Marie Benedict Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Marie Benedict

Marie Benedict

An interview with Marie Benedict

Two interviews with Marie Benedict: In the first she discusses the intriguing life and mysterious disappearance of Agatha Christie in The Mystery of Mrs. Christie; and in the second she explains how she built up such an accurate picture of Winston Churchill's wife in Lady Clementine.

An interview about The Personal Librarian, co-written with Victoria Murray, is available here.

The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

Unlike a few of your previous heroines, many readers are familiar with Agatha Christie. What prompted you to look into her less public life?

Actually, the very fact that Agatha Christie is so famous and successful—she's sold more books than any other writer!—nearly stopped me from writing The Mystery of Mrs. Christie. I questioned whether I should focus on excavating from the past a lesser-known woman who has made important contributions. But when I started to research the circumstances and history around her 1926 disappearance, I had the uncanny sense that it played a key role in her journey to becoming the most successful writer in the world, and I felt compelled to explore that idea. One of the questions I like to explore in each of my books is how a woman at the story's core transformed into the person who made such an extraordinary bequest, one that continues into modern times.

What were the most surprising details you uncovered in your research process? Was there anything you found particularly fascinating that didn't make it into the final book?

Oh, there are so many astonishing facts I learned about Agatha! I particularly loved the fact that she was one of the first Europeans to learn surfing, and I had to include that little nugget in the book, even though it wasn't really necessary for the story! The same applies to her extensive knowledge of poisons, which she acquired from her World War I work in a hospital dispensary; I knew I needed to find a home for that in the story, as that experience turned out to be useful in many of her mysteries. Some of the intriguing particulars that did not make it to the page are, of course, the many hypotheses proposed about her disappearances, ranging from amnesia to a fugue state to a plot against her husband's alleged mistress, among many suppositions. That, and the fact that Agatha wrote a series of romance novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott.

At what point in the research process do you decide who will be your supporting cast? How do you develop characters like Detective Chief Inspector Kenward or Agatha's mother?

In writing historical fiction, I am constantly encountering fascinating period details and people that I would adore adding to my books. But I always have to pause and ask myself whether the detail or person is important to either creating the setting or moving the story forward. In the case of Agatha's mother, I knew that Agatha's attachment to her was key not only to the development of her personality but also to her emotional state around the time of her disappearance, and thus really needed to be included. As for Detective Chief Inspector Kenward, I believed that Archie needed an antagonist to propel forward Agatha's version of her disappearance, even though Kenward did not realize he was doing so.

How did you balance the dual timelines of the manhunt and the manuscript? Was it difficult to write about the early blushes of Agatha and Archie's attraction knowing where the two were headed?

Crafting the dual stories of the manhunt and the manuscript certainly meant that my office was papered with timelines and lists of dates and flow charts! And I certainly experienced some painful moments knowing what history had in store for Agatha and Archie—and what Agatha had in store for Archie! But I thoroughly enjoyed the plotting and the intricacy of writing this unusual sort of historical fiction. I'll never be as masterful at suspense and mystery as Agatha, but it was fun to try, and I viewed it as an homage to her.

Agatha's manuscript is critical for her to triumph over Archie. Did she ever write a manuscript that bore such a resemblance to her own life?

In terms of writing her own life story, Agatha did publish her autobiography, which was enormously helpful in my own research and an inspiration for her voice. It provided some interesting insights into her upbringing and her early writing, but it says nothing about the disappearance. Nothing. She skips over it entirely, much as she refused to talk about those eleven days for the rest of her life. So her autobiography shares only selective pieces of her past.

How did you feel investigating the societal expectations that Agatha's mother continuously flung her way? Do you think the demands of husband and child are still at odds in the modern day?

I really felt for Agatha when I learned about the sort of messages her mother imparted over and over again about the sort of relationship she needed to foster with her husband—namely, putting her husband first above all else. Given the closeness of the mother-daughter relationship they shared, I knew that advice would have an enormous impact on Agatha's relationship with Archie—and consequently on Agatha's relationship with her own daughter—and would affect Agatha's feelings about pursuing her career. While I think modern women struggle with the demands of balancing work and family, I do not think it necessarily stems from the sense that women must put their husbands first, but that women still bear much of the burden of both work and home.

What advice do you have for other historical fiction writers, especially those who are just starting out?

I would suggest that, as with all writing, aspiring writers focus on topics for which they have a real and abiding passion, rather than pursue presumed fads in readers' tastes. The enthusiasm for their subject will be clear and appealing to the readers, and may even start its own trend!

How would you describe Agatha Christie's legacy, both for her contemporaries and for women today?

The most obvious aspect of her legacy is her role at the center of the Golden Age of mystery fiction, where she was central to the creation of the classic mystery novel. Her astounding skill and talent is such that her books continue to sell today, stemming in part from the elusive nature of her puzzles. Those enigmas, coupled with her morally ambiguous characters and the alluring settings often placed in that critical but sometimes overlooked period between the two world wars, make the books compelling and justifiably bestselling. But in order to achieve that success, Agatha had to overcome the limitations imposed upon women of her era, and it is her act of leaping over that hurdle that I explore in The Mystery of Mrs. Christie.

Lady Clementine

While her husband is an enormously famous figure, Clementine Churchill is often relegated to the margins of history. How did you first hear of her, and what about her made you want to lend her story a voice?

During my time researching and writing books that—I hope—excavate important historical women from the shadows of the past and bring them out into the light of modern day, I feel as though I've developed an antenna for these women. As I was researching the onset of World War II for my novel The Only Woman in the Room, Winston Churchill, of course, figured prominently, and I couldn't help but wonder about his family, his wife in particular. While I do not profess to be a Winston Churchill expert, I did find it peculiar that I knew nothing about the spouse of one of the most recognizable men in history. Who was she? What was she like? Where was she during all these world-changing events? So I went down the rabbit hole, as I often do when I'm intrigued, and I learned that Clementine Churchill was not only the quintessential woman behind the man, but also standing beside him—and often in front of him—helping him lead through some of the most critical moments in modern history. I knew hers was a story that deserved to be told.

Lady Clementine relies on a great deal of research, from the minutiae of British politics to the personal lives of historical figures. What did your research process look like for this book?

In some ways, my research for all my novels is quite similar. I begin by assembling and delving into any original source material that I can locate about the woman I'm writing about, filling in informational blanks with secondary source materials. Once I've finished amassing that data and created a timeline and broad outline, I'll cast my net wide, researching relevant details about the character's time period—from macro information such as political and military issues, cultural developments, and socioeconomic circumstances, to micro details such as attire, popular foods, and home decor. Unique aspects arise for each woman, of course, and I often find myself homing in on particular pieces of research. In Clementine's case, it was a collection of letters between Clementine and Winston spanning the course of their relationship (which encompassed much of their lives) assembled by their daughter Mary. Not only did these letters provide singular insight into Clementine's voice, but they also gave me an extraordinary look into the feelings they shared with each other, the way they spoke to each other and the topics about which they communicated.

This book is a piece of historical fiction, which of course means that while it's based heavily on historical figures and events, it necessitates a bit of artistic license. Were there any specific moments or characters that forced you to rely more on fiction than fact?

I approached this novel as I did my other historical fiction: I look at the research on the macro and micro aspects of my character's world as the architecture of my story—the foundation, the pillars, the roof. But in between the pillars and in the space between the foundation and the roof, there will always be gaps, unknowns from the research. And it is in those gaps that the fiction comes in to tell the story, using—I hope—a blend of the logic I developed over my decade as a lawyer, as well as my familiarity with the characters, time, and setting I've attained from the research. As just one example of this, on the night before D-Day, we know that Clementine spent part of that evening with Winston. But we do not know the precise conversations they shared or the comfort and advice she might have offered him, and we cannot know the exact impact those exchanges might have had on his decision-making and leadership on the critical day. Therein lies the fiction.

Like any relationship, Clementine and Winston's marriage changes with time. Theirs is especially strained, however, because of their growing political differences. Given this emotional complexity, was it difficult to write the evolution of their relationship?

Clementine and Winston had a particularly complex relationship because their bond not only filled emotional voids left in each other by their difficult upbringings, but it also fed their shared passion for politics and its underlying goals. In some ways, these two aspects of their relationship were intertwined. So when Winston's politics began to deviate from Clementine's, their relationship became difficult in some respects, and I had to really dig in to her psyche to envision how this would have affected her, given her feelings for her husband and their ongoing projects, as well as her somewhat fragile nerves. I imagined that, in order to carry them through challenging times, she focused upon those values that united them—the betterment of the lives of the English people and their safety in wartime—instead of the issues that divided them.

Clementine's inner conflict between her role as a mother and her career is something that can resonate with many contemporary women. Were you inspired by personal experience when you delved into this issue?

As a mother myself, I found researching and writing about Clementine's role as a mother particularly intriguing and eye-opening. I learned a tremendous amount not only about her very specific parenting experiences, but also about the mothering standards for women of her class in that era, which were quite different and much more hands-off than our own, and it made me reconsider various modern-day practices. This understanding provided a lens through which I could view Clementine's parenting decisions more fairly, because they were oftentimes very dissimilar to the choices mothers would likely make today. But no matter the distinctions between parenting practices of her day and ours, I believe Clementine's struggles over making the correct choices for her children—and living with the ramifications of poor selections—is something to which all mothers can relate, particularly those who juggle career demands as well.

As a writer of historical fiction, a large part of your job consists of creating deep inner lives for characters based on real people. Have you ever worried about misrepresenting someone or writing them inaccurately?

I always worry about my representation of the historical women about whom I write. I feel incredibly honored and privileged to tell their stories, along with a tremendous responsibility toward them. I try to keep that sense of responsibility at the forefront of my mind as I write my fictional interpretation of a piece of their histories—always reminding myself that it is indeed fiction that I write. Clementine was a deeply influential figure in Winston's professional and personal life. Do you think he would have been as successful if he hadn't had Clementine supporting him?
While no one can know for certain what Winston's legacy would have been without Clementine, I believe she was integral to his success. Historians can debate the impact her insights, intellect, and advice may have had on his political decision-making and leadership—particularly since the research isn't as robust as I might like in that arena—but there can be no doubt that she supported him enormously from an emotional perspective. That role alone was very likely critical to Winston's well-being, which ensured that he could fulfill the necessary leadership position in World War II. That said, I personally believe her professional and political impact was wide-ranging and key.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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The Personal Librarian jacket The Mystery of Mrs. Christie jacket Lady Clementine jacket
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