Melanie Benjamin

by Stacy Wennstrom
Melanie Benjamin is the author of Alice I Have Been.

SB:  You wrote that the inspiration for Alice I Have Been began with an image.  You were at the Art Institute of Chicago, where they were showing an exhibit of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s (Lewis Carroll’s) photography, when you saw the photograph of Alice Liddell as a beggar girl.  This image and the story behind it is very prominent in Alice I Have Been, as it both sets the events of the story into motion and provides Alice with her initial sense of self.

As the daughter of Christ Church’s Dean Liddell, Alice was trapped in an artificial Victorian childhood, which is seen most vividly in the elaborate and constraining creations of ruffles and lace she wore daily.  While Alice was extremely privileged, her longings were for extremely simple childhood pleasures - running barefoot through the grass or rolling down a hill – which were things that were denied to her due to her status.  When Charles Dodgson gave her the opportunity to be a beggar girl for the day, he seemed to offer her the chance to be herself for the day, both innocent and very knowing.  In fact, Alice is at times, so knowing and adult that she becomes disconcerting to the adult reader.

There is a wonderful complexity that characterizes both the photograph of seven-year-old Alice Liddell and Alice I Have Been.  When writing or discussing childhood, it’s easy to simplify and create the illusion of an age of innocence.  Did Alice’s voice come naturally to you?  Or was it a struggle to create a realistic child, one that is innocent but not to the point of being precious?  

MB:  My Alice's voice came to me very quickly; it was influenced by both the photograph of her, the woman-child, and the voice of Alice in Lewis Carroll's books.  We always remember the crazy characters of Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, yet I re-read the books focusing only on Alice, on how she reacts to them all.  She's preternaturally unflappable and wise in the books, as she looks to be in the photograph.  That was the voice of my Alice.

SB:  If it is easy to misrepresent childhood as an age of innocence, it is easy to do the same with the Victorian age.  It was a time that is, in many ways, more refined and romantic than our own, but there’s darkness there too.  For women especially, they seemed to have been put on pedestals and dehumanized all at once.   It is Ruskin, early in the novel, who points out how prized daughters are auctioned off, which the eavesdropping Alice appropriately connects with the slave trade.  What were the struggles in portraying this time period?

MB:  This time period comes easily to me; in a way I realized I've been researching this book my whole life.  I've always been drawn to the Victorian period in literature and in history.  My shelves are lined with books, biographies, novels written about and in this time.  My imagination serves me well, too; I really believe that imagination is one of the most important aspects of writing historical novels.  We have to be able to put ourselves in the setting.  So I felt I was able to successfully drown out any modern sensibilities and simply think myself into the conventions and constraints of the times.  (Being already very aware and knowledgable of them, of course.)  No feminist tirades, no New Age touchy-feely examination of emotions for Alice.  I tried very hard to keep her a product of her upbringing, making that a conflict as she aged and lived in more modern times.

SB:  Throughout the novel, there seems to be a great emphasis on things that are left unsaid.  Alice comments that it is often the letter that is unsent that is the most valuable.  Then there is the silence that follows the break between Charles Dodgson and the Liddell family, where Alice is unable to speak to her mother openly, or ultimately, admit things to herself.   Do you see this silence as being a circumstance of the time period, with its strict notions of what may or may not be uttered aloud?  

MB:  Yes, definitely.  We live in an age where we Tweet our every thought as it occurs to us.  The Victorians were much more circumspect, much more discreet, even fearful, in a way - and personally, I think that makes them more interesting.  We leave nothing to the imagination these days.  As a novelist I'm always concerned about conflict, and Alice's lifelong struggle with being on display in such a public way through her literary heritage, combined with her very Victorian need to suppress emotion and introspection, made for a very interesting conflict indeed.   As she herself asks in the book, "Which was the real Alice, and which the pretend?"

SB:  When Dodgson first tells the Liddell sisters the story of Alice’s adventures in wonderland, ten-year-old Alice begs him to write down the story.  At that time, she longs to remain a little girl forever, and sees the story as a way to preserve her childhood.  As she grows older, she resents him for writing it down, simply because it did preserve her childhood, and in a sense, trapped her in it.  How would you define Dodgson’s motives in writing the story down?  A wonderful gift for a young friend?  Or a way to hold on to her childhood forever, even at her own expense?  Do you think Dodgson was even fully aware of his motives for doing so?

MB:  Personally I think he did it out of love - he gave her this beautiful gift.  She asked for it, he gave it to her - it was as simple as that.  He told Alice and her sisters many, many stories; this was the one she asked him to write down.  How could he deny her that?  It's a beautiful legacy of their special relationship, I firmly believe.

SB:I’m fascinated by Ruskin.  He provides an excellent foil for the character of Dodgson, but you mention in your author’s note that you took some liberties in your portrayal of his relationship with Alice Liddell.   How did he become such a prominent character in the story?  

MB:  At that point in the novel, all the characters were so many shades of gray; no one was definitely good or bad.  And sometimes we need someone to be the villain, and Ruskin just happened to be there for me.  I didn't intend for his role to be anything other than a fussy old gossip, but he surprised me, and became an important stumbling block in the road to Alice's happiness.  Again, writing a novel is about introducing conflict, wherever and however possible, and John Ruskin provided me with some very delicious conflict, indeed.  He became a lot of fun to write because, again, everyone else was so very nuanced and sympathetic.  Not that he doesn't have other dimensions - I hope he does! - but he's definitely the villain of the piece when it needs one.

SB:  There are many missing years in the novel.  We meet Alice in her childhood, ages seven to eleven.  We see her at twenty-three and twenty-four, a young woman in love.   We see her next as the mother of grown men, all soldiers in World War I.  And then finally we see her as an elderly widow, famous for being Alice in Wonderland.  These jumps in time have an interesting effect, like that of a Russian nesting doll.  We see layers of Alice, the wild and independent child at the core, then the layer of the dreamy yet strong young woman, then the grieving mother, and finally the wise old woman with all the other Alice layers tucked away inside her.  Did you plan for the novel to focus only on select years of Alice’s life?  Or, as you wrote, did certain eras become more prominent and eventually take over the book?

MB:  Well, you can never incorporate everything in a person's life into a novel.  There's simply not enough room.  Every story has to be shaped and pruned and part of that means deciding what to leave out, and deciding when to revisit the character throughout her life.  As I researched Alice's story, three distinct events leaped out to me - obviously her childhood with Dodgson; her rumored romance with Prince Leopold; the fact that her three sons fought in World War I.  As a framework for a novel, these three time periods worked well, as they encompass almost the beginning, middle, and end of the Victorian era.  So right from the start, I knew this was how the novel would be structured; the task - and an enjoyable one at that - was to piece together how Alice moved from one to the other, how they built upon each other to make her the person she became at the end of the book.  And how, always, to keep Dodgson and Wonderland part of the story even after she grew up and theoretically left them behind.

SB:  In writing fiction, it seems that characters are never quite as docile as they ought to be.   Just when one thinks the character’s course is set, the character goes and does something entirely unexpected.   Did Alice do anything to surprise you?  Or did you uncover anything in your research that changed the course of the story?

MB:  Alice surprised me by being much more a product of her times than she appears to be at the beginning of the story.  She starts out as a modern little girl almost, right down to the haircut, which was so startlingly different from other little girls' of the period.  She's bold, she chafes at the constraint of the times and the clothes, she wants to stay little so she doesn't have to be a proper Victorian maiden.  Yet at the end of the book, I found, to my surprise, she is more her mother than she ever wanted to be (and aren't we all?!); she's a thoroughly Victorian matron who holds on to her corsets long after the rest of the world has given them up.

SB:  With some novels, the setting is so incredibly vivid and you can settle into the book as comfortably as you settle into your own home.   There’s a curious sense of the familiar, even when it is far removed from the world you actually know.  L.M. Montgomery’s Avonlea might be a fictional town, but it’s so imprinted into my imagination that it’s as real as places that I have visited in my life.  While reading Alice I Have Been, I had a very similar experience.   Victorian Oxford was so perfectly rendered, and there was just enough of a touch of the fantastic, for it to become both the perfect escape and wonderfully real.  For you, what books have this power?  This incredible sense of world building?

MB:  My favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird, does this to me.  Every time I reach the end, I'm reluctant to leave the world Harper Lee has created; I mourn it.

SB:  On your website, you mention that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass have never been out of print.  2010 seems to be a year of Alice revival, with the publication of Alice I Have Been in January and the opening of the new Alice movie directed by Tim Burton in March.   What do you think it is about Lewis Carroll’s work that allows it to endure throughout generations?

MB:  I'm not sure; I'm not a Lewis Carroll scholar, so that's a question someone else could answer better.  My focus was on telling Alice Liddell's story, not his.  But I do think the Alice books are so vividly imaginative that they seem to inspire others to be the same; there's something about them that makes the creative juices flow just by reading them.

SB:  If, in your childhood, someone had immortalized you in a book, like Charles Dodgson did with Alice Liddell, what kind of a book do you think it would have been?  What kind of a character would you have been?

MB:   Sadly, a very boring tome about a bookish child who lived in her head all the time!  Not much fun to read about, I'm afraid.

SB:  You’ve written contemporary fiction (as Melanie Hauser), and Alice I Have Been is your first historical novel.  Is one genre more difficult for you?  Or more rewarding?  

MB:  The contemporary novels were a good learning experience.  They taught me a lot about publishing, but didn't necessarily inspire me as creatively as writing historical novels.  I truly feel I've found my niche by combining history with fiction, my two greatest passions.  I feel inspired by others' stories.

SB: With writing historical fiction, how did you juggle writing and researching?  It’s a fine balance.  I haven’t used much history in my fiction, but when I do, I worry that if too much of the story is already in my head, I’ll approach the research with an agenda, looking only for things that confirm my ideas, rather than with curiosity and an open mind.  Then there’s the opposite fear, that I’ll get absorbed in the research and lose sight of the story.  How did you keep yourself on track?  And how much of a story was already forming in your mind when you began your research?

MB:  You can't write historical fiction without an agenda; what's the point, then?  You have to have a new or different take on something that's documented or somewhat known, or else there's no book at all.  I don't apologize for looking at Alice's photo, and re-reading the books, and coming up with my own interpretation of her life, bolstered by research; someone else looking at the same photo, books and research would very well come up with a different take.  That's fiction, and that's what makes it so exhilarating.  Now, losing yourself in research is a very real occupation hazard.  It just takes discipline, which is so important to writing anyway; you have to learn when to stop looking and following tantalizing bits of new information.  You have to remind yourself, always, of what's important to your story, and walk away from the rest.

SB:  Is there anything you wish you had known back when you first began to write for publication?

MB:  I value everything I've learned, so that's not an easy question to answer.  I would say that every author needs to understand there will be rejection, at every step.  There's never one "Aha!" moment when you know you've arrived; we have to keep working and trying because we're only as good as our latest novel, and sometimes we have to reboot, retrench, reinvent ourselves.  There's very little security in this even after publication, and I think that most aspiring authors don't really understand that.  They look at publication as the holy grail, the point at which they'll never have to face rejection again.  Well, it's not quite that way.  And it all comes back around to the writing, always; we must constantly be pushing and challenging ourselves.

SB:  What is next for you?

MB:  I'm working on another historical fiction for Delacorte Press; it's also set in roughly the same time period as Alice I Have Been, but this time it's an uniquely American story.

Thank you, Melanie, for taking the time to talk to us at Halfway Down the Stairs.
Stacy Wennstrom is a senior editor at Halfway Down the Stairs. For staff biographies, click here.

© 2010, Stacy Wennstrom