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

Marie Benedict

Marie Benedict

An interview with Marie Benedict

Marie Benedict's historical fiction sheds light on the lives of key historical women. Her recent books have explored the lives of Rosalind Franklin, whose work was central to unlocking the mystery of DNA structure; the mysterious disappearance of Agatha Christie; and Winston Churchill's wife, Lady Clementine; and, more recently, the lives of the Mitford sisters.

The Mitford Affair

It's clear that despite her own beliefs, Nancy found it very difficult to act against her sisters, especially before the outbreak of war. When writing a character like Nancy, are you ever tempted to add more fiction or push her into a more active role than she took in real life?

Yes! In actuality, while the record reflects that Nancy did report about her sister's activities to MI5 and that report played a role in Diana's incarceration, I was not able to locate documentation that Nancy engaged in the more active spying activities that I depicted in the book, although she must have been collecting information on her sister's whereabouts and companions informally for years, particularly as the political landscape shifted. Consequently, I did add more action than I was able to verify in the record, in part because I found Diana and Unity's behavior so unbelievably appalling and Nancy's inaction in those earlier years difficult to fathom, aside from the obvious internal conflict. That said, hindsight is twenty-twenty, and of course, Nancy would not have been privy to everything we know now—but still! I didn't want to stray too far, however, from what the record reflects, and the book reflects that compromise.

What kinds of sources did you consult to learn about the Mitford sisters and their world? When looking at writing they published more broadly, like Nancy's books or Unity's articles, does the intended audience change the way you interpret their perspectives?

In some ways, the Mitford sisters are the best chroniclers of their own histories and the most crucial sources, even though there are myriad books written by others about them. Between them, they've penned many books and countless shorter pieces—a mix of biographies about each other, biographies about others, autobiographies, non-fiction on a variety of topics, articles, and, of course, Nancy's famous semi-autobiographical post-World War II novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, and her less famous novels as well. Each of these books, in its own way, shares different slices of the Mitford sisters' lives. That said, given the sisters' penchant for larger than life tales and the way their writings shifted depending on the nature of their audiences, those writings need to be taken with a grain of salt—and often, I found myself turning to their actual letters to one another as a rich and engrossing source of information about them.

Diana and Unity seem to get involved with fascism largely to further other agendas in their personal lives. Can we divorce our politics from our personal lives? Should we?

In part, the way in which politics and political figures affected the Mitfords and their relationships with one another drew me to this part of their history; it is so very timely in some ways. The further I delved into the almost unbelievable manner in which Diana and Unity became fascinated, even obsessed, with fascism, the clearer it became that, for these two sisters, politics was intensely personal. This notion, in fact, is a theme in Nancy's writings. And the more I considered it—the more I examined the world around me through that lens—the truer it seemed to be for most people; did people really land on a political belief system first and build a worldview around it as I'd sort of always thought, or did they have a personal worldview and select a political perspective based on it, I began to wonder. Throughout the writing of this book and beyond, I've speculated as to whether it's even possible to divorce the personal from the political, and I haven't yet arrived at an answer.

Unity's suicide attempts drastically altered Nancy's perspective. Do you think she would have been so willing to assist Churchill without seeing consequences that hit so close to home?

As I was investigating Nancy's life and her sisters' actions while building this story, I found Nancy's inability to act for so long—knowing what she knew—so frustrating! But then I thought about my own siblings, and I realized that it would take something truly momentous for me to put them and their futures at risk by reporting any questionable activities to the authorities (not that they engage in questionable activities, mind you!). I am not surprised that it took the nearly fatal suicide attempt by Unity to push Nancy to act against Diana, but that doesn't mean I didn't find Nancy's passivity disheartening. I do think that, even if Unity hadn't taken that drastic, terrible act of shooting herself, Nancy would have eventually disclosed Diana's plans as the war progressed and the scope and scale of Hitler's evil revealed itself. I hope so, anyway.

Between the three sisters, did you have a favorite perspective to write? Who was the most difficult to understand from the inside out?

Without question, I found Unity's point of view the most challenging to comprehend and write about. Even without the benefit of hindsight, I wondered how she could possibly be intrigued by a politician as odious and evil as Hitler! I found it extremely difficult to look at him and the Nazis through Unity's eyes and see anything other than wickedness. But as often happens while writing historical fiction, I have to remind myself that she didn't know all that we know—even still, I found it incredibly difficult to adopt her mindset, no matter how fictional. I probably enjoyed writing Nancy's story the most, although there was something appallingly compelling about stepping into Diana's world. But boy, was I happy to step out of it!

One of the big questions throughout the book is, to whom do we owe our loyalty. Do you think there is a way to remain loyal to someone without supporting their ideas and ambitions?

Loyalty must have its limits, I think, particularly if remaining loyal to someone will put others—particularly large numbers of others—at risk of harm. Of course, we all have to draw our own lines around our loyalty to those individuals and institutions holding very different beliefs from our own and acting upon those beliefs. I think that, in The Mitford Affair, Diana crossed Nancy's line when her actions (and inaction) nearly killed Unity—and Nancy realized that many, many more people might be similarly impacted if Diana's plans reached fruition. But, of course, as the book posits, how well can we really know someone's beliefs and decisions? How certain do we have to be before we put aside our loyalty?

What's next for you and your writing?

I hope to continue excavating from the past the most important and fascinating women of history—women whose stories deserve to be told and legacies celebrated—until such novels are no longer necessary because both modern and historical women are no longer in the shadows.

Her Hidden Genius

How did you first hear of Rosalind Franklin and decide to tell her story?

After I started writing historical fiction about the often unknown but key women of the past, my friends and family became very attuned to noticing these women when they come across them in the course of their own lives. In the case of Rosalind Franklin, while I'd had a very high level awareness of her story and incredible discoveries for some time, it was only when a dear physician friend of mine read about her contributions and sacrifices in a medical book and really advocated that I do a deep dive into research on Rosalind that I took a close look. I am so grateful to my friend, because the life and legacy of Rosalind Franklin is crucial and captivating on so many levels, some of which I didn't appreciate until I was already writing the novel.

Did your research process differ for Rosalind's scientific and home lives? How do you develop a full understanding of someone like Rosalind, whose life was so dominated by work? And how does historical research compare to scientific research?

In some ways, the research process for Her Hidden Genius was similar to the one I undertake for all the women I write about. I gather as much original source material about the woman as I can and then supplement it with whatever robust, credible secondary material I find, then assemble an understanding of the macro and micro historical aspects and timelines of the woman's world, from political, social, and cultural developments to details such as fashion and food in order to create a realistic world for her to inhabit. Researching Rosalind's story did differ in that, in addition to the research I detailed above, I had to spend an enormous amount of time not only understanding DNA itself but also comprehending the developments in genetics from a historical perspective. As I was reading about the origins of genetic understanding and its progress up until Rosalind's era, I encountered many brilliant scientists whose lives were devoted to the solving of these critical questions, and their struggles and passion for the work helped me understand the professional Rosalind in part, as did accounts by people who knew her well, like Anne Sayre, who knew her both professionally and personally.

The insights I had about the personal Rosalind came from family memoirs like Jenifer Glynn's My Sister Rosalind Franklin, the terrific biography Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox, Anne Sayre's wonderful book Rosalind Franklin and DNA, and the astonishing collection of Sayre's research that she deposited in the American Society for Microbiology's archives, which included original letters from and to Rosalind, interviews with most of the people involved in her scientific career, and letters with Rosalind's family members after her death. These latter, original source materials were invaluable in bringing Rosalind alive for me, and the experience of working with letters written in her own hand was unbelievably moving.

The scientific communities in France and England are starkly different. Where do you think these differences came from?

While I cannot speak for all French and English scientific communities, certainly the institutions with which Rosalind was familiar were quite distinct, primarily in terms of the social interactions and tone of the laboratories. Rosalind found the French labo a marvelous mix of camaraderie, support, and intellectual stimulation—both about science and the world—regardless of her gender. Whether this was a function of a unique atmosphere created by its heads Jacques Mering and Marcel Mathieu or simply the sort of intellectual environment fostered in Paris at that time, as Brenda Maddox suggests in her book, it suited Rosalind perfectly. When Rosalind returned to England, she didn't find either the scientists (for the most part) or the institutes themselves to be particularly welcoming to women or especially cerebral, outside of the specific scientific investigations upon which they were working. In particular, she found this to be the case in her unit at King's College, much to her disappointment, and she struggled to find a place to belong.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about Rosalind Franklin?

While Rosalind was fully engaged in her scientific research and musings, it didn't encompass the whole of her life by any means—no matter the amount of time she actually spent working or the vast breadth of her contributions. In addition to being a wonderful, thoughtful friend who invested in her relationships, she was a dedicated, skilled mountain climber. She would plan elaborate travels for her holidays, jaunts that typically encompassed significant hiking and strenuous climbs. Once I learned this fact about Rosalind, it opened up another level of understanding about her, and I came to view her time immersed in the mountains and their challenges as another facet of her appreciation for the natural, scientific world. Almost like a sort of personal spirituality.

When writing historical fiction, many of the choices you'd normally make for your characters are already decided. How do you approach character growth and narrative arcs without changing the historical facts?

Although I absolutely write fiction and the women at the center of my novels are my versions of real-life women, I do try to stay as close to the historical facts as we know them in crafting my stories. I usually find room to shape their characters and narratives when we don't know the definitive facts, in the shadows of history—and there are always gray areas where we don't know exactly what transpired or how the women felt about the events. There, I use a mix of the women's characters as I've come to know them through my research and the sort of logical extrapolation I developed from my years as a lawyer. For example, in Her Hidden Genius, we don't know precisely what Rosalind understood about the nature of Watson and Crick's use of her research and data in their ultimately famous model building of DNA, and there, I used my own sense of Rosalind and the arc of her story to fill in the gaps with fiction.

Much of Her Hidden Genius centers on institutional competition. How do you think scientific inquiry is impacted by a competitive spirit? Do you consider yourself competitive?

In reviewing the scientific developments around genetics, I came to understand how critical it can be for scientists to be apprised of the work that's been undertaken before them (so often if work isn't shared, it can be overlooked, only to be rediscovered and its importance understood decades later, or even longer) and the ongoing investigations that relate to their subject. Only by comparing and studying all these projects can science advance. That said, as vying for institutional funding comes into play and recognition for being "first" grows in importance, scientists and their establishments may well be inclined to be secretive around their discoveries as competition grows—an unfortunate fact in a field that really relies on sharing of information. In terms of my own competitiveness, I have very high expectations of myself, although I wouldn't consider myself drawn to a traditionally understood desire to "win," and in this way, I could identify with Rosalind, who was always her own harshest critic and held herself to sometimes impossibly high standards.

These days, many textbooks discuss Franklin's contributions alongside those of Watson and Crick, though during their lifetimes, she was not given the credit she deserved. What benefit do we gain from rediscovering and giving credit to figures like her, even if they will never see that recognition?

With all my novels, I aspire to offer a lens through which readers can look at the past and see the women and the scope of their legacy. It is my hope that they will then take the lens and see not only our past differently but also our present and our future—to identify and celebrate the historical women where they've been hiding in plain sight and then to ensure that we do the same for the women of today and tomorrow. While it would have been wonderful to honor Rosalind Franklin and give her the accolades she deserved (like the Nobel Prize) in her lifetime, it is critical that we excavate the important women of the past so we can free ourselves and our society from any lingering preconceptions about women, their abilities, and their capacity for contributions.

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.

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

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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Books by this Author

Books by Marie Benedict at BookBrowse
The Mitford Affair jacket Her Hidden Genius jacket The Personal Librarian jacket The Mystery of Mrs. Christie jacket
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All the books below are recommended as read-alikes for Marie Benedict but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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    He graduated from Clare College, Cambridge, and studied at Yale University as a Mellon Fellow, where he completed Notes for a New Culture: ... (more)

  • Louis Bayard

    Louis Bayard

    Louis Bayard is the critically acclaimed bestselling author of nine historical novels, including Courting Mr. Lincoln and The Pale Blue Eye, which is being adapted into a Netflix film starring Christian Bale. Bayard's ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    Lady Clementine

    Jackie & Me
    by Louis Bayard

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