Interview with Chloe Benjamin

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Chloe Benjamin is the author of The Anatomy of Dreams (Atria/Simon & Schuster), which received the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award and was long listed for the 2014 Flaherty Dunnan First Novel Prize. Her fiction, poetry and reviews are published or forthcoming in The Millions, Ninth Letter, PANK, and elsewhere. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

How did you get started writing?

I was one of those annoying kids who was writing from a very young age—I remember sitting down at a clunky, old computer handed down from my mom’s partner, Molly, and writing stories at the age of eight or nine. I was also a voracious reader, which was critical to my development as a writer—as so many writers rightly say, it’s impossible to be a writer without first and always being a reader. I remember going to the library with my mom and younger brother and filling cloth tote bags full of books, then trying to decide which one to start on the car ride home—I was so excited to read them all that it was almost stressful. I continued to write through high school, starting longer projects and working with the fabulous 826 Valencia in my hometown of San Francisco. I knew heading into college that English and creative writing were what I wanted to focus on.

Did you always want to be a writer?

I did, but as a kid, I was also very involved in other forms of the arts—I did acting and singing, and later, I trained seriously as a ballet dancer. There were times when I thought I might want to go into one of these fields, but writing was a constant throughout all of those interests. I feel lucky to have had parents who encouraged me and never told me I was crazy for wanting to be an artist of some kind. They knew it wouldn’t be easy for me to have a career as a writer, but they always supported me in it.

How long did you have to submit before you were published in a journal?

Many years! I didn’t have any short fiction publications when my novel, The Anatomy of Dreams, was sold to Simon & Schuster, and at that point, I had been submitting short stories to journals for over five years. And before I wrote Anatomy, I wrote another novel that was rejected by almost twenty publishers. So much of success in writing is withstanding rejection. It’s simply impossible to have a career in this field without enduring a ton of it. (Which is not to say it’s easy—I’m still working on thickening my skin!)

Do you have an agent? If so, how and when did you get one? Do you think agents are necessar?

When I was about halfway through my MFA in fiction at the UW-Madison, I had finished my first novel (the one that was rejected!) and submitted to agents. A young agent named Margaret Riley King at WME (William Morris Endeavor) took me on and stuck with me when that first book didn’t sell; two years later, she sold The Anatomy of Dreams, and we’re now working on my next book.

I do think that agents are necessary if you want to publish traditionally (which means that your book is sold to a publishing house, either a small independent or one of the “big 5” out of New York City). On the other hand, if you want to publish non-traditionally—which generally refers to self-publishing—you don’t need an agent. That route is a great fit for some people, but I still feel that traditional publishing is the right fit for me, and that those interested in self-publishing should think deeply about the cost vs. the benefits of that path. When you self-publish, you’re a one-(wo)man show: you have to edit and market the book, design the cover, pay for printing costs and ISBN numbers, do your own publicity, etc. You can pay others to do some of these things, but that means that your costs become even higher. Then, without the publicity and marketing power of a traditional publisher, it’s very hard for your book to garner notice amidst the thousands of other books that may be published that month. It’s a bit like YouTube: a few people become sensations, but it’s very difficult to break out.

I also think that a truly successful book is always a collaboration. Without an agent and then an editor, your work will lack the input and wisdom of others in the field. The suggestions of my agent and editor have helped me to grow as a writer and have deeply enhanced my work

What advice would do you have for young authors trying to get published?

Take it slow and put in the time to work on your craft. Publishing should only come when you’ve taken a piece as far as you can take it yourself—and, ideally, incorporated the suggestions of other smart readers, whether a classmate, a teacher, or an agent. Educate yourself by reading as much as you can. Try to become involved in a local or national literary community, whether through your school, community center, literary nonprofit, attending readings or conferences, etc. Writing is solitary, which makes it even more important to building connections and support the work of others.

Do you have any writing rituals? If you do, what is your process?

I write best in the morning. On an ideal day, I get going around 9AM and wrap up around 1PM; any later than that and my brain usually starts to wilt! Like many writers, I have a day job—I work from Monday through Thursday at an incredible non-profit called Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, which serves victims of domestic violence—so my writing days are Friday through Sunday. That said, if I’m really pushing on a project, I’ll get up before work to write, too. I don’t try to get to a certain word count per day; I just try to make steady progress each week, whether that means I’ve written a section or completed a chunk of research.

Who are your literary heroes?

Vladimir Nabokov, for his language; Alice Munro, for her incisive, subtle psychological portraits and unexpectedly dramatic story arcs; Lorrie Moore, for her lightning wit and brilliance in the short story form; Tana French’s gorgeously written mysteries; and so many others—I also love Kazuo Ishiguro, ZZ Packer, Miranda July, Jeffrey Eugenides, Lauren Groff… I could go on!

Who are you currently reading that you find exciting?

I’ve recently read a lot of novels published in the past year or so. I especially loved Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven; Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me; Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings; and Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things.

How do you think your writing has evolved over time?

My favorite books are those that have both beautiful writing and an engaging plot. (Donna Tartt does this really well, I think.) But for a long time, I prioritized my prose, and so my stories were the kind in which not much happened. Of course, this isn’t always a bad thing, but I do think there is a preference for subtlety in literary fiction that made me afraid my work would be seen as less literary if it was action-oriented. I’ve also been nervous to engage too straightforwardly with politics and social issues—afraid that I’ll do it clunkily or capture an issue inaccurately. But in the book I’m currently writing, I’m really pushing myself to engage with history, politics, religion, and race. It’s outside of my comfort zone, but I know it’s making me a better writer, and hopefully a better citizen.

Who or what influences your writing?

I’m fascinated by human behavior and relationships: why people do the things they do; how one event can be perceived entirely differently by different people; how we’re shaped by experience, and to what extent we have the capacity to change. My parents are divorced, and I grew up in a big, modern family, with four parents and two siblings. Some of my parents are gay, and some are straight; the biological father of one of my brothers is a sperm donor. So I had a non-normative set-up, especially at that time, and it made me feel both at home in and aware of difference, diversity, atypical lifestyles.

I’ve also noticed that most of my work circles around religion and science, both of which interest me as ways that we cope with the unknown. I tend to return to the tension between trust and knowledge—for instance, and the tension between science’s approach to the unknown (which is to know it) and religion’s approach to the unknown, which is more centered in faith.

Where did you get the idea to write about dreams? Was it a challenge?

I’ve always been interested in dreams—it’s wild to me that the brain essentially tells stories while we sleep. They’re also fascinating to think about in the context of fiction: dreams are, in essence, fictional stories, but can they also be “true”? Real? I began to circle around a way in which I could combine this with other elements that excited me: a boarding school setting, a charismatic leader, deceptive personal relationships, and experimental scientific research.

It was a challenge to write about dreams, particularly in the context of the research these particular characters are doing (using lucid dreaming to treat sleep disorders). I created that technique using existing research, which gave me a certain amount of freedom, but it also meant that I had to work hard to ensure that the research made sense scientifically—as well as making sense to a reader. The research went through many different permutations. In early drafts of the book, it verged much more on science fiction, but by the final draft, we had made it more realistic. I decided that the book already asks readers to take some pretty significant leaps of faith, and it wasn’t necessary to give them another one.

Sylvie is interesting because she is the exact opposite of what the book seems to portray. What inspired you to create her as the main character?

I wanted to write a character who seems rational and self-aware, but who is revealed to be quite different than the way she sees herself—or the way she wants to see herself. In this vein, dreams offered a lens through which to explore character: What do dreams reveal about us, and what do they obscure? Keller’s research in lucid dreaming is looking in part at human potential, and I was curious about the extent to which we all have various selves, various characters inside us.


About the author of this post: Lauren Banas is a sophomore at North Central College and is currently studying English Writing. Stemmed from a life-long love of reading, she is a constant writer of fiction, specifically that of the fantastical variety. She loves experimenting with new literature though and hopes to pursue a career in publishing.

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