The novelist discusses her changing relationship with her adopted city, on and off the page.
Though Chloe Benjamin wasn’t born in Madison, both her debut novel and her new work-in-progress are set here. The Anatomy Of Dreams, published in 2014, follows a young couple who moved to Madison to run experimental sleep studies under their mentor—who also used to be the headmaster of the private high school they attended in California. Their new life in Madison is colored mostly by the relationship they strike up with their quirky neighbors as their dream research isolates them with overnights at the university lab. The neighbors—a slightly buttoned-up academic and his more colorful, free-spirited wife—act as a proxy for Madison’s east side, and though residents might find their characterization as a little broad, their combination of tweed jackets and brightly-dyed hair is shorthand to convey the Atwood neighborhood’s culture circa 2004.
UW-Madison often makes Madison a town of transplants, which is why Benjamin’s depictions of this city are compelling. The Anatomy Of Dreams offers a snapshot of Madison narrated by a newly arrived resident, mirroring Benjamin’s own experience as someone who grew up in San Francisco and went to school in New York before moving to the Midwest. Though there’s a strong curiosity about the city’s natural beauty in the narrative, our main character rarely gets to experience anything outside of a one-block radius from her rental house and the university lab where she works—an unfortunately relatable experience for anyone who has wistfully watched sailboats lilting around Lake Monona while on their commute home.
Benjamin’s novel-in-progress is also set in Madison, only this time she writes about the city as a 12-year resident. She didn’t want to reveal too many details about that work while she’s still in the thick of it, but I was curious to see how writing about where you live could shape your perception of Madison as a new transplant myself, and she agreed to an interview over email. You can learn more about her work through her website and her Instagram page, where she sometimes will show her favorite spots around Madison to write.
Tone Madison: What is it about Madison that draws you to set fiction here? Do you think you’d feel the same draw if you were from Madison originally?
Chloe Benjamin: I do a ton of research when I write fiction. Though I do write what I know, as the adage goes, I’m also drawn to writing about what I want to know. With that said, I find that place is very difficult to write about without personal experience. There are so many things to capture: the physical layout, the tone of a neighborhood or a city or a state, the people who live there, the culture(s), the weather and food and ways of speaking…! As a result, my novels tend to be set, at least in large part, in places I know: San Francisco and Northern California, where I was raised; New York, where I lived during college; and Wisconsin, where I’ve lived since.
I do find that I write about those places in different ways. My knowledge of San Francisco is so deep and instinctive, though I continue to fall in love with new parts of the city, and I’m always learning more. I came to Wisconsin, on the other hand, as an adult, and it inspired me from that perspective: I think you notice things as an outsider that people who grew up in a place often take for granted, or don’t find notable. I was struck by the experience of true seasons, the fact that every house on the east side seemed to have a couch on the front porch, the rhythm of a university town, the Wisconsin accent, the frozen lakes, the purple politics, the natural history, the cheese curds, the beer in boots… and plenty more!
Tone Madison: Is the Madison in your writing the same as the real Madison you live in, or are there distinct differences as it’s been fictionalized?
Chloe Benjamin: Oh, that’s a good question! I suppose I’d say it’s close to the same Madison I live in; I’m not changing anything substantial, though I did invent Keller’s research and its relationship to the University [from The Anatomy Of Dreams]. One fun detail is that I chose real-life houses for the two central couples in the novel. I actually discovered them by accident: I was riding the bus one day and daydreaming (probably about the novel), so I missed my stop. I had to go to the end of the line and wait for the bus to turn around, which meant that I passed two houses I wouldn’t have otherwise: the simpler one I assigned to Sylvie and Gabe and a very colorful one that inspired Thom and Janna’s, both of them sitting next to train tracks in the Atwood neighborhood. I’ve actually done the same thing since—pick out a house for my characters—and it feels like a little inside joke with myself, a way to weave my imagination into the fabric of my surroundings.
Tone Madison: The Anatomy Of Dreams is set 10 years before it was published—do you feel more freedom in creating your own Madison with that time shift, or do you feel more obligated to get the details period correct?
Chloe Benjamin: I am definitely invested in historical accuracy, though I have to say I didn’t focus on that very much with The Anatomy Of Dreams (as opposed to my second novel, The Immortalists) because it was set so recently in the past; The Immortalists, meanwhile, was set between the 1960s and 2010, so I was much more meticulous.
Tone Madison: You’re currently working on a new novel that’s also set in Madison—does it feel like the same fictional Madison that’s in The Anatomy Of Dreams, or has your experience as a long-term resident here shaped the city in new ways for the new work?
Chloe Benjamin: Another good question! It absolutely feels different this time—deeper, and more lived-in. In The Anatomy of Dreams, my protagonist was also new to Madison, a good vehicle for channeling my own newbie observations. At this point, I’ve lived in Madison for over 12 (!) years, and though I haven’t thought about this until now, the protagonist isn’t new to town, either; she grew up here. This new book is also much more embedded, physically, in the landscape and ecology of Wisconsin.
Tone Madison: Do you ever have moments when writing that your fictional version of Madison feels more real than the one around you?
Chloe Benjamin: I always try to be careful when talking about how real my characters or novels feel so that I don’t sound too precious; I certainly don’t lose track of the line between fact and fiction, but the world of the novel does often feel like an overlap on top of the real world, something only I can see (at least until it’s published, and then maybe it’ll become visible to others too). The novel is a part of me as I walk around and experience the world; I sometimes describe it like a house attached to my head, an imaginary place I can retreat to and wander through. So perhaps it’s more like a separate or additional world rather than one that supplants the real one.
Tone Madison: At what point in living here did you start to think of yourself as a Madisonian?
Chloe Benjamin: Probably not until at least five years in, maybe more. It’s hard to tell exactly when that shifted!
Tone Madison: What’s something that you love about Madison that you hope is conveyed through your novels?
Chloe Benjamin: When I think of Madison, I really think about the people. There’s a level of social connection that can be hard to find in bigger cities, a vibrant intellectual curiosity, and an investment in the natural world. I hope I can also convey Madison’s quirks and charm while being clear-eyed about its tensions and contradictions.
Tone Madison: Do you ever worry that residents might read your depiction of Madison and get upset?
Chloe Benjamin: Ultimately, fiction is an exercise in subjectivity, so it’s always possible that someone will disagree with or dislike something I’ve put on the page—in general, not just in regards to Madison! I always try to write with sensitivity and compassion. I’m also trying to find acceptance of the fact that art presents a specific point of view so that anxiety doesn’t lead to creative shutdown on my part.
Tone Madison: What’s the one thing that you want readers from other parts of the country to take away about Madison when they read your novels that are set here?
Chloe Benjamin: I think there can be a lot of stereotyping about the Midwest. And I should say that, as a born-and-raised urban coastie myself, I uncovered some of my own biases when I moved here! Ultimately, the idea of flyover states is a real erasure of all of the complexity, diversity, and interest that exists in this part of the country, and I hope to create a window through which readers can see some of that, too.