Booksellers across the country have chosen The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (G.P. Putnam's Sons, January 9, 2018), as their number-one pick for the January Indie Next List.
The novel begins in 1969, when four Jewish siblings--Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon--visit a fortune teller, who reveals to each child the day they will die. As the book follows the Gold siblings over the next 40 years, the reader sees how what they learned that day impacts their lives and relationships.
Benjamin's first novel is The Anatomy of Dreams (Atria Books), which received the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award and was longlisted for the 2014 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. Benjamin, who lives with her husband in Madison, Wisconsin, received a bachelor of arts degree from Vassar College and an MFA in fiction from the University of Wisconsin.
We spoke with Benjamin about the copious amount of research she did for the book, her favorite indies, and whether she would personally want to know the date of her own death.
How did you come up with the idea for the story?
I think it just came out of my own anxieties and neuroses. I've always struggled with uncertainty and the fact that we don't know how long we have in the world, which is kind of the greatest uncertainty there is. And, of course, we also don't know what happens afterwards. So I think it came about organically. I don't think I was intentionally trying to come up with a concept into which I could channel that, but it was always simmering in the background. I knew I wanted these four children to go see a fortune teller and that was the seed, but over time I got to know each of the siblings individually, and that was very much its own slower, longer process.
How would you personally answer the book's central question: Would you, given the choice, want to know the date of your own death?
I've gotten that question a lot since I've been doing interviews and I always say that I would want to know, but only if the news was good. Otherwise I wouldn't--would you? It's funny--I've only encountered two people who have said they would want to know, and that's after doing publicity since May. So those people are few and far between, but I'm always very curious about them.
This book takes on the age-old rivalry between science and magic, fate and free will, life on earth and life after death. In writing The Immortalists, did you draw on a diversity of literature and philosophical texts related to these questions?
Yes, I did a lot of overarching research about the ways people throughout different cultures and time periods have thought about death and dying and how best to live in the face of that. I also specifically looked at it through the lens of religion. I did dabble in some philosophy, but ultimately there was just so much out there about death, it almost got overwhelming, so I focused on religion and Judaism. One thing that really interested me about Judaism as opposed to Christianity is that there is very little emphasis on death and what happens afterward. It really is about what you do here on this earth, and so the more I realized that, the more I thought about how that gives this family's life particular urgency, because they wouldn't have grown up with that escape hatch of, "Well, there's still Heaven."
Aside from that, I also listened to interviews with coroners and with people who worked in morgues; I read Atul Gawande, who is such a beautiful writer on the subject of the body and mortality. There's just so much that you can soak in about that subject.
Each sibling ends up pursuing a very different path in life: Simon is a ballet dancer in San Francisco during the AIDS crisis; Klara becomes a magician whose signature trick is a dangerous stunt called the "Jaws of Life"; Daniel works as a military doctor; and Varya becomes a scientist doing longevity research on primates. What was your experience of researching for each of these characters?
Pretty much every section of the book required a ton of specialized individual research into the time and place, but also into the profession of that sibling. For example, Klara's section was really fun to do. I had no background in the world of magic and I just became totally fascinated with it. There's a book called Hiding the Elephant by Jim Steinmeyer (Da Capo Press) that traces the history of magic over the past two centuries. It also explains how particularly famous tricks were done, like the Proteus Cabinet or The Vanishing Birdcage, which Klara later recreates.
I also watched a lot of documentaries and magical performances, and I went down the rabbit hole on YouTube and online message boards to figure out how Klara would have done certain tricks and which tricks are really impressive. And Klara's grandmother, Klara senior, was inspired by a real person named Tiny Kline, a Hungarian immigrant and circus performer who originated the "Jaws of Life" (she was also the first Tinkerbell at Disneyland).
It's really important for me that any kind of writing I do about things that I haven't experienced I do with integrity, and I think research is the most important component of that. I find research really inspiring, but it's also a really big responsibility because I always want to do justice to what I'm researching.
What's been the role of indie bookstores in your life?
I always say that indie bookstores made me a reader and then a writer. I have been a huge, huge fan of indies as a consumer since I was young enough to read. I grew up in San Francisco in the Richmond District, so Green Apple Books was a place that we went all the time, as well as Books Inc. and the bookstore in the Haight, The Booksmith--really, there are so many amazing indies in San Francisco. No matter what neighborhood you're in, there's an incredible indie and I've probably shopped there.
I think that, like with being a writer, you don't necessarily go into bookselling because you want to get rich on it, and so it really is such a labor of love and passion. I love just being able to enter, browse the aisles, and find something that I never thought I would. And I always had the dream of seeing a book of mine in one of those places, so to have this particular honor and to know that it comes from indie booksellers is enormous. --Liz Button