A Conversation with Chloe Benjamin, author of The Immortalists

op 13 juni 2018 door

The possibility of knowing exactly when we’re going to die is both fascinating and frightening to most people.  How and why did you decide to use it as the premise for your novel?  What kinds of reactions do you get when you tell people about it?

I’ve always struggled to cope with uncertainty, and the tension between knowledge and mystery drives my writing. In many ways, there’s no greater mystery than death: when it will come, what it feels like, and what happens afterward. We can only put one foot in front of the other, making plans for the future—building a family, a career, a home—without knowing how long we’ll be there to see it. I’ve often thought that if I knew I would live a decently long life, much of that anxiety would disappear. But I also know that hearing my supposed date of death would bring on a different set of challenges. Do the Gold children really know when they’ll die, or do they simply believe they know? How do expectation, fate, and chance interact to influence the course of our lives?
I’ve shared the premise of THE IMMORTALISTS with people of all ages and backgrounds, and the book seems to strike a chord in almost everyone—something I haven’t experienced with past projects! I suspect this is because it taps into questions that are universally human: How do we cope with loss and mortality? Is it better to seek knowledge or embrace mystery when it comes to life’s biggest (and least answerable) questions? People often share stories from their own lives, or say whether they would want to know their date of death if they could. I hope this is a book that will inspire similar conversations among readers.

The story of Simon, the youngest child, is set during the 1970s and 1980s in San Francisco.  This was the height of one phase of the LGBTQ rights movement, but also of the AIDS crisis.  Why did you want to focus on that particular time and place?
I grew up in San Francisco with gay parents, so while I was too young to have memories of those decades, their subject matter is very close to my heart. I’m passionate about LGBTQ rights and wanted to portray a young gay man in all of his complex and deserving humanity.
Klara, the next youngest child, has always had a strong interest in magic. She creates a very spectacular act, starting first in San Francisco and then moving on to Las Vegas. But Klara sees magic not as something that should be used to deceive people, but as a way to show them deeper and more mysterious dimensions of life. How so?
Science and religion have always struck me as related but opposite ways of coping with mystery. Science seeks to find out, while religion holds space for mystery and the awe it produces. Klara straddles these poles: she believes that magic exists in the space between questions and answers—and that embracing mystery can lead to unexpected revelation. Her tricks expose the gaps and contradictions in reality, but that doesn’t mean they negate it. Instead, she feels that magic adds to reality, revealing layers that are as valid as they are astounding.
Daniel, the second oldest child, becomes a doctor for the U.S. military, whose job it is to decide whether potential recruits are healthy enough to go to war. What kind of moral and professional quandaries does this create for him? What ties are there in his story to our current concerns about immigration, xenophobia, and terrorism?
When I was writing Daniel’s section, I knew I wanted to look at how someone who feels powerless can oppress others. Of course, in almost all ways, Daniel is very privileged: he is a white man who has been able to maintain a stable job and sufficient income. But a series of events make him feel that he has been personally and professionally wronged, and his anger sends him down a path in which his empathy for others—people who do struggle daily with prejudice, discrimination, and poverty—is obliterated. In some ways his section is the most heartbreaking to me, because it happens constantly in this country. Trump has tapped into a population that feels desperate and deprioritized, and which has funneled this anxiety into xenophobic, racist, sexist vitriol. On the other hand, it’s easy for those of us who identify as liberal to believe we are not those people, that we would never do those things. Daniel doesn’t see himself as xenophobic or sexist and yet his sense of increasing impotence makes these qualities rise to the top. When he does realize there are similarities between the people with whom he is aligned and those he condemns—for instance, between the Jewish people and the Romani, or between the U.S. military and the opposition—he represses it.
His job amplifies this tension. Daniel is a chief medical officer at a Military Entrance Processing Station; another position of privilege, one that keeps him safe and protected at home while sending people who often have more limited options to fight in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In the course of his section, he is forced to confront his contradictions and hypocrisies for the first time.
Varya, the oldest child, becomes a biologist focused on the quest to prolong life as much as possible.  How does her devotion to anti-aging research lead her into ethically questionable territory involving both humans and animals, not to mention her own life choices?
Varya’s focus is caloric restriction, which has been shown to extend lifespan. At a research center in Northern California, she’s running a study to assess the effects of caloric restriction in primates. The study raises concerns about how we measure the value of a life: in quantity of years, or in the quality of that time?
The Gold children’s parents, Gertie and Saul, are both of Jewish heritage, and Gertie’s family fled Europe to escape the Nazis. How does this Jewish background help shape them and their children?
In many ways the Gold family exemplifies a classic immigrant narrative: their ancestors were Jews who came through Ellis Island in the early twentieth century, spurred by anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe. This is my own family history on one side, so I was able to immerse myself in family lore and archival materials to help me understand what life might have been like at that time. Still, it was important to me that the book contained other voices; Raj, for instance, comes from a Hindu family and immigrated illegally.
I was drawn to the intellectualism of Judaism, the way it embraces question and debate, and to its emphasis on life: there is little focus on what happens after death, which gives the present particular urgency. Saul is the only family member who is truly devout, but all of the Golds feel the pull of what it means to be a Jew. For instance, Gertie is not a believer in the same way as her husband, but the loss of her mother’s family serves as a constant reminder that tragedy can strike at any moment. Simon is driven away from religion because of what the Old Testament implies about homosexuality. Daniel returns to Judaism in middle age, looking for solace, but he struggles to find it—or to see God as anything more than a human creation.
In a subtler way, I’m also interested in the way that seeking out their dates of death gives the siblings a potential omniscience that religious tradition implies we should leave to higher powers. There is a sort of Edenic moment of biting from the apple, choosing knowledge, trying to be God themselves—and at what cost?
The Gold children are in many ways very different from one another, and from their parents. But despite long separations and estrangements, they all ultimately feel what you describe as “the siren song of family.” Do you think it’s ever possible to escape the pull of family, or worth trying to do so?
Family can feel infuriating, even imprisoning: you don’t choose them, and yet, for the most part, you’re stuck with them. Sometimes an estrangement is healthier than being in touch. But I suspect most of us vacillate between a desire for independence and a longing for that profound and original unit. As adults, we may not be as close to our siblings as we are to our friends, but we still share an intimacy that is difficult to replicate. I know my siblings in visceral, historical ways I simply don’t know anyone else, even my spouse.
The power of narrative is a major theme of your novel: how we use storytelling, religious faith, and even mental illness to cope with uncertainty, and then how those fictions can, as in a self-fulfilling prophecy, become reality.  What are some examples of this from your book?
Joan Didion said that we tell ourselves stories in order to live, and this is indeed one thesis of THE IMMORTALISTS: that we survive because we tell ourselves stories, and in doing so can maintain the faith required of forward progress. But I hope to take that conversation further by looking at the ways in which these fictions, though pivoting on various kinds of illusion, can have world-making power and very tangible consequences. When the siblings receive their supposed dates of death, they make decisions based on that knowledge—decisions they might not have made if they’d never visited the fortune teller. Daniel, a doctor, likens this to the placebo effect: it seems preposterous that telling someone the tablet of starch they’ve consumed is a stimulant would cause them to exhibit a stimulant’s physical effects, and yet it happens. I also wanted to explore the power of the mind through Varya’s OCD, which acts as a way for her to control and organize her world, but which also gives her thoughts a great deal of power—so much that she is often at their mercy. The question of whether a thought can make something come true is central to the fates of each of the Gold siblings.
You trace the experiences of four generations of women. From a feminist perspective, what kinds of obstacles have they overcome, and which ones remain?
The women in the book encounter challenges inherent to their times, from establishing a career to earning fair pay and asserting their reproductive rights. Each generation inherits greater freedom and opportunity due to the hard work of the last. Like so many women, the Gold women are forced to become creative, and to exercise bravery and grit, in building nontraditional lives. Gertie’s mother, Klara Sr., was an orphan and immigrant who used her savvy to became a vaudeville star. Gertie leaves college, where she was on scholarship, to be a wife and mother, but she maintains her passion and ambition. Her daughter, Klara, becomes a magician: an unusual occupation for anyone, but particularly for women, who are vastly underrepresented in the field. And Klara’s daughter, Ruby, bucks familial traditions in her own ways.
Of course, one need look no further than the most recent election cycle to see that sexism is still alive and well, and that serious obstacles remain for women—especially those who are marginalized. I think it’s still difficult to ignore dominant cultural definitions of female success. Varya has reached the top of her field, but she is still interrogated and pitied for not having a family of her own.
Mental illness is an important concern in your novel, especially in Klara’s and Varya’s stories. Have you drawn upon aspects of your own life to portray their experiences?
I’ve struggled with anxiety for most of my life, and there’s no doubt that my own fears and coping mechanisms influenced the book. I’ve also worked in social services, which enhanced my understanding of mental health and illness. I believe strongly in the importance of empathy and compassion as agents of personal and cultural change—especially as our country and world become even more fractured, driven by fear and anger. I hope that readers will see characters who struggle with mental illness not as stigmatized but as whole people who are more than any diagnosis.
Q.  More broadly, how does your personal background inform this book? Did you have to do any special research for it?  Do you feel a particular affinity with any of the characters?
My personal background informed certain aspects of the book, but many were unknown to me, and I felt a responsibility to portray those with as much integrity as possible. The research was immense! I interviewed people whose backgrounds mirrored my characters’. I read graduate theses, nonfiction, academic articles, memoirs, and novels. I solicited the input of an army lieutenant, visited a primate lab, and Skyped with scientists as far away as Italy. I went down the rabbit hole of the online magic community, scouring YouTube and message boards to figure out Klara’s toughest tricks. I watched documentaries and archival footage. I went to museums and tried to visit all of the locations featured in the book by foot—I remember the drizzly afternoon I spent in Kingston, exploring the downtown and taking photos of the Hoffman House, which becomes the setting for a critical conversation.  
As for the characters, I often say that I’m a cross between Klara and Varya, but I love Simon and Daniel, and many of the secondary characters: Gertie, Eddie, Robert. I tried to write characters who have as much heart and complexity as all people do. And I am always fascinated to see which characters readers gravitate toward!
To what extent do you see this book as a story of America itself over five decades as well as the story of a particular family?
I definitely see it functioning in both of those ways, and in a sense, I think they are inextricably linked: any story of a family, especially one that covers a long period of time, is also the story of the place and time in which it’s set. That was another challenge in terms of research: I was born in the late eighties, and I wanted to capture those earlier decades authentically. The story of the Golds touches so many aspects of American history, from historical events like the 1965 Watts riots, the AIDS crisis, and the Iraq war to cultural moments—the invention of the desktop computer, or the explosion of casino mega-resorts in Las Vegas in the early 1990s.
Simon becomes a ballet dancer after he moves to San Francisco. Klara also becomes a performer, though of a different kind.  Do you have experience as a dancer or other type of performer?
I love and believe in the arts rapturously: my mother is an actor, and I was a serious ballet dancer throughout high school and college. I no longer dance, but that world never leaves you—the relationships, the rigor, the physical movements. I also acted, which influenced my writing in a number of ways. I imagine scenes cinematically and try to capture all of the moving parts that make human interaction three-dimensional: the rhythm, the subtext, the physical blocking. I love to write dialogue and have always remembered something my mom said about interpreting punctuation—that she would speak a line differently if it had a dash as opposed to a semicolon, or a semicolon as opposed to a comma. I want to capture the visceral swell of narrative, to make readers feel the same tension and emotion they would if these characters were standing in front of them. If a scene lacks that energy, I know I haven’t succeeded yet.
The woman who tells the Gold children their death dates turns out to belong to the Romani people, or Gypsies. How many Romani people are there in the United States? Do we know how many of them are involved in fortune-telling? Can they get in legal trouble for doing so?
The Rom are an ethnic group that originated in India before settling in Europe and the United States as refugees. A historically poor, nomadic people with dark skin and hair, they’ve suffered prejudice and persecution for centuries. Though they’re often called Gypsies, Roma activists oppose this term, which carries many of the negative stereotypes associated with the Rom: that their tradition of telling fortunes makes them heretics, or that they’re con artists who regularly scam their customers.
Because of what they’ve endured, Romani communities tend to be extremely insular and to resist assimilating with the dominant culture. As a result, their numbers are hard to track, but estimates put the number of Romani in the U.S. at about one million. Because of barriers like fear of further victimization and lack of trust in mainstream organizations, they may not send their children to school and rely more on oral tradition than on reading and writing. Fortune-telling remains a traditional occupation for Romani women, while men are often skilled in construction, mechanics and other trades. As with any community, though, many Romani don’t fit into these generalizations, varying in educational background, profession, and mainstream integration.
We don’t know how many Romani practice fortune-telling in the U.S. Fortune-telling itself is legally ambiguous: it’s banned in certain states, but difficult to prosecute, as the prosecution must prove that a fortune teller knowingly lied to victims for financial gain. Those in favor of keeping fortune-telling legal argue that it’s protected by free speech, just as free speech is protected for those who predict what the stock market or political polls will do. One of the things I find most interesting is the fact that fortune telling remains economically viable. What human need does the profession serve, and what are modern Americans getting from it that they can’t find elsewhere?
Which writers have influenced you the most?
Like all writers, I was a reader first, and books are my teachers. My favorite writer is Alice Munro: she houses whole lifetimes in her stories. Nabokov’s language is unmatchable, and no one should ever see the knock-offs I wrote as a teenager. I continue to return to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which captures me at thirty as much as it did at thirteen. I learn so much from short-story writers: Flannery O’Connor, Lorrie Moore, ZZ Packer, Mary Gaitskill, Raymond Carver, George Saunders, Tobias Wolff. Tana French has shown me that plot doesn’t have to be sacrificed for language, or language for plot. At this point in my life, I’ve read more widely than I have deeply, and I love the process of discovering new novels. Recently, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves captivated me—I haven’t recovered from either one of them.
How would you compare THE IMMORTALISTS to your acclaimed first novel, The Anatomy of Dreams?
The Anatomy of Dreams follows a couple doing experimental dream research under a charismatic but ethically questionable professor. Though the subject matter is different, it shares with THE IMMORTALISTS a focus on knowledge: how well we should know ourselves and our partners as opposed to accepting mystery, particularly when it comes to our darker places.
Here’s a very personal question, but one raised implicitly for every reader by your book:  Would you choose to know the date of your death if you could?
I always say that I would—but only if it were a good date to have. Which is exactly the problem! So I have to go with no . . . but I’d sure be tempted.
What do you hope readers take away from your story?
I hope it offers solace and companionship in navigating life’s uncertainties, as well as the enduring pull of family. To me, the book is not about dying; it’s about living, embracing as fully and fearlessly as possible what time we’re given.

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