Photo credit: Deborah Feingold
Describe your latest book.
Mistress of the Ritz
is, once again for me, about a real woman whose story was untold until now. It’s set in World War II, an era I think every historical novelist explores at some point; it’s the defining event of the 20th century and so many stories are still waiting to be told. Especially women’s stories. Blanche Auzello, my heroine, was an American flapper who traveled to Paris in the 1920s to pursue a film career; instead, she fell in love with a very dapper Frenchman, Claude Auzello, whose dream was to manage the iconic Hotel Ritz. They married and Claude realized his dream; their turbulent marriage plays out against an unbelievably glamorous setting, witnessed by royalty and celebrities (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Coco Chanel) — and Nazis. Because when the Germans took France, the German High Command set up headquarters at the Hotel Ritz. What happened next was an astonishing story of deadly secrets and astonishing heroism and heartbreaking tragedy, as both Claude and Blanche became involved with the Resistance.
What was your favorite book as a child?
by Noel Streatfeild. I was an artistic child with no one in her life who understood how to nurture her creativity. Ballet Shoes
actually helped me by showing little girls who were able to pursue their artistic dreams.
When did you know you were a writer?
I’m not sure I know now! I think I always knew I was a storyteller with a large vocabulary. That these traits could be used to become a writer never occurred to me until fairly late in life, when a friend told me she always thought I’d be a writer. So many things clicked into place when she said that. I’ve been trying to be a writer ever since.
What does your writing workspace look like?
What do you care about more than most people around you?
The things that people aren’t telling us. When I have an encounter with someone, I’m always wondering what they’re not saying.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
After The Aviator's Wife
came out, a reader — and I have no idea how — found my phone number. I’ve never had that happen before. And when she called, I was immediately suspicious and not very friendly. But she was lovely, and apologized for bothering me; her grandfather had known Charles Lindbergh well, when the grandfather was a young man working with airplanes in the early 1930s. And she wondered if I’d mind it if he talked to me about his memories of “Charlie and Anne,” as he called the Lindberghs. So what ended up being something a little invasive turned out to be a delight, as I listened to her grandfather tell me stories about the Lindberghs as aviators. It was truly special.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
I can’t whistle. I’ve never been able to. And it seems like something I should be able to do!
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Stewart O’Nan. I devoured West of Sunset
, his novel about F. Scott Fitzgerald
’s last years working in Hollywood. And I also love his novels about Henry and Emily Maxwell.
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
Not yet! But I’ve recently bought a couple of really interesting antique inkwells and pen stands, ones made of porcelain or pottery, not a metal. I love them and I’d love to find more.
What's the most interesting job you've ever had?
I once was a news transcriber for a clipping service; I had to watch or listen to certain local news shows on radio or TV, then transcribe them for the customers who subscribed to the service, looking for certain key names of products or businesses. It really got to me, listening to and watching the news every single day. Even though this was back in the late 1990s, the news was plenty grim then too.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Of sorts. I was asked to go to Monroeville, Alabama, to do a fundraiser for their public library. This was after The Swans of Fifth Avenue
came out, and there was that Truman Capote
connection; of course, he grew up in Monroeville. But despite the fact that everyone I met was perfectly lovely, it was an odd experience. I found the town very much honors Harper Lee (Nell, as they call her there); there’s the museum in the courthouse all about her and To Kill a Mockingbird
, a lot of things in the town are named after the book, it’s part of its DNA. But Truman wasn’t honored nearly so much; I detected a sense that the town still can’t really claim him, and I think it’s about his homosexuality in a place that’s very Deep South, and a small town at that. He had only a room in that museum, and it was mostly about his sweet stories about his cousin Sook. I think that Monroeville is a kind of literary pilgrimage, considering two of the greatest writers of the 20th century came from there. But there’s an imbalance; one author is certainly more beloved than the other. It just makes you think. And wonder.
What scares you the most as a writer?
Letting my readers down.
Offer a favorite sentence from another writer.
It’s always the last passage of Gatsby
, for me: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.”
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
Can I share two? “Unlike men, women got less sentimental as we aged, I was discovering. We cried enough, when we were young; vessels overflowing with the tears of everyone we loved.” — The Aviator's Wife
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
Anyone who says the words “fiction novel.”
Do you have any phobias?
Hair! Hair not attached to a human head.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
Take a break from writing now and then. That’s a hard thing to do, because writing doesn’t always feel like a 9-5 job, but that means that we often allow it to spill over into every single waking moment. There are no weekends. But Nancy Horan
once asked me why I’d never taken a break between books, and I realized when she asked me, that I was desperate to. So I took that summer off, and it was wonderful. We really do have to pause and let our creative well fill up, through rest and relaxation and exploring other people’s art — books, music, museums, theater, movies.
My Personal Top Five Books About Paris
The Elegance of the Hedgehog
by Muriel Barbery
A novel about a cranky concierge of a Paris apartment building and a young girl who lives there. The two form an unlikely friendship, complicated and adorned by the addition of a Japanese man who moves into the building. It’s just a delightfully thorny novel, very funny.
A Moveable Feast
by Ernest Hemingway
The memoir to end all memoirs, in which Hemingway reveals himself to be the jerk that we all thought he was (he is unbelievably cruel to Sara and Gerald Murphy, who had been so good to him when he was nobody; same thing with the Fitzgeralds). Yet it’s a wonderful picture of expatriate Paris in the 1920s that makes you long to be there, as long as you stay far away from Hemingway.
I'll Always Have Paris
by Art Buchwald
Buchwald came to Paris on the GI Bill after the war, and wrote for the Paris Herald Tribune
. His delight in his adventures is palpable and his love for Paris is in every word.
My Life in France
by Julia Child and Alex Prud'homme
I mean — there’s no need to describe this. Julia Child. France. Food.
by Ludwig Bemelmans
The OG of books about Paris, in my opinion; the story and illustrations are so iconic that when you go to Paris, you seem to be expecting those two rows of little girls in their yellow hats, followed by a tall nun, every time you turn a corner or hear children playing.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the New York Times
bestselling author of The Aviator’s Wife
, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb
, and Alice I Have Been
. Mistress of the Ritz
is her most recent book. Benjamin lives in Chicago, where she is at work on her next historical novel.