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The Iterations of Motherhood: Brit Bennett on Her Debut Novel

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Brit Bennett was still in her late teens when she started the first draft of what would eventually become her debut novel, THE MOTHERS. She worked on it as an undergraduate at Stanford University and later at the University of Michigan, where she earned her MFA in fiction. The book received glowing praise from established writers like Jacqueline Woodson and Yaa Gyasi. We’re thrilled to host her in the store on Oct. 16 as well as feature her on our very first episode of the Interabang Podcast. Without further ado, here’s Brit Bennett on THE MOTHERS!

This transcript has been edited for concision.

Elizabeth: For those who haven’t read the book yet, can you start by telling us briefly what THE MOTHERS is about?

Brit: THE MOTHERS is about this teenage girl who’s just tragically lost her mother to suicide, and in the wake of that moment, in the depths of her grief, she falls in love with her pastor’s son, gets pregnant, and ends up terminating that pregnancy. The book is largely about the aftermath of that loss.

Elizabeth: The big decision -- the abortion -- happens right off the bat. Then, through the rest of the book we see how that abortion affects the people involved. Why did you choose to write the novel this way?

Brit: One, I’m generally more interested in the aftermath of events rather than the event itself. I’m always interested in, “okay, and then what? And then what?” I also didn’t want it to be sensationalized. I didn’t want it to be some gotcha moment that happens deep into the book.

Elizabeth: You’re in your mid twenties, you’ve studied writing at the graduate level, and you’ve now published your first book. Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to devote yourself to fiction writing?

Brit: I always wanted to write a book. When I was a kid I would work on little stories at the family computer and I always loved to read. I don’t think I ever started to consider it as a craft that I could devote myself to until I went to undergraduate where I met living writers. I’d never met a living writer before. To me that was a way that the writing life became a goal that I could strive toward, although it still seemed like a pretty unattainable goal. It always seemed like writers were like movie stars or rocks stars.

Elizabeth: Who were some of the writers you worked with at Stanford?

Brit: I took a couple of independent studies with Ammi Keller. I took a class with Elizabeth Tallent. I took a bunch of different writing classes, but the independent study I took with Ammi Keller was really foundational. I was working on what would become THE MOTHERS years later, and she was someone who really mentored me and also helped me realize the psychological aspects of being a writer, the perfectionism, the self-loathing when the writing isn’t good.

Elizabeth: Talk to me a little bit about the origin of THE MOTHERS. Where did the idea for this book begin?

Brit: I started it when I was in my late teens. The independent study I took with Ammi was the first time I completed a first draft. A lot of it came from growing up in the church and being interested in the lives of young people in churches.

Elizabeth: A big part of the book takes place in a small church in Southern California. Why did you decide to make a religious community the center for much of the book and what is your own faith background like?

Brit: I grew up going to two different churches. My mom is Catholic and my dad’s Protestant, and we would split our time between their churches. From a young age I’ve been very interested in faith and the way that different communities of people express that faith differently. When I first started the novel, I didn’t think of the church being at the center. I knew there was going to be a pastor’s son involved, I knew that some of those church elements were there, but as I continued writing it I became a lot more interested in the role of the church in that community, particularly the way the church is the source of condemnation, judgement, and gossip, but also a source of love and support and protection.

Elizabeth: Why did you want to write about mothers and what were you hoping to convey about motherhood?

Brit: THE MOTHERS as a title came about very late, after the book was done. I generally am ambivalent about motherhood and the book is an extension of my own ambivalence. There are a lot of characters who feel a lot of different ways about motherhood. Women who have children and don’t want them, women who desperately want children and can’t get pregnant, women who choose to take care of children who aren’t biologically theirs. There are all these different iterations of it. Motherhood is extremely complex and if anything that’s what I wanted to explore.

Elizabeth: You’re writing about potentially very sensitive topics -- abortion, suicide. Were you worried at all about how people would respond to your portrayal of these topics?

Brit: No, I don’t think I thought about it while I was writing it. I hoped the book would be published someday but also had no expectation that that would happen. That liberated me a lot and prevented me from being as self conscious as I might have been otherwise. When you’re writing about sensitive topics, if you root those topics within the character you can push against people's gut reaction to those topics. Because I wanted to talk about abortion, I knew I had to make sure that that experience was particular and specific to the characters that live in this world. And regardless of how people feel about that topic in a vacuum, they can experience that through these specific people.

Elizabeth: Were you hoping readers would draw any conclusions about the ideas you address?

Brit: I wanted people to realize that these are complicated issues. I’ve been encouraged as I’ve gone on the tour and talked to readers about it. I think readers and citizens have a much more complex view on abortion, for example, than our politics would suggest.

Elizabeth: A lot of the praise for the book has talked about how it’s an accurate portrayal of the life of a modern black woman. What do you think about this book really struck home with so many people?

Brit: I don’t know that was something I thought about deeply while writing the book. I wrote about a community that’s similar to the community I came from. I grew up in a beach town and it’s a very racially diverse place because it’s a military town so you have people coming from all over. I was reflecting on a character that was like the characters I knew and went to college with, this young black girl who’s ambitious and sort of restless and really wanting to escape from her small town. The fact that the characters are complicated has resonated with people and that’s more indicative of the types of stories available for people of color than anything that I particularly did.

Elizabeth: Are you working on anything now?

Brit: I’m working on the screenplay for THE MOTHERS. I’ve been working on a second novel also, but I need to figure out how to balance all these things in addition with the tour.

The Mothers: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780399184529
Availability: NOT IN STOCK - Usually arrives in 7 - 14 business days
Published: Riverhead Books - October 10th, 2017

Brit Bennett signs THE MOTHERS on Monday, October 16 at 7pm.