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Interview: January 17, 2013

In her latest novel, Melanie Benjamin shines an intimate light on one of the most celebrated and fascinating marriages of the 20th century: that of Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow. THE AVIATOR’S WIFE is brilliantly told, full of adventure, love, sorrow and redemption. In this interview, conducted by’s Bronwyn Miller, Melanie talks about the neglected women of history, the artistic battle between truth and fiction, and the difficult task of searching out the secret heart of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. In your Author’s Note, you mentioned that when you first decided to write a novel about Anne Lindbergh, most people had a similar reaction of “Oh, I love the Lindberghs!” You wanted to find out exactly why people were so fascinated with this couple. We are curious, though, about where your initial inspiration for writing about Anne came from.

Melanie Benjamin: After writing two novels set in the Victorian era (ALICE I HAVE BEEN and THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MRS. TOM THUMB), I looked for a story set in the early 20th century; I felt that would be a nice change for me, and I love so much about the first half of our last century.  As I was looking, I came across a couple of interesting stories of aviatrixes and wing walkers, as aviation played such an important role in that era.  Some of them had possibilities, and I was out on an evening walk (which is when I tend to do my best thinking!), ruminating over them, when I said out loud, “What about the Lindberghs?” And that was it; the idea of writing a novel about Anne was so perfect. I had always been fascinated by that marriage; she always seemed so sympathetic --- tragic, even --- while he didn’t. It was such an attraction of opposites. I had read bios of each of them, and felt that the marriage still remained a mystery, and saw it as the central storyline of my novel.

BRC: How did you feel about Anne before you started researching and writing? And what, if anything, changed about your opinion of her as time went on?

MB: As I said, I saw her as tragic, reflective, extraordinarily sympathetic. While researching, I discovered her strength –-- which I had suspected was there --- but also suspected she never even realized it herself. Her accomplishments as an aviatrix astonished me; I had no idea she had pioneered so much. And her passion, too; that delighted me, to discover her rebellion in later years. Yes, it was sometimes frustrating to read of so much of her acceptance of Charles’s will and ideas, while stifling her own, but it was also empowering to see her journey past this acceptance into her own quiet rebellion, later.  

BRC: There is so much ground to cover with a subject as vast and storied as Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her life with her husband. In the book, you mentioned how you provided a timeline for the kidnapping but wanted to focus more on how it affected their marriage. How do you decide what to incorporate into the narrative and what to leave out?

MB: Well, I always remind myself I’m writing a novel, not a history book. A novel simply can’t incorporate everything of a life. My job is to look at this life and see the epic scope, the dramatic potential, and then pick and choose those real events that will tell that epic, dramatic story. I sometimes call it the “movie version” of a life. That’s simplistic, but there’s truth in it. The movie version of any life will naturally leave some elements out and emphasize others for dramatic effect, and that’s what I do. It’s difficult, and I steel myself for the readers who will wonder why I didn’t more fully explore the kidnapping, or other elements of Anne’s life. It takes a lot of discipline to focus on the story I want to tell and not get distracted by the others that have potential, too. But I’m mindful, always, of telling a thumping good story, and that helps me remain disciplined enough.

BRC: You could say that Anne and Charles are both flawed characters, but Anne’s flaws make her more relatable and sympathetic, whereas her husband’s flaws make him seem more remote and cold. Was it difficult to write such a stoic character? Do you feel a writer shouldn’t judge her characters?

MB: I had a lot of sympathy for Charles, actually. I think that’s vital. Even when writing flawed, hard-to-understand characters, the author has to have enormous sympathy and empathy for them. So no, I don’t judge; I try always to find a reason to understand why that character changed so, or was so hard to love. And I felt that, with Charles, it all came back to the kidnapping, the one thing he had failed at in his life; his failure to save his child and bring him home to Anne. I hope the reader will see that, and despite Charles’s flaws, try to understand how it all came back to that. Also, I was writing as Anne, and seeing Charles through her eyes --– and she loved him. So naturally, I did, too. 

BRC: At the beginning of the story, Anne felt like the wallflower of her family, the “shy one, the strange one…” always in search of her hero, but realizes in the end, she was the stronger of the two. Do you think Anne Morrow Lindbergh had this epiphany herself?

MB: I hope she did, but I don’t know. We’ll never know that, but at least I can provide her that epiphany in my novel, which is one reason why I wrote it --– to give her somewhat of a happy ending, at least in fiction. Anne was so painfully honest and self-aware, to her detriment at times. Yet she had the courage to climb into airplanes and let her husband hurl her off the sides of mountains; she had the compassion to love and hope for the future, even after a terrible tragedy. I do hope she was able to recognize this about herself.

BRC: How much of Charles Lindbergh’s success do you think can be attributed to Anne?

MB: Honestly, not so much. But I think his legacy can be very much attributed to Anne. He didn’t know her when he accomplished the singular event of his life, the Paris flight; it was an astonishing achievement and he did it alone. He relied on Anne on the famous navigating flights, but he would have done them with or without her; he was that focused. What Anne did for him –-- and he very much relied on her for this --– was to soften him, give him a more relatable image, and in the end, help him write his own legacy, particularly in THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS, but also in her published --– and edited by them both --– diaries. 

BRC:  What insight did you gain in writing this book, not only about Anne, but also of Charles?

MB: How much they needed each other, at least at first, and how that immediate bond endured enough to hold on to fragments of their marriage later. Initially, she needed him to make her act instead of think; she knew she had a tendency to withdraw from the world, reflecting upon it instead of engaging in it, and she recognized that Charles was the person who would force her to accomplish things she could only dream of.  He needed her for companionship; he was lonely, and recognized that the harsh spotlight upon him, ever since Paris, would be easier to endure with a partner. The difference was, she wasn’t surprised that she needed him, while he was surprised by how quickly he grew to rely on her. Theirs was a true passion and companionship, at least early on; they were the only people in the world who understood what the other was going through. They may have come together surprisingly quickly; their courtship was laughably short, and short of sentiment. But they quickly became so reliant on one another, so close, so protective of each other. Thus, it was surprising and heartbreaking when, after the kidnapping and the war, he seemed to turn his back on her so thoroughly, no longer needing her except to raise his children and protect his legacy. Yet even then, there was this bond, this thing that could not be broken between them --- their shared triumphs and tragedies, already in the history books. This was the strongest insight I gained in writing this book --- the answer to this conundrum of a marriage

BRC: The story of the Lindberghs and their marriage can be seen as a time capsule of the 20th century. Was it rewarding or daunting to cover so much time within one story?

MB: Very rewarding! It’s easier for me, as a historical novelist, to have so many ready-made highlights and dramatic moments. The Lindberghs didn’t just witness history, they made it. Early aviation, a first-hand look at Hitler’s Germany before the war, World War II itself, and then their spectacular literary careers after; they were invited to witness almost everything important in aviation, right up to the moon launch. How fun is that, to try to incorporate as much of this amazing history into a novel? A lot of fun!

BRC: What was the most challenging part of writing THE AVIATOR’S WIFE?

MB: Oddly, it was getting over my need to be too respectful of Anne and Charles and particularly their surviving children. This is one thing I’ve learned; I can’t be too respectful of the person I’m fictionalizing, or else I can’t make her “my own”; I can’t dramatize her story and write a compelling novel.  With my previous historical novels this wasn’t so much of a problem, as the protagonists were long dead.  But Anne died only in 2001, and she has children living. This was very much on my mind as I wrote, and in fact I wrote the first draft as a romanà clef; it was obviously “based on” the Lindberghs, but I changed names, details, fudged with the timeline a bit. My wise editor let me do this, and then she told me I had to write it again as I had my others; using real names, incorporating real facts.  And in my heart of hearts I knew she was right, and I also knew that I had to write that first draft that way in order to bring me closer to being able to fictionalize Anne.  That was definitely the most challenging part of writing this book; making it my own, and not simply a rehash of Anne’s diaries. 

BRC: Your two previous books, ALICE I HAVE BEEN and THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF TOM THUMB, were also based on historical figures. Do you feel a certain responsibility when writing about a real person as opposed to a fictional character? How is it different?

MB: It’s a fine line; of course I have enormous respect for these figures or else I wouldn’t write about them. And I feel responsible for basing their characters and struggles on some fact or historical record, of course; that’s the whole point of historical fiction. But at a certain point, I have to own them; I have to treat them as my own creations, just as any novelist does. I have to look for the hidden closets and dark corners of their lives, and explore those; that’s what makes a novel. And so I can’t have too much respect for their privacy.

BRC: How did writing THE AVIATOR’S WIFE differ from your earlier two novels? What lessons did you garner from each? Whose story was hardest to leave behind?

MB: The other two novels were different in that I found it relatively easy to fictionalize these people who had lived so long ago. In part, because I simply had no idea that there would be readers who cared about this! By the time I wrote THE AVIATOR’S WIFE, I had two novels published and had encountered the readers who do seem to care, more than I can understand, about what’s fact and what’s fiction. That weighed on me, I’m sure. As far as lessons, well, I’m forever in awe of what the women who came before me managed to accomplish under more constraints than I can imagine. I hope to give modern women some insight into how far we’ve come, and to have sympathy for their sisters who could not be as liberated because of the times in which they lived. And I rarely have a hard time leaving behind a story; I’m always eager to begin the next novel, and the story I’m currently telling is always the one closest to my heart.

BRC: All three of your works could be seen as stories of “the woman behind the man.” In what ways did their stories intrigue you more than those of their male counterparts?

MB: Yes, I guess I have done that, haven’t I? Written stories of “the woman behind the man.” That was never my intention, believe me! And my next novel isn’t like this at all.  But I suppose I am always looking for women who are unsung, in a way, and I felt these three women --- Alice Liddell, Mrs. Tom Thumb and Anne Morrow Lindbergh --- deserved their own moments in the sun, out of their partners’ shadows.

BRC :What are you working on now, and when can readers expect to see it? 

MB: I’m not allowed to say too much, and I assume it will be out sometime in 2014. All I can say is that it’s not about the woman behind the man this time, and it’s not told in first person, as my others have been. And it’s not set in a time period that I have already written about. It’s a fascinating story, about two women who really existed, but I guarantee you have never heard of them before!  It’s a bit of a departure for me, but it’s still very much historical and very much about women, women struggling to live lives they were not meant to have; struggling out of the constraints that society and the time in which they live have imposed upon them. In that way, it is somewhat similar to my other books, I guess. I’m in love with this story!