Sunday, January 6, 2013

Melanie Benjamin talks about The Aviator's Wife, Anne Morrough Lindbergh, cults of celebrity, nonscientific researching and so much more

When I think of Melanie Benjamin, I remember a freezing cold Chicago night (the city was shut down!) when she and author Laura Ruby came out to not just hear me read, but to have drinks with me, and Melanie drove me home. I had already admired and loved her novels, and it was a treat to be able to get to know her in person--and come to love and admire her, too. 

She's the author of extraordinary historical novels: Alice I Have Been, Mrs. Tom Thumb, and her latest, The Aviator's Wife, about Anne Morrow Lindbergh--and it's a stunner. I'm so thrilled and honored to have her, here.  Thank you , thank you, Melanie.

You’ve focused on some of the most startling and original women in history, including Alice of Alice in Wonderland Fame, and Mrs. Tom Thumb. What drew you to Anne Morrow Lindbergh?

I'm always interested in finding women whom we think we know, but don't, really - or whose stories are lost to history. In Anne's case, it was the former. We know who Anne Lindbergh is - but not really. The name's familiar, some parts of her story are, but the entire scope of her life is really lost to most modern readers. And even her most lasting legacy - her writing, particularly GIFT FROM THE SEA - isn't as well known to readers today. And Anne is one of those elusive figures that attracts writers like me; she's always there, in the background of history, but it's hard to pin her down. She's a name, one that's both familiar and vague. That always attracts me as an author. I always thought she was a heartbreaking figure; I suppose that's what initially attracted me. But I was surprised to discover her hidden strength. And her hidden passion!

What surprised you in the researching of the book, and how do you do your research? Do you have help?

 I do my research in a very unscientific way. I look at a life, I read enough about it to give me a good solid foundation. Then I pick and choose the details that will make a compelling novel - knowing that I will be leaving out, or not fully exploring, many of the stories that make up a remarkable life. I allow myself to ask the what ifs. I look at a life, even one that's as documented as Anne's, and I see the hidden corners, the locked closets; I wonder what she didn't tell us. I never take anything on face value; I'm always seeing things that others don't, even in the most mundane, every day objects. That's what drives me as a writer and a storyteller. I have learned that too much research can stifle my creativity, so it's always a balance for me; I need to learn the basic facts, get a sense of the time and place, but if I lose myself too much in the research I find I can't imagine the things I need to, in order to write a compelling novel with fascinating characters. My imagination is my greatest strength as a novelist - not my ability to research! For me, I don't spend too much time worrying about physical details; it's the emotional journey that fascinates me. The people, the relationships that speak to us today, across the years; that's what makes a great historical novel, in my opinion. 

What I loved so much about the book was how you dealt with the cult of celebrity, and the cost of that celebrity. Can you talk about how that differs from what is going on today? And can you also talk about the stresses on a relationship when two people have both very public personas and private lives?

Oh, the celebrity issue! It was stunning to discover how completely pursued the Lindberghs were, in a way not really seen before. Thanks to newsreels, the rise of radio, the pulpy newspapers, they were known to the public in a brand new way; the first real modern celebrities. But unlike Vinnie Stratton, whose story I told in THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MRS. TOM THUMB, the Lindberghs did not cultivate fame. They simply went about their lives - their fabulously courageous, glamorous lives - and were stunned by the public appetite for their every move. They didn't quite understand how glamorous a figure they cut, this young, beautiful couple living in the air, breaking records, accomplishing daring feats. It was simply what they did. And so that's the big difference between their celebrity, and what passes as celebrity today. They did not seek it, and so, perhaps, were even more pursued than if they had cultivated it. I liken the publicity surrounding them to that surrounding Princess Diana. Again, someone who did not seek publicity, whose life was ruined by the relentless pursuit of photographers and reporters. Someone who, through not fault of her own, was beautiful and young and living a fairytale life, or so the public wanted to believe.
As far as stress, well - the Lindberghs had to wear disguises when they went out in public! They couldn't sit together in the theater, for fear of starting a riot. How does a newlywed couple handle this? They took to the sky, whenever possible, always knowing that they had to come back to earth at some point, even more pursued. So I do think their early marriage, when they could escape in this way, was probably stronger than later, when they couldn't. At least in the sky, it was just the two of them. It was never that way on the ground. 

I also saw on FB that you mentioned you were thinking of your “presentation” of the book as you toured. Can you talk about that? 

My presentation - what I"m going to be talking about while on tour - has come to involve a PowerPoint presentation! I started this with ALICE I HAVE BEEN, using the real photographs that inspired me to write that book, and continued this with MRS. TOM THUMB. So once more, I will be showing photographs of the Lindberghs, maybe even a newsreel, as I talk about the book. But this time, I think I'm going to speak more of the difficulties I encountered writing this; it was the hardest book I've written so far, and primarily it was because I was very respectful - too respectful, probably - of their surviving children, and of Anne's written legacy. I had a hard time finding that authorial distance that's necessary for me to write my own novel, and treat these real people as characters of my own imagination. I didn't have that hard a time with my previous novels but I did with this one. I had to tear this book apart and put it back together many times, before I finally made it my own. I wrote the first draft as a roman a clef; it was clearly "based on" the Lindberghs but I changed names, locations, circumstances. My wise editor let me do this - and then she sweetly told me I had to rewrite it again with the real names. And I completely understood. I knew in my heart of hearts, while I was writing the first draft, that she would make me change it, but I needed to do it that way first, to kind of get it out of my system, to start the process of claiming Anne as my own character, someone whose story I could tell in a novel. As I said, it's a fine line; you just can't be too respectful as an author or you won't end up with a compelling novel, just a dry, boring recitation of facts. And I was far too respectful at first.
So I think I'll discuss this on tour!

What’s your writing day like? 

My writing day changes all the time! I think it's more important to be ultra disciplined when you're first starting out, in order to train the writing muscles. And I do strive for some routine, at least in the beginning of a novel; I live with the research and the idea for quite a while before sitting down to write, but when I do I tend to write in the afternoon, no more than 2-3 hours at a time. In the morning, I try to take care of business stuff, and in the evening I'm often talking or Skyping with book clubs. But once the book is well on its way, I find I can write anywhere, anytime. I get some of my best writing done on planes! And then at the very end, I do try to hide away for a couple of weeks and just see it through to the very last sentence. Then, of course, comes the revising, which is the part of writing that I love! I hate the first draft (although I revise as I go, too). But to me, it's just a matter of getting words down, any kind of word; I don't think too deeply about it. I do when I go back to revise; that's when I'm my most creative and concerned with prose. 

In an age when publishing can be cutthroat, you’re incredibly generous to and supportive of other writers (I still can’t forget one blisteringly cold winter evening when you helped me get into the locked up bed and breakfast where I was staying!) What’s your personal philosophy about the publishing world and how writers should treat other writers?

I remember that night, seeing you into your Bed and Breakfast! I was about to pack you into my car and take you home with me, if you couldn't get inside! I don't know if I have a personal philosophy, per se. I do make a real effort to see other authors when they're in my hometown on tour; for me, the book signing is the most frightening part of the job. Not speaking in public - I love that. But the fear of empty chairs. It's so hard to get people to come out these days. So I do try to come out to author book signings whenever I can, just so there's at least one friendly face! And I love social media for its ability to talk about my friends' books in such a public way. It's a great way to have a conversation, and I think it's such an easy thing to do when a friend has a book out. Publishing is very hard; I've certainly had an interesting career full of rebuilding and starting over again. I never forget that, and I do tend to take a very pragmatic view of it; I don't have any glamorous illusions. It's a business, one I'm privileged to be in, and I will continue to work hard and do everything I can to remain in it. And I respect every author who puts her work out there, and will do what I can to support and encourage. But you know, ultimately it's kind of a selfish business; there is only so much time in the day and we all have to spend the most time on our own books and writing. I understand that, and I hope other authors do, too. We're our own best advocates, ultimately. 

What's obsessing you now and why?

Right now, I'm obsessed with traveling! This year marked the first time I ever traveled overseas, and I made trips to both Paris and London. This is a dream long delayed by family responsibilities, and perhaps my own fears. I just turned 50, and it's been very freeing; I'm no longer delaying dreams. So I've been traveling a lot, both with my husband and solo. And I just love it!


Nicole Amsler said...

Two of my favorite authors in one place! I remember braving the ice and snow (which I do NOT do) to see Melanie at Books and Co. in Dayton, OH so she could sign my Nook cover. The things we do for our favorite authors.

Melanie, I am always in awe of the research you do and do not do on your historical books. How do you deal with critics who feel you got something wrong in one of your books? Are you concerned or upset--or do you just mark it up to the type of books you write? Do you have a rule of thumb about getting the era/timeline/etc. "right?"

Thanks Caroline, for a great post. Arielle at the Book Doctor's turned me onto your books and I am a big fan.

Keep writing!

Melanie Benjamin said...

Nicole, I remember signing your Nook cover! I tell people about that all the time! As far as dealing with critics, well, I've learned that there is a certain type of reader who doesn't really "get" historical fiction. That's the reader or critic who spends far too much time trying to figure out, line by line, what part is fiction and what part is fact. I think that's a sad way to read a book, actually. It's as if they simply cannot lose themselves in the book, for fear of giving some kind of authority to a left out detail or fudged fact. I'm the first to tell people not to use my books as research! But some people just don't seem to get this genre at all, and I've learned to accept this, shrug, and take solace in the many, many readers who do. The inclusion of the author letter at the end of the book, where the author takes the time to cover the major departures from the truth in the manuscript, does seem to help and satisfy a lot of people. This is fairly common these days. But that still puzzles me; I'm not sure why people care so much, when they know this is a novel, not a history book. As far as the era - it really varies with every book. Sometimes the era and location is very important to the book, and I decide to almost make it a character. I did that with ALICE I HAVE BEEN; Oxford and the Victorian era was very key to Alice's story, so I spent a lot of time on details. For THE AVIATOR'S WIFE, though, the drama was so intensely personal between these two people, Anne and Charles. That was the focus of the book, so the setting was less important; just enough to set the stage, make you think you were in the time period, but it didn't upstage the characters. As far as the timeline - I try to adhere to it, but am not above combining events in order to make the novel "read" better. For example, there is an early flight in THE AVIATOR'S WIFE that is a compilation of many Anne's and Charles's early flights; I combined some events that happened separately into one flight, for dramatic purpose and to move the plot along. So instead of writing 5 separate flight scenes of varying dramatic effect, I wrote one very dramatic one. I did imagine a flight, too, that there's no evidence that took place - but it was a perfect way to capture the attraction between these two sharing the one thing that they were always able to share - flight; this fictional scene did this much better and poignantly than trying to strictly adhere to the actual timeline of their courtship. And who's to say it didn't happen, just because neither Anne nor Charles wrote of it? They did try to avoid the spotlight, and so not everything they did is recorded; I rely on that little convenience quite a lot! And of course, in any historical novel, there are going to be parts of a life left unexplored, because you simply can't include everything, and still have a compelling, readable novel.

Nicole Amsler said...

I love your attitude about writing historical fiction. I agree...reading to point out the flaws is a terrible experience. (And one I sadly reside in when editing my own work.)

I remember you showing the three photos of Alice and explaining how it drove your story. It was a revelation. And I applaud your bravery for shrugging off the nitpicky detractors.

Thank you for the satisfying answer and wonderful books. I look forward to The Aviator's Wife. I put it on my book club's list and I can't wait to discuss it then.

Anonymous said...

Well the reason why I was asking you did you remember my case because, I have already seen results. He called me on Jan 4th to wish me a happy birthday, and I called him on the 6th to wish him a happy birthday. We had a nice long conversation, and I expressed to him how he made me feel. He apologized over and over. Then after that conversation I didn’t hear from him until around the 8th of Feb. I started calling my phone, and I kept missing his calls because my phone was on silent. Well that third day of him not getting a response from me, he sent me a heartfelt email apologizing again, and saying how much he missed me and wanted to hold me in his arms. At the end of the email he stated that he loved me, in which he has never said those words to me. I still love him also, but its hard now to be with him because I will be moving 5 states away and I don't want to start something back up with him, knowing we can't be together. So I just want to thank you High - Dr madurai of