2020 Festival Author Melanie Benjamin: ‘Leave Room for Imagination’

By South Dakota Magazine & South Dakota Humanities Council
Editor's Note: A version of this feature story appears in our 2020 South Dakota Festival of Books guide produced by South Dakota Magazine. Download a free copy of the Festival Guide later this summer.

Historical Fiction Author Finds Career-changing Inspiration at Art Museum

Melanie Benjamin was a struggling author when a chance encounter changed the direction of her writing career. Her first two novels of contemporary fiction weren't selling, so to take her mind off her troubles, she visited a Chicago art museum that was hosting an exhibition of Lewis Carroll's photography.

An image of Alice Liddell, the little girl who inspired "Alice in Wonderland," intrigued Benjamin, and that curiosity led to her first work of historical fiction, "Alice I Have Been."

"I have a passion for history, I'm a museum junkie and I always have imagined myself in other times, living other lives. "So, when I found this story, I found what I should have been doing all along," said the author, who will be presenting at the 2020 South Dakota Festival of Books set for Oct. 2-4, 2020 in Brookings.

Delving into Historical Figures

In her bestselling books "The Aviator's Wife" and "The Swans of Fifth Avenue," Benjamin delved into the lives of well-known figures like Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Truman Capote, and her most recent novel, "The Mistress of the Ritz," is set at Paris' iconic luxury hotel during the Nazi occupation. The aim of her fiction is not to recreate the historical record, but to let that history inspire her creativity as she crafts a fascinating story.

"I look at a life, or an event, and I decide what particular story I want to tell," Benjamin says.

"Once I decide on the actual events that are going to make up the arc, then I imagine the things between these events — the thoughts of people, the actual conversations, the inner narrative. Why did these people do the things we know they did? What were they going through — what inner turmoil — when they did them? That's the fiction."

Research and Details are Crucial to Writing Process

Research is a key part of Benjamin's writing process, but while getting the details right is important, it's crucial to know when to stop.

"I do know novelists who just get stuck in the research to the point where they never begin to write. And it's seductive, I get it; you learn something and then you want to learn something more and pretty soon, you're just sucked in," she says. "I've found that's my strength; to not over-research, to leave room for my imagination."

Benjamin does not always write about the rich and famous. "The Children's Blizzard," which is scheduled for release in January 2021, centers on the deadly storm that struck southern Dakota on January 12, 1888.

"I found the plight of very young schoolteachers having to make life and death decisions extremely compelling," she said.

Find Out More

To find out more about the authors who will be part of the 2020 Festival of Books in Brookings Oct. 2-4, subscribe to our e-newsletter below. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some events may be held virtually. We will announce that information as it becomes available. (Note: Because of uncertainties surrounding COVID-19, the Festival schedule will be released later than usual this year. You can also check our website, sdbookfestival.com, and our social media sites, facebook.com/sdhumanities and twitter.com/sdhumanities for updates).