Marie Benedict is a lawyer with more than ten years’ experience as a litigator at two of the country’s premier law firms. She is a magna cum laude graduate of Boston College with a focus in History and Art history, and a cum laude graduate of the Boston University School of Law. While practicing as a lawyer, Marie dreamed of a fantastical job unearthing the hidden historical stories of women—and finally found it when she tried her hand at writing. She embarked on a new, narratively connected series of historical novels starting with The Other Einstein, which tells the tale of Albert Einstein’s first wife, a physicist herself, and the role she might have played in his theories. Her latest novel, The Only Woman in the Room, is about the life of Hedy Lamarr. Ms. Benedict recently agreed to be interviewed by Daryl Maxwell about The Only Woman in the Room for the LAPL Blog.
What was your original inspiration for The Only Woman in the Room? How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write The Only Woman in the Room?
Years ago, an anthropologist friend of mine mentioned that there was a famous Golden Age of Hollywood actress who was also a brilliant inventor, and that her name was Hedy Lamarr. I filed this bit of intriguing information away and put her name on a list I keep of important historical woman about which I might want to write—a long list as you might imagine! Then the idea gestated, and I dipped into the research about her from time to time as I wrote The Other Einstein and Carnegie's Maid. So, by the time I decided to embark on this novel, I had spent a considerable amount of time in her world. But in terms of the time, I exclusively dedicated to researching and writing The Only Women in the Room, I would say about a year.
Clearly this is a fictionalized version of Hedy Lamarr’s life, but I’m curious how fictionalized is it? Did you strive to stay historically accurate or did you dramatize events or people? Was it necessary to take literary license to tell the story you wanted to tell?
The Only Women in the Room is my vision of how a particular period of time in Hedy Lamarr’s life might have unfolded, and as such, is fiction. That said, I do like to dig deep into the available historical research about the character and the time period, and I endeavor to anchor the fictional story with that research. In this case, while there was an abundance of information about Hedy the actress, there was less data about Hedy the inventor and Hedy the young Jewish woman from Austria. And so I had to intuit or imagine the answers to key aspects of Hedy’s life, such as her actual interactions with Mussolini and Hitler or the extent of her religious heritage or the reasons for her adoption of Jamesie.
What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned about Hedy Lamarr during your research?
While the whole of Hedy’s life is absolutely mind-boggling and almost unbelievable, I think I found her upbringing in an upper-class Jewish enclave in Vienna and her subsequent marriage to Austria’s richest man, Fritz Mandl who was a munitions manufacturer, incredibly intriguing. These two factors placed her at the dangerous epicenter of the events leading to World War II, particularly because her husband was an arms dealer to various political leaders including Mussolini.
Do you have a favorite Hedy Lamarr film?
That’s another hard question. She appeared in many intriguing movies from the 1930s through the 1950s, but if I had to select one, I’d pick her first American movie—Algiers. I would choose it not because it’s her best film (or her favorite) but because the making of that movie was a pivotal point in her life and career. I lingered in that time period in the novel.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
An enormous, toppling stack of books currently sits on my nightstand, several of which were given to me by authors I’ve been fortunate to meet or appear with over the past couple of years. They include Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six, and Casey Geralds’ There Will be More Miracles Here. In addition, I have the entire Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam Trilogy stacked on that poor, overburdened nightstand, a trilogy which I just finished and loved, alongside some recent historical fiction novels I’ve really enjoyed.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
The answer to this question and another you posed—“Is there a book that changed your life?”—is one and the same. Growing up, I had a wonderful aunt, also an English professor, who was determined to expose me to the different perspectives lurking in history. One year for my birthday, she gifted me Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, and its ground-breaking, female-centric telling of the famed Arthurian legends opened my eyes to the hidden world of women’s stories. I began asking myself how “history” is really fashioned, and I became fascinated with unearthing the unknown stories of women from the past. That book started me on the long and circuitous path of writing these books, although I did not realize it at the time.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
Another tough question! While I am constantly influenced by talented modern-day writers and books—such as Kate Atkinson, David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks, in particular, Lily King’s Euphoria, and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours—if I had to narrow down the names to five, I’d focus in on Jane Austen, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon and A.S. Byatt as I mention elsewhere here, along with Edith Wharton and Agatha Christie.
What is a book you've faked reading?
I am such a crazy, voracious reader that I can’t think of a book I’ve faked reading, although I may have intimated better recollection of the details of classic novels I’ve read in the past, such as those by Charles Dickens or even Jane Austen.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
There are so many unusual, compelling book covers out right now, and of course, I’m partial to The Only Women in the Room, as I adore the beautiful image of Hedy juxtaposed against her patent. That said, I’ve been eyeing the quirky cover for David Sedaris’ Calypso, although, in truth, I’d probably buy it even if it didn’t have that great cover because I adore him.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
I cannot tell you how much the book Homegoing, by Ya’a Gyasi, moved me, and I urge everyone I encounter to read it. In the book, she writes the following paragraph, which summarizes one of my abiding writing objectives better than I could ever do:
“We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
I would probably select A.S. Byatt’s Possession, because the manner in which one layer of the story—about two academics’ discovery of an unknown love affair between fictional nineteenth-century poets—interweaves with the other historical layer about the poets themselves was a revelation when I read it. And the masterful way in which Byatt explores the way in which the past reverberates into the present—a theme of mine—with this structure was an epiphany. I would love to experience that all over again.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
If I were to stay local, I would wake up and have breakfast with my family—my husband and two boys—and then we’d go on a long walk through some of the trails near our house. Then I’d go to yoga, and cap off the day back with my family, with a meal and movie. But we do love to travel.
What are you working on now?
I am currently finishing up a novel about Clementine Churchill. While Winston is often hailed as one of the great leaders of our time, little is known about his wife. But this amazingly strong woman—a believer in the suffragette ideals—played a huge role in her husband’s work, and there’s been speculation as to whether the outcome of World War II would have been the same without her. But she struggled with many modern issues, making her story both historical and contemporary.