sorting through the ashes of rejection
an interview with novelist Chloe Benjamin
Today we’ve got an interview with novelist Chloe Benjamin, author of The Immortalists and The Anatomy of Dreams. I’ve known Chloe for a long time—we first met when she was visiting Madison as a prospective MFA student and got to be friends over many Spotted Cows and cupcakes and brunches and book club evenings. I’ve long admired her ambition and her beautiful prose. I wanted to talk to her for this newsletter in particular because she’s incredibly successful, but she’s also been refreshingly transparent (on instagram, even!) about sharing some of her struggles in recent years—a book she decided to put aside, chronic pain and migraines, burnout. (She just had a great piece in New York Magazine’s The Cut about migraines, chronic pain, and learning to work differently.) I hope you find her approach to writing and working through rejection and finding joy in a new project as encouraging and helpful as I do.
Most people probably know you as the author of the wildly successful novel The Immortalists, about four siblings whose lives are shaped by having their deaths foretold by a psychic. (And it’s so good!) But you’ve also shared on instagram that you were working on a third novel–for years, I think–that you ultimately had to set aside before beginning the novel that’s in progress now. How did you know the third book wasn’t going to work? How did you decide to set it aside and start something new?
First of all, Nancy, thank you so much for having me be part of this issue! Folks might be interested to know that we met over 10 (crazy!) years ago, when we were both in the MFA program at UW-Madison—you in poetry and me in fiction.
It takes somewhere between two and five years for me to finish a novel (so far, at least). I finished final edits on THE IMMORTALISTS in 2016. Earlier that year, I’d had the idea for a new book. (I’m going to be annoyingly vague about the subject, because I’m superstitious about sharing too much about unpublished work, and I hope I might return to it in the future.) I knew it would be a challenge at the outset—the research was immense, and mostly centered on a very complex field in which I don’t have personal experience. But my other books were also ambitious and research-intensive, so I plunged in optimistically.
I worked on that book for four years, until 2020. As the years passed, my nerves about the manuscript increased. Its subjects coincided with what was happening politically, in our country and in others, and as Trump's regime became more and more destructive and absurdist, I struggled to figure out how to approach my manuscript in real time. Ultimately, I had to admit that I didn't know. That was very tough and humbling. I felt a lot of grief about letting go of this book, and especially its central character.
That said, letting go of it opened the door for the project I'm working on now (let's call it Book 3). This one is totally different, and though it certainly has its challenges, I have to say that it's mostly a joy to work on. It's been imaginative and transportive for me, very much its own world, and I hope it will offer the same things to readers.
How do you think about that book you set aside now? I have long-term projects that haven’t come together, or maybe haven’t coalesced yet, and I sometimes have moments where I wonder if I’ve just been wasting my time working on this thing that may never be a book. But I also know those projects have taught me things I couldn’t have learned otherwise. So I wonder what you learned or how you developed through the books that didn’t make it the whole way to publication.
Noting how different I feel while working on Book 3 has confirmed my instinct that I was right to set the previous manuscript aside. I feel more peace about that, even if, as I said, I still hope to resuscitate it someday, perhaps in a different form. This isn't the first book I've had to set aside; the one I wrote during the MFA found me an agent, but every publisher we submitted to turned it down. Each time, I felt all the feelings for a while, and then I sorted through the ashes to figure out what I could take away. With that very first manuscript, the feedback was mainly that people liked the prose but felt the plot wasn’t strong enough. I think I'd assumed that language and subtlety were the keys to being taken seriously as a literary author. But those rejections made me realize--it's OK to tell a really good story! I mean, the books I love most have both beautiful prose and really engaging plots. So I tried to cultivate that by discarding the assumptions I'd had about literariness and giving myself permission to really fly and have fun narratively.
With the most recent manuscript I set aside, I think I'm still figuring out what it has to teach me. Was I simply too ambitious? Did I not do a good enough job of thinking through what the book would entail? I also think I developed a lot as a person during those years--psychologically, politically, even physically—and in some ways I outgrew the manuscript. That's a sad thing for the project, but it's a good thing in real life... and for future writing, too.
What advice would you give to writers who are struggling with rejection?
All I can say is that it happens to every single writer--I was probably rejected over a hundred times before I got anything published, and that was only after I'd sold my first novel. It is so much a part of this career that you quite literally will not continue on in writing if you can't learn from *and* move past rejection, because otherwise you'll stop right there.
I think you’re a little jinxy about talking about books in progress (a trait I share!) but I wonder if there’s anything you’d share about the book you’re working on now.
Ah, I am--thank you for understanding that! But let's see, a little tidbit... it's another epic sort of novel, but this time it veers into some of the speculative/sci-fi stuff I've only flirted with into the past. That's as much as I've anywhere said so far!
a few of my favorite things
Evil Witches is a great newsletter (“we are people who happen to be mothers”) written by Claire Zulkey. I particularly loved this older newsletter, You have permission to, a list of “what you are allowed to do but don’t think you can or should,” that she re-shared recently, and thought I’d link it here. A few items that really resonated with me:
Say things like "I do really love to play with you, but right now I'm enjoying [insert thing you like: a magazine, a crossword, staring out the window while I drink this coffee]."
Assign things you don't want to make when people ask what they can bring.
Not tell your kids about Elf on the Shelf. If your kids find out from friends/family, an acceptable answer is “We don’t have one.”
Decline to sign up for an activity (sports, scouts, etc) because it is clear you will have to lead it if your kid is involved.
I’d add: decline to follow (or even know about!) all the different outfits your kids’ school suggests for “spirit week.”
My friend Rebecca Hazelton wrote this very smart essay, Best American Male.
The essay will distract the reader from this truth: the author is white and male and began writing the essay—even if he did not begin his life—with more resources, more access, and more power than most of us will ever have, although he’ll be the first to tell you he did not have it easy. Sometimes he will tell us how and when he had to root through his car to gather quarters in order to scrape up enough money for rent.
(You might remember her essay, The Man: A Compilation, that was in Kenyon Review this summer.)
My one writing trick right now is picking a song I like, then finding a one-hour loop of it on YouTube. Right now, I’m super into Florence + The Machine’s King, which starts with these great lyrics: “we argue in the kitchen about whether to have children, about the world ending and the scale of my ambition, and how much is art really worth. The very thing you’re best at is the thing that hurts the most.”
I had my first event, a facebook live hosted by LSU, for my new book, Pocket Universe, this past Thursday! If you’d like to watch, you can follow this link.
(And I’d love to send you a bookplate (pictured below; designed by the very talent Lindsay Lusby) as a thank you if you’ve ordered! Just send me a quick email with your receipt and address, and I’ll pop one in the mail right away—I even bought some cute new stamps just for bookplates!)
What have you read recently and loved? How is your writing going? I’d love to hear from you. You can always reply to this email, comment below, or find me on twitter (@nancy_reddy) and instagram (@nancy.o.reddy).