Interview by Ashley Kalita
The Immortalists is our Girls’ Night In book club pick for January, so we sat down with author Chloe Benjamin to learn more about her approach to reading and writing, how she takes when chronic migraines strike, and all the knitting she has planned for 2019.
Writing & Career
What is your general writing process? What inspires you to write, and how do you begin to layout a novel?
For me, inspiration is the most mysterious part of the writing process. I don’t have many ideas, and when I do, I often spend up to a year taking notes and doing early research before I begin writing. I alternate between writing and research – which can take the form of reading, interviews, travel, archival photos/video, and more. I work best in the morning, usually at coffee shops (with earplugs!) but sometimes at home, in the study I share with my husband and two kitties.
What are your favorite books? Which genres do you tend to read more of? Do they influence your writing?
I love a big, character-driven epic – both to read and to write! Some recent favorites include The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne, The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and The Nix by Nathan Hill. I also love books that toe the line between literary and speculative fiction, like The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell and The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber. At a sentence level, I return to short story writers for inspiration: Alice Munro, ZZ Packer, George Saunders, Mary Gaitskill, Lorrie Moore, Flannery O’Connor. I’m absolutely influenced by what I read: wonderful reading reminds me what is possible and what to strive for in my own work.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read frequently and closely! Even if you can’t take creative writing classes, other writers are your teachers. Growing up, I annotated heavily in books and I still often do – underlining sentences that strike me, trying to figure out how a certain effect was accomplished, noticing devices or elements of craft. Experiment with different voices, and know that much of success in writing depends upon a willingness to revise.
What can you tell us about your next novel?
I’m too superstitious to share much, but it’s another epic (with a lot of research), following one character this time instead of four.
Why was it important for you to bring this story to life?
I’ve always struggled with uncertainty, and there’s no greater uncertainty than how long we have in the world. In illuminating questions about the value of knowledge and the power of story, I hoped to explore how we live in the face of loss.
How did you develop the personalities Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon?
Simon and Klara came to me earlier and more fully-formed than Daniel and Varya, but for all four, it was a slow process of considering their individual quirks and motivations and Achilles heels – and then putting them together and seeing how they interacted as a group.
Who would you want to play the Gold children in a film/series adaptation?
That’s a tough one! Simon, I think, would have to be an unknown and definitely a ballet dancer – no body doubles! I see Klara as Ruth Wilson, hands down. Daniel I struggle with more, but maybe a tortured and made-under Jon Hamm. When I saw Julia Roberts in Homecoming, I instantly saw her as Varya.
What are some key takeaways you hope readers took away from the book?
I hope the book offers readers solace and companionship in facing the uncertainty of life, and also that it gives them an opportunity to talk about mortality with their friends or families or book club members.
What does self care mean to you and how are you practicing it?
I’ve also begun to explore mindfulness and meditation as a way to cope with pain and reduce the pressure I put on myself to be productive. I’m trying to pay better attention to what does and doesn’t feel good, and to change old patterns that are no longer helpful.
What do you do when you have a night with no obligations?
These are my favorite nights! I love being cozy at home, especially at this time of year. My ideal night in would definitely include taking a bath with a book – I use lavender bubble bath or magnesium bath salts which are good for sore muscles – and, because I’m a huge knitter, I love chipping away at a shawl or a sweater, probably with a cat or two nearby.
Who’s inspiring you right now?
All of the women running for or elected to political office –especially my senator, Tammy Baldwin, whose 2018 campaign I volunteered for. My Grandma, who is as whip-smart and flamboyant at ninety-one as I could hope to be at any age. And the female authors who have published sensational books in the past year, giving me hope that, in dark times, books really do matter.
Want to keep up with Chloe? Follow her on Instagram.