It was our pleasure to have Melanie Benjamin join us at Library Journal’s The Digital Shift: Libraries, Ebooks and Beyond virtual conference. Melanie chatted with librarians about her fascinating new novel, The Aviator’s Wife, her writing process, and much more.
Melanie is the author of the bestselling novels Alice I Have Been and The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb. Her upcoming historically rich novel The Aviator’s Wife is in the spirit of American Wife and The Paris Wife and reveals the story behind one of America’s most remarkable marriages—Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh—two aviators, thrill-seekers, heroes—and reveals both its dizzying highs and devastating lows with grace, insight, and stunning power. The Aviator’s Wife will be published this January.
Melanie Benjamin Chat Transcript:
RH Elizabeth: Hi everyone! Welcome to our chat with Melanie Benjamin, author of Alice I Have Been, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, and the upcoming The Aviator’s Wife.
RH Elizabeth: Welcome, Melanie!
Melanie Benjamin: Hi! So glad to chat with everyone!
RH Elizabeth: We’re thrilled to have you, especially when there’s a new book to talk about.
Melanie Benjamin: I’m so excited finally to be able to talk about this amazing story!
RH Elizabeth: I know there are definitely fans of your earlier books online with us, and we can certainly talk about those titles. But, for those who don’t know about your new book yet, would you mind telling us a little about The Aviator’s Wife?
Melanie Benjamin: The Aviator’s Wife is the story of the marriage between Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Charles Lindbergh; a really operatic marriage, full of astounding highs and lows.
RH Elizabeth: You mention that lots of folks say “oh I love the Lindberghs!” What do you think they’ll find surprising about your book?
Melanie Benjamin: Well, I think the whole, epic story is surprising. Most people know fragments; they’re familiar with the kidnapping, of course. And maybe have a vague idea of what Charles accomplished in his flight. But the entire scope – from Anne’s shy, bookish background to her major aviation accomplishments; the astounding glare of publicity they were in – really the first “media” darlings; the kidnapping, of course, and then the troubling years prior to World War II, when he seemed to flirt with Nazism. Through both of their surprising affairs – it’s an epic story!
RH Elizabeth: It is, indeed!
Krista: How did you chose to write about the Linberghs? Such a great love story. And are there other famous couples you’d like to write about in the future?
Melanie Benjamin: I chose to write about the Lindberghs really because they were always hovering in the background for me; I’ve long been fascinated by these two very unique, very different individuals and how they came together, and how they survived as a couple. Of course there are other famous couples; it’s so hard to find the right subject, though, for an entire novel.
Kelly: I love how your books tell the story behind the story- it is nice look at these historical figure for who they really are- not there two-minute sound bite, is that your intention when you write your books? To write about the “rest of the story?”
Melanie Benjamin: I think I’m always looking to tell the story behind the story, as Kelly says; that’s how I approach it. We know the public face, but that is not how people really are, and that’s what I love to explore. I ask the “what ifs?” “What are they hiding?”
RH Elizabeth: The Lindberghs were certainly in the public eye. Many of your characters face the challenge of maintaining a private life while also being in the public eye. How has this affected your research? How does it affect readers when they come to your novels?
Melanie Benjamin: Yes, definitely. I never trust public diaries and biographies! I know there is more going on, and I feel like a detective sometimes, trying to peer behind the curtain!
Melanie Benjamin: For instance, I think Anne was definitely stronger than she appears to be even in her own writing; I was aware of how much Charles shaped the publication of her diaries.
Kelly: It is fortunate for the readers of your books that you take that approach, there is so much to learn?
Gretchen: Did you interview Lindbergh family members while writing this book?
Melanie Benjamin: No, I never do that. I tend to feel that a novelist can almost do too much research; it gets in the way of their ability to control the narrative and to make these characters their own. So I have to have some authorial distance when I write.
Brad: Hi Melanie- a book full of “outstanding highs and lows”… pardon the pun, right? 🙂 I have to tell you that of the 30 some odd galley & ARCs I gave away recently at the Missouri & Iowa state library conferences (I’m a sales rep for RH), yours was one of the most popular! Not only did librarians find the synopsis of your story intriguing, but they simply ADORED the artwork on your cover. Was this the same company that designed MRS. TOM THUMB (another great cover)?
Melanie Benjamin: Oh, how lovely to hear, Brad! Yes, Robbin Schiff of Random House did the amazing cover – I think it’s my favorite so far!
RH Elizabeth: In each of your novels, you paint a vivid pictures of place and time. Do you feel that place is just as much a character in your novels as the people themselves?
Melanie Benjamin: Yes and no. Place is important as a setting, of course, and I do the research. BUT I’m always aware that it’s the characters, their relationships, their desires and wants and disappointments that we can relate to, no matter the time period – that’s the most important thing. I want to write novels about relationships, not time settings!
Kelly: I have to tell you– now that I can… Alice I Have Been is still talked about all the time around here.
Melanie Benjamin: ALICE is astounding to me, how I still get emails from readers and requests from book clubs! It really has had “legs,” and I am so grateful! I love that story, of course – I love them all!
RH Elizabeth: What I think is so wonderful about each of your novels is a great female character.
Melanie Benjamin: Yes, that’s important to me thus far – strong female characters. But I don’t discount the possibility of writing from a male’s perspective some day! It’s all about the story to me, in the end.
RH Elizabeth: About The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb Booklist wrote, “Benjamin . . . conjures up another enchanting novel based on a marginalized historical figure.” Each of your novels seems to give voice to a woman whose story may not have been fully told or heard. Would you agree? Are there other women you’ve considered writing about?
Melanie Benjamin: And again – yes, women whose stories haven’t yet been fully told – that’s how I view Anne’s story in THE AVIATOR’S WIFE. I feel that Charles so informed and influenced even her own writing and everything written about her – I wanted her to take a bow, finally, on her own. And I’m always looking for future stories so yes, I have a long list of women whose stories I want to tell!
Kelly: I do feel like there are a lot of female figures that are waiting to be heard from.
Melanie Benjamin: Kelly, the tough part is finding that female who isn’t “done to death,” in a way – too popular, too written about – and yet someone who is somewhat recognizable, because I do think readers today are looking for that in the historical fiction they read.
RH Elizabeth: I still remember when a great aunt gave me a copy of A Gift from the Sea. What a wonderful book. So glad you’ve given Anne a voice here too!
Melanie Benjamin: Yes, I think she deserves it. I find, too, that women of my generation and
younger aren’t as well acquainted with GIFT FROM THE SEA, so in a way I hope to bring a younger audience to her writing.
Brad: When you invest so much of yourself in writing a novel, how much time to you allow before diving into your next project. I’d imagine there is probably a “decompression” window you require to part with your characters before creating new ones, correct?
Melanie Benjamin: Well, not really, Brad! I maybe give myself 2 weeks to read & relax and then I dive right back in, either searching for the next story to tell, or writing it if I’ve already decided on it! I just don’t know what to do with myself if I’m not writing!
RH Elizabeth: Another question you must get a lot is about fact vs. fiction. At the close of your upcoming novel, The Aviator’s Wife, you include a fact vs. fiction essay. Which moments do you think work best as fact, and which as fiction?
Melanie Benjamin: Elizabeth, fact is always the “bones” that I hang the “flesh” of the novel on. In other words, the major things that are known – in Anne’s case, the pioneering flights they made, the kidnapping, of course; those things. What I explore in fiction, then, are the emotions, the relationships, what propels these people from one event to the next – what informs the choices they make. That’s the fiction.
Melanie Benjamin: “Emotional truth” is how I view what I do. Historical fact, emotional truth.
Brad: Fascinating! I suppose writing is just ingrained into your DNA. 🙂
Melanie Benjamin: I guess, Brad! Although I came to it late, compared to a lot of other writers – still, I do think I was always a story teller.
Brad: What did you do in your other life before becoming a writer?
Melanie Benjamin: Brad, I was a theater rat! I did a lot of acting, community, some semi-pro. Then I married, did the PTA mom thing, and when I neared 40, a friend told me she always thought I’d be a writer. A lightbulb went off over my head, and voila! But I was always a reader!
Melanie Benjamin: And acting really informs how I write, I think – that ability to become someone else, imagine myself in different times.
Jen: That makes your books amazing audios too since someone gets to literally perform them!:)
Melanie Benjamin: I know – sometimes I wish I could, but I think all my audio books have been wonderful, so far!
RH Elizabeth: Melanie, thank you so much for joining us today!
Melanie Benjamin: Thank you all so much, and enjoy the rest of the day!
RH Elizabeth: We’re so excited about The Aviator’s Wife!
Melanie Benjamin: Elizabeth, that is music to my ears!
Brad: Yes, thank you, Melanie… and I will continue to watch THE AVIATORS WIFE fly of the shelf at our local state library shows, I’m sure!
RH Elizabeth: If our chatters would like to get an early taste of The Aviator’s Wife, request an eGalley on Edelweiss [through this link].
More on The Aviator’s Wife:
It was the most famous marriage of the twentieth century–that of Charles Lindbergh, the handsome young aviator who changed the course of history and Anne Spencer Morrow, the shy, naive ambassador’s daughter. It was a picture-book marriage that prevailed through wild international acclaim and vilification, death-defying flights, and a kidnapping that stunned the world. Their every act and gesture was captured by an insatiable press. Melanie Benjamin deftly peers into the fairy tale that is the marriage of one of America’s most famous couples, and brings gorgeous insight into two compelling lives.
eBook: 978-0-345-53469-9 CD: 978-0-385-36035-7 AD: 978-0-385-36036-4