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Marie Benedict & Victoria Christopher Murray: On Bringing a Project to Life

Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray share what it was like to co-author the historical fiction novel The Personal Librarian and what they did to bring their subject to life.
Marie Benedict

Marie Benedict

Marie Benedict is a lawyer with more than ten years of experience as a litigator. A graduate of Boston College and the Boston University School of Law, she is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Only Woman in the Room, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, Carnegie's Maid, The Other Einstein, and Lady Clementine. All have been translated into multiple languages. She lives in Pittsburgh with her family.

Victoria Christopher Murray

Victoria Christopher Murray

Victoria Christopher Murray is an acclaimed author with more than one million books in print. She has written more than twenty novels, including Stand Your Ground, an NAACP Image Award Winner for Outstanding Fiction, and a Library Journal Best Book of the Year. She holds an MBA from the NYU Stern School of Business.

In this post, Benedict and Christopher Murray share what it was like to co-author the historical fiction novel The Personal Librarian, what they did to bring their subject to life, and much more!

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Name: Marie Benedict
Literary agent: Laura Dail of Laura Dail Literary Agency
Book title: The Personal Librarian
Publisher: Berkley
Release date: June 29, 2021
Genre: Historical Fiction
Previous titles by the author: The Other Einstein, Carnegie’s Maid, The Only Woman in the Room, Lady Clementine, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

Name: Victoria Christopher Murray
Literary agent: Liza Dawson, Liza Dawson Literary Agency
Book title: The Personal Librarian
Publisher: Berkley
Release date: June 29, 2021
Genre: Historical Fiction
Elevator pitch for the book: This is the story of Belle da Costa Greene, the personal librarian to JP Morgan. While Belle was helping the financier build an outstanding art and manuscript collection, she hid the fact that she was Black from everyone.
Previous titles by the author: Lust, Envy, Greed, Wrath (Part of the Seven Deadly Sins series), Stand Your Ground, The Deal, The Dance and the Devil.

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

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What prompted you to write this book?

Marie: Years ago, when I was still a commercial litigator in New York City unhappily practicing law, I would escape to the museums and libraries of the city when it became too much to keep up the facade, the Morgan Library in particular. Within its crimson and gold walls and in the presence of some of the world’s most priceless manuscripts, I could imagine a different life, exploring the secrets of history. One day, a kind and knowledgeable docent told me about Belle da Costa Greene and the crucial role she played in the formation of the Morgan Library and the legacy of the institution. From that day forward, I hoped that somehow and someday I would be involved in the telling of Belle’s tale.

Victoria: When I read the proposal to do this collaboration, I was immediately drawn into Belle’s story, and I wanted to be part of this. It was as simple as me believing that this woman’s story needed to be told and I was honored that Marie asked me to write this book with her.

(16 Things All Historical Fiction Writers Need to Know)

How long did it take to go from idea to publication?

Marie: The idea for a novel about Belle da Costa Greene came to me well over a decade ago. Over the years, as I began researching Belle, I became more and more intrigued about her life, particularly once I learned that her father Richard Greener, the first African-American graduate of Harvard, had been a prominent advocate for equality in the decades after the Civil War. But I needed and wanted a partner to tell Belle’s story; I knew I could not authentically envision what it would have been like to be an African-American woman in the years after the Civil War or otherwise. Once I was fortunate enough that Victoria agreed to write this novel with me, the story I’d been considering for years transfigured, as she shared with me the lens through which she sees the world. That perspective transformed the book—and me.

Victoria: Since I joined with Marie well after she’d developed the idea, the process wasn’t long at all. About two years in total.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title? 

Marie: While we uncovered countless surprises about Belle’s glittering social life and the lofty art circles in which she traveled as we researched her (for example, John D. Rockefeller taught her how to drive)—not to mention the astonishing contributions of her father, Richard T. Greener, who was the first African-American graduate of Harvard—the most breathtaking moments for me occurred in my conversations with Victoria as we edited the novel during the eruption of the Black Lives Matters movement. Listening to my partner and friend share her and her family’s experiences with racism against the backdrop of this critical moment in our country’s history made clear that the past was reverberating into the present—and that no matter how far we’ve come, we still have so much farther to go.

Victoria: We learned a lot about Belle, of course, but then Marie and I edited this book during the beginning of the pandemic, the death of George Floyd, and all of the social unrest during the summer of 2020. Our daily work sessions turned into discussions about race in this country and we wondered what Belle would think of what was happening today. Even though we had written about a period 100 years ago, so much was the same and those kinds of thoughts and emotions made their way onto the pages of the manuscript. What a blessing that turned out to be for me—to work with Marie during these times, to write about Belle during this moment.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

Marie: I hope that readers will not only get to experience the magnificence of Belle’s life and legacy—and see her where she’s been all along, hiding in plain sight, along with so many other key historical women—but also understand the way in which segregation and inequality of the post-Civil War era have echoed into the present. And ultimately, if my wishes came true, I would be grateful if readers read our book and then saw our world through a fresh lens, and perhaps be motivated toward change.

Victoria: Of course, I want readers to experience the life of Belle and to celebrate the woman that she was while recognizing the sacrifices she had to make. At the same time, I want this story to provoke deeper thought and discussion. I want people to look at the reasons why Belle made the decision that she did and ask themselves why, while much has changed in this country, so much is the same. It would be wonderful if this book started a discussion that led to all of us working to make a better America.

Marie Benedict & Victoria Christopher Murray: On Bringing a Project to Life

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Marie: I would advise writers to hold on to those moments of inspiration, whether they involve a character they might want to capture, a theme they feel drawn to explore, even a particular turn of phrase they’d like to record. It might be months or even years before that inspiration reaches fruition, but if you treasure and nurture it, it will happen when the time is right. That is precisely what happened with The Personal Librarian.

Victoria: I always tell writers two things: writers read and writers write. Reading inspires a writer, encourages, and teaches us. And reading motivates us to sit in front of that blank page and begin to make magic. Then, writers have to write. That’s what we do. Do something every day ... the quality, nor quantity matters ... just take a step toward your dream every single day. When I finally made the decision to write my first novel, I committed to writing one word a day. That was a commitment I could handle. There were days when I only wrote “she said,” but at least I doubled my commitment and kept my word to myself. Then, there were days when I thought all I had in me was “she said,” and an entire chapter came out of me. I finished that book in three months. It’s not how much you write, it’s the discipline of writing that will make the difference. 

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