Chloe Benjamin, who lives in Madison, Wisconsin, spent years writing her epic novel The Immortalists, an emotional story about four siblings who learn the exact dates of their deaths from a mysterious fortuneteller. As Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon grow up and grow apart, this knowledge drives distinctly different journeys and forces each to question whether we control fate—or fate controls us.
This is Benjamin's second novel, and required almost five years of research and writing in neighborhood coffee shops or in her study that she shares with her husband Nathan, a communications director at the Office of Sustainability at UW Madison. Benjamin is currently working on a new project—no word on what it is yet—but she took some time to talk to us about her writing space, her multiple bookshelves, and how her normally ultra-organized personality had to surrender to the chaos of writing an ambitious novel.
When and where do you get your best writing done?
I tend to work best in coffee shops around the neighborhood because I feel like it's helpful for me to get dressed and get out of the house. I keep all of my research in the study, and sometimes will work here in the afternoon, but I move around a little bit to keep the energy going.
If creativity is such an individualized process, how did you make the shared space work for both you and your husband? Do you both work there at the same time?
Often we switch off in part just because his schedule is on campus. So he does work sometimes from home but often he's in meetings or he's at his office there. I do work in the morning best so that's usually my writing time and I try to get out of the house and go somewhere in Madison and then in the afternoon that's the time that I'm more likely to be at my desk doing media publicity or research or e-mails.
Even though you work mostly in coffee shops, your desk seems curated for creativity and inspiration. What are some must-haves you keep at your desk, and specifically, what are the books you keep close by?
Those are books that I'm using for research for my current project and I'm kind of superstitious about sharing more about that project but I do like to keep them right on hand. There is a psychological element of having everything nearby, together, and safe. I also have a bulletin board on the other side—I hesitate to use "inspiration board" because it sounds very "summer camp"—and I didn't include [a photo] only because, like I said, I keep things close to my chest until they come out. But it has photographs, articles, or little doodads over the years that make me think of that current project or that feel interesting.
Could you tell me about some of the books that you had that were next to the desk when you were working on The Immortalists?
I had a bunch of great sources for that project. There was one book that was really influential for Klara's section called Hiding the Elephant, written by an illusionist and a magical historian named Jim Steinmeyer. It takes you through about 200 years of history but it also looks at the rivalries and the interpersonal conflict and dynamics between magicians over time, which was really fascinating for me. [I used] a bunch of books that helped with the research into San Francisco especially during the '60s, '70s, and '80s, specifically one called Erotic City. There was a memoir of a woman who inspired the character of Klara, Sr. in the book. Her name was Tiny Kline and she actually originated the trick the Jaws of Life.
You're very thorough—how much time do you spend researching before you can begin writing?
For The Immortalists, I read multiple books academic or scientific articles. I watched documentaries. I do interviews. I try to visit the places in the book on foot... I'm just always very conscious of wanting to write with intensity and integrity about things that I haven't experienced. I know that I'm choosing subjects in my work that are outside of my lived experience and so I want to be really responsible when I do that.
To keep track of everything, and then create such vivid characters, means you need to stay organized. Did you have a system for corralling all of your notes?
I wish I had a better one. In general I am a big list maker and organizer, but my writing is the one place where I let myself wallow in the mess for a while. I do have extensive notes and so I organize them in files by research material—for each book I'll have a different Microsoft Word document where I take down my notes. But I try to let myself be guided by intuition and gut instinct in the writing process and that that means that it is a little bit more chaotic.
Your home is filled with an envious number of bookshelves.
And we just got two more!
How do books and bookshelves factor into your decorating style?
We have so many books that we're forced to use them as décor! But, in the same way that I like to have my research books close by, I also love to have my most beloved books close by. It makes me feel like the gang's all here.
How did you land on these particular shelving and storage units for your books?
We gave the apartment a bit of a "grown-up" makeover in the past couple years. My husband has done work in construction and landscaping and so he likes a really well-built, natural piece. And I do, too. So I think there's like a slight rustic element but also clean and elegant. The TV unit we got a month ago from West Elm.
The floating shelves I got on Etsy many years ago and those hold some favorite books. I have a lot of friends who are poets, so we have a section with their work, and then collections of authors like Alice Munro, my all-time favorite, as well a big Lorrie Moore collection, Vladimir Nabokov, and Tana French.
Other than reserving space on your floating shelves for favorites, is there any other way you organize your collection?
If there's any organizational structure it's "his and hers." I really like to have my own books in my own area... I feel possessive. When you move in with a partner there's something that's meaningful about like maintaining a space for the materials that have really shaped you as a person or as a creative thinker. So all of the books in those floating bookshelves are mine. Of course, we have plenty of bookshelves where they're more mixed, but I think that's why those ones are special. If I had to pick a system I would say it's "era of life." There are a couple of bookshelves in the house that are almost all of my husband's books from doing his Ph.D.
That's sort of how The Immortalists is organized: era of life. Was there a section or era that was particularly difficult to write or one that evolved heavily?
[Note: No spoilers!]
[The eldest sister] Varya's section changed the most dramatically. For many years I had her working on a jellyfish in her lab colloquially called the immortal jellyfish. When it's on the brink of death it can revert back to the first stage of life. I worked on it like that for years. But, scientists don't know how it does what it does and so neither could Varya.
For a book that more or less revolves around death, and can be a little emotionally heavy to read, I imagine it was a huge emotional investment to write. What did you do when you needed to step away from death—what space gave you "relief" from that?
That's where a lot of my knitting comes in actually. I really love it as a meditative task that is still creative. I can see what I'm working on grow much faster than a novel.