Ali Benjamin Q & A

Get to know January's Author of the Month, Ali Benjamin, as she talks about the inspiration behind her first novel, The Thing About Jellyfish, how she got her start in writing and how to craft a great story.

Where did you get your idea for this book?

The biggest inspiration for this book was my own fascination with jellyfish. I’d taken my kids to the New England Aquarium one day, mostly as something to keep us occupied. We’d wandered into their Jellies exhibit, almost by accident. I thought the jellyfish were so beautiful and mesmerizing, and also so alien — it was almost hard to believe that those creatures occupied the same planet as I did. I wanted to learn more, so when I went home, I started reading whatever articles I could find about jellyfish. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. Jellyfish have an incredibly long history on earth. Their biology is fascinating. And meanwhile, their numbers are rising in frightening ways as a result of climate change and other planetary changes. Despite these things, there weren’t (at the time) any in-depth books about jellyfish, which seemed crazy. I thought, “Maybe it’s up to me to write it.”

Originally, I thought I was writing traditional nonfiction. But I couldn’t seem to capture the sense of wonder I felt when I learned about them. Separately, I had an idea for a novel about a middle school girl and her older brother. But the novel wasn’t working either — it had no plot, no heart, just a couple of characters who shared some moments. Independently, both projects were on track to be failures. Then one day, I realized that I could stitch them together. That’s when I had a plot. That’s when the book had purpose.

What was your favorite book when you were growing up?

I wasn’t a great reader as a kid. I was easily bored and distracted, so I often found my mind wandering before I finished even a single page. But when I found a book I loved, I read it over and over. I think the picture book I loved most was Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig; it made me terribly sad and lonely, but it ended with so much joy and love. My favorite chapter books were Harriet the Spy, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and The Secret Garden. All three have a wonderful mix of adventure, human relationships, and — best of all — a secret world, known only to children.

How old were you when you started writing?

I’m a late bloomer when it comes to writing. Although I invented plenty of stories when I was a young kid, I never, ever considered myself a writer. I assumed writers were somehow born — the way kings and queens are, or like the wizards in Harry Potter. I just figured I was muggle-born. I never took a writing class, or even a college-level English course. Then, about ten years ago, when I was pregnant with my second child, I was laid off from a job in health care. It was an absolutely terrible moment to seek a permanent job, so out of necessity, I started doing some freelance writing — brochures and press releases and articles for college alumni magazines, that sort of thing. I enjoyed it, and I realized I was pretty good at it. So I tried experimenting with different kinds of writing, and things took off from there. I wish I’d known the great secret to being a writer: that you never get an engraved invitation to be a writer, delivered by an owl! You just write, and keep writing.

What is your favorite word?

Serendipitous — I genuinely love the sound of the word, it’s fun for the mouth to say, and I love that it means happy accident. Is there anything more delightful than a happy accident?

What is your favorite book about Chicago?

Oh, wow. There are so many great books set in Chicago! For children’s books, I’ve probably spent the most time with a picture book, one of my daughter’s favorites from when she was younger: The Field Mouse and the Dinosaur Named Sue, by Jan Wahl. We read that one again and again. It’s a sweet, simple story, but in terms of story craft, it’s got everything. It’s told from the perspective of a field mouse, so the reader sees the world through new eyes. It begins with a huge change ripping through an otherwise ordinary day (the mouse’s home, which turns out to be a dinosaur fossil in the ground, is excavated), a journey to a new world (the mouse follows the fossil to the Field Museum), and a quest (to find his home). Along the way, the mouse discovers that the world is bigger and more fascinating than he ever understood.

Find out even more about Ali Benjamin and The Thing About Jellyfish.

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