A young phenom in the making, Brit Bennett, 25, started writing The Mothers (Riverhead, Oct.) while still in high school in Oceanside, Calif., finishing it not long ago while a Zell Postgraduate Fellow at the University of Michigan, and polishing it as recently as two months ago. She credits mentoring professors and writing workshop peers as essential in helping her on the long path from incipient idea to debut novel. “The book changed a lot over the years,” she says. “I was growing up as I was writing it.”
Set in Southern California, the book is about a friendship between two young African-American women struggling to make sense of their lives after being abandoned, in different ways, by their mothers. Bennett says her focus was to show how girls become women when the women who are supposed to usher them into womanhood aren’t there to help the transition. It’s about “how grief ripples through our lives as we grow older,” she says.
The book is narrated by church women of the Southern California town’s Upper Room Chapel, but it was only late in the writing process, Bennett says, that the communal voice of the women telling the story took shape. “Originally, I had this floating third-person voice that wasn’t located anyplace. Eventually, I realized the voice was gendered—female—and also aged. And when I explored that further, I began to use the church mothers as this framing device for the whole novel.” One of the greatest pleasures in writing the book, Bennett says, was unexpected discoveries like this.
Her favorite character, at least the one she had the most fun writing, is the pastor’s wife. “She is an unlikable woman, a no-nonsense person who does what she wants and doesn’t care whose feelings she tramples on. She says things I would never say or do. I explored her backstory, though much of that didn’t make it into the book.”
Much of what she wrote, she says, including some peripheral characters, never made it into the final cut. “But it was important to my writing process to explore these characters. It was liberating. Figuring out where the boundaries of the stories would be was what challenged me most.”
As to being a first-time novelist, Bennett says, “It’s very surreal to think of people who don’t know me at all reading my book, but it’s exciting.”
Bennett is one of the featured authors at the “Adult Editors’ Buzz” panel today, 4:15–5:30 p.m., in room 183, and will be on tomorrow’s “Adult Authors Buzz,” North Stage, 10–10:45 a.m.
This article appeared in the May 11, 2016 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.