Interview with Melanie Benjamin

Posted by Goodreads on February 4, 2013
Aviation buffs revere Charles Lindbergh's daring 1927 solo flight from New York to Paris in his single-engine monoplane, Spirit of St. Louis. But can they describe the feats of Lindbergh's wife, Anne Morrow, an accomplished pilot and navigator in her own right? The tragedy of the Lindbergh baby's kidnapping and murder is encased in history; less is understood of what life was like for the first family of flight, hounded by the press with a level of viciousness that tops today's paparazzi. Historical novelist Melanie Benjamin puts the famous couple back in the spotlight in her novel The Aviator's Wife, which follows the emotional life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh as she blossomed from a shy college coed to become a flying pioneer and protofeminist writer. Excavating history for fiction is Benjamin's specialty: Her previous novels, Alice I Have Been and The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, fleshed out the lives of Lewis Carroll's muse, Alice Liddell, and P.T. Barnum's star performer, Mercy Lavinia "Vinnie" Bump. The Chicago-based writer chatted with Goodreads about hero worship, writing villains, and the roots of feminism.

Goodreads: The Lindberghs were one of American culture's early celebrity couples, and yet their story is not widely known today.

Melanie Benjamin: You just touched on two important things for me in writing the book. One was that I felt there were huge gaps in people's knowledge about the Lindberghs and particularly Anne. I saw this epic, almost operatic, story of a marriage and the celebrity they had to endure. We have celebrities today, obviously, and we have more access with social media, but [the Lindberghs'] kind of celebrity was so different. It feels similar to what happened to Princess Diana. They didn't cultivate it or quite understand the insatiable appetite for everything they did in their lives. I wanted to put today's readers in that fishbowl of a life.

GR: What was your introduction to the Lindberghs?

MB: I read almost every biography that comes out. I had long ago read Scott Berg's biography of Lindbergh, the one that won the Pulitzer. I had read a biography of they were a fascinating couple to me, and there are certain people in history I retain a fascination for. Often I can't articulate why that is. The Lindberghs were one of those figures. I fixated on the tragic part of their lives—the kidnapping—and Anne always seemed to be a tragic and sympathetic character.

When I was looking for a new subject to write, I was looking for something a little more recent, since my previous two books were set in the Victorian era. I was most interested in exploring the first part of the 20th century, because not only am I looking for a real fascinating person, but I'm always looking for the parallels of their journey versus what was going on in the country at the time. Initially I found a couple of unknown aviatrixes, but as I was thinking of them, I really thought, "But what about the Lindberghs?" Despite the instant name recognition, I felt there was so much to their story that was crying out to be told again.

GR: What intrigued you about Anne?

MB: With her story, there's so much there. In particular her early aviation accomplishments. Most people, if they know Anne, it's because she was the mother of the dead baby. Or women are fans of [Anne's book] Gift from the Sea. I am so lucky because I meet with so many book clubs through Skype and over the phone, I have a built-in focus group for my books. When I was thinking about writing this story, I asked a lot of people and realized that there was a certain female readership that was a fan of Gift from the Sea, but sadly a lot of younger women readers are not so familiar with it. That again was another reason to write this book.

GR: How did you decide to write in the first-person narrative?

MB: Every book speaks to me differently. I have a theatrical background, not so much a literary background, so it's natural for me to assume a character when I write. It brings an immediacy to my storytelling. I will say, though, the book I'm currently writing is in third person, and it's working for that book. Anne's story just begged to be told in the first person, because we had to see Charles through her eyes in order to better understand him.

GR: Goodreads member Kim asks, "How much [influence] do you think the women's rights movement had on Anne Lindbergh's life? Was she really a feminist?"

MB: That's a great question. She certainly was not a Betty Friedan or even a bra-burning Gloria Steinem. That was not Anne. Anne was very much a part of her time in that she married in 1929, and it was an age in which every woman was "Mrs. So-and-So" to the public. They were all known by their husband's names. Anne was earlier than the feminists we think of. She was raised to be dutiful, and I don't think she was completely able to shut that off in a way. Yet in all her writing her name was Anne Morrow Lindbergh. I love that about her—it's a quiet rebellion. I do think that Gift from the Sea can be seen as a protofeminist type of work. Again, you can't make Anne out to be Gloria Steinem. It wasn't in her nature or her time. I think she took a baby step toward the later feminist movement. They built on what she accomplished.

I hope that younger women who read this aren't going to immediately say, "Oh, Anne's a doormat. I can't imagine acting that way." I hope that they're opening their minds. That's so important when you read historical fiction—to really throw off your modern-day sensibility and the way you live your life and be open to a different time and different constraints. I'm hoping that people, particularly younger women who are reading Anne's journey, won't judge but rather will be appreciative of how far we've come.

GR: Given that women of the time were predominantly homemakers, how radical was it that Charles just assumed that his wife would be his copilot?

MB: It was very radical! I love that part of Charles. There was a dichotomy in almost everything he did. He publicly said, "There's no reason why women can't learn to fly." In 1927 to '28, for a man to say that—that was very rare! You're starting to see the early women driver jokes, let alone women flier jokes. [laughs] He was unique in his support for women's abilities to fly. I think that's one of the really interesting things about Charles. He saw in Anne a courage, tenacity, and a strength I don't think she saw in herself at that time. It stunned her as much as it stunned anyone, that a marriage to him meant being his copilot literally, not figuratively.

But with Charles there was always a fine line between encouraging and bullying. I think that early encouragement changed to bullying. Also, I think it's so heartbreaking for us all to see how after basically giving Anne wings, he spent the rest of their lives almost trying to clip them. Expecting her, after the war and kidnapping particularly, to just stay home, raise the children, and be his anchor on the ground, no longer his partner or equal in the air. To me that was a fascinating aspect of this story to explore.

GR: He's a very frustrating character.

MB: For me, too. He's a hero, but he's a flawed human being. Some of the things that were his strengths, like what made him able to fly across the ocean, made him also stubborn and wrong later in his life. That narrow-mindedness, singular focus, and that belief in his own ability and his own ideals to the exclusion of anyone else's. There is a lot to admire in that, and there's a lot to be very frustrated by.

GR: Charles Lindbergh was derided for his isolationist—some say anti-Semitic—views during the lead-up to World War II. If you put a man on a pedestal, do you think it's inevitable that a hero is going to have a fall from grace?

MB: It does seem like it, doesn't it? Not all heroes, but a great many of them. General Petraeus, for example. It does seem inevitable. I don't know if it's a flaw inherent in the person or a result of our hero worship. I think that's a really good question to ask. I don't know the answer to it.

GR: Goodreads member Narci says, "In some ways Charles Lindbergh emerges as a villain. Does that bother you?"

MB: I didn't see him that way. Obviously if Anne is a protagonist, Charles has to be the antagonist, but I can't write someone I only see as a villain. I have to have a deep empathy for all of the characters I write. I like Charles a lot, which made me so frustrated with him later. I'm looking at him through Anne, and Anne loved him. I found a lot to admire in him. I found a great sympathy for him, particularly in the way the kidnapping affected him the rest of his life. So I don't see him as a villain, and I didn't intend him to be a villain. Yet he is the thing that frustrates Anne all her life. He is that conflict. I try never to depict anyone as a true villain or a true hero. I try to write complex, multidimensional figures. Yet again, I understand why someone might see him that way if they have a lot of sympathy for Anne.

GR: How did you approach the book knowing that there are living relatives, the children of the Lindberghs?

MB: That was the most difficult aspect of writing this book. I initially approached it by writing the first draft without their real names. I actually wrote it more as a roman à clef, like Girl in a Blue Dress, which is supposedly about Charles Dickens's wife, but they change the names. And yet as soon as I turned that draft into my editor, I said to my husband, "She's going to make me change the names back." Of course that's what she said. She knew, and I knew, that I had to write it that way first to be able to start to claim Anne as my own. It's an odd thing with historical fiction. Obviously we're respectful of these people because otherwise we wouldn't write about them, but you can't be too respectful because it cripples you as an author and a storyteller. I am very respectful for their memories. They have their own story of their mother to tell. I had to finally realize that's not my story.

GR: Goodreads member Diana asks, "A running theme throughout your work seems to be one of the 'not quite fairy tale' romance. Is there a special reason you feel drawn to share stories of this kind?"

MB: They're more interesting to me. I love a good romance. I'm a dreamer, too. I think that's on my to-do list: to write a true, epic, real love story. But it's hard to make those interesting. It really, really is. I find the thornier relations to be more complex and more ripe for exploration in a novel.

GR: Goodreads member Lisa says, "Your writing often fictionalizes true-life people and events. Why do you think this formula has been so successful for you, and do you ever see yourself writing a 100 percent fiction or nonfiction book?"

MB: Yes to the former, and no to the latter. I am not a biographer or a historian. I never let the truth get in the way of a good story. I look at facts and cannot help but imagine what really happened. I could not limit myself to facts. I also just don't have the patience or attention to detail that's required.

For the book I'm working on now, which I can't really say much about, there's only a paragraph known of this story, and I get to make everything else up. It is based on some real people, but you won't find them in history books. Although I am incorporating real people and people who are well known into the book, I'm fictionalizing 90 to 95 percent of the story. I think at some point I'd like to do something like E.L. Doctorow does: take a specific event and then make up people involved in the event. Like he did with Ragtime or my favorite book of his, The March.

GR: Briefly describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

MB: I sit down in the afternoon to write generally. I don't write more than two, three hours at a time. At least at the beginning of a book I don't. In the evening I'm often Skyping with book clubs. Sometimes it's two or three days a week. It's great. Sometime I have to learn to say no. I hate to say no to readers. As I move toward the completion of a book, I do tend to hole myself off from the world. I'll spend two or three weeks barely coming up for air and just ignoring everything else.

GR: What writers, books, or ideas have most influenced you?

MB: Early on, when I was first starting out, I read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. It really was a great influence for me in the writing process. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is another one of those books that I read early on that really helped me become a better writer. Beyond that, it's just reading, reading, reading everything. I didn't start out my life wanting to be a writer, but I was always a reader. I think if you have a natural storytelling ability and you've read 100,000 books in your lifetime, you have learned how to write a novel. When you pick up a book and you can't get past the first five pages, you've learned what not to do with the first five pages of a book. Reading everything and anything is the best thing you can do on the journey to becoming a writer.

GR: What are you reading now?

MB: My son got me a biography of Alice Roosevelt Longworth by Stacy A. Cordery for Christmas. That's what I'm going to be reading.

Comments Showing 1-23 of 23 (23 new)

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message 1: by Connie (new)

Connie I just finished this book and I thought it was so informative and it was also so very emotional a read for me. There was so much I did not know about Anne Morrow Lindbergh except for her beautiful Gifts from the Sea and her diaries and letters; I'm going to read the last one soon with an intro by her youngest daughter, Reeve. Beautifully imagined and evidently thoroughly researched by the author. Brava for AML and thank you to Ms. Benjamin for this wonderful read.

message 2: by Mike (last edited Feb 10, 2013 03:43PM) (new)

Mike Foldes Hi, Melanie, thought you might also like my book, "Sleeping Dogs: A true story of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping...." It's the story of a family in the Hudson Valley who found a pistol buried in cement that the property owner swore was used to shoot CAL Jr. You can find it on Smashwords and Amazon. Hope you have a chance to read it. And thanks for your book and the GR interview.

message 3: by Julieb (new)

Julieb I wonder if Anne, being as introverted as she was early on, would have stayed in this marriage if she and Charles lived in today's world. They were both such products of their era.

message 4: by Karen (new)

Karen J Congrats Melanie! Just saw this book prominently displayed at LAX today!

message 5: by Ruth (new)

Ruth I think I want to read "Gift From the Sea" before I
read about Anne Morrow Lindbergh. I love this interview. At 82, I decided to read the classics because I want to and not as an assignment in School. I am reading Carl Sandburg's "Lincoln, The War Years" at this time. Again, I love the interview.

message 6: by Elizabeth (last edited Feb 11, 2013 10:30AM) (new)

Elizabeth Love Melanie Benjamin' books. Will anxiously await "The Aviator's Wife to arrive. What a talented woman you are Ms.Benjamin.

message 7: by Gladys (new)

Gladys dueweke though i was famiiar with the lindberghs, this book took me by surprise. i had never heard of his second family. an excellent read; i highly recommend! i'm not familiar with the author but will look for more of her work.

message 8: by Melanie (new)

Melanie Benjamin Thank you all so much; I loved doing this interview. I love Goodreads!

message 9: by Ruth (new)

Ruth OOps, I meant to say that I needed to get away from the classics and read about Anne Morrow Lindbergh and introduce myself to a new author Melanie Benjiman...
Oh the joys of 82.

message 10: by Kay (new)

Kay I thoroughly enjoyed this book, even though it made me want to kick Charles Lindbergh in the shins. :-)

It was fascinating that essentially they were pursued by the paparazzi of their day and really to the extent that many celebrities are today. I found that to be an interesting similarity to Mrs. Tom Thumb as well. The evolution of the media and instant information hasn't created this monster of pursuing celebrities -- it has always been there.

Excellent book once again. Kudos!

message 11: by Sue (new)

Sue Bull I am presently reading thuis wonderful book. The interview gave me insight into Melanie Benjimanh's perspective on the Lindbergs. I am loving this book and will recommend it to my book club.
Sue from Stuart, Fl and Kalamazoo, Mich

message 12: by Gale (new)

Gale Starratt Another book I must put on my Wish List, many thanks to Melanie for "The Aviator's Wife."

message 13: by Betsy (new)

Betsy One of the most moving books I have read in a long time. I have always loved Anne Lindberg's when reading them I can see and feel the person behind them. Thank you for this excellent book.

message 14: by Yawooz (new)

Yawooz Ezzat The Aviation's Wife is a historical fiction by Melanie Benjamin, about The Lindberghs, one of American early celebrity couples, although their story is widely known in the us, but I never heard of it only after reading this book, which I feel it's grate and deserved to catch the attention of the goodread and the author to be interviewed.

I hope my book which is about a forgotten nation facing systemic ethnic cleansing for more than a century, situated in the heart of the Middle East, yet very few knows about them, will deserve the same attention by the goodread and the readers.

message 15: by Carol (new)

Carol Always looking for great historical fiction. I will be reading this book soon! Looking forward to it. I felt some great frustration reading The Paris Wife and expect to feel some with this novel with regards to Charles.

message 16: by Kayla (new)

Kayla houston that a good book

message 17: by Deirdre (new)

Deirdre Andrews I recently finished this book. Very interesting, found it hard to put down. I have loved historical fiction since childhood, but had sort of forgotten about the genre of late. Now I look forward to reading more of Ms. Benjamin's work. Brava to her!!

message 18: by Sue (new)

Sue Bull I just finished the book today. I loved,loved, loved it. Anne Morrow Lindberg has my heart. Tomorrow I am going to the library to get all I can on the Lindbergs. I will eagerly await Melonie Benjamin's next book. I am sad I have finished the book as now I miss the journey Melonie took me on.

message 19: by Sharron (new)

Sharron I loved this book. Didn't want it to end. Very powerful and emotional and sent me to research more about the Lindbergh's. Will encourage my book club to "select" it for one of our reads in the future, thus allowing me to enjoy it once again!

message 20: by Virginia (new)

Virginia Reynolds If doing a book report on this, is there a suggested outline.......special points to make (beyond or outside of this fine interview)??
At this time I have not read the book but plan to asap! thanks for reply!

message 21: by Sharron (new)

Sharron My book club did indeed read this and we had a good discussion. I reread the book and found it as heart wrenching as the first time. Anne was torn between being and becoming her own person and being wife and mother. Look deep into women's circumstance in the time period and consider difficult decisions. The two most discussed areas: did they really love each other? How can the author or any author, speak for someone else? My opinion is that since Benjamin read many journals of AML and other resources, we got a true sense of her voice if not her words.

message 22: by Jayne (new)

Jayne Blackledge I loved this book. It is my favorite book (so far) of 2013.


message 23: by Rita (new)

Rita Mendelson this was a wonderful book for my book club to read. I believe the account of Anne's life was true. We had a great discussion of the book and would recommend as a good read.

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