Ali Benjamin grew up in a house filled with books, but she recalls that she was often quick to lose interest. However, “those books I did love as a kid are a part of me in a way others aren’t,” she says. Among those that resonated with her are The Secret Garden, Harriet the Spy, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
Before she took up the pen herself, Benjamin’s professional life was varied, including a stint with the Peace Corps, working as a health care consultant and as a freelance writer for colleges. But as far as being an author, “I thought about writers as being a special category of people,” she says. “It seemed like a walled-off city, and without a special invitation, it wasn’t accessible to me.” However, she found commonalities among the jobs she enjoyed: they all involved “ways of explaining things to people” and often meeting experts in their fields and translating what they had to say to an audience. Benjamin’s first full-length project was Positive (HarperCollins, 2014), cowritten with Paige Rawl, a teenager who was born with HIV and was relentlessly bullied.
The Thing About Jellyfish (Little, Brown, Sept.), Benjamin’s first foray into fiction and her first solo project, came about in a similarly serendipitous fashion. The book tells the story of seventh grader Suzy Swanson, whose response to the drowning death of her best friend is to temporarily stop speaking. After becoming fascinated by jellyfish during a class trip, Suzy develops a theory that her friend’s death was caused by a rare jellyfish sting. Benjamin explains that, like Suzy, she too fell under the spell of jellyfish during a visit to an aquarium: “they were so beautiful, beautiful in the way flowers are beautiful. So eerie and haunting.” Benjamin was also struck with the realization that there are some people who “spend their whole lives studying jellyfish.” Since she had meandered somewhat among interests, she found herself feeling “kind of jealous” (in her words) of those who can devote themselves entirely to the study of a single, fascinating creature.
After the aquarium trip, she researched jellyfish extensively, planning to write a nonfiction piece about them. In addition to their ethereal beauty, she was particularly struck by their resilience: the ecological threats to other species do not affect jellyfish. As the oceans warm, “jellyfish are getting stronger,” Benjamin says. “It was sinking in what our species has done to our planet and by extension, ourselves. Grief is the only word to describe what I felt,” she says.
At the time, she was also working on a novel about a middle school girl and her sibling, but the project wasn’t coalescing. When she began to combine her interest in jellyfish and ecology with the fictional story, the project developed the spark it had been lacking.
In addition to jellyfish, the story focuses on changing relationships and social isolation during the middle school years, something that Benjamin has thought about in respect to her own children, saying, “As a parent, you want them to be completely themselves without shame or regret, but you also don’t want them to be lonely, and you want them to find a place.” As Suzy struggles to make sense of the loss of her friend and how their paths in life had begun to diverge before her death, this highly personal grief “opens her to a wider grief about us as people.”
For Benjamin, being a writer “still feels elusive,” though she’s steadily at work on another project: “It’s something that’s been a bit of a shapeshifter,” she says. The new project began as realistic fiction with elements of space travel and exploration. In its current state, it’s about Isaac Newton as a child. “But it could change. I’m crossing my fingers. When Jellyfish happened, it was amazing, surprising, and wonderful,” she says. Much like jellyfish themselves.