We’re a creative bunch at 30 North. Some of us are writers. Some are graphic designers or visual artists. We’re sculptors, musicians, painters, and poets. What we all have in common is that we all create, and if given the chance, we’d likely jump at an opportunity to make a living from it. Yet, we are also all painfully aware of just how difficult it is to do just that. Thus, we were beyond excited to be given a chance to interview Chloe Benjamin, a best-selling novelist, and the author of both The Immortalists and The Anatomy of Dreams. Chloe let us in on what it takes to go from merely daydreaming in a library, to seeing your first novel stocked on the shelves at Barnes and Noble.
Our interview with Chloe takes place on a Monday evening. It’s mid-September and it’s Chicago, so it’s warm out – about 80 degrees – though considering that we’re all stuck inside due to the pandemic, it might as well be snowing. Instead, the temperature is the usual universal 70-something degrees of air-conditioning. The sky is neither clear nor cloudy; it’s a lovely shade of ceiling.
The specter of COVID still hangs grim and menacing over our heads, so we’re doing the interview over Zoom – just to be safe.
A few more minutes pass, and Chloe joins the call.
She has blonde hair and is wearing a simple green t-shirt. The room behind her is neat and tidy. It’s almost five-o-clock, but somehow the space seems bright as daylight. It’s the perfect complement to her personality. She’s intelligent, eager to pass on what she knows, and she immediately goes about finding ways to engage with us.
Personally, I’d always imagined that a New York Times best-selling author would be tantamount to any kind of celebrity – the type who demand permission to spit on you before they’d even consider posing for a selfie. Instead, Chloe is the most approachable person in the world. She seems how any one of us might turn out after a couple of years (and a couple of books). Like most of us, she’s wanted to be a writer since she was a kid – in her case, going all the way back to age eight. For her undergraduate, she majored in English, and took several classes in creative writing. Afterwards, at the behest of her senior writing professor, she pursued an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in creative writing. At the time, she claims, this wasn’t the obvious route for young writers that it has since become (even now, she advises that we should only pursue that sort of program if it offers us a full financial ride). For a while she worked a day job as an administrative assistant – a career choice which she recommends to aspiring authors due to how it divides one’s time between “work” and “writing”. However, with two best-selling novels under her belt, Chloe now writes full time.
And yes, she swore while telling us her reaction to learning she’d be on Live with Seth Meyers. We all laugh. She apologizes and asks if it’s okay. Naturally, it is. It cements the image of a “best-selling author” as being a genuine human being, rather than some edifice of unobtainable success. For her, that guest appearance was a genuinely shocking moment. I would imagine that any of us would respond in the exact same way.
It’s hard to imagine Stephen King or J.K. Rowling sitting paralyzed with insecurity before the keys of a typewriter or reacting with genuine shock to the trappings of fame. For most of us, I imagine that the names on the covers and spines of novels are like institutions. They’ve always been there. They’ve always been successful. They always will be. They could doodle out a poem on a cocktail napkin, and watch it become a New York Times Bestseller by next Monday.
Yet, the notion of “permanent success” is one of the first myths that Benjamin disproved to us. In her eyes, it is a delusion that any of us – or by extension, any writer period – will one day reach a point where their work will see universal acceptance from any publisher.
Instead, she says that you will always have pieces that are rejected, at every point in your career. No author has their work judged merely on the level of celebrity attached to their name. At the end of the day, publishers have a business to run. They’re not going to invest in something that will lose them money.
Yet, even if you absolutely love everything you write (which, you won’t, sorry), the decision of what is and isn’t published won’t always rest entirely upon your skill as a writer.
Anyone who’s ever heard of the VIDA Count knows that the lack of representation of women and non-binary writers in publishing is a very real dilemma. It’s a disparity that only worsens at higher levels of literary fame. And if “what’s hot” is a reflection of whatever the biggest names in the business are churning out, and if the majority of those “big names” are men, it isn’t hard to see just how problematic and limiting it can be to navigate the publishing world when one lacks the mantle of institutionalized privilege.
According to Chloe, what’s traditionally seen as “important” is still very much defined by the work of male writers. Thus, “important”, in context of the literary world, rarely refers to content involving relationships, domestic life, or anything else considered traditionally feminine. In the one-hundred-and-fifty years since famed American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne decried the first commercially successful female authors as “damned scribbling women”, little has truly changed. Chloe revealed that, for a while, she was hesitant to use “too much emotion” in her writing, for fear of being labeled a “sentimentalist” writer.
With all of that in mind, it would be easy to see the big names in publishing as some monolithic hindrance in the path of any up-and-coming writer. Yet, Chloe reminds us that the success of these institutional workhorses allows publishing companies to feel more comfortable taking a chance on a risky investment, like a passion project, or an up-and-coming unknown. She also assures us that a legitimate cultural shift has recently begun to occur. Sentimentality and emotion are starting to gain traction in the literary world. Serious works no longer need to be devoid of any heart.
So, having discussed writers big and small – what kind of writer is Chloe Benjamin?
“I want to control every aspect of the world I’m working on” she states as she explains why she would have trouble collaborating on a novel with another writer. Of course, that isn’t to say that Chloe is at all antisocial. The need for control that she expresses is a mood likely every writer is familiar with. Creative writing ultimately becomes a writer’s own, person sandbox. Being forced to share the mantle of godhood while within that space only serves to take away from the fun.
Besides, truth-be-told, Chloe is anything but anti-social. In gathering research for her novels, she’s worked with mathematicians, magicians, theater experts – even an astrophysicist. She needs to. While she acknowledges there is an inherent merit to “writing what you know”, Chloe prescribes that aspiring writers should instead “write what [they] want to know about”. Since no one is an expert on everything, this means being prepared to go out and do research. Sometimes this can simply mean a trip to the library. Other times, it can mean taking a much more “gonzo” approach and getting personally involved. She reveals that getting involved in theatre acting ended up being a great way for her to develop an understanding of speech, which she then translated into finding better ways of employing dialogue in her work. And of course, sometimes there’s no substitute for an in-person interview – hence why we’re all currently in the middle of a zoom call, picking the brain of a best-selling novelist.
While all this research might seem like a lot of extra work, especially for someone who writes fiction, Chloe insists that, as a writer, you owe it to your audience to write with integrity. Get something wrong, and you will end up hearing about it.
So, what about original ideas? According to Chloe, inspiration might certainly feel like a gift from the divine. Yet, at the end of the day, your initial concept will always come from somewhere deep within you. Similarly, she states that to be an artist, you must truly feel internal motivation. You must want to make it. Granted, that seems like an obvious point – but, as Chloe states – to make it, you can’t just write for the sake of self-pleasure. You must do that which is necessary to mold and hone your craft so that it can compete in the publishing world.
Inherent in that effort is accepting that it is a process that will not always be fun. It will – at times, often – be genuine work. It is also difficult. One must run the gauntlet of maintaining both intense self-criticism – enough to keep both yourself and your perception of your work grounded in reality – and absurd faith – enough to feel comfortable submitting your work time and time again for the world to judge and read. That might be easy if you love what you’re working on. But what if you don’t?
“Even when you hate what you’re working on”, Chloe states, “you have to love it.”
If this all seems a bit contradictory, well – it’s because it is. If it’s not entirely apparent yet, being a writer is, like many things in life, something that requires you to find and maintain a balance between seemingly incompatible forces.
It all can very easily become a headache; the key, she says, is to push through the pain.
So how does Chloe recommend reckoning with what ultimately feels like a world of contradiction?
“Nothing shuts creativity down like fear”
The answer, it would seem, is to just “let go”.
Obviously, the road to success as a novelist – or any other sort of writer for that matter – is not a one-and-done achievement. As with any craft that tends to be described with the whole “road-metaphor thing” (honestly, society needs to come up with more options in this department), the journey never really ends. As stated before – you’re never going to reach a point at which everything you do is a “win”.
Chloe herself states that she “came into her own” as a writer only during the writing of her second book. Her first book, “Anatomy of Dreams”, was initially rejected by several publishers. Before then, her portfolio of published works consisted only of some poetry that had been printed in small, local journals, she refused to withhold from self-identifying as a writer. As it turns out – at least, according to Chloe – the barrier between being “someone with a dream of being a writer”, and being “a writer”, is simply believing that you are.
Yes, there’s always a very real chance of your work being rejected – but that doesn’t have to be the end of all the effort you placed into it. Instead, she advises us to never throw anything out – no matter how stupid or embarrassingly immature we may believe our drafts and rejected pieces to be. You can always use parts from these pieces in future works. At the same time, Chloe warns us not to hyper-focus on the audience’s approval. “Give yourself a chance to imagine!” she pleads, “Nothing shuts down creativity like fear.” You don’t have to be afraid of constantly coming up with ideas that will please your audience. While the craft of writing shouldn’t be entirely self-serving, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trust your gut, either. Nor does it mean that you should never have fun. Sometimes, you need take a break from obsessing over “success” and just let yourself write.
More than anything, I think she wanted us to not be afraid of just sitting down, picking up a pen or pencil, and just writing.
You see, according to Chloe, the worst feeling that a writer can experience isn’t the doldrums of writers’ block, or the frustration of working on an assignment you aren’t inherently thrilled to undertake. Rather, it’s to have nothing at all – no project, no novel, no outlet to release that which lies within you and so desperately wishes to be let out. So just keep going. Pillage and pilfer from your discarded drafts. Dig down to your deepest reaches and seek out original concepts. Don’t discard criticism; but know when to let that negativity go. Regardless of whatever milestones you’ve reached, of how many pieces you’ve published, or of how many times you’ve faced rejection, you will always be a writer – as long as you write.
So, go, get out, and do it.
I would like to give a very special thank you to Chloe Benjamin for taking the time to speak to us here at 30 North, and for helping a new generation of hopefuls feel just a little more secure when it comes to following their dreams.