Those of you who read my last post already know that I’m a huge fan of Melanie Benjamin’s new novel, Alice I Have Been. Just days before that post went public Melanie agreed to be interviewed for What Women Write and I did a little happy dance before combing the internet to make sure I wasn't asking the same questions she has already answered a million times. For the record, no, she is not a lifelong fan of Alice in Wonderland, and no, she does not feel she has a muse of her own (other than her own curiosity).
My fellow blogger, Julie, alerted me about the book several months before the release date. I admit it, I have actually never read Alice in Wonderland, but I was immediately intrigued by the cover and premise of the novel. It never occurred to me before that
From Publisher's Weekly - starred review: Born into a Victorian family of privilege, free-spirited
Kim: The artist/muse relationship holds great fascination for many people. Was the special connection between Charles Dodgson and Alice the main draw for you, or were you more interested in the story of
Melanie: I have to cheat and say both. Obviously we would never know about
Kim: I have to admit that I opened your book with a slight bit of trepidation, fearing I may have difficulty reading about a close bond between seven-year-old Alice and a grown man. I was surprised to see in one of your interviews that the early part of the book was the easiest for you to compose. How did you handle writing about the creepier elements of their relationship?
Melanie: It was easiest to write because there’s so much known/not known about it; it’s the intrigue that fascinates me as a writer and fuels my imagination. I never once saw the relationship, through the eyes of either character, as creepy; I saw it as tragic. I suppose that’s what made it palatable for me to write it. I realize – and understood, always – that modern eyes, reading it, might be uncomfortable. But I could never allow my own modern sensibility to impart any kind of judgment on either of their actions; that would not have been true to their characters.
Kim: This could explain why I found myself hoping that they would actually end up together when she was grown. I personally saw her as a very old soul and him as oddly childlike, but I could see how people today may be quick to label
Melanie: No, the truth, I firmly believe, was much more complex than that. I really have come to see their relationship as tragic; two very lonely people who wanted to comfort each other, meeting at the wrong time in both of their lives.
Kim: I’ve never been to
Melanie: I gave my imagination free rein. Based on research, of course, and there was a lovely site called Virtual
Melanie: By concentrating on the characters and the story first. I didn’t write it because I was intrigued by the period (although I am drawn to the Victorian era; my shelves are full of books about it). I wrote it because I was drawn to the characters and the story, so the setting, while vital, is not the most important element. Perhaps other historical fiction writers approach their novels differently, but for me it’s story and characters first, setting later.
Kim: Did you do all your research before starting the book or was the research ongoing?
Melanie: I thought – and I suspect most historical novelists think this – I had done the bulk of it before writing, but with historical fiction, you never know. You can be chugging along, writing, and all of a sudden you need to know something; was there a railroad station in this town in 1862? Were gaslights installed yet? That sort of detail you might not know you need until you get into the body of the manuscript. So it’s always a balancing act; you can’t get down on yourself if you do, unexpectedly, spend a day researching instead of writing, as long as it’s necessary. It’s still work. The challenge is not getting too swept up in unnecessary research and using that as an excuse not to write. As I said, it’s a balancing act!
Kim: As a fellow historical fiction writer, I relate. I've read that Alice I Have Been is not actually your first book, that you (as Melanie Hauser) previously wrote contemporary fiction. Do you see yourself ever going back to that, or will you continue with historical from now on?
Melanie: I have no plans to revisit the type of book I’d published before. I think I finally found my true calling, as I’ve long been a history nut, and my shelves are just packed with histories, biographies, etc. It’s as if I really have been training to do this my entire life; I just had a minor detour along the way!
Kim: What do you think may be the appeal of historical fiction to readers today?
Melanie: I’ve heard from a lot of readers that they enjoy feeling as if they’re learning something as well as being entertained. It’s almost as if there’s a certain guilt attached to relaxing and reading a novel, and the guilt is lessened if the reader feels as if he’s learning something new. I don’t think most readers confuse fiction with non-fiction; they’re smart enough to know that novels aren’t history books. But a lot of readers use that historical novel as a jumping off point to do a little bit of research on their own about a certain subject or person. And I think people enjoy being intrigued enough to do that.
Kim: What time periods most fascinate you and why?
Melanie: Pretty much everything from the early Victorian era (1830’s) to the 1950’s. Those are the eras that fascinate me, and again – my bookshelves are stocked with novels and histories written in and of those time periods. I’m not sure I can articulate the “why;” I think people are just naturally drawn to certain eras.
Kim: What can you tell us about your next project?
Melanie: It’s another historical novel, a “story behind the story” but this time it’s a uniquely American story. It’s set roughly in the same time period as
Kim: Many of our readers are aspiring writers seeking publication. Do you have any words of wisdom you can share with us?
Melanie: It’s a never ending journey. There is rejection at every step; there’s really never one moment where you can say, “At last, I have arrived!” We all have to learn to juggle many different roles; we have to be an artist and love the creative process but then we have to learn to let our work go, and understand that everyone else will look at it as a product that needs to be bought and sold. But in the end, there’s no more rewarding job than being a writer; I’m my own boss, and I have the privilege of living in different worlds, becoming different people, every day. I suppose the most important thing I’ve learned is that the successful author is the author who learns to move forward, always; to reinvent herself, if necessary. But who never loses her love of language and storytelling.
Kim: Thank you so much for joining us today, Melanie. Alice I Have Been can be purchased in bookstores everywhere and here.