Monday, May 25, 2020

Melanie Benjamin

Melanie Benjamin is the author of the New York Times and USA Today bestselling historical novels The Girls in the Picture, about the friendship and creative partnership between two of Hollywood's earliest female legends—screenwriter Frances Marion and superstar Mary Pickford, The Swans of Fifth Avenue, about Truman Capote and his society swans, and The Aviator's Wife, a novel about Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Previous historical novels include the national bestseller Alice I Have Been, about Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland, and The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, the story of 32-inch-tall Lavinia Warren Stratton, a star during the Gilded Age.

Benjamin's latest novel, Mistress of the Ritz, is now available in paperback.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

This title was more problematic than my others, for this very reason. We definitely wanted to have the word “Ritz” in the title, to both establish the setting and also, because the word connotes such luxury and excitement. After all, it’s even in the title of a song – “Puttin’ on the Ritz!” One of the things I’ve learned is that a title really should be short and to the point these days. For example, when we were discussing the book that became The Aviator’s Wife, I had some pretty flowery titles in mind – Between the Earth and Sky was my favorite. It’s lovely. It also doesn’t at all say what the book is about. And too, I’ve noticed that in recent years books with longer titles just don’t do as well. I think people these days have a hard time even remembering longer titles. So short and sweet it is, and finally someone said, “Well, it’s a book about an aviator’s wife, so let’s call it that.” And we did.

For Mistress of the Ritz, then, we knew we had to have “Ritz” in the title. I advocated for The Ritz in Love and War, but smarter minds convinced me that was too wordy and too vague and my novels have become known for their strong female protagonists, and we needed to make sure the title conveyed that. So the problem became how to describe this strong female protagonist. Who, exactly, was Blanche Auzello in relation to the Ritz? We went back and forth between “queen” and “lady” and “madame” – which I nixed because I didn’t want anyone to think she ran a house of prostitution! – before finally landing on Mistress. I have to admit I wasn’t in love with it at first, but I also couldn’t come up with anything better. But now, I think it’s perfect. You know this book is about a woman and the Hotel Ritz; that should be enough to draw the reader in.

What's in a name?

Obviously, in this case—and for my previous titles—the characters are actual people, so there’s no question as to names. Ask me this again with my next book, though, and I’ll have a different answer!

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

My teenaged self never imagined I’d be a writer, so very surprised. But I loved history even then, so the subject matter wouldn’t be surprising at all.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Oh, the beginnings, definitely! The perfect beginning is so vital to capturing the readers’ attention, so that is the most important part of the book. I have always had the ending worked out before I sit down to write (and I write linearly, from the beginning straight through to the end). Usually I even have the exact words for the ending in my head. But I don’t let myself write them until I get to the last page. There have really only been two times when I knew exactly how I’d begin the book and it didn’t change significantly—the beginning of Alice I Have Been and the beginning of The Swans of Fifth Avenue. For all the other books, I’ve changed the beginning many times.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I honestly don’t see myself, because again, I’m writing about real people who have lived. However, there must be something about them – even Truman Capote! – that I can very much relate to, so in that way, yes, there must be part of me in these characters. I’ve been told that by members of my family, too—that they can see me in certain aspects of these characters. I still don’t really see it, but I’ll bow to their wisdom!

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Movies, for sure. I feel as if I write very cinematically at times—not always, you can’t have an entire novel made up of sweeping, visually stunning scenes, of course. Novels are much more intimate. Still, I know that I consciously include some scenes that would make great scenes in movies in my books. As far as inspiration, though—where I get my ideas—that is all over the place. I got the inspiration for Alice I Have Been at an art museum, for example. I feel very strongly that novelists need to expose themselves to all sorts of other people’s art, not just their own, and not just literature.
Learn more about the book and author at Melanie Benjamin's website.

The Page 69 Test: Alice I Have Been.

The Page 69 Test: The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb.

My Book, The Movie: The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb.

The Page 69 Test: The Aviator's Wife.

The Page 69 Test: The Swans of Fifth Avenue.

The Page 69 Test: The Girls in the Picture.

Writers Read: Melanie Benjamin.

--Marshal Zeringue