Photo credit: Nathan Jandl
When people ask how I came up with the concept for my second novel, The Immortalists
— four siblings visit a fortune teller who is rumored to be able to tell anyone the date that they will die — I always wish I had a better answer. The truth is that it simmered for years, condensing slowly; it’s hard to pinpoint the moment when the idea was first sparked. What I do remember, in painstaking detail, is the process of developing each sibling’s identity, which took many months and sometimes years of individualized research.
Like real siblings, they came into focus one by one — though in my case they did so in reverse, from youngest to oldest. This is the way their stories are told in the novel: after the prologue, in which the Golds receive their prophecies, the novel is split into four sections. Each follows the life of one sibling, beginning with Simon, the youngest, and ending with Varya, the eldest.
I knew very early on that Simon was gay, and that he would run away from 1970s New York — as well as a demanding parent and a failing family business — for San Francisco and become a dancer. Perhaps, subconsciously, I started with him because it was a way to ease into a novel that covers 50 years of interpersonal and national history. When I began his section, I had just finished the research required for the prologue: a deep dive into New York's Jewish history, from the immigration of the late 19th century to the Lower East Side community that formed in the early 20th, where the Gold family still lives when the novel opens in 1969. Simon’s section, on the other hand, offered an opportunity to plumb my own experience. I grew up in San Francisco, and I trained as a ballet dancer until college. I was also raised in part by gay parents, so the issues in Simon’s section were close to my heart.
Still, I was born in 1988. I hadn’t experienced the city in the same years as Simon, and perhaps most critically, I’m not a gay man. In order to do his life justice, I did interviews and explored archival materials, nonfiction books, and documentaries. Just when I was getting a handle on Simon’s section, though, I realized that I needed to start researching Klara’s. Her profession had also come to me early: she would be a female magician. But because she weaves through Simon’s section — and because I had no background in the world of magic — I couldn’t continue writing about Simon until I knew more about Klara.
Sometimes, we writers find the perfect research material. I can’t overstate how how precious that feels — it’s as though you’re having an intimate conversation with someone who has the key to unlock your project. In the case of Klara’s section, it was Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear
by Jim Steinmeyer, a renowned designer of magical illusions and special effects. Hiding the Elephant
traces the history of magic’s golden age in lively terms, capturing the cultural zeitgeist that made magic so popular, as well as the drama that took place between magicians behind the curtain.
Steinmeyer also reveals the secrets behind some of history’s most tantalizing tricks, but perhaps most revelatory to me was the way he illuminates the very ethos of magic, which is less about deception than possibility. In the end, Steinmeyer portrays magic not as a technical enterprise but a human one, driven by an utterly human urge: to understand the unknown, to marvel at mystery even as we long to crack it.
This instantly resonated with my conception of Klara. I saw her as someone whose interest in the unknowable comes from a deep reverence for it, as well as a longing to understand life’s biggest questions, death being one of them. As magic marches into the 1990s, when major Las Vegas productions take hold, Klara longs for a quieter, more intimate, and in her opinion more powerful kind of performance — one that probes the nature of reality itself. After Steinmeyer’s book laid the groundwork, I researched mediums, spoke with street magicians, and taught myself tricks with the help of YouTube and message boards. I paid particular attention to female magicians, who have always been few in number, exploring why magic remains male-dominated and how female magicians have fought for legitimacy, respect, and equal billing. By the time I finished Klara’s section, I had lived with the book for almost two years… and there was still the second half to go.
I’ve been changed by each of the Golds and the research required to create them.
Just as I had started to explore Klara more deeply while writing Simon’s section, I dove into Daniel, the next oldest, as I neared the end of Klara’s. I knew that Daniel would be a foil to his younger siblings. While Simon and Klara are risk-takers, Daniel sees himself as the family’s protector. As such, he adopts a rigidity and conservatism that his younger siblings find exasperating. Still, I saw him as more connected to the family’s Jewish history, and driven by a sense of ethics and responsibility. Through Daniel, I was able to explore the contrast in my own religious history. My mom is Episcopalian; my dad is ancestrally Jewish but personally atheist. After their divorce, however, my dad married a Jewish spiritual director, and I became fascinated by the traditions she brought into our lives. I was particularly interested in the way that each religion approaches death: while Christianity pays great attention to the afterlife, Judaism is almost entirely grounded in this world, which gives the Golds’ lives particular urgency.
I saw Daniel as methodical, a planner, and early on I thought he might be an architect of Jewish museums. But when I realized that his section would take place in 2006, and that I wanted to explore the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it made the most sense for him to be a military doctor. The military, another subculture with which I wasn’t familiar, required an immersion into its many rules, pathways, and acronyms. When I finished a draft of Daniel’s section, I was lucky to be able to show it to a friend in the Air Force, who fact-checked it while helping me to understand the language and culture of the Military Entrance Processing Station where Daniel works. His suggestions inspired another round of careful edits — and then it was finally on to Varya.
Varya is the most isolated of the Gold siblings. She has internalized her fear, anger, and sadness, pouring it into her work with primates at a research center devoted to the extension of the human life span. Though the previous three siblings presented a number of challenges, Varya’s section was by far the hardest to write. For almost two years, I imagined her as working not with primates but with an organism colloquially called the immortal jellyfish
. I was totally enamored by this creature and loved how it created opportunities to explore life, death, and immortality, but I ran into problem after problem — most notably, the complicated science required to understand and write about it, and the fact that biologists still don’t know how the jellyfish accomplishes its amazing feat. If they can’t yet draw conclusions, how could Varya?
I turned in a draft of the novel to my agent with the best ending I could muster, and just as I feared, she told me it wasn’t working. While doing more research into anti-aging science, I came across a caloric restriction study in primates at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, which seeks to understand whether limiting caloric intake can extend lifespan. Immediately, I realized that the fleshy, earthly, and eerily familiar monkeys would make a much more profound and affecting partner to Varya’s section than the almost celestial and mysterious jellyfish. This discovery led me down an often heartbreaking path as I learned more about primate research. I emerged feeling passionate about the rights of primates to live in the wild or in sanctuaries that protect their freedom, independence, and quality of life.
There are many benefits to writing what you know: authenticity, for one, and drastically reduced research. But I’ve also discovered many benefits to learning and writing about what I don’t know. I’ve been changed by each of the Golds and the research required to create them. Varya’s section has made me an ardent supporter of primate rights and prompted me to consider the tension between surviving and truly living. Daniel’s gave me a more nuanced view of military culture and of the tragic complications surrounding the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Klara’s sparked a passion for an entirely new art form and the role of women within it. And Simon’s connected me anew to my hometown, as well as those who lost their lives and loved ones during one of its most devastating periods. I hope the resulting novel will offer readers a similar glimpse into new aspects of American history and personhood — and that it inspires in them the same empathy for the unfamiliar as it did in me.
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is the author of the novel The Anatomy of Dreams
, which received the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award and was longlisted for the 2014 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. A San Francisco native, Benjamin is a graduate of Vassar College and of the University of Wisconsin, where she received her MFA in fiction. She lives with her husband in Madison, Wisconsin. The Immortalists
is her most recent novel.