The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian had two identities. It took two authors to tell her story.

“The Personal Librarian” co-authors Heather Terrell, writing as Marie Benedict, and Victoria Christopher Murray. (Phil Atkins)

Historical fiction writer Heather Terrell (who also writes under the name Marie Benedict) was introduced to Belle da Costa Greene between bookshelves at New York’s Morgan Library over 20 years ago. The docent — whom she has tried to find since — told her about a Black woman who passed as White and worked as J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian in the early 1900s. Terrell wasn’t yet writing historical fiction about women — she was a lawyer — but the story lingered in the back of her head.

Once she read Black author Victoria Christopher Murray’s work two years ago, she knew she found the partner she was waiting for to tackle da Costa Greene’s story. To write about a Black woman who passed as non-Black with an author she had never met was a process, especially when the editing coincided with the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and a pandemic.

Female-centered historical novels are dogged by questions of accuracy. Hence the author’s note.

The Washington Post talked to Terrell and Murray about what it was like to work on “The Personal Librarian” when so much of the world was falling apart.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: I feel like any kind of collaboration is difficult — especially when you’re crafting one character. How is creating a fictional narrative arc possible in conjunction with another mind?

Murray: I had written six other novels with another author. So I always say that I’m in the Guinness Book of World Records. A lot of people, after they write one book with an author, they never want to see that person again. So I’m in the Guinness Book of World Records, because I got the two best writing partners ever. It was so easy. You have a person to talk through everything with. When we finished “The Personal Librarian” and I had to start my next book, I felt so alone.

Terrell: I felt adrift.

Murray: Exactly! I know from the outside it looks like it’s something that’s very difficult to do. But when you find your soul mate writing partner, it is almost easier to write with them than to write alone.

Where did Agatha Christie go when she disappeared in 1926? Here’s one theory.

Q: Can you talk about beginning the editing process in June of 2020? What was it like to edit a book about a Black woman who existed during a time of intense racial strife during another time of intense racial strife and solitude?

Murray: It was — I don’t even know the words — it was a safe place for me to land. Every day, when we got on the phone, we got to see each other. As we were talking and editing together, we would just say, this is why Belle passed as White. This is why she did it. We spent the first hour of every day talking about the situation that was going on around us. We were talking about the world and then we talked about the book.

Terrell: We knew before we wrote the book that the parallels were clear. Belle’s father fought for equality in the years of reconstruction after the Civil War. He was a big advocate of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and he fought alongside people who are maybe a little bit better-known, like Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. And in response to this promise of equality, there was a horrible explosion of racism in our country — segregation and Jim Crow laws. And that’s what Belle had to deal with. That’s why she was forced to pass as White. The dream her father had of this equal world where people would be judged according to their merits and not the color of their skin, that promise kind of disappeared as Belle became an adult.

Here we are envisioning Belle’s world and her place and the really terrible, hard decisions she had to make to put her father’s legacy and teachings in her past. And at the same time, the same things are happening in our own world. So every day, we’re processing the modern explosion of racism, which had been going on but it was becoming more and more apparent. Belle’s life, at least for me, became more alive, more real. But for me personally, every day I’m looking at the world through Victoria’s eyes and Belle’s eyes. And I am just getting angry.

Murray: It was a horrible experience, but what was also so great about it is how we both knew how Belle felt. Because now we didn’t have to imagine it, we were living it. I mean, once I read about Belle da Costa Greene, I knew what she was going through. I knew that every day she went out of her house wearing a mask. I knew all the questions and things that she had to have inside, but she couldn’t ask out loud. Heather always says, “Belle could never be her authentic self.”

20 books to read this summer

Q: For Marie, why did you decide to take on a co-author? For Victoria, I would love to hear your perspective on the #ownvoices wave in the book world [identifying diverse books written by members of that group] and how that might operate in conjunction with Black Lives Matter and this book.

Terrell: Belle da Costa Green has been hovering at the periphery of my imagination for decades. Once I turned to writing exclusively about historical women, she was always there. But it did not feel right or appropriate for me to try and tell the story of a Black woman without a Black woman. I think, as an author of fiction, you can envision a lot. But there are certain stories that deserve to have a storyteller who has had those experiences themselves or had similar.

This was a leap that I didn’t want to take or feel like it was right to take myself. I feel so blessed — I literally picture Victoria and I holding hands and leaping over that abyss together. And I am so fortunate that she took that leap with me.

Murray: I just honor Heather for even thinking, maybe I should include Belle’s other authentic voice — because Belle did live partially as a White woman. Most of the time, [Black] voices are not heard. That’s where the #ownvoices matter comes in — because so often, other people have been trying to tell our stories. And when people tell our stories, the stories are watered down.

Sign up for the Book Club newsletter

Q: We’ve talked about how much Victoria’s voice was needed in bringing Belle to life. But because she navigated so much of the world as a “White” woman, do you think Marie’s perspective was also needed to create this narrative?

Murray: I do not believe that a Black woman could have done justice to Belle, just as I believe a White woman couldn’t have done her justice either. We had to find a way to blend these two lives together for her and that’s what I think we did.

Terrell: But at the end of the day, when Belle put her head down on her pillow, she was a Black woman. She had to wear a White mask to survive in this racist world. She was really brought up by both of her parents to celebrate her Black heritage and the importance of equality. It was very important to us to find a place for Belle to be her authentic self. She never had a family of her own. She couldn’t, because she couldn’t risk what her child might look like. I spent a lot of time thinking about the sacrifices, sacrifice of her culture, sacrifice of her heritage, sacrifice of her personal choices, her family, in order to succeed in the world and pass. Victoria helped me understand what that weight would have been like.

Q: What do you hope readers get from this book?

Terrell: Our greatest hope is that White and Black readers have the experience of reading the book, seeing the different sides of Belle’s life and coming together to have their own frank conversations. I think it’s only in having those honest conversations, owning our own authentic views and experiences, that we can actually cross a divide.

A note to our readers

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.