The Bookshelf: Novelist Jacquelyn Benson

Nov 11, 2016

The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week, The Bookshelf features novelist Jacquelyn Benson. In late 19th century London, a civil servant named Ellie Mallory finds herself longing for an archeological excursion that would help her make her mark on a field dominated by men. As she’s fired from her job for an act of political protest, she finds a clue that leads her to the jungle of South America, where she, with some help, uncovers a previously unknown civilization with a dark secret. Scroll down to read Jacquelyn Benson's top five reading recommendations and read the transcript of her conversation with Peter Biello. 

1.   She: A History of Adventure by H. Rider Haggard. "She is the book that started it all, basically creating the genre of the supernatural-archaeological-historical adventure thriller. It’s still a damned entertaining read. Haggard’s ageless witch-queen is over the top in every way imaginable—a 2,000 year-old preternaturally beautiful dictator with magic powers and the temperament of an angst-ridden sophomore. She’s fabulous, and this story of the two brave travelers who unwittingly stumble into her domain is about as much fun as you can have in 300 pages."

2.   A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin. "A Wizard of Earthsea is possibly the most perfectly formed adventure story I’ve ever read, because it does both of the things adventure stories are meant to do (but often neglect in one way or another). It’s a high-stakes, suspenseful narrative full of conflict, movement, and encounters with the strange and unexpected. It’s also a tale of startling and vital personal transformation. Ged doesn’t just overcome the challenges he encounters. He is made by them, becoming more of himself than he was when he set out."

3.   The Mummy Case by Elizabeth Peters. "I’m cheating a bit here because I actually highly recommend Peters’ entire Amelia Peabody series, but this first book sets off that multi-volume romp of Egyptology, murder and mayhem in delightful style. Amelia is possibly my favorite literary heroine: bold, intelligent, and wickedly (if perhaps unintentionally) funny, whacking her way through obstacles to her work and threats to her family with the help of her steel-shafted parasol. The Mummy Case is more adventure than mystery, despite its marketing, with a wonderful romance at its heart between the indomitable Amelia and surly force-of-nature Radcliffe Emerson."

4.   A Fish Dinner in Memison by E. R. Edison. "I can’t understand why Edison isn’t part of the canon of early 20th century fantasy writers. Some people hate him. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Ursula LeGuin were not among them. A Fish Dinner is a tale of parallel narratives that unfold elegantly in two different worlds: the fantasy kingdom of Mezentia and our more familiar early 20th century Europe.  There’s romance at the heart of both stories, one that results in an epiphany of how every man and woman participates in a sort of archetypal ‘self’ that stretches across bodies, time and perhaps even the borders of reality itself. Seriously awesome."

5.   Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell by Susanna Clarke. "Susanna Clarke’s epic is a perfect example of the best sort of historical fantasy: rife with vivid period detail but unafraid of taking delightful liberties with the facts. In this case, inserting magic into the world of the Napoleonic wars. It’s also a beautiful case for how an adventure story can go beyond personal transformation to transforming the world. As Strange comes into his own as a magician, he also opens the floodgates of possibility, making England into a different and more interesting place than it was before."

This novel is set in the late 19th century, in a world where the patriarchy has very clear rules for what women should and should not do. Ellie pushes against these limits. This strikes me as something that lots of women, 118 years after the action of this novel, will relate to.

It is, I think. It’s a very relevant topic right now. We actually—I was just getting into a debate about what feminism is today in the office of my day job and that’s a question that I think a lot of people have a hard time defining.

While we can relate to it, I think we can forget how recently how things were so different for women. Ellie is a suffragette in the novel. She could not vote. And I think that’s something that a lot of women would be shocked to realize was the reality so recently. Just, you know, not even 100 years ago.

For her, she doesn’t accept that. She is not willing to just sit with that and pretend that it’s okay. She has a bit more of a modern mindset, which of course, because I’m a twenty-first century writer, is a lot more fun to write about than someone who thinks it is fine that women can’t vote or get the sort of jobs that they’re interested in.

And so she takes advantage of her friend’s identity, her friend being a married woman, so that she’s able to go overseas and pursue this ambition of hers, which is to make her mark on the archeological world and find this civilization that she has reason to believe is out there.

The change of identity is a little bit more of an accident of the circumstances of her escape but traveling as a single woman in the 19th century wasn’t that eyebrow-raising. Thinking that you could actually do something consequential while you were traveling as a 19th century woman—that would raise a little bit of ire and potentially open her up to some social repercussions. That’s how a lot of this was enforced.

While I don’t think Ellie minds that, those impacts would hit her family and other people that she cared for as well. The reputation that she cared for as a female, as a middle class woman, is something that isn’t just about her. It’s something that’s about her whole circle, even if she was willing to just toss it out the window.

So she heads out into the jungle to try to do something a little extraordinary. And there were women who did that. There are real-life cases of female archeologists and explorers, but what they had that Ellie didn’t was independent income, most of them.

They were wealthy, so they could do this?

Yes, that’s what made the difference. If you were a woman who had some money, then you could go off and have these adventures, and society might not love you for it, but for Ellie looking for this as a job, in a situation where she’d have to get a university position or find funding from a museum, they’re not going to offer that to a female in 1898.

She actually has a cousin. I mention him in the book. He has taken the path that she would have taken and he’s off in Egypt excavating. And she is just as qualified, just as educated, just as interested, and the best she can do is just working this dry job in the public records office that everyone tells her she should feel lucky to have gotten. Because most people in the civil service were typists.

But she graduated from the top of her class, so she could clearly do that job and more if she were allowed.

Absolutely.

There is a romantic subplot here. What I like about it is that it doesn’t follow the typical cliché of the romantic subplot where they get married in a conventional way at the end and all is settled. The guy she’s with during this adventure, Adam Bates, he says he’s not the marrying type, and she felt the same way about herself, so as they get closer—forgive me for spoiling this a little bit.

Shh, alerts!

Alerts, readers. But they sort of work out an arrangement where she can still have her independence and she can still pursue this career that she wants to pursue.

She’s somebody who has never considered romance. That’s one of those weird facts of history. It was weird enough for a woman to get a job in the civil service. But if you did and you got engaged, you lost your job. So you either stayed unmarried and worked or you got married and you couldn’t.

She basically would have had that in her mind the whole time—that if she chose to pursue a path of a relationship or it would mean that what little career she can have is at an end. So for her, there’s no way. This isn’t an option for her. And most men of the period that she would have encountered would have had more conventional ideas of what they expected from a wife, which also would have tied her into the home and limited her ability to pursue her interests as a scholar.

But Adam is very different. He’s very much an iconoclast. He’s somebody who has forged his own path in life and has respect for people regardless of their gender who do the same thing. And that makes him a little more open-minded. He’s not looking for a  domestic relationship because he can’t offer a wife he would expect a conventional 19th century woman to be looking for. He lives a pretty dangerous and unpredictable lifestyle.

In that sense, they’re perfect for each other.

We certainly hope so. That’s half the fun!

I mean, we seem to know it long before they do.

Of course, yes.

And she resists with all her might and they end up getting tangled in some interesting ways. Those I won’t spoil for you.

Thank you.

This is a relatively long debut novel. I wanted to ask you, because it’s so thrilling and the suspense level is so high throughout: how did you manage to maintain that high level of suspense throughout 400-plus pages.

To answer that question, I have to get a little geeky.

Go for it.

We have to talk about writing process here. And I’ll tell you that, when I wrote this book, I did it by the “fly by the seat of your pants” method.

Also known as “pantsers”?

Pantsing, yes. I started on chapter one and just worked my way through to the end. And I found that the middle gets dull. When you hear people talking about their “saggy middles” they’re not just talking about post-pregnancy or too many cider donuts—though it is cider donut season.  But that happens very often in books when you’re flying by the seat of your pants. Because it becomes hard sometimes to—well, I’ve resolved this issue, I know what the end is, but I’ve got some chapters to fill. So if you read the first draft of this book, you’d think, “Really, Jack, what were you thinking?”

But when I looked at the revision process, I was able to see where it didn’t have the right tension. But stepping back from it and treating that first draft like an outline, and taking the whole thing down into pieces, then I was able to see—okay, there are threads that I’ve placed in the first part of this story that I can, with just subtle changes in the way that my characters are thinking or in the way that a scene concludes, I can make these pieces of the story more uncertain and make them more threatening and increase the stakes.

I think in any story, especially in a thriller novel, a lot of what builds tension is about the mysteries that you withhold. The stakes, both personal, for your characters, and the world at large, that are a result. And also, the promises you make to readers. With a  romance, you’ve got these two characters that the reader knows have some kind of tension between them and they know that they’re going to get together, unless this is one of those more depressing literary novels, where everything goes horribly wrong. [Laughs] Part of the fun of that is fulfilling that promise but doing it in a way where it doesn’t quite play out the way that they expect, where you’re able to kind of tease and toy with your reader’s expectations.

So there’s a lot of different ingredients that go into this recipe and it’s definitely one that I’m constantly tweaking. I’ve learned from writing this book—this was my first novel, so there was a lot of learning that went with creating it—I believe that I’m better able to build tension if I don’t do the pantser method. If, instead, I become one of those plotter people who outline the whole book ahead of time and I get this bird’s eye view of where the story might need more tension and where the potential for tension is.

As far as I’m concerned, you can never have too much tension in a book. So it’s always about trying to ratchet it up to another level.

I can hear all the people who are fans of this first book saying, “No, don’t mess with the formula. What you did last time, just do it again.” But you’re not going to. You’re going to plan it out next time.

Oh, yes. I will. But it won’t change the reader’s experience. It’s just a matter of me figuring out how my own brain works. It’s not something that happens with the snap of your fingers. It takes experimentation to find what works for you as a writer. I think the best writers are the ones who constantly challenge and test out their process to find something that just really helps them translate from idea to words on a page in the most powerful way that they can.

You mentioned in your biography wanting to be Indiana Jones when you grew up. So, safe to say you were a fan of the movies and that they were, to some extent, an inspiration for this book?

Absolutely. No shame there. I grew up on Indiana Jones and thought it was the coolest job in the world. If I could have applied for the job of being Indiana Jones, I would not have written the book. I’d be off fighting Nazis and working my way through ancient buried cities.

But, unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on your perspective—that’s not what archeology looks like. I’ve learned that since I’ve gotten older and started studying a lot of archeology. It’s a lot more sitting in the mud, digging up little pieces of pottery and painstakingly fitting them together and it’s fascinating but I was not so much in love with the science as I was with the adventure. When I realized that, I realized what I wanted to do was be a storyteller and tell these exciting stories with elements of history and mythology and mysticism and high stakes and dangerous enemies and live that life vicariously in the comfort of my cozy office with my slippers on and my woodstove and my mug of tea.

Your bio also says you spent four years living in a museum.

I did.

What museum and why?

I lived in Hamilton House in South Berwick, Maine. It’s a lovely property. Some of your listeners have probably been up there. It’s an historic New England property. It was kind of a manor house and converted to a summer home and there’s a caretaker cottage and I was a caretaker, so I lived in the caretaker’s cottage and my husband and I and our cats kept an eye on the property through the winter, living right on the banks of the Salmon Falls River in this just absolutely beautiful spot. But the cottage is a historic property with historic windows and historic insulation and after a while we decided to pass the torch and stay warm.

I just learned that you write plays. Tell us about your experiencing writing plays.

I write suspense and sci-fi thrillers that I put on stage. I’ve had two full-length shows. One of them, called Interference, which I co-wrote with Heather Bourbeau, that is about a group of paranormal investigators on a ghost hunt in the theatre. So you are actually in the theatre, experiencing a haunting as it takes place. It’s a lot of fun. We do a lot of tricks and a lot of special effects to really make it a cool, spooky experience. And then Crush Depth is another full-length, and that’s about—it takes place in the control room of a Los Angeles Class Submarine, and it has to do with a rescue mission that goes awry and has some very strange Twilight-Zoney things that happen as a result.

These two forms—novel writing and playwriting—does writing one help you write the other?

Certainly. A lot of what the playwriting helps with is focusing on dialogue as a means of communicating character. Because, when you write a play, that’s all you have. You’ve got to let your actors and your director know who these people are purely on the basis of how they speak and what they say. And so in writing a novel, I think a lot of times one of the weaknesses I see in a lot of popular fiction is where dialogue just becomes a box that the author uses to fill up plot points or move things along without really being authentic to who your characters are and, for me, I have to have them speak in a way that reflects their individual experiences. That would be one area where the playwriting has definitely been a big help.