In Mistress of the Ritz, Melanie Benjamin’s most recent novel (May, Delacorte Press), Benjamin takes one of the most popular and captivating eras for historians, both professional and amateur, World War II, and shines a light on two individuals who remained in the shadows: Blanche and Claude Auzello. As caretakers of the Hôtel Ritz in Paris, hub of elegance and glamour, they had the awesome responsibility of keeping face for the Nazis while plotting subterfuge.
Uniqueness is critical to historical fiction, especially since World War II has been endlessly studied and written about. But its popularity also provides a treasure trove of information to uncover and serve as inspiration. The Hôtel on Place Vendôme (Harper, 2014), Tilar J. Mazzeo’s history of the Ritz, was the gem uncovered by Benjamin. “I’m constantly reading for my own enjoyment; I think that’s vital for a writer, not to forget to read for the love of it. And while I read a lot of fiction, I read a lot of nonfiction, as well. So I read that book for pleasure and found an idea for a novel!”
Threading the needle to stitch together history and fiction seamlessly is no mean feat. An author needs to consume gobs of information in order to get the era correct, and then determine the important pieces to parcel out so the reader isn’t overwhelmed. “I do arm myself with the facts and I construct a timeline of the actual events,” Benjamin told Spine. “I don’t want to deviate from that, but in the interest of a tight narrative, I will always have to leave some of these out. Then I insert myself as these protagonists into these known events and imagine the hows, the whys, the emotions, the conversations behind them. It’s all kind of a mystical stew.”
Often, the details in the book that transport readers to WWII Paris are minute, like Blanche tracing a black line down the back of her calf before going into public because she didn’t have stockings, or wooden soles clattering on cobblestone because the Nazis had confiscated all the shoe leather. Also unique to the era are characters’ psyches and related actions, such as Claude being flabbergasted at Blanche’s rage when he told her he would be meeting a mistress every Thursday. In his mind, it was rude to lie to her about it; taking a mistress was the natural extension of being a married man in 1940s France.
All of these details reflect a marriage of Benjamin’s varied sources and imagination. “I consult books written in and about the time, and sometimes documentaries, even movies—I keep an eye out for those kinds of details that might seem trivial but will add that personal, intimate touch that readers will remember. Claude’s mistresses were mentioned in all the accounts of their marriage Then I put myself in his place, taking into account his upbringing, the time in which he lived, the country, and tried to explain everything how he would have [explained it].”
Another crucial element to a novel is its structure; information and imagination are ill-served if not properly conveyed. Mistress of the Ritz combines non-linear and linear timelines. The first half shifts between past and present, then the story smoothly transitions to forward-only momentum. “That was part of the revision process with my editor; we did spend a lot of time playing with this structure. I’d written it more linearly but she felt we needed to be in the Occupation right away—and I came to agree with her.”
Benjamin has written a number of novels, all of them set in the past. When asked if a contemporary novel is in her future, Benjamin told Spine, “I’ll never say never! Who knows? I think an author’s career depends on her ability to morph over time, to adapt and explore new themes and subjects. Of course, you always want to respect your audience, but audiences change, times change, tastes in reading change. An author has to account for all that when she decides what to write next, if she wants to maintain a career.”
Ireland hates to be pigeonholed, but "writer" and "interval yoga devotee" come to the forefront when she is prompted for descriptives. She has published blog posts for a luxury realtor in the Boston area, Amazon reviews requested by authors, and posts to her own personal blog. Her YA novel is currently blossoming under a perspective switch from third person to first.