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Interview: Melanie Benjamin, Author of The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb

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Melanie Benjamin has always been an avid reader and is a firm believer that a lifetime of reading is the best education a writer can have. She performed in many community theater productions while in college, but after meeting her husband they moved to the Chicago area and she became a mother to two boys.

The itch to write never went away and she soon began writing for local magazines and newspapers. She eventually turned to her first love, fiction, and published two contemporary novels under the name Melanie Hauser.

She has always had a passion for history and biography, and now writing as Melanie Benjamin has found her niche writing historical fiction. Her novels include: Alice I Have Been and The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb. She is currently working on her third.

Have you ever belonged to any writing organizations? If so, have they helped you with your work?

No, I haven’t. I do frequent a couple of online writing sites, most particularly a site called Backspace (www.bksp.org). I have connected with some wonderful writers in this way! It’s great to chat with other writers regarding the business side of writing, but regarding the actual writing, I’m pretty protective of my work. I don’t look for a lot of feedback or collaboration.

Do you weigh the reaction of your audience when you are writing and change anything because of it?

No, I don’t change anything, but, yes, I am aware of the reader while I’m writing.  I think you have to be. It’s very easy to forget to impart information that you, the author, knows inside and out, if you’re not actively thinking of the reader. The reader can’t see inside your head, you know! Sometimes it may feel as if you’re overly cautious, continually hand-holding or spelling things out that you think are obvious, but the reader needs to be led through the story, in a way. And too, I do like to imagine someone reading over my shoulder; in this way I remember that my first duty is to tell an engaging story. But once started, I don’t alter the story I want to tell because I fear what a reader might think.

What types of books do you read and how have they influenced your writing?

I read a lot of histories and biographies, and these have definitely influenced my writing of historical fiction. But I also love fiction – literature, contemporary. I think it’s those twin loves – of history and great story telling – that fuels my passion for what I’m writing now.

Who are some authors you don’t feel get the recognition they deserve?

All of them!  Seriously, there are only a handful of authors that the average person can name, and many of them are long-dead.  I think that authors in general are not valued as much as they should be, particularly in today’s society.  I wish that wasn’t true, but it is.  So every author who has a book on a bookstore shelf deserves more recognition!

Are there any specific things in your past which influenced The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb

I do think my theatrical background drew me, in part, to Vinnie’s story. I share her love of the camaraderie of the theatrical life, the color, the excitement – even the more unsavory elements.

Have you ever met any famous authors? If so, how did you react? If not, who would you want to meet?

Define “famous?” I have certainly met authors who are bestsellers; all are uniformly nice, but none left me weak-kneed with admiration! I hope I met them as peers, in other words. I think the only author to whom I might bow down is E. L. Doctorow; I came to his books because they were wonderful stories, not because I thought they were historical fiction. But then, I realized that they were – and that helped me to see that I could try to do the same thing, because I had kind of a bias against the genre, initially. I kept thinking that historical fiction had to be set in the Tudor era, or even earlier, and those weren’t eras in which I was interested. I never thought of Alice I Have Been as historical fiction, really; I just thought of it as a great story, set in a different time. Which really is the definition of historical fiction, I think – and Doctorow’s books embody this.

Do you have any hidden talents?

I used to be a pretty terrific actress/singer/dancer, but alas, it’s been years since I’ve tripped the light fantastic! I am a genius at parallel parking, however!

Many writers draw inspiration from music. Do you listen to music when you write? What music inspired The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb?

No, not really. For someone who used to be very involved with music as a youth, I have fallen out of the habit. I rarely even listen to music, except on long trips.

What are three things that your fans would be surprised to find out about you?

1) I love movies, particularly Westerns. I have a thing for John Wayne.

2) I’ve never travelled outside the country, except for a week in Cancun, Mexico. (That doesn’t mean I haven’t longed, all my life, to do so, however!)

3) I was the two-time spelling bee champ of Marion County, Indiana, when I was in grade school.

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