The booksellers who handpick books for our Discover Great New Writers program were floored by Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists and Lucy Tan’s What We Were Promised—and still think about the places and people these novels conjured for us, months and months after we first read them. We were thrilled when Chloe and Lucy took the time to talk about the intersection between family stories and research (and writing what you know), the importance of empathy in creating and imagining, capturing the incredible range of female experience in fiction, and more, in this wide-ranging conversation for B&N Reads.
(P.S. There’s also a terrific list of recommended reads you’ll want to add to your TBR pile.)
Chloe Benjamin: Lucy, I’m so excited to be celebrating the launch of What We Were Promised, and to be talking about it together for Barnes & Noble. I have such clear memories of the first time we met, back in 2014—you had been accepted to the University of Wisconsin’s MFA program in fiction, which I’d finished a few years before, and you were here for a prospective students’ weekend. I was instantly taken by how whip-smart and engaged you were, and selfishly, I wanted you to come so I could have you as a friend. Since then, I’ve seen you spend years working on this novel. After you graduated but before you left town, we had a weekly writing date I still miss. And when I finally got to read What We Were Promised, it was every bit as staggering as I’d expected, full of exquisite details, an epic cultural scope, and the kind of compassionate characterization that challenges assumptions.
I’m wondering if we can start with the genesis for this book, as much as I’m sure you’ll come to groan at that question once you go on tour and everyone starts with it! I know your background and family informed certain aspects of the book, but as a fellow fiction writer, I also know it’s a vast oversimplification to suggest that those things went into the bloodstream of the book undiluted by imagination and invention.
Lucy Tan: Chloe, it feels surreal to be taking our private conversations public! You were such a resource and a friend to me when I first arrived in Madison, and I’m so grateful we’ve gotten even closer since then.
I think there are two ways to answer your question about where this novel began. In 2012, I wrote a short story from the point of view of a hotel resident who is paranoid about the housekeepers touching her belongings. I scrapped the story, but there was a single sentence I’d written that stuck in my brain. In my MFA workshop the first year I was at Wisconsin, I started with that sentence and rewrote the story, this time from the point of view of two housekeepers who had been accused of stealing a bracelet from a hotel room. My teacher, Judith Claire Mitchell, told me the story read like the opening to a novel. With her encouragement, I began writing what would eventually become What We Were Promised.
Benjamin: You’re kidding! I do know that it grew out of a short story, but I didn’t know the piece about the single sentence. What was it?
Tan: It was “The maids are armed beneath their cotton garb.” Looking back, I think I just needed an entry point to writing about the two years I spent living and working in Shanghai. My parents are Chinese-born, American expats, and we lived in a serviced apartment very similar to Lanson Suites, the fictional hotel where the novel is set. It was there that I met the housekeepers, drivers, locals, and expats who would inspire characters in my book. By 2010, China (and Shanghai, in particular) had exploded both culturally and economically in the span of a couple decades. As a result, the class and cultural divides were complicated and interesting. I knew I would eventually write about my experience there because I wanted to capture modern China at this moment in time, which felt like another turning point in China’s history. Walking through Pudong New District among the myriad of brand new skyscrapers, you can just feel the question hovering there, as ever-present as the smog: Will China become the world’s next superpower? There is such hope for this to be true, and yet the city itself is made up of people who have experienced no shortage of personal and political trauma.
The Immortalists, too, explores so many time periods and subcultures, from New York City’s immigrant communities in the 1970s to San Francisco’s gay community in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, to fields of magic and life science—more specifically, the science of longevity. The breadth of knowledge and specificity with which you delve into four totally different, equally empathetic human lives, exploring everything from their careers to their personal perspectives on existence, and tracking the way these change throughout time, is astonishing. I know you did an impressive amount of research in each of these areas and I love learning about your process immersing yourself in worlds you’ve never personally inhabited. How much research do you do before you begin writing? Do you ever stop, at a certain point, to focus solely on fiction writing, or do you research throughout the entire process? Do you have any tips for other writers?
Benjamin: I’m so touched you felt that way, reading the book. Isn’t it such a meaningful, specific experience to know that a friend enjoyed your work, as opposed to a stranger? Maybe it’s a relief, too: how horrible it would be if you hated my book!
I tend to do as much research as I need to in order to write a certain portion of a novel; then it’s a sort of rinse-and-repeat situation—I pause the writing to research, write more when I’ve done enough research, pause again, write again. I tend to pick projects that require a lot of research, and the idea of doing it all up front, before the writing, feels terrifying and impossible—like studying now for an exam you’ll take years in the future.
I find research really inspiring, in that I’m constantly learning things that get the gears turning imaginatively—I might encounter a detail I fall in love with, or some historical fact that winds up propelling the plot. And, of course, it’s critical for me because, as you say, I am often writing about things I haven’t experienced—and now, more than ever, I think we need to be careful, thoughtful, and intentional when we do that. It’s extremely important to me to write with integrity, and that means doing the work of learning instead of relying on assumptions.
Even though you’ve experienced certain things that made it into What We Were Promised—expat life in a serviced apartment, for example—the way you illuminate such vastly different moments and places in Chinese life was wildly impressive to me. You take us from a Communist “cadre school” to the small village of Suzhou in the 1980s, from Sunny’s hometown of Hefei to modern Shanghai. How did you inhabit all of these places, and with such vivid, specific details? Hefei, for example, comes to life so vividly as “a city full of other cities’ leftovers—overstocked furniture, yuandan bags, and name-brand watches that were too expensive for anyone but tourists to buy… Even its pollution was secondhand.” This contrasts sharply with the Lanson Suites in Shanghai, where Sunny works as a housekeeper, serving wealthy Chinese-born, Western-educated elite. Here, too, you bring so many striking details into play: how the female staff pick new, Americanized names, with flowers, trees, and months being particularly popular, or the fact that Sunny returns each night to a group housing facility where the bathrooms smell of “boiled cabbage, urine, and copper.”
Meanwhile, we also see Lanson Suites through the eyes of Lina, the housewife for whom Sunny works. Though she seems impervious to Sunny, Lina feels out of place herself, critical of her own directionlessness and of the zeal with which the other taitais embrace their social status; I loved the irony of the fact that the unemployed wives carry around “business cards” with their addresses, for making friends. And then you have this deep insight into corporate life and economics, but it’s never deployed dryly—the reality show that Wei’s company is developing was such a hilarious, pitch-perfect element.
So I’ll stop raving and ask: How did you inhabit so many different places, cultural moments, and subcultures? Were certain things particularly natural or difficult to portray? Even if I did some of this in The Immortalists, I still feel like you pulled off a magic trick I can’t understand.
Tan: My grandparents and parents lived through the Cultural Revolution, and told me stories that made impressions on me at an early age. As I worked on the book, I became more intentional about capturing more of these stories. I have hours of recorded interviews with my grandparents and parents, and much of what I learned never made it into the novel, including some of the most arresting anecdotes and details. For instance, the rats that fought in the rafters above their beds in the countryside, landing on their chests in the middle of the night. The boredom of skipping out on fieldwork to lie in the fields. Or my grandmother, turning in a diamond ring her mother had hidden from the Red Guard, and the sense of family betrayal wrestling with her political values. The characters and events in the book are fictional, but the settings and zeitgeist of what it felt like to live in China during the late ’60s and ’80s were all gleaned from oral history and factual research.
As for the details set in present day, they are largely inspired by firsthand observations. I grew up listening to my parents and their friends talk about China and where it’s going, and this gave me insight into expat perspectives. I have a background in product management and digital media, which gave me knowledge of what it’s like to work at big corporations. The parts of the novel set in 2010 were far easier to write, since I’d lived in that time and place. And what I hadn’t seen firsthand (the living conditions of group homes in Shanghai, what it felt like to walk through the streets in Hefei), I researched and imagined. When the bare bones of facts are in place, I find it feels pretty natural to flesh out the story with fictional details.
Benjamin: I wonder if you can talk about writing the sections that take place at Communist labor camps. I was fascinated to see the camps didn’t seem as purely horrific as I might have assumed.
Tan: I’m so glad you brought this up. I should start by saying that I don’t think there’s an accurate term in English for what those “labor camps” were. Yes, people were forced to perform labor, but most were not meant to be prisons, and the term “reeducation” wasn’t just a euphemism. Both my parents were reeducated—sent to the countryside, taught to do fieldwork, and to memorize Communist beliefs. While the ethics of these practices are questionable to say the least, neither of my parents came out of that experience scarred beyond the shock of adjusting to life in the countryside. Of course, there were many people who did suffer atrocities at the hands of the government and its supporters. Many were wrongly accused, publicly ridiculed, and killed or pushed to suicide, and I don’t want to trivialize their experiences. But most of what I’ve read about the Cultural Revolution focuses only on the most sensational stories of the time. I wanted to tell a story in which the political situation was not in the foreground (though it certainly affected every Chinese person’s life during the time), but served as the background to more predictable dramas of life: falling in and out of love, leaving home, and growing to know oneself.
Another thing I’d like to bring up is that America likes to support this narrative that the Cultural Revolution was this huge tragedy that came out of nowhere and for which the government held all the responsibility. That’s why it was important for me to create a character like Zhen Hong, who is supportive of Communism, but who is probably the most pure-hearted, well-intentioned character in the book. He’s just a guy who cares about his community and wants change for his nation. Without the benefit of hindsight, he throws his energy into Communist causes. I wanted to look at some of the reasons that might have seemed like a good idea to people at the time, and how old values have changed as we move into the 21st century.
What about you? Research aside, are there inspirations for The Immortalists rooted in your family or personal history?
Benjamin: Yes! My ancestors on my dad’s side of the family were Eastern European Jews who came through Ellis Island, fleeing the pogroms, and settled in New York City, where my dad grew up. My grandparents were hugely helpful in giving me a sense of zeitgeist and personal details. My great-grandfather was a tailor, like Saul in The Immortalists, and my grandfather, like Simon, was slated to take over the family business (he didn’t!). He told me these marvelous stories that also gave me a sense of religion and class: for instance, his father would take him to Saks Fifth Avenue every season to buy the latest styles, which they would then knock off at the shop and sell to their (Jewish, less wealthy) customers. My grandfather’s stories also illuminated the way superstition and religion were intertwined for turn of the century Jews fleeing trauma. When his mother suspected their silverware had been used for something non-kosher, she buried it in the backyard! I have no idea if this was according to Jewish custom or if it simply seemed like the best way to prevent any negative consequences.
As we talk about all of this, I can’t help but think of the very timely question of whether to write what you know. As I mentioned earlier, I think we’re in a cultural moment that demands writers think carefully about writing outside of their own experiences, which is so important—for too long, writers from majority groups (especially white men but also white women) have assumed the right to write about all ranges of experience, often with consequences that are damaging to underrepresented groups. At the same time, we fiction writers are drawn to fiction precisely because it asks us to imagine lives outside our own. How do you feel about these tricky questions?
Tan: What I keep coming back to is Kaitlyn Greenidge’s op-ed in the New York Times titled “Who Gets to Write What?” In it, she recontextualizes the question. She makes the point that what we’re asking when we ask, “Who can write this?” is not whether we can write certain topics from certain points of view, but whether we can write them with the public’s approval.
Benjamin: Wow. That is so true.
Tan: Greenidge’s opinion is that you can write outside what you know only if it’s really good. This resonates with me; when characters feel real enough, the author begins to disappear and what’s left is just the story. I think some writers (white males, but others, too) write with the assumption that they’re starting with a blank slate—that because their intentions are pure, their writing will be free of prejudice. But we are naturally limited by our biases, much of which is informed by our ethnicities, and that’s why it’s important to do the research necessary to make sure the experiences we’re presenting are presented in the right way. So much of the work of creating and imagining has to do with empathizing, and I don’t think this is possible without a certain level of research.
But how far do you go? Despite having done research, I worry about misrepresentation in my own novel. I didn’t grow up on a farm in Anhui, and I haven’t run with gangs in 1980s China. I know there’s a big chance people might read my novel and think, “She got that wrong.” But I’ve also read books that are clearly so heavily researched and so careful in their determination to be inoffensive that the fictional world begins to feel false. The mindset I’ve been striving for is to do the best research I can, write with empathy, and then remain open to criticism. I’m curious about your thoughts on this same topic!
Benjamin: I think that’s really well put. As you say, part of what we’re afraid of is criticism. And we have to be able to listen to criticism, ethically and practically: it’s a moral imperative, and it’s also part of growing, of getting better. At the same time, fiction is exactly that. The idea is always to imagine your way into another life. Otherwise we would all write memoir, you know? So I think, as you say, the goal is to do so with care, sensitivity and a willingness to learn—before, during, and after the book is written.
On a different note—because this book is so grounded in setting, I’m curious about which came first: the characters, or the place? How did you come to these characters in your mind? I’m always fascinated by this because for me, it feels like it’s hard to just “make a character up”—plenty of the writing process is just plain work, but characters and concept, for me, usually come from some inspiration I can’t explain.
Tan: I admire that kind of gut instinct you have for your characters! I didn’t have a strong idea of who my characters were from the start; they began in my conscious mind as stock figures. That said, maybe I had a keener understanding of their identities lurking in the back of my mind somewhere. With each decision they made, each moment they dealt with conflict, I found myself getting to know them better. By the end of the first draft, I returned to the beginning, reread certain scenes, and thought, “This is totally wrong. She would never do that!” With this sharper understanding, I was able to find opportunities that I’d missed the first time around. My first drafts are usually pretty sparse. It’s in revision that they get richer with backstory and detail.
Because it was the opening scene between Lina and Sunny that I wrote first, I guess you could say that the setting, characters, and conflict all came to me at once. But I do think setting was the biggest part of my decision to write this novel. Choosing a setting is such a commitment for me! It’s like signing a lease—this is going to be the place I’ll live for the next few years.
Benjamin: Ha! I love that.
Tan: One of the things that impresses me most about The Immortalists is the way the narration dips in and out of time periods with agility and confidence. The narrative knows from page one the entirety of the story, and knows exactly when to flash forward for suspense and when to stay in the moment. It’s hard for me to imagine the novel as just the skeleton of an idea. Did the voice of the narrator come naturally from the start, or was it honed over time?
Benjamin: Mmm, that’s a good question. I like how you’ve characterized the narrative, almost as if it’s an entity itself. I think it came easily in that close third is my favorite POV; it feels the most natural for me, and I love how it allows me to escape the strictures of first person—What would this character think or say?—while also inflecting the voice with a sense of personality, the hue of each character. It’s interesting, because I feel like the style of this book, and definitely the perspective, is much more native to me than the first person POV of The Anatomy of Dreams, my first book. Before I wrote Anatomy, I was writing close-third stories that were tonally much more similar to The Immortalists. So it felt like returning home, and it was a reminder that this kind of perspective, which is connected intimately to a particular character but stylistically more flexible than first, is what I love most.
Speaking of character, I think What We Were Promised is engaging with gender as well as race and class in really interesting ways. There’s a wide spectrum of female experience in your book, from Sunny, who cares much less about marriage than her family does, to Lina, who is a very traditional housewife and mother—but what strikes me as interesting is that both Sunny and Lina feel a lot of ambivalence about their positions. Correct me if I’m wrong, but my sense was that Sunny isn’t militantly anti-traditional marriage and Lina isn’t militantly for it; it’s more that they’ve each made compromises that have brought them to a place they have mixed feelings about. I think we’re seeing a lot of fantastic writing about women’s roles and expectations these days, but your exploration of uncertainty feels unique. Did you think about the idea of female ambivalence while writing?
Tan: That’s an interesting perspective! I didn’t start out with the intention of writing about female ambivalence per se, but I did want to portray female powerlessness in a range of ways. What We Were Promised is a book about changing values in China, but when it comes to women’s roles, I feel that not a lot has changed. In the agrarian society where Sunny grows up, a large part of a woman’s job is to give birth—and not just to give birth, but to give birth to sons, who are more useful when it comes to fieldwork. As we move into urban areas, this stops being true, and yet male dominance continues. It’s Lina who follows Wei abroad, not once, but twice, abandoning her own prospects in China and her career in the States. Her role as a mother, too, is something she’s let her husband define. Although gender equality is advancing in China and America in certain ways, there’s still a long way to go. I think Lina and Sunny each feel hemmed in by social expectations and harbor resentment toward the roles they’re expected to fill. At the same time, they know these roles are important, and that’s where the ambivalence comes in.
I loved that The Immortalists tracks a family throughout multiple generations, during which we can start to see female roles change. We start out with Gertie, mother of the four Gold siblings, who once wanted to be an intellectual, and who “lay beside the fountain in Washington Square Park reading Kafka and Nietzsche and Proust.” But after meeting her husband, she gets pregnant, drops out of school, and assumes the roles of mother and receptionist. In the second generation of Gold women, however, each become professionals in male-dominated fields. Varya is a research scientist working with primates. Klara is a death-defying magician who shares her act with a partner who supports her taking center stage. With all that’s going on in America right now, I found it uplifting to be reminded of the progress we’ve made for women over the last half century, despite recent setbacks. Was this intentional? What role do you think feminism could or should have in fiction? What are your favorite feminist reads?
Benjamin: I’m passionate about women’s rights and voices, and I think in many ways, centering women’s lives in fiction—whether those lives are more conventional/domestic or not—is a feminist act in itself. I love the work of Alice Munro, whose stories contain such nuance, and whose female characters are far more than the sum of their choices—as readers, we’re forced to look beneath the surface. Lily King’s Euphoria, a fictionalized take on the life of groundbreaking female anthropologist Margaret Mead, impacted me recently. Honestly, I read mostly female writers, and in the same way that different kinds of female characters all have something to say, I think that reading women frequently and consistently is a feminist act as well.
Tan: I hadn’t thought of writing from female perspectives as a feminist act, but you’re so right! It’s a way of asking the world to look more closely at our experiences.
Benjamin: I want to talk more about craft, since we both are sort of craft geeks at some level—one of my favorite things about our friendship is that we can talk endlessly about technique, unpacking how the bones of a novel fit together, whether it’s one of ours or someone else’s. How do you think your perspective on craft changed during and after your MFA? Did teaching influence that? What about the fact that you wrote short stories for many years—did that make writing a novel easier or harder?
Tan: Writing short stories helped me improve the quality of my prose and allowed me to experiment with voice, perspective, pacing, and other fundamentals of fiction writing, which were all helpful in writing the novel. But because the forms of short stories and novels are so different, I can’t say that writing short stories made writing a novel any easier. In fact, I think some of the instincts you can have as a short story writer might work against you as a novel writer, and vice versa. The most helpful thing I’ve learned about novel writing is to fix the sentences last. If the characters, setting, and conflict aren’t already there, you’re going to have to fix the sentences all over again anyway. I haven’t figured out a way to use this same approach with short stories. Short stories feel closer to poetry, and the sentence-to-sentence (sometimes even syllable-to-syllable) relationship feels integral to its trajectory. If I don’t have the right ones in place, I have no idea how to proceed! Do you know what I mean? How does the experience of writing a short story differ from that of writing a novel for you?
Benjamin: Oh, gosh—unlike you, I’m really not good at short stories! And I’m not just being self-deprecating; I was never able to comfortably inhabit that form. What you say about the instincts you have as a short story writer—I just don’t have those! I’ve always been mystified by the fact that there isn’t a more clearly delineated categorical line between short and long fiction. There’s this idea, especially in MFA programs, that fiction writers can do both. And I find them so very different!
While we’re on the subject of MFAs: aspiring writers often ask me about “to MFA or not to MFA” question. What are your thoughts?
Tan: I think of MFA programs as incubators. Because of the concentrated time and professional support I had during my two years at the University of Wisconsin, I was able to focus on writing as I never had before. That fast-tracked my growth as a writer by what was probably years. It was also very helpful to have the support of teachers and mentors who could point me in the right direction and say, “Okay, here’s what you should do now.” It saved a lot of time. That said, an MFA is by no means something a person must do to publish or otherwise succeed as a writer. I think if you’re a serious reader, if you have self-discipline, drive, and a community, and if you’re spending fifteen hours or more a week on writing, you’ve essentially built an MFA program for yourself.
As a college creative writing teacher, I often suggest that my students take a break before pursuing an MFA to gain life experience, but going straight from undergrad to an MFA program has worked out so well for you! Can you talk about some of the advantages of taking that route? In what situations would you recommend this to a student?
Benjamin: I totally agree with what you’ve said about the benefits of MFAs, but also the fact that they aren’t necessarily for everyone. I think there’s a bit of panic among developing writers—will I be disadvantaged if I don’t have an MFA? And while I do think that one major advantage of MFAs, in addition to what you’ve mentioned, is community and networking, even these can be found elsewhere—via writing groups, conferences, classes, local readings, etc.
Similarly, I think the question of whether to go straight into an MFA from college is a very personal one. I was almost obsessively motivated throughout high school and college, so to do something else first felt like an unnecessary side route. I was conscious of wanting to “get life experience,” as we say, but I also felt that life experience and graduate school weren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. That said, most people coming out of college are just finishing fifteen years of school, and I can absolutely see how leaving the environment of the academy would be crucial for many.
Benjamin: Let’s get nitty-gritty and talk about some of the authors and books who have influenced you. What are your all-time favorites? New favorites? Is there a book you loathed when you were younger that you’ve come to love? And what’s on your nightstand right now?
Tan: The book I’ve been most obsessed with in recent years is In Zanesville, by Jo Ann Beard. Beard has a way of managing sentence-by-sentence tension that astounds me on every reread. I feel the same way about Danielle Evans (Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self), whom I had the good fortune of working with at the University of Wisconsin. Both these authors are funny, sad, and charming, with keen insight into the quirks of being human. Books I began loving from childhood include The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexander Dumas, East of Eden, by John Steinbeck, and the Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling. My greatest heartbreak in life was having my eleventh birthday come and go without receiving a letter from Hogwarts. I’m still bitter about it, and will show them what I’m made of one day. The best novels I’ve read this year are The Immortalists (not just saying that), Strange Weather in Tokyo, by Hiromi Kawakami, Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas, and The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez. On my nightstand are: Candle Magic for Beginners (Did you think I was kidding about Hogwarts?) and a heartbreaking book called Dopesick, by Beth Macy, about the opioid crisis in America. Up next on my fiction list are Fruit of the Drunken Tree, by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, A River of Stars, by Vanessa Hua, and A Lucky Man, by Jamel Brinkley.
Brinkley: I love these! Some I’ve read—Danielle Evans is fantastic, and I too was a Harry Potter superfan, devastated at the unremarkable passing of my eleventh birthday.
Lastly—and believe me, this is the question interviewers will always end with—what’s next?! How comfortable do you feel sharing about work that is still in process?
LT: I think I’ve committed to my new project past the point of no return (knock on wood), so I can share that I’ve started a novel set in Wisconsin and New York about three women in the theater world. The themes are still emerging as I write, but so far, it’s pointing toward being an exploration of art, friendship, and female ambition.
CB: Yes, girl. Not to brag, but I feel pretty damn lucky that I’ll get to read it first.