Drawing Inspiration For The Fantastical From The Everyday

Author Chloe Benjamin On How The Magical Worlds Of Her Novels Are Rooted In Her Daily Life

Author Chloe Benjamin
Author Chloe Benjamin. Shannon Henry Kleiber/TTBOOK

Chloe Benjamin is superstitious. So when her second novel, “The Immortalists,” debuted at No. 7 on The New York Times bestseller list, she was thrilled for the typical reasons, but also enamored with the luck, mystery and religious overtones of becoming “No. 7”

Many things for Benjamin, 29, are still the same after hitting lucky No. 7 in January.

Over coffee in her second-floor apartment on the near east side of Madison, Benjamin says it has not quite sunk in. She is still knitting every day, writing (a third novel, which she doesn’t want to talk about right now), and volunteering to work for the re-election campaign of Wisconsin’s Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, answering phone calls from constituents once a week.

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But there are signs, too, that things have changed.

Benjamin gave up her day job in 2016 as an executive assistant at Domestic Abuse Intervention Services — a nonprofit advocacy group for victims of domestic violence — in Madison in order to write full-time.

And the other night she appeared on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” to talk about her first few weeks as a best-selling author.

A nationwide 17-city tour has been exciting, but Benjamin says she’s really a homebody, eagerly soaking up time with her husband and Maine Coon cat Gigi while baking bread or tackling a big canning project (usually jam or tomatoes).

She’s happiest to curl up with coffee and the latest of the books she’s reading — stacks of which decorate her apartment. While she rarely gives knitted gifts — it’s too hard to give up a sweater or scarf after working on it for so long, she admits — Benjamin’s literary agent, editor and publicist on “The Immortalists” each received a pair of hand-knit slippers this past Christmas before the book came out.

The premise of “The Immortalists” is about magic and superstition, a journey through the lives of the four Gold family children, beginning with their visit to a fortune teller who gives each of them a prediction of the day they will die.

Benjamin said she’s thought a lot about death throughout her life.

“I’ve always been someone who is anxious and concerned about loss,” Benjamin said. But the key thread in the book, she says, is awareness. “For me the question was about coping with uncertainty and how we use knowledge.”

Benjamin is chatty, enthusiastic and gracious, all while being intense and a careful listener.

“She has a strange blend of insecurity and ego,” said Judith Mitchell, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Program in Creative Writing, which Benjamin graduated from with a masters degree in 2012.

Benjamin has an unusual tenacity and focus that has helped her accomplish what she wants as a writer, said Mitchell, who has become Benjamin’s close friend and mentor.

“She’s the daughter I never had,” said Mitchell, who also took great pride in introducing Benjamin at her book launch in Madison.

The two women meet regularly in coffee shops to write together. Mitchell is also a novelist and is working on her third book. There are long periods of working silence punctuated by bursts of conversation, a welcome diversion from the life of a solitary writer.

Drawing From Research And Real Life

While Benjamin enjoys researching new and unfamiliar worlds for her books including the realms of traveling magician shows and primate science for “The Immortalists” — inspiration also comes from her own life.

Benjamin has two brothers, one who is a Marine, and the other a snake bite venom expert. She’s fascinated with what makes siblings start together in one shared world but take off into wildly different directions.

Growing up in San Francisco and taking daily ballet classes in the Castro district gave her background into the life of her character Simon, one of the four Gold children.

While she was writing “The Immortalists,” Benjamin found a copy of her grandfather’s memoirs, which he wrote while doing Freudian analysis. His family came through Ellis Island like many other eastern European Jews. He wrote about his father, who was a tailor. Those stories became the inspiration for the Gold family’s tailor and dressmaking business.

Benjamin also drew from her Jewish background for the story and said her grandmother was much like Gertie, the mother of the four Gold children. Benjamin grew up with both her mom’s Episcopalian faith and her Dad’s Judaism as part of her childhood. In writing the book, she liked that in Judaism, unlike Christianity, there is little said about life after death.

“You don’t have this imaginative escape hatch of heaven,” she said. “It lends the life of the Gold children more urgency.”

“The Immortalists” will get an even wider audience as it makes its way toward television. The book has been optioned by The Jackal Group, and Benjamin expects it to be developed into a television series by a network such as HBO, Netflix or Showtime.