Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray, THE PERSONAL LIBRARIAN

Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray, THE PERSONAL LIBRARIAN

Zibby was joined by the authors of The Personal Librarian, Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray, for an Instagram Live to talk about their GMA Book Club pick. Marie and Victoria share the story of how they met each other, why they’re more like soulmates than collaborators, and how the social movements during the last year served to strengthen both their story and their interracial friendship. The pair also discuss how their trust in one another allowed them to weave an emotional and intricate historical fiction about Belle da Costa Greene, and where their partnership is taking them next.


Zibby Owens: I’m Zibby Owens from the podcast “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I am so excited to be here today to interview two amazing authors of The Personal Librarian. You’ve probably heard about it because it’s the GMA Book Club pick this month. It’s by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. I’m going to get to talk to both of them today. This will eventually be a podcast on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” If you miss some of it here, you can always listen to it there. I’m delighted to be live with them. I can’t wait to hear because this book was so good. I am just super excited. Let’s welcome them in right now. Welcome, everybody, to GMA Book Club where we’re going to be talking to the authors of The Personal Librarian. Hi.

Marie Benedict: Hi

Victoria Christopher Murray: Hi.

Zibby: How are you guys?

Victoria: We’re really good and surprised that we’re both here at the same time.

Zibby: I’m shocked. That was amazing.

Marie: Zibby, we have a whole series of tech failures in our here.

Zibby: I’m sure everybody can relate to that. Hold on, I’m just turning the volume up because I can barely hear you. Okay, let’s try that. Much better. Now you’re blasting all over my room here. My dog is running away.

Marie: Thank you so much for having . I think you probably know I’ve been following you for a while. I love what you’re doing with the book community. Gosh, it’s so amazing. I feel like you connected so many readers and so many writers together during the pandemic especially. We’re super grateful for you.

Victoria: Yes, definitely.

Zibby: Thank you. That makes me feel really good. Thank you.

Marie: It’s true.

Zibby: Thank you. That’s awesome. You’ve also connected lots of readers over this particular book, and by the way, obviously, each other. This was like a love letter. I was like, I feel like I’m on a spa vacation with two best friends at this point. I love going back and forth between the two of you. Tell me about this relationship that you two have developed and why you’re like sisters now.

Marie: Do you want me to kick it off?

Victoria: Yes, you kick it off.

Marie: The book all began a long time ago when I was still a New York City lawyer, not so happy with my big-firm practice. I would sneak off. I lived in New York City. I would sneak off to places like The Morgan Library. One day, a docent there happened to mention this fabulous Belle da Costa Greene who was really the right-hand person to the famous J.P. Morgan who built the library. For people who haven’t been there, it holds a collection of priceless manuscripts. She made my way onto my list as a woman I wanted to write about when I turned from lawyering to writing. The more I learned about her and the more I learned about her unbelievable heritage as the daughter of the famous activist, Richard T. Greener, first black graduate of Harvard, and gosh, had a mother with such a rich heritage of her own as part of this long tradition, free community of color in Washington, DC, I knew I wanted and needed to have a black woman write the story with me. Belle deserved it. I couldn’t possibly imagine what it would be like to be a black woman then or now. Right around that time, I happened to read Victoria’s incredible novel, Stand Your Ground, which is such a fresh, really sympathetic, beautiful look at a really terrible problem of the shooting of young black men in our country. It looked at the perspective from the women, which of course, is what I do in my books, historical women. I reached out through her agent about her interest, possibly, in working with me.

Victoria: I’ll take over from here. When I got the treatment, my agent told me that she wanted me to do a collaboration or consider a collaboration. I had done six books with another author, ReShonda Tate Billingsley, so I was used to that. I said, “Sure, I’ll look at this.” The first thing I did was google. I didn’t look at the treatment at all. I googled Marie Benedict. I was very impressed. She wrote historical fiction about women lost in the folds of history. I just couldn’t understand what it had to do with me, this contemporary writer. I called my agent back. I said, “So Marie Benedict, has she seen me? Has she seen a picture of me? Is she looking for me or another Victoria Christopher Murray?” My agent told me to go ahead and read it. Then it still took me about two months because the first page was just about J.P. Morgan. I couldn’t connect with him. I just couldn’t connect. Finally when my agent said, “Look, you’re not that busy. Can you just read two pages?” ReShonda Tate Billingsley and I sat down and write read those two pages. I couldn’t get on the phone fast enough to get to Marie after that. Our agents connected us through a phone call. You know, people always say these clichés about instant — it was instant friendship with us. I knew we’d be able to do it within five minutes of talking to her because I felt like she was a friend already after five minutes. I wasn’t sure if she was convinced. Collaborations are very special. I think you need a soulmate. I think you need your writing soulmate. I knew I had found her in Marie, but I wasn’t sure if Marie knew that yet.

Marie: I knew. I knew from the start. I knew from that first conversation. I didn’t know if I could be a collaborator. I had never done that before. Victoria had so much experience writing six books with ReShonda, writing different sorts of books, different sorts of collaborations. I just knew that between our instant connection and her experience, we could work it out. As she let me know, it’s not a formula.

Victoria: It’s not a formula.

Marie: It’s different based on the format and the themes and, really, the evolution of the book. For us, the evolution of the book was really momentous.

Zibby: Tell me about your friendship and how the book ended up changing over the course of COVID and how the two of you seemed to have just completely been lifting each other up through the whole thing like each other’s life rafts, in a way.

Victoria: When we finished that first draft, we were friends already. Marie would be a person I’d want to go hang out with at Christmas already. Then we got our edit during COVID. The pandemic had just hit, basically. It was the first time that both Marie and I were home because we traveled so much. Now I only had to travel from my living room to my office and the kitchen. That kept us in one place. We started talking to each other over Zoom every day for hours, not fifteen — hours a day. We were rolling up our sleeves full into edits. Then George Floyd happened in the middle of it. Suddenly, everything that we were trying to understand about Belle struggling with race, we were struggling with, and we were struggling with from two different perspectives at the beginning of the pandemic. By the end, we were struggling together. Every day for the first hour of our conversations, Marie would be checking with me. She gave me a very safe place to land. I have other white friends, but I’ve never had a friend who wasn’t black that I talked to honestly about race and all the little microaggressions that I suffer every day. As much as it was interesting for me to tell Marie about it, it was interesting for me to hear her responses. She didn’t know. She just didn’t know. All of the things we talked about made its way onto the pages. Don’t you agree, Marie? Everything did.

Marie: We had already opened up the conversation to race. We had to. We have a woman who is passing as white, who lives in a society that’s incredibly racist, segregated, even if not on the books, certainly in practice. She wields all this power. She’s walking this tightrope about discovery. Is she going to be found out? and the really horrific repercussions that could happen if she was. Her family depended on her financially and socially. Belle’s status as a white woman affected their family’s status as white people in their communities. They had married white people. They worked in white-focused sort of careers. There was so much at stake. She herself had made so many sacrifices to pass. The whole family really had given up their connections to their extended family with whom they were very close and very proud. She herself couldn’t remarry or have children. She couldn’t risk the fact that she would have a child that would be darker and would really reveal the secret that she was keeping on behalf of herself and her family. We were already in that first draft — right, Victoria? — really talking about what that was like. Victoria was starting to share with me what it was like to move as a person of color in the world. Her own grandmother had passed for convenience, not as a lifestyle, but in a situation which somebody made that assumption. It might be safer for her to ride in a particular train car than in another. She shared all of those experiences with me.

I had started to see, a little bit, the world through Belle and Victoria’s eyes, but it wasn’t until the pandemic. It wasn’t until the social unrest that was happening all around us. Those conversations which had been, I don’t want to say theoretical, but they had been maybe a little bit more historical, started to become very, very personal. Victoria started to open up to me more, but we already had, as she said, such trust between us, certainly professional trust. We, at that point, developed a lot more trust. I felt so honored that she felt comfortable to talk to me about the sorts of discrimination she had suffered and just the way she had to move around the world. We became really close. I would never be presumptuous enough to say that I was looking at the world through her eyes, but my eyes started to open wider. My lens started to become wider. I started to understand a little bit better what a black person, a black woman in our world and in Belle’s world has to shoulder in order to make it through the day. We became so close as friends, sisters in that process. All of that, I feel, really turned Belle into a very rich, very alive, I hope anyway, character. We write fiction, of course. She was a real person, but she’s very much our Belle in many ways.

Zibby: Not like you ladies need any more projects, but I think that even though you instilled so much of your conversations and the sensibility behind the conversations that you were having in Belle’s character — yes, a hundred percent, she is jumping off the page. You nailed it with her as a character, totally. I, selfishly, would love to have been a fly on the wall of your conversations. You should write that. It doesn’t have to be a whole book. Write an essay. Write something where you share a few of those things. Honestly, it’s one woman to another. This how we share. This is how we learn.

Victoria: This is how you do it, one person at a time, one step at a time. What I love about this book is that it can open up the conversation. Sometimes people don’t know where to begin. I don’t think I would’ve just walked up to Marie and started talking about this. Every day, we had to talk about it. We had to talk about it in the past. We had to talk about what was happening today. We had to say, this is exactly what Belle’s mother meant when she did this. Belle’s mother never wanted them to pass to be white. She wanted them to pass to be equal. That was what she was going after. Sometimes Marie and I say we wish we had taped those conversations. It could’ve been a great documentary, not only two writers coming together — it can’t just be any two writers. You have to find your writing soulmate. You really do. So how the two writers come together and then, how did two women come together from black America, white America? Hopefully, one day we can get to one America.

Zibby: Maybe this could be a whole thing. Maybe there could be a — not a program. There are all these writing things and writing prompts and writing prizes and writing everything. Maybe this should be a thing where there’s a whole series of cowritten — make these partnerships together, and it becomes a whole thing. I know what I mean in my head. Do you know what I mean? If you could scale what happened with you to even, let’s take fifty women, maybe we could say, are there fifty women who would want to do this? You pair them up like a blind date out of a bag. We’ll pick names and say, you two go off and try this. What did you learn? Then you report back.

Marie: You know, it’s funny you say that, Zibby, because that’s kind of our dream for this book, right, Victoria?

Victoria: Yes.

Marie: For us, the discussions about Belle and the trust we developed over those discussions about race led to the trust and the openness that we were able to have about discussions about race in our current situation. Our dream is to bring black and white book clubs, black and white readers together and use our book or different books as a bridge to conversation. It’s hard and intimidating and difficult sometimes at first to just, as Victoria said, to just launch into those conversations. If you’re approaching them from a common ground, a book, a story, you know probably better than anyone how a book is a gateway to an entirely, not just different world, but can be a gateway to empathy and understanding. In that way, our greatest dream is really to create almost like a unified book club experience and replicate, to the extent possible, we know it’s unique and unusual, the kind of experience that Victoria and I had with that bridge of a book.

Zibby: I love that.

Victoria: Because it’s real. It’s so funny now. Whenever I experience little things in the world, normally, I would text one of my black friends and say what’s going on. Depending on what it is, now I text Marie. I don’t think of her as the white friend or black friend. She’s my sister who needs to know that she may need bail money to get me out of something. It’s so natural for me now. No matter what’s going on, I just tell her. Then I’m reminded by her reaction. My black friends kind of go, oh, well. That’s what we all suffer from. Not Marie. She’s ready to raise the roof. Then I’m the one that needs to collect the bail money for her.

Marie: It’s one thing to read about and kind of be aware of the microaggressions that Victoria suffers every day. As a reading person in the world, I had some cognizance of that. To actually have her tell me real-time — I love Victoria, so it’s like someone’s doing it to me, to my loved one. Oh, my gosh.

Victoria: It drives her nuts. It’s too late. She’s connected to me, so I have to keep sending it. It’s too late.

Zibby: The book that won’t end.

Marie: It won’t. I feel like if we could kind of replicate that experience understanding. It’s one thing to read it on a page. It’s another to actually experience it together.

Zibby: Let’s talk about all the great stuff in the book a little bit too. I couldn’t believe — I was like, this must have happened in real life because it’s historical fiction, so I’m guessing you couldn’t change the major plot points, but the fact that Belle and her mom and siblings were able to keep this secret having so much extended family in the world. The one scene where she messes up and almost reveals that her grandmother liked or something — even this random Portugal grandmother, nobody did any digging on that? What is that? They would never have seen each other. The dad almost never came back. How did this happen? Today, this could never have happened.

Victoria: It was the early twentieth century. That’s how it happened. That’s the explanation, when there weren’t telephones to just pick up and call someone. There certainly wasn’t Instagram and Instagram Live. We’re looking back on it with twenty-first-century eyes. I always remind the readers — a lot of my readers say, how in the world did she even pass? She looks black. Now we know about biracial and mixed. It would never have worked in today’s times. There were lots of situations that we didn’t put in the book where, I’m sure, Belle had a couple of close calls.

Marie: Belle destroyed all of her personal correspondence to the extent that correspondence reflected how she felt about passing or the fact that she was passing. She didn’t want that to impact the legacy she left behind and this incredible — not just the private Morgan Library, but helping turn the Morgan Library into a public institution. For those of you who have been there or know the legacy that it’s left, it is really astonishing. Some of those feelings were things that we had to, I don’t want to say conjure because it’s really more like an extrapolation based on personal experiences, additional research that we did. It was an incredible experience that she had, an incredible period of time.

Zibby: Wow. There’s also workplace dynamics at play here. This is almost verging on a Me Too. You guys have touched on all the hot topics of the day with this story. There was such an interesting undercurrent throughout between Belle and Pierpont or J.P., whatever we want to call him. I know you put that scene — not to give anything away. What do we know actually happened?

Victoria: We put a couple of scenes in there because we don’t know. Talking about extrapolating something, the only thing we had about their relationship, we knew that she worked for him. We knew when it started, when it ended, when he passed away. We know that after his death, in an interview, someone asked if they had ever had a relationship. Her response was, “We tried,” with a chuckle. Marie and I sat for weeks saying, what does that mean? What does that mean? We tried it a couple of different ways. We didn’t commit to anything until we got to what we thought it was. She was a lot of things to that man. That was one of the things that Marie and I discovered together. She was a lot of things, right, Marie?

Marie: Yeah. At the end of his life, she was weeping. From secondary accounts from the time period we’ve read, she was really one of the closest people to him at the end of his life. She served in so many capacities to him. She was, as Victoria said, his business partner. She was his representative. She also would read the Bible to him. They’d play Solitaire together. He would ask her advice on things. She went to family dinners and birthday parties and a ball. She had this very multilayered relationship with him that really lent itself to a variety of interpretations. He, of course, was notoriously mercurial and also a major philanderer. Victoria and I had to kind of envision at various points in time, what actually might have transpired between them. Again, certainly, rumors floated around. Some of the rumors have been recorded in the data. The actual interchange between them is something that we just don’t know what happened. We wrote it quite a few ways, right, Victoria?

Victoria: We did before we settled. That’s one of the things we did discover, that she was a lot of things to this man. We stayed as close to the facts as we could. One of the things that Marie loves to talk about is during the interview. That was an interesting process. We know when she was interviewed. We know she got the job. We don’t know what happened in between, but we know who they were. We could imagine how he looked at her like a piece of art. We know how she would react because she would only do what her mother told her to do at that point in her life. It’s just so interesting. I don’t write genres. I just write books. Except now, I am stuck on historical fiction. Marie exposed me to this new genre that I love.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Are you going to do another book together? Someone in the chat was asking. We’re talking about The Personal Librarian here, The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray, which is the GMA Book Club pick of the month for anyone just joining, even though we’re almost out of time. Somebody was asking, so there we go. Do you have any more collaborations in store?

Victoria: We do. You want to go, Marie?

Marie: Sure. We are actually in the process of conjuring up — we know what we’re writing. It’s tentatively called The First Ladies. It’s the story of a friendship. Given our own friendship, the transformative power that we’ve seen of a friendship, we wanted to explore that a little bit further. In this story, we’re going to explore the friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune, who was an educator, activist in her own right. Long before FDR became president, these two women became very close personal friends against a lot of backlash in both the white and the black communities. That was certainly something that wasn’t accepted at the time. That friendship worked in front of and behind the scenes to really create transformation in its own right.

Victoria: We’re really excited about it. One of the things that I love about my sisterhood — this lady is not my friend. She’s my sister. One of the things I love about my sisterhood with Marie is that she’s such an ally, such an ally, but allies will make mistakes. Allies will say the wrong things. I know that there were allies before, but I envision this book with Eleanor and Mary, Eleanor being the first public ally. I just can’t wait to get into it. We love Belle. We don’t want Belle to think that we don’t love her, but I’m very excited. I think it’s going to be a reflection of our friendship too.

Marie: Yeah, I do. a new level. We are looking for things that are both historic and modern in these stories. Certainly, obviously, Belle’s story has all of those elements. We really think that Eleanor and Mary’s story will as well.

Zibby: Someone in the chat earlier had asked, is this going to be a movie?

Marie: We hope so. We’re hopeful. Let’s put it that away.

Zibby: TBD.

Victoria: Yes, to be determined.

Zibby: Do you ladies have advice for aspiring authors both in terms of just writing historical fiction, but also in collaborating?

Marie: Wow. Do you want to take collaboration, I’ll take historical fiction?

Victoria: Yes.

Marie: Historical fictional, I feel like — I’m a history nerd from way back. There was a long period of time I thought I’d be a history professor or an archaeologist until I learned that I could really explore all that stuff through fiction. In writing historical fiction, you have to follow where your interests are. Very often, I think we feel very swayed by what seems popular and what doesn’t seem popular. I really think you have to follow your passions. In my particular case, I go where the women take me. I’ve gone into the realm of science in the 1800s. I’ve gone to World War II. I’ve gone all over. I feel like each of those stories has something to offer. Your readers will see that passion in the story. It’s best if you’re writing historical fiction, to really follow your own passions and interests.

Victoria: Yes, that’s perfect. Now I’m interested in historical fiction too. I’m listening to Marie and following the things that interest me. For collaborations, you really have to find your soulmate. I don’t think just any two authors can collaborate. I know authors who work together, and then they’re no longer friends because it didn’t work out. First, you have to like the person. I think you have to have a friendship. It’s like a soulmate. Then it doesn’t make sense unless you totally complement each other. For example, when we talk about complementing each other, we compliment. Marie, when they give us a deadline, she is like, let’s do it. I’m like, wait, the deadline is just a suggestion. That’s how I treat deadlines. We have that. Marie loves the first draft. Writing a first draft, for me, is like pulling teeth without any medication and then sticking the tooth back in and pulling it out again. Then once Marie writes that first draft, she’s done. She’s like, the book is finished. I told the story. That’s when I look to grab it and layer it and just go into the deepness of the characters. We had to do both of the things that we didn’t enjoy in this book. I tell everybody we wrote this entire book together. Every word in this book is from both of us.

Marie: One last thing I would say is if you’re going to collaborate, like Victoria said, you have to really trust in each other. You have to be with someone who you feel like you can trust, someone for whom the best product, the best story is really the goal, and trust in that person.

Victoria: Can I give a really quick example of that? We worked on everything together, but there was a scene that we had written that we really liked. One day, Marie didn’t even wait to get on Zoom. She called me. We were always on Zoom. She’s like, “We have to change that scene.” I had written it. My reaction was, “Okay, what do we do?” My reaction would’ve never been, “Are you kidding me? I wrote that scene.” I was like, “Okay, what happened? What did you find out?” Then we changed it. It’s amazing.

Marie: That’s really a critical juncture. Unless Victoria trusted me and kind of let go of that scene that she had written, we wouldn’t have had that end result. We just feel so fortunate.

Zibby: Someone in the comments said, “This message was for me. Thank you so much.” You’re helping people out there. Thank you both so much for coming on. Thanks to the GMA Book Club.

Victoria: Thank you for having us. So exciting. Being the book club pick was the best thing ever.

Marie: Ever.

Zibby: Aw, so amazing. Thank you, ladies.

Victoria: Thank you. Bye. Have a good day.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray, THE PERSONAL LIBRARIAN

THE PERSONAL LIBRARIAN by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

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