I'm never consciously aware of "deciding" on a structure - I just let the book appear to me as it wants to.

As someone who was drowning in research this year, I have to ask you, how do you do it?

Research is fun! I love immersing myself in history books, finding amazing websites (and there are so many, as this book takes place against a rich panoply of American history). The only pitfall of research is spending too much time in it, and forgetting to tell the story! The characters and their relationships have always to be the main focus of the book; the historical details are important and rich, but they can't overwhelm the characters and their stories. 

Come on, tell us about your writing life!

My writing life, now that I have one book out (ALICE I HAVE BEEN), one just out (THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MRS. TOM THUMB), and one I just turned into my editor (for publication next year), is much more difficult than it used to be! I have to be much more disciplined, giving a certain amount of time over to paperwork, busy work - work, in other words! Which means I have to carve out my writing time, whereas before, my entire day was devoted only to writing. So in the mornings I usually do the busy work; in the afternoons, I write. Many of my evenings are now taken up with calling or SKYPING with book clubs, which is a joy.

What's up next for you?

Right now, I'm drawn to a couple of eras; one is pre-Civil War America, the other is the early days of Hollywood. I'm going back and forth, but keeping an eye open for anything else that might inspire me. I have a bit of time before I have to start the next book - the one that will be out in 2 years. 

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

You should have asked me what my favorite part of being an author is - because I would have answered, "Meeting fellow authors like you!"


Jess Riley said...

Great interview! I love the backstory...will add Mrs. Tom Thumb to the list.

PS: add a vote for the early days of Hollywood. ;)

Maddie Dawson said...

This sounds like a fascinating book. I am ordering it right now!

Melissa Sarno said...

I really enjoyed this interview. I look forward to reading Melanie's book!