The Inside Scoop!
Ben Hur: A Tale of The Christ
You have written over twenty books—do you have a favourite?
My favorite tends to be either the one I’m working on or the one I just finished. Right now I’m finishing a historical novel set in New York in the 1870s (working title: The New People), so I’m excited about that. And another favorite is a historical novel published in 2011 called Leaving Van Gogh, which was about the last two months of the painter’s life.
But of course I’m really excited about Ben-Hur because it’s just a terrific story. And not too many people get to write movie tie-ins for films inspired by a relative.
What inspired you to update your great-great-grandfather’s epic novel, Ben-Hur?
I’ve always loved nineteenth-century novels, especially the ones that tell wonderful stories in old-fashioned prose. Ben-Hur struck me as falling into that category, and when I found out about the new film version of the story, I found my way to two of the producers, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. As it happened, they were just starting to look for an author for a film tie-in version, so it was true serendipity.
Carol with the director of Ben-Hur
How did the writing experience compare to writing your own novels?
So much easier! When I’m writing original fiction, about 80 percent of the effort goes into imagining the characters and plots. Putting it all into words is a much less strenuous process. It’s also in some ways the most purely enjoyable. So Ben-Hur was a true joy for me.
What challenged you the most with this novel?
The chariot race was a huge challenge! That’s the part most readers will remember, usually from the 1959 film. In the original novel it’s actually quite short, so I wanted to stretch it out over a longer reading span. But it was a real challenge to create enough incidents to make it longer, and I also had a terrible time keeping track of all the chariots, who was where when, how many laps they’d run, and the like. I made chart after chart and in the end my editor still had to keep me on track.
Carol and a chariot
Do you have a favourite scene in the novel?
I’ve known this story since before I could read—when I was little, we had a children’s version illustrated with stills from the 1959 movie. And I was always fascinated by the scenes of Ben-Hur’s mother and sister afflicted by leprosy and cured by Jesus. So dramatic! That was really fun to write.
Which character do you relate to most in Ben-Hur?
One good reason to rewrite Ben-Hur is that in the original version the characters are not psychologically complex. I tried to shade their personalities a little bit and to give the women more personality. I’m very fond of Esther in my version—she’s practical, competent, warm, and down-to-earth.
As one of the bestselling stories of all time, Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ has captivated and enthralled millions around the world—both in print and on the big screen. Now Lew’s great-great-granddaughter has taken the old-fashioned prose of this classic novel and breathed new life into it for today’s audience.
Coming to theaters in August 2016 as Ben-Hur, a major motion picture from MGM and Paramount studios, the story follows Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish nobleman whose childhood friend Messala betrays him. Accused of trying to murder the new Roman governor in Jerusalem, Judah is sentenced to the galley ships and vows to seek revenge against the Romans and Messala. But a chance encounter with a carpenter from Nazareth sets Judah on a different path.
Rediscover the intrigue, romance, and tragedy in this thrilling adventure.
Also included: the inspiring story-behind-the-story of Lew Wallace—Indiana lawyer, author, and Civil War general; and nearly 150 images, including color images from the 2016 motion picture, black-and-white images from earlier films, and other images of historical interest.
What do you hope new readers take away from this story?
If I could write a slogan, it would be “So much more than the chariot race!” Ben-Hur is about a man who is plunged into disaster and reacts at first with anger, resorting to violence. Ultimately his contact with Jesus turns him toward forgiveness. This is an evergreen message.
What do you see as Lew Wallace’s legacy within the Wallace family?
Lew casts a long shadow in our family. For one thing, Ben-Hur made a lot of money, and that prosperity trickled down through a couple of generations. For another thing, there’s that writing legacy: my father (Lew’s great-grandson) was a sportswriter for the New York Times and published quite a few books. I don’t share much of Lew’s genetic material, but I grew up with the idea that writing was an accessible and enjoyable profession.
What motivated him to write?
Lew wrote from his teenage years onward, and I’d say it was his method of escape. In some ways he was always seeking adventure, and when he couldn’t find it in the real world, he just wrote it.
How do you feel the movies, past and present, reflect the heart of the novel?
Every era gets the Ben-Hur it needs, and the current film’s emphasis on forgiveness is a really important message for our time.
The movie’s coliseum set
What motivates you to write novels?
Sometimes I write about situations I’d like to experience and sometimes about situations I just can’t wrap my head around: Leaving Van Gogh, about the painter’s suicide, was one of these. I’ve focused on historical novels lately and they’re a form of imaginative time travel, which is great fun.
Has the writing legacy been passed on to other members of your family?
My sisters both write very well, though neither of them writes professionally. I can brag that my sons do, too—but I’m married to a writer, so who can say where the gift comes from in their case?
Your book To Marry an English Lord partly inspired Downton Abbey—please share a little about this.
Back in the 1980s I wrote To Marry an English Lord with a friend, Gail MacColl. It’s about American heiresses who married English aristocrats at the end of the nineteenth century. The book came out in 1989 and eventually went out of print. But in 2011, as Season 2 of Downton Abbey aired in the UK, Julian Fellowes told a reporter that he had been reading To Marry an English Lord when he was asked to write a new TV series. And he was fascinated by the dilemma of the several hundred American women who ended up in England as part of the aristocracy. To Marry an English Lord was reissued in 2012 and eventually became a New York Times bestseller. It’s had the most amazing and delightful second act.
What do you hope to write next?
I’m just finishing a new novel with the working title of The New People: A Novel of Gilded Age New York. It’s a fictional exploration of the clash between new money and old money in New York in the late nineteenth century—just like today only with bustles and top hats!