Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Don't Shoot Me - It's a Rerun!

OK, OK, I have to admit I'm resorting to that tried and true formula that all media uses this hectic time of year - the rerun.

The holidays are still swirling, my novel, ALICE I HAVE BEEN, just released in paperback, and I may have misplaced the cat in all the holiday wrapping paper.  So I'm rerunning a recent blog that aired on the Huffington Post, and if you've already read it, I apologize.  If you haven't, please enjoy.   And in the comments, tell me what books you got for Christmas, and I'll choose, at random, one poster who will receive a signed copy of the hardcover of ALICE I HAVE BEEN.  (I'll get things rolling - I received THE CHILDREN'S BOOK by A.S. Byatt, and CLEOPATRA, A LIFE by Stacy Schiff.)

And have a wonderful, book-filled New Year!


A novelist friend recently had an argument with a reader concerning a certain passage in his book.  This reader quoted actual sentences, adamant that they were on the page—to the great surprise of the author.  Who didn’t remember having written them and who, when he went back to check, discovered that he hadn’t.
But that didn’t sway the reader.  This person knew what he had read, and—all evidence to the contrary—couldn’t be convinced otherwise.

This is something to which I can relate.

In the year since ALICE I HAVE BEEN was published, I have learned many things, insightful things, about people and books and relationships and perceptions.  But perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that when you write about certain subjects—such as the relationship between a man and a little girl—many people will bring their own perceptions to the subject, and see things on the page that you simply didn’t write. And you’ll never be able to convince them otherwise.

Despite what a few readers have claimed, I did not write a book about a predator and a victim.  I wrote about the complex relationship between an artist and a muse, and the mystery surrounding the end of this relationship, and its aftermath.  I wrote a tragic love story – tragic in that this relationship occurred at the wrong time in the lives of both Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, and haunted them forever after.  But there was beauty in it, too, because it gave the world Wonderland.

I did not write about any physical or sexual relationship between the two.  Not at all.  Nothing on the page reflects that.  Did I choose language, perhaps, meant to provoke discussion?  Yes.  Did I choose to write opaquely about intent, leaving the reader to imagine what was going on in the minds of all involved?  Yes.  I wanted to write a story that provoked discussion and boy, has that proven to be the case!

But I have encountered readers who insist I wrote physical details that simply are not on the page.  Who have insisted that the confused yearnings I gave Alice Liddell are inappropriate for a child of seven.  Yes, they would be—but in my novel, when she experiences them, she’s a pre-adolescent eleven-year-old, at a time when a girl could be legally wed at twelve.   

Yet people still insist otherwise.

Over time, instead of taking offense or expending energy going through the book, line-by-line, to refute those who insist, I’ve learned to let it go.  And I have a better understanding that when it comes to fiction, you can’t predict how people will react, especially to certain subjects. 

We all know that taste is subjective; intent is, as well.  And that’s the wonderful thing, really, about literature.  It’s a conversation between author and reader; a conversation during which the author can only speak through the words on the page, while the reader can parse and argue and rail, or laugh and cry and embrace.  Rarely does —or should—the author have a chance to steer that conversation directly.    

Still, it’s a conversation, it’s an engagement consisting of emotion and passion, good and bad—but really, mostly good.

This is what I’ve come to understand.  Just as they say bad publicity is better than no publicity, I’ll add that a contentious conversation is better than no conversation.  As an author, I want people to react passionately to what I’ve written, not shrug or forget about it or worse, ignore it all together.

If they react in ways I didn’t absolutely intend, or see things I didn’t absolutely write, well—in a way, that means I’ve done my job.

Once we write, once we send our words out into the world, we cannot direct their journey.  They will be embraced, loved, cared for; they will be rejected, disparaged, misunderstood.  Just like people, actually, and if we’ve done our job well, that’s what our characters become.  Living, breathing people whose actions, whose behaviors are complex, confusing, and not easily categorized.

Words on the page are given life not only by those who write them, but by those who read them.  As authors, we need to understand that—and embrace it.  The conversation between us and our readers cannot—should not—be one-sided. 

So even though I still sometimes sigh when a reader insists I’ve written something that I know, in my heart, I absolutely did not, I don’t argue.  Instead, I remind myself how very, very lucky I am that people are reading my book and talking about it.

For, to quote Lewis Carroll himself, “ ‘What is the point of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?’ ”

Melanie Benjamin is the author of ALICE I HAVE BEEN, the story of Alice Liddell, the inspiration for ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND.  It's now available in paperback.   Her second historical novel, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MRS. TOM THUMB, will be published by Random House in July 2011.  Melanie also blogs at the Huffington Post; you can visit her at her website at    


  1. It's the weirdest thing. I never get books for Christmas. But yesterday I bought two. A Reliable Life and The Weight of Silence.

  2. Now I really want to read, Alice I Have Been. For Christmas I got my friend's, Laura Hillenbrand's book, Unbroken. I can't wait tor read it. I started and she had me at hello.

    I also got Anne Lamott's, bird by bird. I've wanted to read it forever.

    Greg Gutierrez
    Zen and the Art of Surfing

  3. Melissa ( 29, 2010 at 11:03 AM

    To Karin...I have both of those books you bought on my list of "to gets", let us know what you think of them.

    Books I received this Christmas were: "Good Morning, Lord", "When a Woman Trusts God" and a new devotional Bible. It was my first Christmas to receive religious reading and let me tell you, I have been reading a bit of each night since I have opened them (they were an early pre-Christmas arrival) and they have brought a peace and quietness to the hour before I turn in for bed! Thank you to my cousin Robin for thinking of me and presenting me with these wonderful books that I will cherish a lifetime.

    I honestly think books are by far the perfect gift, they just become part of who we are once we open them up and take in their words.

  4. BIRD BY BIRD is one of my favorites, Greg. And I bought UNBROKEN for my father this Christmas.

  5. For Christmas I got....The Recipe Club and A Little Bit Wicked.

    So excited to read them.

  6. Melanie, you already know how I feel about Alice I Have Been and this post was a pleasure to read. So true this conversation between writer and reader for, while we writers will always write, without readers we are eternally writing in the dark.

    Anyway, I got Lost and Found by Carolyn Parkhurst and Sayyida by Jo Ford.

  7. Stephen King's Full Dark, No Stars and Fragile by Lisa Unger. Would love to win a copy of Alice I Have Been!

  8. Melanie,I think the written relationship between any two people will be subject to interpretation. I loved your blog, insightful and thought provoking...maybe like your book.

  9. Loved your post, Melanie, and all you said about books evoking conversation...thank you. As for books for Christmas, I bought a bunch for myself in December, including Maria Geraci's The Boyfriend of the Month Club and Judy Merrill Larsen's All the Numbers -- can't wait to start reading them! -- and I'm looking forward to getting Alice I Have Been, too ;).

  10. I didn't get any books for Xmas. Weird. I did give one great big one New York 2000 to my hubby. And I bought HOW TO BAKE A PERFECT LIFE by Barbara O'Neal and I'm reading an advance copy of HURRICANE by Jewell Parker Rhodes.

  11. I actually didn't get any books, BUT I got a color nook and immediately bought myself Kate Morton's THE DISTANT HOURS, which I am devouring.

  12. Joelle wins the copy of ALICE I HAVE BEEN. Congrats, Joelle! Email me at with your info!

  13. I didn't get any books for Christmas!! But now I think I'll be starting a new tradition next year!!

  14. Fabulous post! Now I have to go out and buy Alice I Have Been.

    Even though the contest is over, I got The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, Labour Day, A Homemade Life, and Perfect Family.

    I just found this blog today and I love it.

  15. For Christmas, I received Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris. He's hilarious.