Our October Top Pick in Fiction is Brit Bennett's The Mothers, an elegant and insightful coming of-age story set in Southern California. We asked the 26-year-old Bennett, who has just been named one of the National Book Award Foundation's "5 under 35," a few questions about her engrossing debut.
You started writing The Mothers when you were around the same age that Nadia is at the start of the story, and now you’re more or less the same age as Nadia at the novel’s end. Are there parts of this book that could only have been written by 20-something Brit (or, conversely, only by 18-year-old Brit)?
I think the Nadia and Aubrey scenes were important to write when I was younger because there’s nothing like the passion of friendship when you’re in high school. The Nadia and Luke or Aubrey and Luke scenes benefited from me growing a little older. Heartbreak and romantic disappointment were just abstract ideas to me when I was 18; they became much realer once I had lived a little longer.
What’s one major difference in the version of The Mothers that readers will experience today versus those early drafts?
The novel changed a ton over time. One major difference is that originally, Aubrey was the main character. Nadia was a minor character, hovering in the background with a big secret that would affect the church. Eventually, though, I realized that Nadia’s secret interested me more and beyond that, her secret was the engine driving the entire story forward.
Are there any aspects or elements that remained constant over the years?
The element that surprised me with its consistency is the opening line. I recently found a draft from 2009 and was stunned to realize that even back then, the opening sentence was the same.
"Heartbreak and romantic disappointment were just abstract ideas to me when I was 18; they became much realer once I had lived a little longer."
One of the things that can be the most striking when we revisit a book is that our sympathies for and alliances with the characters can shift. Did you find while writing this book that your sympathy migrated to and from different characters or that you identified more or less with certain characters?
As I grew older, my sympathies expanded beyond the characters who are easily likable. Originally, I conceived of Mrs. Sheppard, the pastor’s wife, as a villain, but I challenged myself to write sections from her point of view and consider how her past motivates her actions. Luke, also, was an easy character to dismiss at first. He’s incredibly frustrating, but again, I wanted to explore the nuance of his character and try to provide him with a rich interior life. The toughest character to get on the page, though, has always been Nadia. She’s naturally guarded, so her inclination is to push you away and keep you out. It was tough to get close to her.
The Mothers features a cast of richly drawn and multidimensional characters, but we spend the most time with Nadia, watching her grow from a wounded girl into a complex and complicated young woman. What do you love most about her?
She does what she wants to do. I’ve also been cautious, so I admire Nadia’s willfulness, even when it borders on impulsiveness. She’s daring, in a way I often hesitate to be.
One of the most impressive things about this book is its strong and clear point of view. Certainly the omniscient church mothers who act as a Greek chorus and narrate and comment on portions of the novel are one of the biggest contributing factors to that. Can you tell us a bit about how that particular element of the book came to be?
I originally wrote the book in a gossipy, omniscient third person voice, but toward the end of revising, I wondered what would happen if I located that voice in an actual character. The church mothers were the obvious choice. They had already been hovering around the story, watching and observing and commenting, so I began to play around with the idea of their collective voice narrating the story.
Angela Flournoy, author of The Turner House, has said that any book featuring people that is set in the United States is a book that is ultimately about race. To what extent do you agree with this sentiment and see it reflected in The Mothers?
I think Angela’s point is that it’s ridiculous to think that the only books about race are books about people of color. We all live in raced bodies, so we all have racialized experiences and perceptions and opinions. Whiteness is still a racialized experience, so a book that, for example, only contains white characters is still engaging with race. That being said, I think The Mothers engages with race but without foregrounding racism. The characters’ experiences and perceptions and expectations are inflected by race, but racism isn’t their biggest conflict. I resent the idea that black lives only have meaning if they are presented in conflict against white racism. I was more interested in exploring a black community made up of complicated people living complicated lives shaped by race but not solely defined by racism.
"I resent the idea that black lives only have meaning if they are presented in conflict against white racism. I was more interested in exploring a black community made up of complicated people living complicated lives shaped by race but not solely defined by racism."
It sometimes feels like there are few genuine taboos remaining in modern American society, but abortion still remains hugely controversial if not outright scandalous; it’s still incredibly rare for it to be discussed and explored in fiction, film or television. Why do you think that is?
I think the political debate over abortion surrounds some pretty huge questions. When does life begin? How much autonomy does a woman have over her body? Does the right to life supersede the right to control what happens inside your own body? These are huge, complicated, emotional questions that often trigger larger debates about sexuality, morality, religion and politics. Any one of those issues might make people uncomfortable; conversations about abortion often invoke all of them.
Politics aside, I think abortion is also rare in narratives because it can be difficult to write. It doesn’t generate story as naturally as a pregnancy might. If you write a pregnant character, for example, you can write the various stages of the pregnancy, the birth, the relationship with the baby, etc. With an abortion, there is no obvious next step, so it requires more work from the writer than writing a pregnancy might.
Have you encountered any resistance to the book (either before its publishing or since) because one of the characters elects to terminate a pregnancy?
So far, I surprisingly haven’t encountered much resistance about the abortion within the novel. I think it helps that the novel doesn’t try to convince the reader to feel one way or another about abortion. I’m not interested in making a political argument. Abortion is complicated, and I wanted to explore how these characters would experience that complexity.
Since you started writing at a young age, you must have been a voracious reader as well. Was there a particular book that inspired you to want to write one of your own?
In elementary or middle school, a teacher gave me a copy of The Outsiders, which I loved. I was also inspired by the fact that S.E. Hinton published the book when she was 18, and I took that as a personal challenge to see if I too could write a novel while I was still a teenager.
"I was inspired by the fact that S.E. Hinton published ['The Outsiders'] when she was 18 and I took that as a personal challenge to see if I too could write a novel while I was still a teenager."
Like your protagonist, you also grew up in Southern California before moving to attend the University of Michigan. What was your favorite (and least favorite) thing about living in the Midwest? About California?
My favorite thing about Ann Arbor was the community I found there. I’d never had writer friends until I pursued an MFA, and my friends were so vital in keeping me sane through three very cold winters. When I was in Michigan, I missed the year-round sunshine of California. I could weather the cold, but the gray skies depressed me. Now that I’m living in Los Angeles, I do miss the seasons in Ann Arbor. Winter suffering aside, there was nothing like that happiness I felt on the first spring day.
While you were pursuing your MFA and working on this novel, you spent some time teaching undergraduate courses, including Introduction to Creative Writing. What was your favorite writing exercise to assign and what was the best piece of writing advice you have given your students (or that someone gave you)?
My favorite writing exercise to assign was for my students to craft a character based on someone they’d Facebook-stalked. It was a fun way to engage the voyeuristic curiosity we all feel online and to challenge them to turn a few observed details into a fully fleshed-out character. The best advice I received is from an MFA professor who encouraged us to always begin with a question in mind. I think about this in my nonfiction as well as my fiction. The work becomes more interesting and open if you begin with a question, rather than an argument or a claim.
What are you working on next?
A new novel set in the South about a pair of sisters who get separated.
Canadian writer Stephenie Harrison lives in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. She blogs about the expat life at 20 Years Hence.
(Author photo by Emma Trim.)
RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of The Mothers.