Monday, March 15, 2010

A Conversation with Melanie Benjamin

By Kim

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 Alice was anything beyond a figment of Lewis Carroll’s imagination. When I saw the haunting (and mildly disturbing) photograph he took of the very real Alice Liddell, I had to know her story.

From Publisher's Weekly - starred review: Born into a Victorian family of privilege, free-spirited Alice catches the attention of family friend Dodgson [a.k.a. Lewis Carroll] and serves as the muse for both his photography and writing. Their bond, however, is misunderstood by Alice's family, and though she is forced to sever their friendship, she is forever haunted by their connection as her life becomes something of a chain of heartbreaks. As an adult, Alice tries to escape her past, but it is only when she finally embraces it that she truly finds the happiness that eluded her. Focusing on three eras in Alice's life, Benjamin offers a finely wrought portrait of Alice that seamlessly blends fact with fiction. This is book club gold.

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 Alice’s later years?

Melanie: I have to cheat and say both. Obviously we would never know about Alice were it not for Dodgson, and their intriguing relationship really is the heart of Wonderland; it’s hard to separate the two. But the idea of following Alice throughout her long, fascinating life is what induced me to write the book, for that’s the story that hasn’t been told before.

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 Alice a victim or Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) a pedophile. I take it you do not see them that way?

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 Oxford, but I have spent some time in England. I was amazed at how well you captured the feel of both the time and the place. How did you prepare to write about a place you’ve never been?

Melanie: I gave my imagination free rein. Based on research, of course, and there was a lovely site called Virtual Oxford that allows you to see the town, the college, through web cameras. But of course, then I had to go back and determine what would not have been there one hundred and fifty years ago! But once I established some sense of the place in my mind, I then allowed myself, somehow, to “go” there, and see it through Alice’s eyes at the different times in her life, imagine what she would have felt, touched, sensed, etc. It’s strange and almost mystical, in a way, and I can’t really explain it better than that.

Kim: Alice I Have Been is your first attempt at historical fiction. How did you approach writing it?

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 ALICE I HAVE BEEN, but that’s the only similarity. Other than the protagonist is an amazing female you’ve heard too little about!

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.


  1. Excellent interview. Now I really want to read Alice I Have Been. I so wish I could go with you and the rest of the WWW group to Melanie's speaking engagement at the Dallas Museum of Art.

  2. Robert Rust15 March, 2010

    Great interview, shows the depth of research that goes into Historical Fiction ,properly done, for those of us non-writers.

  3. Thanks Robert!

    Yes, Mom, you will LOVE this book.

  4. I loved ALICE I HAVE BEEN and I agree with Melanie; I never saw their relationship as creepy but very sad, because they are at different times in their lives and social places, and yet there is on some level a perfect harmony that Alice never quite gets again. I have known several child actors who hit their peak at age 8 or 10 and it always haunts them.

  5. Stephanie, I completely agree. I found the scenes between Alice and Dodgson to be tragically beautiful. Then again, I am greatly drawn to any story involving artists and their muses, likely because I am a product of such a relationship. I greatly look forward to reading your CLAUDE AND CAMILLE when it comes out.

  6. Looking forward to meeting Melanie and hearing her speak this Friday. Great interview, Kim.

  7. Thanks, Kim! I enjoyed your interview with Melanie very much and wish I was near enough to hear her speak. Alas,I am a bit far away...I'd forgotten about the parental aspect of Alice and Lewis, but I think any parent would be mindful of such a connection. I had an encounter when I was 2 and a half with a boarder in my parents' house and I complained to my Mother about his sexual touching. He was instantly removed. (it was War time and he was an Aircraft Student). I might have forgotten it had my Mother not talked about it later. However, another Aircrafter lived in the house and I followed him around like a puppy, with no fear whatsoever. We are friends to this day. He and his wife are in their 90's and I am still close to them both, but especially to him.

    However, it happened again when I was eleven and tall for my age. We lived beside a Hydro Camp with 78 men. My Dad was an Operator. One man started stalking me and a woman saw him. He too was instantly fired. I still remember the feeling of fear and loss of emotional innocence I had.

    I suspect that Alice was probably not in danger from Lewis or she, herself, would have backed away. Children are very intuitive.

    I must read Melonie's book!


  8. Hi Maxine,

    Was it the second Aircrafter who collected all those wonderful little shells for you? The ones that you gave to my daughter when we saw you last August? She plays with them often.

    I believe you will love Melanie's book, despite your past. I know I did. Have you ever made set models for a production of Alice in Wonderland? I could just imagine what you'd come up with. You are an incredible artist!

  9. Lorna Ferguson16 March, 2010

    I really enjoyed the interview. Haven't read the book but now will be inclined to do so.

  10. I read the book in just a few days. Loved it--the writing, the setting (of course, Oxford!), the tragic friendship. And the Peter Pan tie in. (I won't elaborate for those who haven't read it.)
    Looking forward to seeing Melanie Friday night.

  11. I so enjoyed our interview, Kim, and also meeting so many of you Friday night. You gave me a wonderful welcome to Dallas!

  12. It was great to meet you, too, Melanie. I think I speak for all of us here when I say that your speech was fantastic!


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