For her sophomore effort, Chloe Benjamin (The Anatomy of Dreams, 2014) ponders how knowing when you will die would alter the way you live. In The Immortalists (Putnam, Jan. 2018), she examines what happens when four siblings receive prophesies about the date of their deaths.
“I’ve always been interested in the tension between knowledge and mystery, between science and religion, and the various ways we cope with the unknown,” says Benjamin. “Some of those are productive, some can be attempts to pin down things that are by nature impossible to know.”
The book follows the lives of the siblings over five decades. The youngest, Simon, is gay. He is a dancer in San Francisco in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS crisis. Klara, closest to him in age, is a magician. Next oldest is Daniel, a military doctor, and the oldest, Varya, is a longevity researcher.
To give her characters’ lives veracity, Benjamin read texts, watched documentaries, and interviewed experts in relevant fields. “It was important to be as responsible as possible in portraying cultures, professions, and time periods that I didn’t live through or don’t have a background in,” she says. To write about Klara, Benjamin talked to magicians and asked them about the role of women in magic. “They are still vastly underrepresented,” Benjamin says. “I also went down the rabbit hole to message boards where magicians talk to each other. I watched videos online and read texts about how to do various tricks.”
Daniel went through several iterations before Benjamin decided to have him serve in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. “I felt this was what he needed to be doing to drive various themes forward,” she explains. “A major in the Air Force was a huge help in nailing the language. It was important to capture how people speak in the military and to know the acronyms, like MEPS [Military Entrance Processing Station] or UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice].”
Benjamin knew from the beginning that Varya would be a longevity researcher, and she asked experts how they are hoping to extend healthy lives. “I visited a primate lab and spoke with scientists who are doing various kinds of longevity research, not just as it pertains to primates. I also read a lot, which was challenging because much of the material gets really technical, and I am not a scientist,” Benjamin says.
For anyone with qualms about the future, Benjamin hopes her novel will help quash anxiety about the unknown. “It’s a book that explores how to live with uncertainty. That has been one of my demons,” she says. “It’s an unbelievable, absurd paradox that we have to put one step in front of the other every day without knowing which one will be our last.”
How to deal with mortality has definitely struck a chord. The Jackal Group bought television rights, and The Immortalists is currently under development for a cable TV series.
Today, 10–10:45 a.m. Chloe Benjamin appears on the Adult Authors Buzz Panel on the Uptown Stage.
Today, 1–2 p.m. Benjamin will sign galleys at Table 1, in the Penguin Random House booth (1921).