Heather Terrell’s writing career was solid. The Sewickley resident and author of numerous historical fiction and young adult novels had a small but loyal fan base that afforded her the chance to tour and promote her work.
Then she found Albert Einstein’s wife, Mileva Maric.
The publication of The Other Einstein (written under the pen name Marie Benedict) in 2016 vaulted Terrell into another level of publishing. Where previously her book signings and talks would draw a few dozen fans, Benedict’s events now attract between 500 to 600 readers, and her books regularly appear on the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists. She also appeared on the ABC program Good Morning America with co-author Victoria Christopher Murray to promote The Personal Librarian.
“I don't think I realized it would become as robust as it has for me,” Terrell tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “I think when you look at historical fiction now versus the time I was writing The Other Einstein, it's very different now. There seems to be more interest in these unsung voices from a writing perspective. And that’s so rewarding.”
The voices she references are those of women who have been overlooked or forgotten. Terrell’s books include The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, a reconstruction of Agatha Christie’s infamous 11-day disappearance in December 1926; Her Hidden Genius, about Rosalind Franklin, the British chemist and X-ray crystallographer whose contributions to unlocking the molecular structure of DNA were unrecognized during her lifetime; and Lady Clementine, a story about Winston Churchill’s wife.
But it was Marie — Einstein’s first wife, a mathematician and physicist who arguably was a major contributor to the theory of relativity — that prompted Terrell to explore similar lives.
“I'm not saying I'm the first person to have done this sort of biographically-focused historical fiction, particularly about women,” Terrell says. “I think readers really hungered for it whether or not they realized it, and that story is such a poignant story, Mileva’s story, sort of understanding the breadth of her legacies and the issues that she faced. It really reached people, and I think that was, for me, anyway, a kind of connection that was really special.”
Aside from Christie and actress Hedy Lamar — also a scientist who worked on the technology that became WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth communication systems — the women Terrell writes about are mostly forgotten. But they share two things in common.
“First of all, they've left us a legacy, something concrete that we are benefiting from today, that we are beholden to, and they are usually women we don't know. That’s one piece of it,” she explains.
“I really want all my books to resonate with modern readers, and when we think about historical women, we often think of them as being so different from ourselves. But the reality is they grappled with a lot of the same issues that we do, and we can learn from their experiences.”tweet this
And, Terrell adds, these women are also “grappling with something, an issue, a topic, that is very modern in nature as well.”
“I really want all my books to resonate with modern readers, and when we think about historical women, we often think of them as being so different from ourselves,” she says. “But the reality is they grappled with a lot of the same issues that we do, and we can learn from their experiences.”
Thus, in The Personal Librarian, Terrell explores issues of identity in a story about Belle da Costa Greene, a Black woman who curated J. P. Morgan’s collection of rare books and manuscripts while being forced to pass as white. Carnegie’s Maid explores class issues through the story of Clara Kelley, who served in the household of Pittsburgh industrialist Andrew Carnegie.
In Terrell’s most recent book, The Mitford Affair, the bonds of family are explored through the prism of politics and world wars.
Terrell admits that there are times when she struggles with the initial connection to her subjects. But that connection comes through her research, a process she calls “a synergistic component of creating the character and excavating the events of that person's life.”
“Being very well versed in their letters, for example, gives such a sense of the way they think, the language they use, the things that inhabit their mind, the way they approach others, the things that are important to them — all of those things then become a character that I build that's inspired by a real person,” says Terrell. “So, for me, I absolutely start to hear them when I'm writing, but it really starts with that research.”
Heather Terrell/Marie Benedict. heatherterrell.com/authormariebenedict.com