Melanie Benjamin is the wonderful author of the equally wonderful book ALICE I HAVE BEEN. I was able to meet her at an event at The Bookstore in Glen Ellyn and she was so gracious and did an amazing job reading from her book (you can really tell she once was an actor!). When I realized she lived in the vicinity as well, I knew I just had to feature her for the Literary Road Trip. She was kind enough to supply me with this fabulous guest post about writing ALICE I HAVE BEEN the inspiration for which, coincidentally, occurred to her right here in Chicago!
What makes an author suddenly change genres? It’s not something many of us would choose to do. But as it sometimes happens, the genres choose us—if we are smart enough to realize it.
Prior to writing ALICE I HAVE BEEN, I had absolutely no desire to write historical fiction; if you asked me if I read it, even, I would have answered with a resounding “no.” In my mind, historical fiction was all about the Tudor era, an era that holds little interest for me. I’ve since realized, however, that actually my shelves are full of historical novels. But I’m always interested in a great story first, not a particular era, so again, in my mind it wasn’t a genre to which I was particularly drawn.
So how, you might ask, did I suddenly become a historical fiction author? In my case, it was simply because I left my house.
I was very much in a rut, writing-wise; under a different name I published two contemporary novels but wasn’t content with the subject matter. I knew I needed to write something different but didn’t know just what; for a long while, I kept trying to re-write the same old subject in a different way. I felt stuck in a literary maze of my own design, one that was going to ruin because of my own neglect.
This is an occupational hazard of authors’, I truly believe. We get something in our heads, an idea of who we are as writers, what we stand for, and maybe it works for us for a while. Maybe it doesn’t. Yet we still spend years reworking the same territory, unable to see that perhaps there’s a reason why it isn’t working any longer. Some people spend years reworking the same manuscript. We find it comfortable and safe in our little author-den, cloistered from the world at large.
But I did something that changed my life; in the midst of this rut, I got out of my house. I had a moment of clarity when I realized that my creative well was dried up, and I needed to replenish it—and I was not going to do that by staying home and continuing on the same overgrown, well-worn path.
Somehow I knew I needed to look outward; I could have seen a movie, attended a concert, gone to an art exhibit. What I did was take a train into the city, walk into the Art Institute of Chicago, and stumble into a photographic exhibit that changed my life.
I would never have sought it out; I had no great interest in Victorian photography. But because I was out of my house, into the world, I happened upon an exhibit called “Dreaming in Pictures: The Photography of Lewis Carroll.”
“Lewis Carroll? Who knew he took photographs,” I thought, wandering into a small basement room. And once there, confronted by wall after wall of pictures of young girls, I became fixated on one photograph in particular—that of Alice Liddell, the 7-year-old daughter of Dean Henry Liddell of Christ Church, Oxford, and the inspiration for ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND.
Until that moment, I didn’t know there had ever been a real little girl named Alice. Suddenly I was curious to know what happened to her when she grew up and left Wonderland behind; dying to understand what happened between the photographer and very young subject to result in such a startling image. Suddenly I had an inspiration, an idea that would never have found me still sitting at home, staring at my laptop.
Suddenly, I wondered what it might be like to write historical fiction.
When I told my agent I was thinking about this new direction, she was supportive, but cautious; after all, I’d never written anything close to this before. She encouraged me to try, and was very excited about the story, but always she reminded me that it would depend upon how well I could pull it off. So I dedicated myself to learning how to do just that.
When I sent her the first fifty pages, she liked the story but felt my voice was still too contemporary. She suggested I re-read some Victorian-era novels, and then rewrite what I had in that style. I re-read Jane Eyre, some Dickens, Lady Audley’s Secret. I re-wrote my pages, and didn’t even have to send them to my agent to know that while they were very authentic to the era, they were difficult for modern readers to follow. Too authentic, in fact; long, dense sentences, an over-reliance on adverbs. The language was now a barrier to the story.
So I re-wrote them again. I decided to toss aside the research to a certain extent, striving to write in a way that would sound authentic to a modern reader, not a reader weaned on Dickens. I sent them off to my ever-patient agent, and somehow a miracle occurred; she was ecstatic. She felt I had captured enough of the flavor of the period yet managed not to tax the contemporary reader too much. Somehow it just worked, and I was off and running, a full-fledged historical novelist. No one was as surprised as I was. (Well, except, perhaps, for my agent, who now had one less contemporary novelist on her list.)
I learned so much while writing ALICE I HAVE BEEN. I learned that Alice Liddell had to hold completely still for at least forty-five seconds when Charles Dodgson snapped that memorable photograph. I learned that John Ruskin went mad and had to be removed from a classroom near the end of his life after breaking down. I learned that Alice in Wonderland really did meet Peter Pan at Columbia University in 1932.
But the most valuable thing I learned is that inspiration comes when you least expect it, and in a shape you might not be looking for. It was true for Charles Dodgson—or Lewis Carroll—in 1862, and it was true for me in 2008. He wasn’t looking to become an author of children’s literature—he was a mathematics professor, for heaven’s sake! And certainly, I wasn’t looking to become an author of historical fiction.
Yet ultimately, we were both open to the idea. That’s the thing all authors, all artists, need to remember. And most often that means walking away from the laptop, the writing desk, the office. We need to get out there and experience other people’s art, other people’s ideas, in order to create our own.
And sometimes we need to just take a big breath and follow that white rabbit blindly, wherever he may take us.
Melanie Benjamin, author of ALICE I HAVE BEEN, Delacorte Press