An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Melanie Benjamin
The Girls in the Picture: A Novel (Delacorte Press, 16 January 2018).
Historical novelist, Melanie Benjamin, the New York Times bestselling author of novels such as The Swans of Fifth Avenue (2016) and The Aviator’s Wife (2013), is back with an even more fascinating read about the creative partnership between two of Hollywood’s earliest female legends, screenwriter Frances Marion and superstar Mary Pickford. With cameos from such notables as Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Louis B. Mayer, Rudolph Valentino, and Lillian Gish, The Girls in the Picture is, at its heart, a story of friendship and forgiveness.
AUTHORLINK: Thank you for joining us here at Authorlink to discuss your latest, remarkable release, The Girls in the Picture. It’s about Hollywood pioneers; screenwriter, Frances Marion and movie-star, Mary Pickford and their passion to create movies together despite the challenges imposed on their gender. Was it your intention to explore their relationship from the start, or did it just develop that way once you started writing?
Of course when writing a novel, you need that arc; you can’t just write of a time or place without a great story to tie it all together.
BENJAMIN: Yes, it was always going to be about their relationship. I’ve read bios of both women, and books about the silent era just because I’m fascinated with that time and place and the people who created the film industry. And in reading, I became intrigued about this friendship and all it meant to both the women, and the industry as a whole. Of course when writing a novel, you need that arc; you can’t just write of a time or place without a great story to tie it all together. So this book about this particular time and place was always going to have this friendship as that narrative driver.
AUTHORLINK: Terrific, thank you. Some women in Hollywood are still struggling to have their creative voices heard today. Do you believe there will ever be an even-divide between male and female scriptwriters, directors, producers and actors?
BENJAMIN: Well, we can only hope, right? I think there is definitely a movement afoot right now, with both #MeToo, and the growing outrage over the lack of women’s voices and stories. I mean, the Golden Globes nominations were just out and not a single female director was nominated, despite the fact that three of the top films of the year – WONDER WOMAN, LADY BIRD, and MUDBOUND, were directed by women. So I do have hope that women in Hollywood are trying to change the narrative that’s existed ever since movies became big money, back in the era immediately after women like Mary Pickford and Frances Marion created the industry.
AUTHORLINK: My hopes exactly. Yes, it’s very disappointing about the Golden Globes. You once said that The Aviator’s Wife (2013) was hard to write, yet The Swans of Fifth Avenue (2016) was relatively pain-free. What makes one book difficult to write and another flow? How can writers make sure the readers are unable to tell the difference?
One thing I’ve learned – and learned to embrace – is that every book is different. The writing, the research – every time I sit down, I learn something new about the process.
BENJAMIN: I wish I knew! One thing I’ve learned – and learned to embrace – is that every book is different. The writing, the research – every time I sit down, I learn something new about the process. Sometimes I find, after the book’s done, that I just couldn’t make the story come alive. I don’t know, of course, that this will be the result when I start out. But sometimes, you do your best and the story just won’t lift off the page. Sometimes you – along with your editor – can fix it. Sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you get it right the first time; THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE was that magical, extremely rare, example. Most of the time, you don’t! But I do always think that no matter how difficult the effort might have been, the end result should always be the same; the reader should never see the struggle.
AUTHORLINK: That’s so interesting. And in relation to the above question, you had written two books recently that you did not feel you wanted to publish. Can you tell us a bit about them and what you felt wasn’t right?
BENJAMIN: While not sharing the specifics – because maybe someday, I’ll figure them out! – in both cases, I just couldn’t make the protagonists sympathetic enough. My editor said that I’m too good – I had chosen women to write about who have a difficult reputation. And I channelled them too well; so well that it turned out you really didn’t want to spend an entire book with them! Or to put it another way – I was unable to find the empathy in them. I think I did find that with Truman Capote, for example – another real person who was difficult to love. But with these two novels, in the end, I did not find that spark of humanity, that thing that made you want to spend 350 pages with this person, even when she did things or made decisions that weren’t sympathetic.
AUTHORLINK: That’s fascinating. I’m curious about them now. I hope you can resuscitate them one day! You didn’t start writing until your late 30s when your two sons were in middle school. Your first contemporary novel Confessions of Super Mom was published in 2005. Had you done courses or read any books about writing that helped you with your craft before or since then? If so, what would you recommend?
Reading fiction taught me to write fiction. The more you read, the better you are as a writer – provided you have that talent to begin with . . .
BENJAMIN: Reading fiction taught me to write fiction. The more you read, the better you are as a writer – provided you have that talent to begin with, and you can’t teach talent. Really, the only book about writing I ever found helpful was “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.” I find it helpful to re-read every few years. Other than that, reading other people’s writing is the best education I could have had, personally.
AUTHORLINK: That’s great, thanks. What made you transition from contemporary novels to historical fiction? Did you retain the same agent/publisher in doing so in this switch?
BENJAMIN: Well, dismal failure was the driving factor! Those contemporary novels did not meet expectations, as we say in the business. I had no choice but to reinvent my career, if I wanted to stay published traditionally. My agent is the same, yes; she (Laura Langlie) has been tremendously supportive no matter how many twists and turns my career has taken. But my publisher is different. My option was dropped by the publisher of those first two novels, and soon I realized that the old dictum “It’s harder to stay published than it is to get published” was painfully true. I HAD to reinvent myself, not only in the type of books I wrote but in my published name, as well. Failure follows you in this business and it’s mighty difficult to overcome a bad sales record. But despite the pain of those years I spent trying to find my way, I’m actually glad it all happened. It made me stronger, it made me more practical, and it made me a better writer – and I’m much happier writing historical fiction than I ever was contemporary women’s fiction. Because those first books weren’t successful, I found my true calling as a writer.
AUTHORLINK: We appreciate your frankness and our readers will sure to feel inspired. In your last book, The Swans of Fifth Avenue (2016), you wrote about Truman Capote’s remarkable friendships with the New York society ‘swans’ of the 1950s. The book was a New York Times bestseller and the #1 Indie Next Pick for February 2016 and will be made into a limited television series starring Bryce Dallas Howard. Congratulations! How does it feel to know that one of your books is going to be made into a tele-film? Were you able to provide feedback on the script? Which actors would you like to see playing the lead character(s) from The Girls in the Picture if it too were made into a film?
BENJAMIN: Bryce has been so communicative through all this, and we’re still a long way away from going into production. But while I’m not working on the script, I have been kept abreast of every development, and had some input into ideas. I’m the first to say that writing for a visual medium is completely different than writing for the page, and I’m happy to let the experts do their job. I understand that there will be some liberties taken, that they’ll expand certain characters beyond how I did in the book, and probably leave out others. I’m just happy that someone else found my book inspiring enough to want to develop it into a completely different art form! I’m not going to go into who I’d like to play any of the leads, because that could come home to roost in a very bad way! But I’m excited about the potential for GIRLS, too, in this area, and hope to be able to share some exciting news about it soon.
AUTHORLINK: Well done! And Bryce Dallas Howard is great. We understand you try to write 2,000 words a day, which is amazing. Where do you like to write and what are your writing rituals? Do you plan out the novel before you start, or do you see where your stories take you first?
I have a pretty good idea of the novel’s structure before I sit down. And that’s key.
BENJAMIN: (Whispering – it’s not that many hours!) Not if you know the story you’re telling, and know it well, before you sit down to write. And I do. I’m not an outliner, but I definitely have done the research and know the story I want to tell; the protagonists, the POV, the highs and lows of their lives that I want to hit, where I’ll begin the novel, where I’ll end it. Sometimes the characters take me down some detours that prove interesting; sometimes those detours don’t, but I do explore them. Still, I have a pretty good idea of the novel’s structure before I sit down. And that’s key. That takes time, of course – I’m talking a couple of months of research, reading, digesting, thinking. Only then do I sit down, and 2000 words a day, when you know the story so well, is not hard at all to accomplish. I’m talking only an hour or two, without interruptions. (Of course, the interruptions come anyway, and it’s always more difficult to write a book when you’re in the pre-pub production of another, or touring – all things I have to deal with, but I’m grateful for these interruptions.)
AUTHORLINK: Unbelievable! How do you think you have evolved creatively since your first book? What advice would you give to your younger self about this? Would you have done something differently on the road to your success?
BENJAMIN: I honestly wouldn’t have done anything differently, despite the, um – bumps in the road. I think the most important thing I’ve learned – and I learned it early, so I wouldn’t have to tell my younger self, but maybe other authors will benefit from it – is that I will never run out of stories to tell. I will never run out of words. So if something doesn’t work out – an entire novel, a chapter, whatever – it’s easier to put it away or do the edits, when you understand this. I do think that authors who don’t believe in themselves in this way have a more difficult time understanding how anyone can put an entire novel away because it didn’t work, and start another, without too much whining. But the ability to do this is the key to a successful career.
AUTHORLINK: That’s great advice, thank you. As a historical fiction novelist, you extensively research the facts of your subjects lives before you fill in the gaps of their nuanced feelings with your imagination and instincts. How much research is too much, in this regard?
. . . even when you’re writing about people who lived, in a novel they have to behave as characters in novels do – everything’s a bit more.
BENJAMIN: It’s always difficult to assess that. Sometimes I don’t know I’ve done too much research until I plunge into the book, and that’s usually a signal that this one won’t work. Sometimes I figure that out early – sometimes I don’t. I will say that for me, as a novelist who has to make these people come alive in a way that works for fiction vs. real life, when I read their actual words in letters or diaries, that usually is a no-no. I find that I’m unable, then, to make them come alive on the page. Again, even when you’re writing about people who lived, in a novel they have to behave as characters in novels do – everything’s a bit more. The emotional stakes, the highs, the lows. So if you know the real person so well that you can’t invent a voice for them that works on the page, you’re in trouble.
AUTHORLINK: What an incredibly perceptive tip! And to finish off with some fun Proust-type of questions…Which three famous people, living or dead would you invite to dinner and why? What do you consider the most overrated virtue in a person?
BENJAMIN: Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Diana Vreeland. Why, I don’t know, other than I think they’re all three magical storytellers, and I would just sit and listen to them interrupt each other and top each other, and it would be the best thing ever.
And I think virtue is the most overrated virtue! Anyone who clads themselves in lofty moral standards is to be avoided at all costs.
AUTHORLINK: Ha! Too true. Ms Benjamin, thank you so much for your time today. We wish your continued success with your writing and look forward to your next historical fiction novel.
BENJAMIN: Thank you, Anna! It’s a privilege to chat with you and your readers.
About the Author: Melanie Benjamin is the author of the New York Times and USA Today bestselling historical novels 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.
Her novels have been translated into more than fifteen languages, featured in national magazines such as Good Housekeeping, People, and Entertainment Weekly, and optioned for film.
In addition to writing, she puts previous theatrical training to good use by being a member of the Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau. When she isn’t writing or speaking, she’s reading. And always looking for new stories to tell.
You can find out more about Melanie here:- http://melaniebenjamin.com, https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/2958717.Melanie_Benjamin, https://www.facebook.com/melanie.benjamin.9, and https://twitter.com/MelanieBen