I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Chloe Benjamin, incredible author with a fantastic and much talked about book, The Immortalists coming out in January, 2018. Grab a tea/coffee and get ready to enjoy reading about this incredibly intelligent, down to earth and insightful lady, whose books are thought-provoking, often character driven, and amazingly realistic. You will fall in love with Chloe Benjamin’s work, just like I had.
Interview with Chloe Benjamin, author of The Immortalists!
Q. Hello Chloe, I’d like to begin by asking you what is the most important part about writing for you? Being a successful author, what advice can you give those who are working towards publishing soon?
C.B. Both great questions! Most importantly, writing gives my life meaning and purpose, rhythm and comprehension. My best advice to aspiring writers is to read, read, read and write, write, write. Other writers were my first teachers, and they continue to be. Even if you don’t have the opportunity to study creative writing in the classroom, reading authors you love can teach so much, from language, structure, setting and character to nitty-gritty things like how to format dialogue. Try to get your work as polished as you can, and perhaps share it with others for their comments, before seeking an agent or publication.
Q. I absolutely love the cover of “The Immortalists.” How much input did you have in its creation?
C.B. I’m so glad! While working on a book, I develop a folder of images that inspire me, and share those with the art team once it’s time to start thinking about the cover. At the same time, they’re experts in their own right, and I had to trust that their concept— which was in some ways different from my inspiration images, though just as compelling!—would strike the right balance between art and salability.
Q. There’s a strong Jewish upbringing and sense of community in your story. Did you pull this from personal experiences, research into Jewish communities and lifestyles, or, are there other influences that you used to create this ‘background’ in “The Immortalists?”
C.B. I’ve always been fascinated by religion. My mom’s side of the family is Episcopalian—my grandfather was actually a minister—and my dad’s side is Jewish. My parents are divorced, so I experienced different religious traditions in each household as I grew up, especially once my stepmother, who is very involved in the Jewish community, entered our lives. But because I didn’t personally affiliate with one religion over the other, I still felt like a bit of an outsider, which perhaps made Judaism easier to write about—I hadn’t grown up with a certain religious framework as a given, so I was curious, and did a great deal of research. I also pulled from my familial experiences of Jewish holidays, language and storytelling.
Q. Your characters are realistic, well-developed and at times, heart-wrenching. Where did these amazing people come from? Did you develop them based on someone you know? Would you say bits and pieces of their characters are actually… you?
C.B. I’m so glad the characters resonated with you! I think it’s probably true that there’s a little bit of the author in any character they write, and there are certain aspects of me in each of the Golds—some more than others. But for the most part, they really are their own people. Some, like Simon, I had a clear vision for from the start, while others, like Daniel, came into focus over time. It was important to me that they—and their lives— felt distinct, so that the reader didn’t experience a kind of Groundhog Day with each prophecy. At the same time, I wanted to explore how their shared history and family ties gave their personalities and orientations toward life surprising parallels.
Q. When you write, do you use a special method for your plot development, settings and characters? Do you make plot boards, use a notebook or a special computer program to map or flesh out your story?
C.B. I don’t, though I’m intrigued by authors who do! I generally follow my intuition when drafting, moving through the narrative in the roughly the order that it appears in the final book, then going back to shape, edit, revise, cut certain sections and expand others. I do take a ton of notes, though, many of which pertain to later scenes.
Sometimes, a scene from later in the book will come to me early and I can write it and have it saved for months or years. But generally, it’s just following my gut, bumbling into the occasional dead end and finding my way back.
Q. What are your future plans? Is there another book in the works at the moment? Tell me about “To Have and to Preserve,” which is forthcoming in February, 2018.
C.B. I’m at work on a third novel, though promotion for THE IMMORTALISTS is making it a bit stop-and-go with the new one. But I always live with whatever book I’m working on in the back of my mind, experiencing the world with a constant eye toward inspiration for it. Even if I’m not adding pages to the manuscript, I’m usually researching and musing. “To Have and to Preserve” is a piece of nonfiction that will be published in Real Simple and is about my passion for canning, and the way it’s influenced by domestic life, written as someone who has never been a very good cook!
Q. Do you secretly want to write in a genre you haven’t yet? What is your favorite genre to read? Do you have a favorite author that you like to read? Did a specific author inspire you to start writing?
C.B. I write and usually read literary fiction, but I also have a soft spot for sci-fi and fantasy— Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy contains three of my all-time favorite books, and I was recently blown away by Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. I have a (now not-so-) secret desire to write something that takes place in outer space, which has always made me feel dizzy with awe, but I also admire the skill, research and ingenuity required of writers who do this kind of work and am not sure I’m cut out for it!
As for favorite authors, my most beloved one is Alice Munro. As a teenager and young adult I read a ton of short stories and their authors helped to teach me how to write: Lorrie Moore, George Saunders, Flannery O’Connor, Miranda July, Mary Gaitskill, Raymond Carver. I love the scope and intensity of Russian writers like Nabokov and Tolstoy, and I’ve lately been blown away by contemporary writers like Hanya Yanagihara, Tana French and Emily St. John Mandel.
Q. From beginning to end, how long does it typically take you to write a book like “The Immortalists?” Have you ever considered writing a series?
C. B. The initial manuscript took about 2.5 years, but it was about five years total from conception to publication. That seems to be about standard for me, though I’m always convinced that whatever I’m working on will take a decade! I have thought about writing a series, but I also think it’s a lot of pressure—evolving the same characters, maintaining quality throughout the books, etc.—so it would have to be the right project.
Q. Reviews can be tricky for any writer. How do you handle a poor review, if you ever got one? Is there any advice on how to handle reviews, that you can give my readers who are pursuing a writing career?
C. B. Reviews are hard, and I would be lying if I said that I’ve mastered how to ingest poor ones. Some authors don’t read any of their reviews; others read only published ones. I read pretty much everything, because I feel it’s important for me to know how people are responding to my work, but that does require a thick skin and I’m still working on it. For those who are pursuing a writing career and trying to cope with negative feedback, it’s important to remember how very subjective literature is. Readers bring their personal tastes but also their own background and experiences to what they read, all of which informs their reactions. I try to look for consensus. If I’m seeing a similar critique over and over again, I take it seriously. On the other hand, a lone comment, positive or negative, might really resonate with me, and that’s something to listen to, too.
Q. So your first book, “The Anatomy of Dreams,” did really well in the awards department. Did you feel any pressure from this when writing “The Immortalists?” Where were you when you first heard that you’d won an award?
C.B. The Anatomy of Dreams won a regional award, the Council for Wisconsin Writers’ Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award, and was long listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. The Edna Ferber award was a huge honor, but the long list was just as thrilling, in part because we heard about it before the book came out, when I was all sorts of terrified about what kinds of reactions the novel would get once it was out in the world. I’m a perfectionist and put immense pressure on myself every time I write something (not always conducive to the creative process!), but I think that has more to do with wanting to grow and improve with each book.
Q. The boys, Simon and Daniel, in “The Immortalists” are so very different in almost every way, yet they are connected because of their past, their family and the prediction. Was there a reason you made them this way?
C.B. You’re right—it’s interesting that both the boys and the girls are fairly opposite from each other! Much of that was because, as I mentioned earlier, I wanted to make sure that each sibling’s personality and philosophy about life felt distinct—even as they are all yoked by their family history and shared experiences. I also think it’s natural for siblings to veer apart in their patterns and personalities to differentiate themselves, creating a place they alone can occupy in the family ecosystem.
Q. Without giving too much away, the element of a future prediction hangs over the siblings. This is an interesting concept. Do you believe in predictions and such? Why did you choose this element for “The Immortalists?” In tying all the siblings together in this way, was it a form of motivation to push the characters toward obtaining their ultimate goals?
C.B. I’m not sure whether I believe in predictions, but I’m fascinated by them—and I think the book was a chance to explore that curiosity. I wanted to leave open-ended the question of whether the predictions come true, and what factors—fate, chance, free will, etc.— shape the siblings’ lives. And as a narrative device, as you say, it gives the book a sense of urgency, pushing each character to become more fully themselves, more quickly, than perhaps they might have without the sense of a ticking clock.
Q. What is it about 1969 in New York City’s lower east side attracted you to use this year and place for the opening setting of your story?
C.B. 1969 was a year of such turmoil, and it created a setting in which these children really felt like their world was being turned upside-down and would crave the certainty of a prophecy. I also knew I wanted to follow the Golds until the present (about 2010), so I had to backtrack! As for the LES in New York City, that area has such deep roots for the Jewish immigrant community, of which my paternal ancestors were a part. Researching for that section allowed me to delve into their lives and use source materials from my own family.
Q. Klara’s goals & Varya’s goals are very different. In fact, these girls are extraordinarily different. Why is this so important to the story? Why did you do this? Why didn’t you feel a sisterly bond would work in this story instead of a brother and sister bond? Did age have anything to do with this?
C.B. That’s a great question. As you say, the closest bond in the book is between the youngest siblings, a boy and a girl. That interested me because I think it’s less common (or perhaps just less written about), and their ages made Simon and Klara more natural playmates. I do think that Klara and Varya have a bond of their own, but it’s more fraught.
Q. Reaching into each character’s soul is so very eye-opening in this story, which is what I felt I was doing as a reader. Their outer appearances did not mirror who they really were deep down. It was complex writing at its best. These characters are not simplistic in the least. What was it you were hoping to accomplish by taking them apart bit by bit. How did this enhance the story?
C.B. What a beautiful comment! I’m so glad this came through. One of my greatest motivations as a writer is a deep curiosity about people: who we are and how we become that way, what we show and what we hide, and how our relationships with others can slowly break through—or only skim—our defenses. At some level, my goal as a writer is always to reveal the humanity of my characters in a way that inspires empathy in readers, even if those readers don’t always like or approve of the characters. We can be so quick to judge each other, especially in this cultural moment, and it’s much harder to judge someone if you understand them—if you see their wounds and strengths and how they got them.
Q. Would you consider yourself a ‘deep’ and thought provoking author? Why or why not?
C.B. I hope to write books that have these qualities. As a writer and a person, the big questions have always interested and haunted me: How did we humans come to be? How do we live without knowing how long we have in the world, and what happens after death? To what extent can we truly know one another? At the same time, any book that sets out to explore these questions in a heavy-handed way can feel leaden, so I value humor and a good story just as much as ‘deep’ subject matter.
Q. Describe yourself ten years ago. Describe yourself as you hope to see yourself twenty years from now.
C.B. Ten years ago I was a sophomore in college, very homesick, writing a lot and dreaming about the life I have now! As the quote you pulled earlier says, I probably haven’t changed very much, even as I’ve grown a lot along the way: I’m a homebody who values close relationships, reading under blankets and a sense of rootedness. Twenty years from now, I hope to have a couple more books under my belt that I’m proud of, and a strong, healthy family.
Q. When you began creating this story. Was there ever a moment after typing something that you had to sit back and say… wow!?
C.B. Ha! I do have moments when I feel confident that what I’ve written is strong, or the excitement of coming up with the answer to a particularly difficult conundrum. Those are the most wonderful writing moments, even if they aren’t always the case!
Q. There’s a lot of intricate psychological aspects to the personalities of the characters. Did you intend on making them this complex?
C.B. I definitely wanted them to feel as rich and multilayered as real people, with strengths and weaknesses, consistencies and contradictions. Sometimes readers talk about how frustrated they are with the Golds at various moments, which I take as a compliment in that their behavior feels authentic and strikes a chord.
Q. What would you do if you knew the date when you were going to die?
C.B. I think it would depend what that date was! Close, very far away or somewhere in the middle? I’m not entirely sure how I would react—I suspect you can’t know until you’re in the position of being confronted with your mortality.
Q. At the heart of this book, the story, is siblings… Do you have siblings? Are any of your characters based on one? In what way? Why two sisters and two brothers for “The Immortalists?” Was this to show contrasts? Opposites? Complexities?
C.B. I have two brothers. I don’t think any of the characters are directly based on them, but I do think my interest in sibling dynamics comes from my own experience—especially looking at how people with the same familial upbringing can turn out so differently. I’ve always liked the symmetry of four siblings, with two of each gender.
Q. I detected a lot of anger in the second half of “The Immortalists.” Why anger?
C.B. That’s a good question. Daniel, in particular, has a lot of anger, and to me, that is the tragedy of his section. His guilt and self-hatred morphs into anger and hate toward the fortune teller. This lets him off the hook, emotionally, but it also becomes his downfall. In his section, I wanted to explore how someone who feels they have been wronged can then do wrong to others.
Q. Do you think all your characters as being strong in their own ways? Do you think combined, they mirror certain aspects of one whole person?
C.B. I think they are all strong in different ways, and compromised or fragile in others. That’s interesting about mirroring a whole person. Certainly, if you could add a dash of Daniel into Simon, or a dash of Simon into Varya, the result would be much more balanced! But in general, I think whole people are usually not “balanced,” in that we all lean one way or the other in our coping mechanisms.
Q. You are an amazing author. Your voice and ability is clearly masterful on the pages. Have you ever considered teaching, or sharing your insight?
C.B. Thank you for the very kind words! I have done some teaching, during grad school and afterward, and really enjoyed it. I’ve also taught workshops on aspects of publishing like finding an agent, and offered manuscript consulting. Right now, the promotion of the novel makes life a bit too hectic to teach, but it is something that I really hope to come back to in the future.
This sadly concludes my interview with Chloe Benjamin. I think I could talk to her all day about writing, books and her work! My thanks to Chloe Benjamin for spending some time with me and sharing her insights about her latest book: The Immortalists
Due out: January 9, 2018
Check out BookExpo Editors’ Buzz here
Read Entertainment Weekly’s Article here
The Immortalists: UK Edition
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