Thanks to a slew of recent books, thinking about death can actually be quite pleasant — at least as the reading experience goes. In the past couple of years, some of our most popular nonfiction titles have dealt beautifully with end-of-life realities (When Breath Becomes Air, Being Mortal, The Bright Hour, Dying: A Memoir). Now 2018 greets us with imaginative, haunting — even funny — fiction writing that explores mortality and how we humans accept (or don’t) the certainty of it. First up, these two excellent novels: The Afterlives by Thomas Pierce and The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin.
In The Afterlives, a 30-year-old man named Jim Byrd dies — briefly, that is, of a heart attack, before being revived. Shortly thereafter, he meets the love of his life, Annie. And soon after that, they meet a ghost. This original, arresting story makes you think about what happens to our souls when our bodies are gone. We’re absolutely in love with it.
Speaking of bodies and souls . . . The Immortalists asks the question everyone has pondered at some point: if you knew when you were going to die, how would you live your life? In 1969, the four teenage Gold siblings meet a psychic who tells each of them — separately — the date of his or her death. The novel follows them from there as they grow up, each sibling handling this knowledge differently.
We think these books make such an inspired pair of reads that we asked their authors to come for a conversation and book-signing together! We hope you’ll read both, and we invite you to join us on Saturday, January 20, at 2 p.m. here in the store! Meanwhile, Benjamin and Pierce share some behind-the-books insight with our Musing editor, Mary Laura Philpott. Have a look:
MLP: Chloe, how did the idea for this book originate? Take us back to the moment or thought that started it all.
CB: I always wish I had a better answer to this question, because the truth is that I don’t remember the precise moment it first sparked! I tend to live with my next novel idea for months or years before I start writing it, rolling it around in my mind, taking notes. I have a memory of wandering around in an airport thinking about four siblings who go to visit a fortune teller and how their lives would spin out differently in the years afterward. After the prologue, when the siblings receive their prophecies, the book takes place in four sections, each of which is focused on and told from the perspective of a different sibling. What I do remember (in vivid detail) is the process of crafting each sibling’s personality, trajectory and orientation toward the prophecy, which required many months (sometimes years!) of separate research.
MLP: Thomas, do you remember the seed of The Afterlives?
TP: I was deep into writing an altogether different novel when my first daughter was born, and not only was my ability to focus obliterated (for all the obvious baby-related reasons) but I also experienced — not for the first time though perhaps more powerfully than ever before — that uncomfortable awareness that time was passing very, very quickly. Maybe all new parents feel it: We’re not permanent; this all ends. I remember thinking at one point, What book would I want to leave behind if I’m gone tomorrow? I didn’t know the answer to that question — and still don’t, if I’m being honest — but I sensed it wasn’t the book I was writing at the time. So I shifted gears. What became The Afterlives began as a series of fragments. Little pieces and scraps that I’d scribble down in spare moments. A voice eventually emerged — Jim’s. Then another voice interrupted — the ghost’s.
MLP: Chloe, what was the toughest thing to pull off in writing The Immortalists? Anything that didn’t work at first or that you had to try a few different ways?
CB: So many things! In each section, I can list off a number of wrong turns and dead ends. But the hardest to write was definitely the final section, Varya’s. Varya is a scientist who is trying to extend the human life span, and for years, I had her working with a fascinating organism called Turritopsis dohrnii, the immortal jellyfish. I studied molecular biology, academic articles, and scientific studies in an attempt to understand Turritopsis enough to write about it. I even Skyped with scientists as far away as Italy! Ultimately, though, real scientists are still mystified by the jellyfish, so I couldn’t figure out a takeaway or discovery that would drive the narrative. After much agonizing, I came across an article about a caloric restriction study in primates. That was it: I realized that what Varya’s section needed was not the otherworldly jellyfish but fleshy, powerful primates, who bear so much resemblance to us human beings.
MLP: Thomas, The Afterlives is a love story, but it’s also a bit of a ghost story, with a touch of sci-fi. Play bookseller for a moment and tell us how you’d recommend it to readers, using “If you liked ____, you’ll love The Afterlives.” What are some options for filling in that blank?
TP: I am so awful at elevator pitches! Also pretty bad at writing within a single genre, it would seem. How about this: If you like meet-cutes, metaphysics, tales of near death experiences, that John Lennon song “Out the Blue” (“Like a UFO you came to me and blew away life’s misery”), the overlap between science and spirituality, unanswerable questions, small town stories, Charles Portis, William James, unusual phenonema — and if you believe the answer to about 93% of the world’s problems is love and kindness — then, so says its author, you’ll enjoy The Afterlives.
MLP: OK, I’ve got to know — Chloe, if YOU had the option of finding out the date of your death, would you want to?
CB: I always say that I would . . . but only if it were good news! Of course, that’s impossible to know, so I have to conclude that I wouldn’t.
MLP: Thomas, do you believe in ghosts? Or . . . well, spirits that exist across time, to get technical about it?
TP: I believe! (Caveat: I try not to believe too much — or rather, too firmly — in anything.) I’ve probably always had a bit of a mystical streak in me — I’ve never been able to fathom a universe that’s entirely accidental and physical — but I had a slow motion awakening about 15 years ago when I met my wife. Her great-grandfather was a well-known clairvoyant, and her family has a fantastic library of books about psychic and paranormal phenomena, not to mention all the transcribed readings her great-grandfather left behind. I’m not sure if ghosts as we traditionally imagine them exist, but suffice it to say: I think there is so much about the universe that we don’t understand — that we are incapable of understanding, mired as we are in the mush of materiality — and I think this deep uncertainty about the nature of our experience here has permeated most of the stories I’ve written so far, to some degree or another.
MLP: And finally — we ask everyone: what do you love most about bookstores?
CB: Oh, gosh — what’s not to love? I love the people — the passionate booksellers on the front lines who help to keep reading and writing alive. I love getting lost in the aisles, paging through books as though I have all the time in the world, finding ones I never knew I wanted. I love the smell of the pages. I love what makes each bookstore unique: the layout, the staff recommendations, the special programs, events and traditions. I love that indie bookstores are community gathering places, ways to experience collectively a passion — reading — that is also quite private and individual.
TP: Perusing. Lingering. Wondering if that book over yonder — or that one, or that one — might somehow change my life.
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