It’s fitting that Chloe Benjamin was born on All Soul’s Day, a religious festival remembering those who have died. Her latest novel, The Immortalists, explores the eternal mysteries of death and the boundaries of science, religion and magic.
“The Immortalists felt like the book that I was always meant to write,” Benjamin says during a phone call from her home in Madison, Wisconsin. “If I died now, at least I would have written this. I don’t think I’ll ever have a book like this again.”
That’s a somewhat startling statement coming from a young writer, but at just age 29, Benjamin is well on her way to being an established author. Her first novel, the award-winning The Anatomy of Dreams, explored another intangible—the surprising power of lucid dreaming.
Benjamin says of her two novels, “The Anatomy of Dreams is a more internal look at the conscious and the subconscious, and an almost claustrophobic exploration of the central relationship. With The Immortalists, I wanted to cover more ground socially, culturally and historically, as well as interpersonally. It felt important to challenge myself to write a book with greater scope and diversity.”
“It was really one of the hardest writing experiences I’ve had.”
The premise of The Immortalists is immediately gripping: In 1969, the four siblings of the Gold family (Varya, age 13; Daniel, 11; Klara, 9; Simon, 7) live in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where their father owns a tailor shop. When Daniel gets wind of a mysterious fortuneteller, the children track her down and have an encounter that will forever change their lives. The soothsayer predicts the exact date of each of their deaths.
The four sections of the book address each sibling’s life in order of their predicted demise. Simon was told he would die young, while Varya seems destined to live until a ripe old age. Or is she? One of the book’s central questions is whether the fortuneteller is clairvoyant, or whether her prophecies simply become self-fulfilling.
“I wanted to leave this open to interpretation, to see what the reader thinks,” Benjamin says. “I’ve always really been drawn to books with multiple perspectives or books that show how different people can interpret the same event in such varied ways.”
The book’s beginning brings to mind the four siblings who step through the wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. What’s more, at one point in The Immortalists, Klara’s daughter cries out, “It’s like Narnia!” when it begins to snow.
Benjamin laughs at the reference, explaining, “That was actually something I said when I arrived at college on the East Coast. Everyone made very prompt fun of me, because I was coming from California.”
As for parallels to the C.S. Lewis classic, Benjamin says they were unintentional, although she admits, “I think those books were in the petri dish that created this one.”
The Gold children all take strikingly different paths: Daniel, the oldest Gold boy, becomes a military doctor, while Varya ends up a scientist. Simon and Klara run away to San Francisco, where Simon dances, both ballet and in a gay bar. Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, following in the footsteps of her namesake grandmother. She even takes to performing her grandmother’s act, the Jaws of Life, in which she hangs from a rope by her teeth, calling herself “The Immortalist.”
Benjamin, who initially knew nothing about magic, modeled the Jaws of Life trick after a real act she stumbled upon during her research. A Hungarian immigrant who called herself Tiny Kline once performed this extraordinary feat over Times Square and later played a flying Tinker Bell in Disneyland. “I think she just held on with her teeth,” Benjamin says. “It was so dangerous and unbelievable.”
It’s not surprising that showmanship is at the forefront of so much of the novel. Benjamin’s mother is a stage actor, and as a child Benjamin was involved in theater and active in ballet until college.
“I miss those things a lot,” she admits, “but I don’t feel brave enough to perform at this point in my life. I’m more comfortable writing something where I can make it as perfect as I can and then put it out there for consumption. But that level of risk and uncertainty and vulnerability—and also a kind of flash and dazzle—was a part of my childhood.”
Benjamin did substantial research for each section of the book, adding: “I don’t make it easy on myself. There’s an adage to write what you know; I’m more interested in writing about what I want to know.”
The research for Varya’s section proved most vexing. At first Benjamin had Varya study a species known as the immortal jellyfish, which seemed to be a perfect thematic fit—although the subject had its own challenges.
“I had to read so much molecular biology,” Benjamin recalls, “and that is not the way my brain works. So I’d be practically crying, sitting with this stack of academic journals that I couldn’t possibly understand. I worked on that section for years.” Ultimately, she ended up starting it over. “It was really one of the hardest writing experiences I’ve had.”
The completed novel spans decades, explores a variety of philosophical questions and addresses everything from gay life in 1970s San Francisco to the ethics of scientific research on animals.
As for her next novel, Benjamin is already at work. “I get an idea maybe once every five years,” she says, “and it’s like, OK, well I guess that’s what I’m writing. So as much as it’s driving me crazy, I have faith.”