Interview with Melanie Benjamin, Author of ‘The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb’

Melanie Benjamin is a pseudonym for Melanie Hauser, the author of two contemporary novels. Her first work of historical fiction as Melanie Benjamin was Alice I Have Been. The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb is her second release. She lives in Chicago, where she is at work on her next historical novel.
You can visit her online at www.melaniebenjamin.com.

Q: Thank you for this interview, Melanie. Can you tell us what your latest book, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, is all about?

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb is a fictional autobiography of thirty-two inch tall Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump Stratton Magri, better known as Mrs. Tom Thumb. Along with her husband, Charles Stratton – General Tom Thumb – she was one of the most famous personalities of her day. Their wedding knocked the Civil War right off the front pages; the Lincolns even hosted a reception for them in the White House. Vinnie, as she was known, was expected to live her life sheltered in the bosom of her loving family because of her diminutive size. Yet she decided to leave home, first to perform on a rough Mississippi River showboat, then finally bringing herself to P. T. Barnum’s attention. It was while appearing for him at his American Museum that she met her husband, who was thirty-six inches tall. Together – and with her even more diminutive, vulnerable sister, Minnie – they toured the world and met kings, queens and presidents. Despite her sometimes daunting optimism and courage, Vinnie ultimately paid a price for the “larger” life she so avidly sought. Her story takes place against a colorful panoply of American life; she started out when railroads were just beginning to link the country, and by the time she died, she’d appeared in a silent movie!

Q: Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?

Vinnie is my protagonist, the narrator of her story. Born in 1841 to a simple Massachusetts farming family, she was one of several siblings, all the rest of normal size except her youngest sister, Minnie. Vinnie was thirty-two inches tall, Minnie, just twenty-eight; they were “proportionate dwarfs,” perfectly formed miniature people. Vinnie was fiercely intelligent and ladylike, and not about to spend a life hidden away; she very knowingly traded on her size in order to see the world and become famous – but her success came at a cost, particularly in the fate of her beloved younger sister, Minnie. When she married Charles Stratton – aka General Tom Thumb – he was already world famous, having been “found” by P. T. Barnum at the tender age of 5, groomed to perform and mimic in tiny uniforms. Another proportionate dwarf, he was thirty-six inches tall when he married Vinnie. P. T. Barnum was Vinnie’s great friend and, I truly believe, the love of her life; the only person she knew whose personality and dreams were as big as her own.

Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?

With historical fiction, obviously – real people!

Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?

With historical fiction, writing about real people, you do have a template to follow; you have actual dates – births, deaths, etc. These can help form the bones of the novel. But the trick is to decide which of the hundreds of stories in each life to tell; you can’t tell them all. You have to pick the ones that will shape a thumping good novel! With The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, of course I anticipated that I would end it with Vinnie’s death. Yet when the time came, I realized that the story I wanted to tell – the touching relationship between Vinnie and Barnum – was over a good forty years before her death. So I ended the novel there, instead.

Q: Where is your book set? Can you tell us why you chose this city in particular?

Actually, my book is set all over the world, but particularly in an expanding, growing America in the 1800s. Vinnie’s story – so full of optimism and drive – is really the story of America in the age of “Go West, Young Man!” She started out on the early railroads, was one of the first passengers on the Transcontinental Railroad, toured the South immediately after the Civil War – no one city could contain Vinnie!

Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?

Well, yes – as I just described. Also, Vinnie couldn’t have had the fame and fortune she enjoyed had she been born in any other era. America in the years just before, during and after the Civil War was an America just waking up to itself. Towns and villages were suddenly linked; people who had never left home were now reading newspapers from far off places like New York City. Soldiers were tramping all over the country, hundreds of miles from home. People were curious about the new and unknown – and a thirty-two inch tall, perfectly formed miniature woman who sang and danced and had exquisite manners was just about as new and unknown as could be, to most of them.

Q: Open the book to page 69. What is happening?

Vinnie is just finishing up her first performance, on a cousin’s “floating palace of curiosities” – a showboat on the Mississippi river. It’s rather a rough crowd that she’s facing!

Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?

This is from the scene in which Vinnie and P. T. Barnum meet for the first time:

“I am Miss Bump,” I said, crossing toward this man and extending my hand without hesitation. “And am I to believe you are the equally famous Mr. Barnum?”

“That I am, that I am, indeed.” He took my hand solemnly, shook it, then suddenly bent down to peer directly into my face. His eyes were level with mine, so close that I could see myself reflected in them, and I had the startling, dizzy impression of a carnival, of colors and sounds and mirrors of every shape and size; of music, joyous, merry music tooted from horns and plucked by fiddles. How one man’s gaze could engage so many senses, I had no idea; I only knew his did. It nearly knocked the breath out of me; my heart did a riotous somersault as the back of my neck tickled with excitement, and I fought an undignified urge to giggle.

Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Melanie. We wish you much success!

You’re welcome, and thank you for having me!

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