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'The Aviator's Wife' author Melanie Benjamin is drawn to 'locked doors and hidden closets'

Melanie Benjamin, author of a new novel about Charles Lindbergh's wife Anne, discusses her interest in women who have 'kind of fallen off the public's collective consciousness.'

By Staff Writer / February 15, 2013

'The Aviator's Wife' is writer Melanie Benjamin's third novel.

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In her first two novels, Melanie Benjamin riffs on the stories of two fascinating but somewhat forgotten 19th-century women: "Alice I Have Been" (2010) follows the woman who inspired "Alice in Wonderland" while "The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb" (2011) features the wife of circus celebrity General Tom Thumb. Now, in "The Aviator's Wife," Benjamin has taken on the story of half of one of the most famous couples of the 20th century: Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of aviator Charles Lindbergh. Although today Anne Lindbergh is perhaps most often recalled as the suffering mother of a kidnapped baby (the Lindbergh's son Charles was kidnapped and killed in 1932 in an act called "the crime of the century"), she was also the daughter of an ambassador, a skilled pilot in her own right, and a critically acclaimed author.

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In an interview with the Monitor, Benjamin (whose real name is Melanie Hauser) talked with me about how she picks her projects, what surprised her most about Anne Lindbergh, and what makes a great historical writer. Here are some excerpts of our conversation.

Q: What about historical figures makes you want to focus a novel around them?

A: Now that I've got three under my belt, I can sense a pattern. The first one, "Alice I Have Been," was just kind of blindly stumbling across what I thought was an interesting story. But I think I am looking for women who were well-known in their time, or for a short period of time, and have kind of fallen off the public's collective consciousness.

And I also am looking for women who I suspect are not entirely truthful with the historical record or even to themselves – not intentionally, maybe. I think I'm attracted to those stories where I suspect there are a lot of locked doors and hidden closets that we haven't explored.
 
Q: What have readers or people you know been most surprised by about Anne?

A: I think a lot of people were surprised primarily to hear of her aviation exploits. During the height of their fame in the early '30s, they were Lindy and Anne together, one breath, and she was certainly admired for her aviation and her exploits at that time. Though I think even at the time, everyone assumed it was Lindy doing everything and Anne was tagging along. Certainly female reporters would not ask her about her skills as a pilot, they would ask her how she was going to set up housekeeping in the plane.

I think that what happened was the kidnapping [of the Lindbergh's baby] so overshadowed and overpowered everything else she had done, I think that was when when we started forgetting that part of her life, because she became such a tragic figure. I think that was what I assumed she was, just the tragic figure.

I also think a lot of people are surprised by her passion in later life. I was pleased to discover that.
 
Q: One thing that seemed a little surprising was how few times Charles and Anne met before he proposed. Was that composite at all?

A: That really is kind of it. They met in Mexico [when Lindbergh stayed briefly with the Morrows] and then not for months later, until he called her out of the blue to take her up flying again. [Lindbergh proposes after the flight in Benjamin's novel.] And so it really was pretty much how I depicted it. I guess evidently he had been on this mission to find a wife to share the spotlight with, because it was so overwhelming.
 
Q: I was looking, thinking, "We're on page 80 and they're married?"

A: It really was like that, definitely.

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