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.
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.
Q: How do you think readers will perceive Charles's sometimes harsh treatment of his wife and family?
A: Charles is a challenging character, there's no doubt about it, a very difficult man, and I think because Anne is the heroine of my book, Charles is the conflict. You have to introduce conflict in a book and in this book, I think it is her husband.
So certainly, he's a hard man to completely admire and definitely, I intended him to be a difficult, challenging character, but that said, I did have a lot of sympathy for him. If you look at his life through the prism of the kidnapping and his inability to bring his child home, I think that ... never excuses, but it does let you look at his actions after that through a maybe more understanding light.
But still, he was a very difficult man and I'm sure readers are going to see that part of him.
Q: One thing that the novel shows is how intensely the press covered the couple – even publishing a map to their house. How do you think the Lindberghs' life, and even their marriage, would have been different without that unrelenting scrutiny?
A: Gosh, I think the kidnapping wouldn't have happened. And their marriage, you have to think it would have been smoother. That's just one of those what-ifs of history that it's so big, I can't even begin to comprehend it. Certainly their lives would have been different.
They would not have gone to Europe. And had they not gone to Europe, would Charles have been so outspoken against involvement in the war? Maybe not. There's a whole line of things that might not have happened.
Q: Was it difficult for you separating Charles' endorsement of Hitler from what you knew was ahead historically?
A: That's always a challenge of historical fiction. You have to be in the moment. Even though we can look back in hindsight, a historical novelist has to be able to ignore that and to understand the moment and to lose our modern sensibilities and knowledge and just be in the moment of that time, and I think that's what makes a successful historical novelist.
I think that's why some people cannot enjoy historical fiction.
But I definitely researched the period and discovered that there were so many people who were bamboozled by Hitler. Erik Larson's newest book, "In the Garden of Beasts," is all about that time and when you read that, you really understand the dog-and-pony show that Hitler was putting on for everybody.
If you do your research and you have an imagination and are able to totally enter into a different time, it's not as difficult. But again, I don't think it's for everyone.
Q: Do you have any upcoming projects that you're working on right now?
I do. My editor has me on tight wraps. But I am able to say it is a story of two remarkable women who did live, but this time I guarantee you have never heard of them. It's a very obscure nugget of history that is long, long lost to us, and it is set in colonial America.
That's all I can say. It's a different time for me, not one I'm very familiar with, so the research has been quite fun.
Q: Are you still in the research period right now?
I'm done with most of it, so I am in the middle of writing the book, but obviously, the research is never done. Sometimes you'll be writing away and you'll realize you need to know, "How long did it take to journey by wagon?" You can't magically make people appear. So there's always a lot of research going on.