Predicting Death In 'The Immortalists'

Jan 7, 2018
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

One hot summer in New York, four siblings venture out to meet a psychic who has one particular power. She can predict the exact date of your death. What they are told transforms them. Chloe Benjamin's new book is called "The Immortalists." And she joins us now from Madison, Wis. Welcome to the program.

CHLOE BENJAMIN: Thank you so much. I'm thrilled to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So take it from there. What happens next? What are they told?

BENJAMIN: Well, these siblings are told the day and month and year that they will supposedly die. And from there, the novel follows each of the siblings over about 50 years as they reckon with their prophecies. And some of them fight against it. Others claim they don't believe in it. Some use it to push them to pursue their wildest dreams. And others are surprisingly limited by it even if their date of death is quite far out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Before we get to their stories, I want to ask you, what gave you the idea for the story about the role of fate and free will?

BENJAMIN: Well, I always wished that I had a good fortune teller story of my own. But it really came out of my own neuroses. I am somebody who has always struggled with uncertainty. And, of course, uncertainty is so core to life. I seek out knowledge to help me deal with that. But I'm also aware that knowledge can be really a double-edged sword. So in writing this book, I wanted to look at knowledge as a way to cope with questions of fate and destiny and randomness and see whether it is freeing or limiting.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You never went to a psychic?

BENJAMIN: No. I was way too superstitious.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, OK.

BENJAMIN: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As someone who's been to many, I have to say I was curious (laughter).

BENJAMIN: Do you feel like you've heard things that are true?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I feel like they could have been true. You know, that's, I think, the central question that you get at at your - in your book. You know, what is the truth? Is it something that someone plants in your mind, or is it something else? I mean, you know, those are the essential mysteries that I think these four siblings are grappling with. Their names are Simon, Varya, Daniel and Klara - two girls, two boys. And the date they're told of their death changes them in fundamental ways. Can you talk about their trajectories?

BENJAMIN: Yes. So they're all very different in terms of their profession, as well as the way that they think about the prophecy. Simon is a gay man who moves to San Francisco in the 1980s and faces the dawn of the AIDS epidemic. Klara is a female magician. And I was really fascinated by the idea of women and magic and how they have been and remain pretty maligned in that field. Daniel, as an Army doctor during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, is coping with his sense of ethics within those wars as well as the sense of ethics that he feels about his family and what's happened to them. And Varya is researching longevity. She's trying to extend the human lifespan. And that also brings up some interesting moral questions, as well as some practical ones.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I'd like to talk about Simon because he decides to take risks because he's told he is going to die young.

BENJAMIN: That's right. And I think in watching his section unfold myself, I like to question, did he make certain decisions because of the prophecy or because he would have done that anyway? I think it's undeniable that hearing this kind of prophecy would impact somebody of that age in a really powerful way. And for him, it's a...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...A catalyst.

BENJAMIN: Yeah, exactly. It's a catalyst. And I think in some ways, even though he may not live the longest, he lives a very full life. And that's another question that the book explores.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. You mentioned he ends up in San Francisco at the beginning of the AIDS crisis. Why did you want to highlight that period?

BENJAMIN: Well, I grew up in San Francisco. And I grew up with gay parents. And so the gay community and gay rights have always been incredibly important to me, as has the history of that city. So even though I wasn't really conscious during the AIDS crisis itself, it was really important to me to do justice to that time period and to the people who lived through such a horrific loss.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's so many set pieces in this book. Did you do the same amount of research for all of the different sections?

BENJAMIN: I did. They all tapped into something that was really foreign to me, whether it was the world of magic, which I just really - I found arresting.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And as you mentioned, the magician in this book is a woman. And she faces a lot of obstacles. Did you always know she was going to be a woman?

BENJAMIN: I did. Yes. She and Simon were very clear to me from the start. The older two siblings took a little longer for me to get to know. But I always knew about Simon. And I always knew that she would be a kind of nomadic person and a magician. And the research was really interesting when it came to gender. Magic is still a very white-male-dominated field. And for so long, women have just been...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Props.

BENJAMIN: Props - yup - exactly - bodies, assistants. They, you know, are the sexy woman in peril, you know, surrounded by fire. And so I really wanted to have Klara push against that and work to carve a place for herself in that field.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is a question whether what happens to the characters is a self-fulfilling prophecy or indeed pre-determined. What do you think?

BENJAMIN: Well, I don't know myself (laughter). And I know that sounds funny since I wrote the book. But I don't think I could have written it with a curiosity and an openness to many different paths if I had settled that for myself. So I really love to hear what other people think and to debate it in my own mind. I certainly think that a huge factor and one of the central themes of the book is the power of the mind and the power of thoughts and that even if we start out with certain stories that we tell ourselves, when they become incorporated into the way that we see the world and act in the world, they might cease to become stories.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you want to know the date of your death?

BENJAMIN: Well, I always say I would but only if it was good news. So that's sort of the problem. Would you?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's good news?

BENJAMIN: Good news is, like, post-80. I don't even need to know the method. If it's post-80, I'm good. I'm more of a total years worrier than a method worrier. What about you?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I don't think I do.

BENJAMIN: Understandable.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Chloe Benjamin's new book is called "The Immortalists." Thank you so very much.

BENJAMIN: Thank you, Lulu.

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