1.What was your writing process in crafting THE FIRST LADIES as a co-author pair?
MB: As with our first novel, The Personal Librarian, the process was utterly collaborative. We researched and reviewed the entire ARC of the story in THE FIRST LADIES and each chapter together — discussing each theme and element in detail — but in this case, we divided up the initial chapter drafting differently. We decided that we’d each take one of the characters, unlike The Personal Librarian in which we wrote the story from one character’s point of view and selected chapters based on interest and area of expertise. But then, as before, we traded the chapters and edited the others’ — in addition to editing as a whole — so that THE FIRST LADIES was, hopefully, seamless.
VCM: To me, it wasn’t very different from writing The Personal Librarian. Even with two characters, two points of view, we still collaborated on every chapter. We discussed the chapters, and then, after each was written, we exchanged for the other’s input. So like our first collaboration, every chapter was written with input from the both of us.
2. Tell us what inspired you to write this story? Where did you first hear of the friendship between Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt?
MB: Most Americans feel as though they know something about the former First Lady and wife to FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was truly unique in the scope of her projects, particularly the advancement of equality. When I first read an archival newspaper article about the friendship between Eleanor and Mary Mcleod Bethune — the brilliant founder of Bethune-Cookman College and advocate for civil rights during her lifetime — I was fascinated. I knew that the two women were powerful in their own way — although Mary is not nearly as well-known as Eleanor but should be — and that they worked together and became very close during a time period in our country when Black and white people were not meant to be friends. When we became more familiar with the breadth of their contributions and Victoria and I saw an opportunity to explore the sort of conversations and relationships that we have through Mary and Eleanor, we felt drawn to write THE FIRST LADIES.
VCM: Marie heard about this story before I did. But what inspired us to write this story were the readers. After being on the road with The Personal Librarian, of course people were hungry for stories about women who’d been lost in history. At the same time, we discovered that readers were as interested in our story as they were our novel. So choosing Mary and Eleanor was a way to give readers a historical look at an friendship that was very much like ours. Certainly, we are not the game changers and movers that they were. However, it wasn’t difficult for Marie and me to imagine their friendship, their conversations and their love for each other.
3. How many books have you each written and are they all together?
MB: I’ve written seven novels as Marie Benedict, and seven as Heather Terrell. My only other co-written novel is with Victoria!
VCM: I’ve written 30 novels and this is my second wonderful collaboration with Marie.
4. Can you tell us about the two main characters in the book? What was it like researching them?
MB: It was both magical and challenging. While both Mary and Eleanor were famous in their own ways during their lifetimes, the friendship between them really wasn’t well-known. So we had to look for their connection in the nooks and crannies of the past — using dusty microfiche machines that hadn’t been used in decades to delve into archives and visiting Mary’s college and other places the women might have gone together. But when the tendrils knitting the two women together became visible to us — and we were able to explore the fact and fiction of their world-changing relationship — that’s where Mary and Eleanor really came alive and the magic happened.
VCM: Researching these women was different than our first novel because this time, we were able to have some first hand “experiences” so to speak. While Marie spent hours on microfiche machines reading old letters and articles for Eleanor, I visited Mary’s homes, both in Florida and Washington DC. And both places have been maintained since her death. So I had the opportunity to see magazines on the table and china that Eleanor had given to her. This time when writing, I felt much closer to these women. I call Eleanor the first ally. She believed in equality for everyone and she not only fought for it, but she was willing to use her privilege to achieve it. Mary had been a fighter her entire life. What I loved best about her was that she never waited for something to happen, she made things happen. She never waited for someone to give her approval, she made decisions and moved forward. Together, these two women laid the foundation for the civil rights movement and were among some of the first to demonstrate how black and white people stood side by side in this struggle.
5. What are your different writing styles?
MB: I think our styles are quite complementary, particularly since we both prefer to write in the first person because it brings us — and the reader —closer to the character. That said, I exclusively write historical fiction, so I’d say my writing style is anchored in the past, while I try to make it accessible to the present.
VCM: I’m not sure we have different writing styles. Maybe that’s because I’m not even sure of my own style since I write across genres and I write every book differently. I will say that Marie remains a lawyer, committed to timetables, flowcharts and deadlines, while I’m a bit looser. Also, Marie is a master at all historical aspects of the story, where I’m very focused on the drama.
6. What is your writing routine with a pair?
MB: In terms of the actual writing, as I mentioned above, we divvied up the chapters initially. But then we exchanged them and edited them together, in the context of the story as a whole. The real writing magic, however, happens during our discussions. Our honest, frank, and sometimes difficult conversations shine the light on issues that are both historic and modern — and those talks have brought us together not only as friends and partners but as sisters.
VCM: There is no science to writing a collaboration. Not only is every collaboration different, but every book that Marie and I will write together will be different. One thing is consistent, however. Like I mentioned already, we talk out every chapter and work together on each. In the end, the entire book is truly written by the both of us.
7. Tell us something we wouldn’t know about you both?
MB: You may have noticed that the main characters in THE FIRST LADIES share a love of desserts. Well, Victoria and I came by that decision honestly! And my favorite is anything cinnamon.
VCM: I used to run marathons, but I had to stop after I had to have my first hip replaced and now I’ve had my other hip replaced. I AM the bionic writer. Oh, and one thing no one knows, is that I LOVE to make Marie laugh. Because she goes all in when she laughs and I feel nothing but joy. We have so much fun together that way.
8. How did you meet and how did you decide to write books together?
MB: I’d long been considering writing a book about the phenomenal personal librarian to J. P. Morgan, Belle da Costa Greene, who I came across decades ago while visiting the Morgan Library and discussing her with a docent. Later, when it became known that Belle was also a Black woman passing a white in an era of segregation, I knew that Belle deserved to have her story told by a Black woman as well. Once I read Victoria’s powerful novel Stand Your Ground, I wondered whether she might consider tackling a novel about Belle with me. We met through our agents, and from our very first phone call, we connected as though we’d known each other our whole lives.
VCM: I wish I could say I was the genius behind this idea. But I’m not. It was all Marie and it began when she discovered Belle da Costa Greene. Once she knew Belle’s story, Marie believed that Belle deserved to have her story told by a black and white woman. We met after Marie read one of my novels. And I won’t quite go into how long it took me to come on board, let me just say, I’m so grateful that I did. Because I believe that now, we’re doing more than writing books together. We’re catching everyone’s attention and showing how in this world, a black woman and a white woman can really come together and work to change some things in this country.
ABOUT THE FIRST LADIES
A novel about the extraordinary partnership between First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune—an unlikely friendship that changed the world, from the New York Times bestselling authors of the Good Morning America Book Club pick The Personal Librarian.