When Jacquelyn Benson was a kid, she yearned to be Indiana Jones.
That dream carried into her teens; she even applied to and was accepted by the same college the fictional character attended, the University of Chicago. Her intention was to study archeology.
But then she was offered a scholarship to a different university and realized maybe it wasn’t exactly the subject of archaeology she was so passionate about.
“While real archaeology is absolutely fascinating, what I was in love with were these incredibly fun, adventurous stories — not necessarily the reality of digging in the dirt for hours,” Benson, who lives in Kensington, said via phone last week.
She studied English and philosophy at Northeastern University but came back to the subject — sort of — at Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland, where she studied anthropology and lived with an archaeology student.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the subject plays a major role in her debut novel, The Smoke Hunter.
The book, released in September, takes place in 1898 and follows British archivist and suffragette Eleanora Mallory, who stumbles upon a map to a city that shouldn’t exist, a jungle metropolis flourishing centuries after the Mayan civilization mysteriously collapsed. She travels to Central America to uncover the map’s secret with maverick archaeologist Adam Bates — but they’re not alone in their quest.
Initially, Benson thought this would be a historical romance, but she couldn’t quite make the two protagonists fall in love.
“I should have known something funny was going on when I wanted to set it in one of the oddest places I could think of — British Honduras [now Belize],” Benson said. “I kept trying to force that scene into the book, and it didn’t fit. … At that point, I took a look at the manuscript and realized I had written something a bit different than what I had set out to do. … I always had a fascination with adventure stories as a kid, and so I think it was somewhat inevitable that, when I set out to write something that was not necessarily an adventure story, that genre kind of invaded it and took over.”
Her idea for the novel started seven years ago. She wrote some of it, set it aside, then came back to it.
“I was looking at this pile of unfinished novels on my computer. I had a commitment problem with writing fiction, and I couldn’t get past chapter four. So I decided to just commit to something. … I pulled this story out and decided, this was going to be the one I saw through,” she said. “[Compared to the others], this book just seemed like it would be a really good time to write. I figured having fun doing it would make me more likely to succeed in getting over my chapter four problem.”
She gave herself permission for the first draft to be terrible — and a nine-month deadline.
“I got knocked up! That created a deadline. I wanted this book to be done before I had a baby,” she said.
Benson, who describes herself as a “tremendous nerd,” was also attracted to the story because of the amount of research it required. She’d never been to Belize, but she knew it to be rich with Mayan culture and archaeological history and began sifting through Flickr accounts and YouTube videos to get a sense of the place. She also spent a lot of time at the library, delving into history books and travelers’ accounts.
It’s Benson’s first book but not her first stab at writing, with two plays — Interference (2007) and Crush Depth (2009) — plus an ongoing anthology of short plays (Evening Broadcasts) under her belt. All were produced at the Players’ Ring in Portsmouth.
“Playwriting gives you a lot of experience with focusing on and paying attention to how dialogue can reveal character, and how that changes the pacing and tension in your story,” she said. “A play is a more a collaborative effort. I create the story through dialogue and the basic description of what happened. Then I hand it off to talented people who put flesh on the bones and bring it to life. But in a novel, it’s all on me.”
Now that the book’s out, Benson’s been busy organizing and attending various author events. She has a few other projects in the works and is trying decide which to move forward with next.
“The way I went about writing this book is very different from how I will write any other book. I learned so much about what works for me,” she said. “But it totally empowered me to move forward with the rest of my career.”