Down the Rabbit Hole of Success
After a rocky start, author Melanie Benjamin has fused her passion for history and her imagination to write New York Times best-sellers.
By Emily Burns
“It was purely by accident,” said Benjamin “a happy, happy accident!”
At Cocoa + Co. a whimsical, chocolate cafe in Old Town, Melanie Benjamin sipped a non-fat, decaf mocha and shared her unexpected career as a historical fiction author with me.
Benjamin is a New York Times best-selling author whose novel “The Aviator’s Wife” has been optioned for a film by Jennifer Garner. Her newest book “Mistress of the Ritz” will be released on May 21.
Benjamin, 56 grew up in Indianapolis with a passion for acting.
“My love for escaping into different roles made me initially want to be on the stage,” said Benjamin.
She dreamed of moving to New York City to study to become an actress. But, her parents disapproved, so she briefly studied elementary education at Indiana University. She yearned for a more creative life.
Benjamin left Indiana University before getting her degree. She met her husband, Dennis, married, and had two sons. For the next 20 years, Benjamin was a committed stay-at-home mom, PTA meeting aficionado and community theater member.
Once her three sons were grown, she began searching for the next stage of her life. A close friend of Benjamin’s mentioned she always thought she would end up being a creative writer.
Finally, nearing the age of 40, Benjamin took her friend’s advice. She published two unsuccessful novels under her real name, Melanie Hauser.
“I was pretty despondent of my career being over as soon as it had begun,” said Benjamin.
She “was searching for something, but couldn’t find it.” In an effort to clear her head, she visited the Art Institute of Chicago and discovered “Dreaming in Pictures: The Photography of Lewis Carroll,” an exhibit that would turn her career and life around.
It inspired “Alice I Have Been,” a historical fiction novel about the relationship between Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, the muse for his novel “Alice in Wonderland.”
After Benjamin’s agent received and read the novel, she told her she was officially a historical novelist. She needed to change her name because her novels published under Melanie Hauser had been unsuccessful. She chose to use her son’s first name as her new last name. So, Melanie Benjamin was born.
Since writing “Alice I Have Been,” she has penned five more historical fiction novels, including two New York Times best-sellers.
“I love the past,” she said. “It all fit together with my love for history and nonfiction. And my ability to imagine the things we don’t know about the past.”
Benjamin’s most recent novel “The Girls in the Picture” was released in January 2019 and her next novel “Mistress of the Ritz” will be available in May 2019.
Benjamin, who lives in Old Town with her husband and two cats, is writing her next historical fiction novel. The details of this novel are currently top secret.
With two releases this year and a head full of ideas, Benjamin is optimistic for all the future holds for her.
“I want to keep writing books people want to read,” she said. “I want people to still look forward to the next Melanie Benjamin.”