Chloe Benjamin: Five Authors Who Made Me a Writer

Sarah Harrison Smith on February 20, 2018
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Benjamin_Photo.jpegChloe Benjamin's novel, The Immortalists, was our Best of the Month for January. An extraordinary book about love, loss, and what it really means to live, The Immortalists is a popular favorite among the Amazon Editors, who were riveted by Benjamin's story of four siblings who are irrevocably changed by learning (or being told, at any rate) exactly when each of them will die.

Benjamin is not yet 30 years old, but her writing and wisdom suggest that she has many more years of experience as a reader and a novelist than her age indicates. We asked her which authors had taught her the most about her craft, that this is what she told us.


Chloe Benjamin: I was a reader before I was a writer—and because I couldn’t take creative writing classes until college, authors were my first teachers. During childhood, I went to the library with my mom and brother every week, emerging with tote bags full of books. Later, I devoured Young Adult classics like A Wrinkle in Time, The Giver, and of course, Harry Potter, then newly-released. In high school, I began to notate while reading, absorbing nitty-gritty craft elements as well as how to develop character and pace plot. Here are five authors who particularly influenced me.

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1. Phillip Pullman: It’s safe to say His Dark Materials changed my life as well as my writing. In Pullman’s lush and meticulously detailed trilogy, which follows young Lyra Belacqua as she moves between parallel universes in search of the secret of consciousness, I found an inspiring girl heroine and an endlessly rich intellectual challenge. The questions Pullman poses about religion, morality and human being are always complex, never didactic—and they’ve influenced my own fascination with spirituality, knowledge and purpose. I reread His Dark Materials every five or ten years, and I’m so giddy about The Book of Dust that I haven’t been able to bring myself to open it!

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2. Alice Munro: When forced to choose a favorite writer, I name Munro, whose stories contain entire lifetimes in a way that feels both artful and effortless. Though her style and psychological precision are exquisite, they’re never precious or pretentious. She can take us fifty years in one sentence, and her final lines are so masterful that I have to cover them up when I turn the last page, lest I jump ahead in my excitement. For the uninitiated, I recommend Runaway or Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.

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3. Vladimir Nabokov: Few writers take as much visible pleasure in language as Nabokov, who learned English as a child but didn’t begin to write in it until he was nearly forty. I first read Lolita, in which Nabokov is acrobatic and irreverent (“Picnic, lighting”), swanning, painterly, and yes, arrogant—but somehow, he gets away with all of it, and shows us just how elastic language can be.

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4. Kiese Laymon: When I arrived at Vassar College in 2006, I knew I wanted to be an English major, but I couldn’t have imagined how profoundly I would be influenced by my advisor, Kiese Laymon. Kiese is producing the kind of writing our country needs to read: clear-eyed, fearless, muscular work on race and gender, North and South, love and violence. Kiese challenged us students to move outside our comfort zones as writers and readers, and his exhortations to read and reread, practice and revise—literally, to re-see our work again and again—will always stay with me. The author of a novel, Long Division, and the essay collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, Kiese has a memoir (Heavy) and a novel (And So On) forthcoming from Scriber.

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5. Judith Claire Mitchell: Some teachers are just that; others are mentors, too. Judith Claire Mitchell, the Dorothy Draheim Professor at English the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I did my M.F.A. in fiction, was both. I clicked with Judy immediately, grateful for her wise, compassionate eye and sly sense of humor—so it was no surprise when I fell madly in love with her work, which toes the line between humor and sadness in exactly the way real life tends to do. Her ambitious, big-hearted 2015 novel, A Reunion of Ghosts, follows sisters Lady, Vee and Delph Alter as they write a joint suicide note on the last day of the twentieth century—so you probably won’t believe me when I say that it’s as laugh-out-loud funny as it is brilliant. Devour it, then join me in waiting for what Judy does next.

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