The Immortalists Author Chloe Benjamin Interview
Chloe Benjamin Explains the Evolution of The Immortalists, One of 2018's Best New Books
When I first got a copy of The Immortalists earlier this year, I absolutely devoured it — and several months later, I found myself opening up the novel once again, desperate to relive the narrative that unfolds across the book's 352 pages.
The underlying premise of Chloe Benjamin's second book is centered on four siblings who forever alter their destiny on one fateful day in 1969 and how, after learning the supposed dates of each of their individual deaths from a traveling psychic, they choose to live out the rest of their lives. The story spans decades and travels from coast to coast, all while giving a glimpse into four tremendously different worlds that happen to be linked not just by blood but by superstition.
I spoke with Benjamin by phone in advance of the novel's official Jan. 9 release, and our wide-ranging conversation — edited and condensed for clarity — appears below.
POPSUGAR: What was the inspiration behind the book? Had you met someone like the fortune teller on Hester Street?
Chloe Benjamin: I wish I had a really good inception story, but I usually live with ideas for a while before I start a book. And that's in part because I just don't have a lot of ideas. I think that's why I'm not a short-story writer; I have maybe one idea every five years. So it's kind of hard for me to remember the exact seed, because I would continually add things on over time as I thought more and more about the siblings. I remember that I had this initial idea about children going to see a fortune teller, and I think it just comes from my own neuroses, really. Now that you've read the book, it won't surprise you to hear that I have anxiety about a number of things — but particularly knowledge, uncertainty, and loss. And of course, there's no greater uncertainty than the fact that we don't know how long we have in the world. So I thought that that would be an interesting way to explore these questions about seeking knowledge. Is knowledge helpful? How much is too much? And so on.
PS: What does your writing process look like on a day-to-day basis?
CB: It has changed a bit, because while I was working on this book I was working at a day job and then after the book sold I was able to write full time and that, obviously, is a huge gift and luxury that I'm still sort of finding my rhythms in. But generally, I get up, I try to write from maybe 9 to 12 or 9 to 1. When I was at my day job, I would get up early before work and write and then I would do the 9 to noon schedule on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday because I worked Monday through Thursday. So that was really nice, and I kind of knew that I had the second half of the week to be my writing workweek. Now I can use the afternoons for more business-y things or research. I find that I can't go eight hours in that mind frame. I can't maintain that level of creative quality over a full day. So that's kind of been the transition that I'm learning as I've moved into this phase.
PS: You mentioned research, and I'm curious: how did you do all the research for the characters in The Immortalists? Everything is so intricate and so specific, so I'm just really curious to hear how you managed to inhabit these places so well.
CB: The research was huge. And that I think is why the book — I mean, it's not that it took a ton of time compared to other people, it wasn't like a 10-year Goldfinch-type thing. But it was probably two and a half years for first draft, and then five years from conception to publication. I mean, I tend to write less about what I know than what I want to know, and there are certainly aspects of my life that are incorporated into the book. I was a ballet dancer, I am from San Francisco, I grew up with gay parents so I have some relationship to that community and a real passion for gay rights. But I'm certainly not a magician or have ever been in the military, and I'm not a scientist . . . so I just went really deep with each section, slowly, one by one, and that was the way I wrote the book. I took in everything from archival materials to nonfiction, some fiction, memoirs, documentaries, newspaper clippings, trying to visit — I think I visited everywhere that is in the book. And if I couldn't — like for instance with the Lower East Side, where things have changed so much — that research I did more using maps and old footage to try to kind of re-create for myself what that would have been like. So yeah, just a lot of really deep dives to try to do it with as much veracity as possible because I think, especially in this cultural and political climate where there's so much debate about who can write what, if you are going to make the leap to write something that is not your personal experience, you have to try to do it with as much integrity as possible — and I think research is the grounding for that.
PS: So after doing all that research, which character do you think was ultimately easiest to write, and which was hardest?
CB: That's a good question. I think Simon was easiest, I started with him — maybe subconsciously, in part because I had those biographical similarities. I mean, even just the fact that I knew his landscape. I am from San Francisco, so I didn't have to rely as much on maps to figure out like, "OK. How would he have walked here?" Or, "Where would his apartment be?" Which I had to do for New York because, even though I visit it, I'm not very familiar with that city at all. And the ballet was all knowledge that I had. Obviously, what it was like to be a gay man during that time and then the details of the AIDS crisis was all research. But I think once I got going with his section, it really felt like it was coasting.
And then Varya's was the most difficult, by far, because of the science. And I initially had imagined her as working with this organism called the immortal jellyfish. There was a big New York Times article about it, I don't know, maybe like almost 10 years ago, about a scientist on the coast of Japan that is the only one who's able to cultivate it in the lab. And, basically, what this organism can do is when it's on the brink of death, it goes back to the first stage of life and becomes a polyp. So it's totally amazing and I was like, "This is perfect, this is so good for the book." But scientists don't know how it does what it does and so neither could Varya. I mean, probably for a couple of years I tried to make that work and I Skyped with scientists, and I was doing all of this molecular biology research and just trying to figure out what could be a narrative arc that would tie to that frame of study. I couldn't do it. But I turned in the book like that to my agent with that as the plot and she was like, "The first three-quarters of the book are great. That one is not working." So I tried more, and it was like banging my head against the wall. Then, when I was researching what kind of research is going on at UW Madison, still hoping that I could figure out somebody who was working on some jellyfish, I came across that they had the study going on in primates. When I saw it, I was like, "Oh, my God. That's it." And I realized that the kind of fleshiness and humanity of being monkeys was what that section needed instead of this more celestial kind of eerie quality that the jellyfish had.
PS: So ultimately, did you figure out all the characters first, or did you have the conceit first? How did it all come together in the format — of four different stories — that the book finally took?
CB: I think it was conceit first, in this very blurry way of knowing that I wanted there to be four siblings who went to see this fortune teller and then have the readers discover what happened to them. And then the siblings kind of came into focus one by one. Like I said, I had this really clear view of Simon from the start. And also Klara, I knew I wanted her to be a magician and kind of a nomad. And Daniel and Varya, I always knew, were the more kind of rigid, responsible two. But I didn't know — for a while, I thought maybe Daniel would be an architect at Jewish Museum. I knew that I wanted him to be more connected to Judaism. But to get back to your question, I think that as I learned more about the siblings, it influenced the trajectory — so, thinking about what they would do or where they would go, and then the snowball effect in how it would affect the other. The most wonderful moments are where you're surprised, though. Like with Eddie O'Donoghue, the cop. Initially, there were two cops that picked Simon up. He was one of them and then whatever, he was gone. And then I — I can't even remember what was the next link where I realized, but at some point it occurred to me that there didn't need to be two cops. It was just an extra character, and I didn't need to ask the reader to remember another name, so I decided, let's just have there be one. And then I became interested in him, and that interaction that he has with Klara, and I thought he might be an interesting threat, a potential malevolent presence to be watching her as she essentially picks people's pockets. And then I thought, what if he comes back in Daniel's section?
So initially, there was no sense of how he would weave in. And I really liked the surprise of that — just one of those light coincidences where like something will spark a relationship that then veers into something else. And then because of chance or maybe not, he winds up being the one who ultimately has the biggest affect on Daniel and kind of has the line to the fortune teller. So I think that's a long way of saying that the characters influenced the plot (and vice versa) as the story became clearer.
PS: If you had to pick a specific part of the book to name as your favorite, which would it be?
CB: Well, again — going back to Daniel, I know that some people have a hard time with that section, but I really have a soft spot for him even though I think he's the most different from me and obviously the most problematic in a lot of ways. But that final confrontation with Bruna . . . usually I write sequentially in the order that it appears in the book, but sometimes, I'll have inspiration for a scene that I know is way down the line and I can write toward it. Like once I knew what Varya's big secret would be — which I didn't know until her section, actually — I wrote that scene of confrontation between them, the very long scene.
And the same thing kind of happened with the scene between Bruna and Daniel. I just really liked giving Bruna a chance to tell her own story, because one thing that I wanted the reader to notice about her is the way that she is — she's always the woman. She's kind of abhorred or judged or presumptions are made about her over and over again. But she's a human being in her own right, with pain and reasons for the way that her life has turned out. And so to have her be seen in a more vulnerable (but also more empowered) place was important to me.
I think the other reason I liked Daniel's section is because I love Ruby, and I love bringing her and Raj back all those years later. I'm a huge fan of Alice Munro. She's kind of my number one. I love the way that she will take you 50 years in the future in just one sentence. And being able to see these whole lives in the course of one compacted story. I mean Raj has a very much like "started from the bottom now he's here," and so to kind of show the leap that he makes — you know, in previous drafts I thought that I was going to lean more into him being a controlling and to some extent abusive person, and I think ultimately is possessive, but I decided not to go into that direction because I think it's more interesting to have the nuance of "yeah, he has that quality — but he's also a much better parent than Klara."
PS: If you could inhabit any of the time periods in the book, which would it be?
CB: My first instinct was to say, "I don't know, given all that was happening in those time periods, I'm fine with being in this one." But I'm also like, "Well, right now is horrible too." Yeah, 2010 was an Obama year. I think I'll go back there. I'll go back to 2010. Those were the days, it now feels like.
PS: And finally, what message would you want to give to POPSUGAR readers?
CB: Well, I think what we're seeing culturally right now is how important it is for women to feel empowered in pursuing their dreams and speaking up about injustice. And I would just encourage them to trust themselves, to go for what it is they want and deserve and to be kind to each other in the process — because it's a hard world, and I think women helping women is one of the best things that we have.