For those of you who don't know author Chloe Benjamin, let's introduce her first by saying that she is originally from San Francisco, CA, and a graduate of Vassar College and of the M.F.A. in fiction program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her first novel, The Anatomy of Dreams received the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award and was long listed for the 2014 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. Her second novel, The Immortalists, is being published January 9, 2018. Later in the year, it will be published in over thirteen countries, and TV/film rights have sold to the Jackal Group. (See her Book Tour Schedule at the end of this article).
In The Immortalists, Benjamin constructs an imaginative family saga. It's 1969 in New York City's Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes. The prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in '80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11, hoping to control fate; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.
Benjamin was gracious enough to give our guest blogger Navidad Thelamour an exclusive interview and kindly answer despite her busy book launch schedule. Read here as the author we’d all love to know, of the novel we can’t wait to snag, leaves a little piece of herself for her readers.
Your debut novel, The Anatomy of Dreams, explores similar themes as The Immortalists. Your novels explore the idea of “what if” and the oppression that life’s limits press upon us. What do you want to say the loudest as you explore these themes; what do you want to ensure that your readers get out of these novels once they’ve turned that final page?
I’m drawn to big, existential questions: the tension between life’s limits and possibilities, the tension between knowledge and uncertainty, and so on. I think we all cope with these curiosities, to some degree, so I hope that my novels offer readers the chance to sit with and explore them. With The Immortalists in particular, and its focus on mortality, I hope it offers solace and companionship for those who also struggle with uncertainty, anxiety, and loss—as well as the question of how to live fully.
The world you created in The Immortalists is so complete, from the description of magic tricks to the inner workings of experimental science, it’s obvious that you did a lot of research to get the details just right. What can you tell us about your research process for this novel?
Both of my novels have taken quite a bit of research, but The Immortalists definitely takes the cake! Each of its four sections required a deep dive into a different character, time period, profession and subculture, from the Castro’s early gay community to the world of professional magicians. To keep myself from becoming overwhelmed, I focused on these sections one at a time, though I sometimes had to jump forward and research the next character because of their role in the previous character’s section (for instance, I had to understand Klara’s passion for magic while writing the preceding section, Simon’s). My research process included a wide variety of materials, from nonfiction and memoirs to documentaries, archival footage, interviews and travel.
In The Immortalists, magic plays a big factor in the storyline and becomes a metaphor throughout, which becomes the novel’s namesake. What is your own personal experience with magic, and how did you know it was the perfect fit for Klara?
I didn’t have any experience with the world of magic prior to writing the book, but like Klara, I do have a curiosity about the edges of reality—or, put differently, how much of reality seems inexplicable, how it can be mindbogglingly strange and hard to pin down. When I thought of the name for Klara’s act, I knew it was the perfect title for the novel, as all of the characters chafe against mortality in different ways. I see religion, science, and magic—all belief systems that offer ways of coping with these questions—as more related than they might seem on the surface.
Photographed by Kaia Calhoun
Readers who know and follow you will be able to tell that you put a lot of yourself into The Immortalists, such as your love of science and medicine and your personal experience with both San Francisco and New York, where you went to school. What other nuggets of yourself or your past can be found within the pages of this novel?
I grew up with San Francisco and gay parents, and I was a ballet dancer for about fifteen years—so even though I’m not a gay man, I probably share the most DNA with Simon’s section. On the other hand, I identify with Klara’s passion and ambition, and with Varya’s tendency toward anxiety and control. I’m probably least similar to Daniel, though I have a soft spot for him, and his section is set near Poughkeepsie, NY, where I went to college.
As an MFA holder and writing instructor, I’m sure you’ve run across so many different forms and genres of writing. What forms or genres of writing have you not yet experimented with yourself, and would you like to ever try writing in those forms? What makes those so different from the writing you do now?
I think of my writing as being pretty traditional literary fiction: character-driven, with an attention to language—though I love a good story and am always trying to improve my use of plot! There’s a bit of a speculative or magical realist element to my work, and I admire writers who write more fully within those traditions. I’m fascinated by outer space and have a wild dream of writing a novel set on a space station, but I have no experience writing sci-fi and the research for that kind of project feels even more intimidating than what I did for The Immortalists!
Which of your short stories or review articles (previously or soon-to-be published) was the hardest to write or conceptualize, and what was that experience like for you?
The hardest one to write was one that hasn’t yet been published, as I’ve been keeping it under my hat until I feel brave enough to share it. It’s about my own history of anxiety, especially as it relates to loss and the body.
What is the strangest compliment you’ve ever received regarding your writing, whether in school or since being published?
Ooh, strangest? I once got a three-star review that said something like, “Was gonna be a two; got a little better.”
The road from drafting a novel on your laptop to having it published by a major publisher can be just as long and grueling a process as it is exciting and self-verifying. What is your most memorable experience with your editorial team thus far? Have there been any situations where you do did not agree with their edits, and, if so, how did you deal with this?
I’d like to think I’m both open to feedback—that’s why you have an editor, after all!—and firm in my vision for my work. When my agent sent the book to publishers and I spoke with the editors who were interested, I was lucky to find someone who shared my vision but could also improve on it. I have to say that the publishing process has been incredibly smooth and positive. My editor and I are very simpatico, and if one of us feels strongly, the other typically understands and cedes to them.
You’ve described your life in eight words as: “Lakes, books, coffee, crafting, friends, stories, quiet, home.” Can you describe for us a typical day in your life, and how your writing and writing success has changed (or not changed) that eight-word formula for you?
I’m very impressed you found that S&S questionnaire! Happily, a typical day in my life hasn’t changed very much, although I’m now a full time writer (while I wrote my first book, I worked in social services). I live in Madison, WI, where I did my MFA, which is far from the publishing epicenter in New York City. While I used to worry I might miss opportunities by being so far away, I’ve realized that having a quieter, more removed life is a good fit for me. I love to fly into New York, but it’s better for my work to have a few degrees of separation from the hubbub and pressure. Most days, I try to write from 9am to 12 or 1pm and use afternoons for emails, media, and other business-y things. Working out, going to yoga, spending cozy evenings with friends, and knitting (a lot!) keep me balanced.
All of your readers are dying to know: what projects are you looking forward to working on next?
I’m working on another novel, though I’ve had to set it aside entirely in the past few weeks, as publicity ramps up for The Immortalists. I’ll be on tour throughout January (feel free to link to the tour schedule on my website!), but after I come back and sleep for a thousand hours, I’m excited to get back to it.
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