A female author whose historical novels shine a light on women is coming to speak at Mercyhurst University.
Marie Benedict said she is on a mission “to excavate from the past these women who have been lost or buried or hidden in shadows.” Though they are from bygone eras, she said they’re women who dealt with issues that have modern relevance.
Marie Benedict is the pen name under which Heather Benedict Terrell has written titles, including “Her Hidden Genius,” about the female scientist who helped discover DNA, and “The Only Woman in the Room,” about a beautiful actress and inventor with an idea for fighting the Nazis. She has also co-written, with Victoria Christopher Murray, “The Personal Librarian,” about a Black woman forced to hide her true identity from her. It is as Benedict that the Pittsburgh author will be reading Saturday at 1 pm in the Mary D’Angelo Performing Arts Center as part of the Mercyhurst Literary Festival.
“We’re really excited to host her. She’s one of the most high-profile writers we’ve ever had,” said Jeffrey Roessner, associate dean of the Hafenmaier College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences and a professor of English at Mercyhurst . “The themes about race and women’s place in history are so timely we’re just thrilled to have her talking about those issues here.”
The free event at Mercyhurst is co-sponsored by the Friends of the Erie County Public Library and the Erie Branch of the American Association of University Women.
Loretto Bellicini, president of AAUW Erie, said, “The book group within AAUW had already read several of (Benedict’s) books and they are always well-received.”
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Benedict’s novels began in 2016 with “The Other Einstein,” about Mileva Maric, Albert Einstein’s first wife. While Benedict doesn’t have a favorite among the women she’s written about — she said it would be like saying which of her children is her favorite — she is most protective of the first Mrs. Einstein because Maric was least able to fulfill her purpose because of her life circumstances.
“The Other Einstein” was followed in 2018 by the fictional “Carnegie’s Maid,” about a woman working for Andrew Carnegie. Next up was 2019’s “The Only Woman in the Room,” a novel about the real Hollywood screen star Hedy Lamarr, who was also an inventor.
The start of 2020 brought “Lady Clementine,” about the brilliant and ambitious woman beside Winston Churchill, and the end of that year saw publication of “The Mystery of Mrs. Christie” about writer Agatha Christie’s 11-day disappearance in 1926.
Benedict’s latest solo novel was this year’s “Her Hidden Genius” about Rosalind Franklin, a British scientist who didn’t get the same recognition as the men working on DNA.
Benedict, who is white, teamed up in 2021 with Murray, who is African American, for “The Personal Librarian,” focused on Belle da Costa Greene. She was JP Morgan’s personal librarian and a Black woman who had to pass as white to do the work she did.
Roessner said Benedict and Murray’s book was “very successful. Many people in the community had read that. She’s a really popular writer.” He said the book also touches on race and gender, which are so prominent in cultural debates today.
He said she’ll do a book signing after her public talk. Benedict will also conduct a workshop with creative writing students at Mercyhurst.
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Bellicini said AAUW Erie wanted to help bring Benedict here as a thank you to the community. She said the local branch hasn’t been able to hold its Lunch & Literature fundraiser, which features talks by authors, for two years due to COVID-19. But she said AAUW Erie wanted to thank its past supporters and decided to work with the festival and the Friends of the Library to bring in “a well-known and loved author.” Bellicini also said that AAUW Erie has several members affiliated with the Friends of the Library and member Christy Rieger is a Mercyhurst professor who suggested that the partnership would help share the expense of the event and also expand the audience.
Benedict said she’ll talk to her Erie audience about her mission, how she found some of the women she wrote about and her more recent novels.
Describing herself as a voracious reader going back to middle school, she said an aunt gave her a copy of “The Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Benedict described it as a retelling of the Arthurian legend from the women’s perspective. She said it opened her eyes to women’s stories from the past and she wanted to write women back into history.
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A former commercial litigator in New York City, Benedict said her experience as a lawyer helps her advocate for the women she writes about. She said that though they come from different times and places, they have some things in common: They are all bright, tenacious, resilient.
While her books are based on historical record, they aren’t nonfiction. Benedict describes them as novels.
“They’re my version of a person’s life,” she said.
She said she and Murray refer to their story about Greene, the librarian, as “our understanding of a person who inspired us who once lived.”
The pair have another book due out in June 2023. “The First Ladies” will examine the friendship between United States first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Black leader Mary McLeod Bethune. In January, Benedict is scheduled to release “The Mitford Affair” about British aristocratic sisters she described as “it girls” of the 1920s and 1930s. She said the book explores how politics ripped the Mitford family apart and added that it’s also a spy novel.
Benedict, who was born in Pittsburgh, said this won’t be her first visit to Erie. One of her two sons de ella is a soccer player, so the family, which also includes her husband de ella, has been here for games and other visits.
Writing as Heather Terrell, she has also published the historical novels “The Chrysalis,” “The Map Thief” and “Brigid of Kildare.”
If you go…
This year marks the 20th edition of the Mercyhurst Literary Festival, created by English professors Jeffrey Roessner and Ken Schiff to bring renowned writers to the Erie university’s campus to read from their works and conduct advanced creative writing workshops with Mercyhurst students. Festival events are free and open to the public. For additional information, call Roessner at 814-824-2136 or send email to email@example.com.
Marie Benedict lecture: April 2, 1 pm, Mary D’Angelo Performing Arts Center, Mercyhurst University, 501 E. 38th St. Talk by the author of “Her Hidden Genius,” “Lady Clementine,” “The Only Woman in the Room,” “The Other Einstein” and other historical novels about women.
Alive and Kicking: A Musical Celebration: April 12, 7 pm, Taylor Little Theatre, Mercyhurst University. Musical performance featuring Jim Tometsko & Friends, Clint Jones, Jimmy Cuneo, Brittany Barko Krugger and Kevin Sullivan, along with Mercyhurst students and other featured guests, celebrating the works of long-lived songwriters, primarily in the folk tradition.
Patricia Jabbeh Wesley talk: April 21, 7:30 pm, Taylor Little Theatre, Mercyhurst University. Visit by the professor of English, creative writing and African literature at Penn State Altoona who is the author of six critically acclaimed books of poetry including “Praise Song for My Children: New and Selected Poems” and “When the Wanderers Come Home” plus the children’s book “In Monrovia, the River Visits the Sea.” Her works by Ella are known as an exploration of the Liberian civil war and the Liberian and Grebo cultures, and a voice for women. She lives in Duncansville.
Lumen Unveiling and Student Awards: April 28, 7:30 pm, Taylor Little Theatre, Mercyhurst University. Presentation of the P. Barry McAndrew awards for excellence in student writing and the unveiling of Lumen, the student-produced multimedia magazine of the creative arts at Mercyhurst, plus open mic.
Contact Dana Massing at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ETNmassing.