Podcast: Chloe Benjamin wrestles with mortality and genre
The Madison-based writer joins us to discuss her new book, "The Immortalists."
Chloe Benjamin's first novel, 2014's The Anatomy Of Dreams, crafted while Benjamin attended graduate school at UW-Madison, focused on a trio of people who devote their lives to understanding lucid dreaming. The novel twists and turns into a struggle around questionable ethics, subconsciousness, and asks how well its characters know themselves.
Benjamin, still based in Madison, follows up that successful debut this month with The Immortalists, a novel that spans the lives of four siblings who learned the alleged date of their death at an early age in the late 1960s New York. After learning this secret, the four siblings go on to lead their four separate lives and wrestle with what they want to do in the face of their all-too-well-defined mortality. Benjamin deliberately places her protagonists in a rapidly changing world—he young siblings feel a need to be active and at the forefront in the face of the '60s' wave of cultural change, often accompanied by riots and other forms of tumult. Benjamin also invests some of her characters with elements of herself.
"In general I wish I was a Klara, but I'm more of a Varya." Benjamin says. In the novel, Klara is a passionate learner and badass feminist, while Varya is a more timid character full of wonder as well as anxiety. "I do relate to them in certain ways, but they also feel like very much their own people." Benjamin says that the character Simon was "always clear to her first," in part because of her roots in San Francisco and her past as a ballet dancer. Simon is a gay man and a dancer, and Benjamin was raised by gay parents during another tumultuous time.
Benjamin also struggles with the question of genre. Both of her novels have traces of magical realism, with a focus on the larger scope of both dreams and their purpose alongside mortality and its grasp. But Benjamin wrestles to clarify her place in the genre.
"I don't situate myself as a writer in the magical realist school… in my work the role of the magical or speculative element doesn't feel that way, because I think the world just has those quirks and questions woven into it," Benjamin says. She brings these ideas of uncertainty to the forefront of her books because they are at the forefront at a lot of our lives. The idea that dreams whir and build inside of our brains while we sleep is already a part of everyone's daily reality. The idea of mastering one's own life and death is something that falls out of our grasp to an extent, but the drive to control our own destinies is something we all struggle with. Benjamin has a knack and desire to focus on cities and places that we all know, but sprinkles them with enchantment and mystery.
The Immortalists came out on January 9, and Benjamin will host a book launch event in Madison on January 17 at The Coopers Tavern. For more information about Benjamin and her works, visit her website.
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