On February 18, NYU’s School of Professional Studies and the Office of Alumni Affairs hosted author Brit Bennett as part of its Media Talk series. The virtual event found Bennett, author of bestselling books The Mothers and last year’s The Vanishing Half, in conversation with two members of her team at Riverhead Books: Sarah McGrath, senior v-p and editor-in-chief, and Ashley Sutton, director of marketing.
The trio discussed how The Vanishing Half, which received a starred review from PW and was named one of the New York Times' best books of 2020, blazed a track to the bestseller list in June 2020—and what made Bennett's sophomore book a hit during such a tumultuous year. The panelists' general consensus was that the art of making a bestselling book, while a collaborative effort, is still centered around the author, and the Riverhead team highlighted Bennett's sophistication as a writer who infuses layered exploration into her work.
Early dedication, in some cases predating the existence of the book itself, proved to be a major accelerant to The Vanishing Half’s success. “I think the campaign for The Vanishing Half began from the moment I acquired The Mothers,” McGrath said, noting that, when working with her authors, she takes the long view rather than thinking book-to-book.
According to Sutton, The Vanishing Half’s success was the result of more than six months of seeding the idea that the book was something to watch for. “The key to it was really pulling all of the levers from start to finish,” she said, including making a concerted effort to reach out to bookstagrammers and other media partners to keep the book in the forefront.
Spurred on by her belief that “the world needs to know this book and I’m gonna make sure they do,” Sutton and her small team at Riverhead dedicated themselves to promoting it in the midst of the pandemic and the nationwide protests that broke out last summer after the death of George Floyd. That included, she said, shipping out "FOMO packages" featuring the book as early as January 2020, six months before the book's June 2 publication. When the world shut down just after their first tour stop, Sutton said, Riverhead pivoted quickly to virtual events.
If there was any question as to where the credit for the book’s success lies, McGrath and Sutton did their best to answer it, continually citing Bennett as the driving force. McGrath recalled that, when she signed Bennett, she not only found herself hooked by The Mothers, but realized that Bennett was only getting started. “This person can do anything,” she recalled thinking to herself at the time. “This is someone who’s going to be extraordinary.”
Bennett, for her part, said that McGrath was instrumental in developing the chronology of the book and untying some knots in the narrative. But the books' magic, the latter insisted, is all due to Bennett's crafting of stories that are compelling, visceral, and layered—almost effortlessly so. “She’s doing so much on so many different layers all at once,” McGrath said, “but the sign of the success of what she’s doing is that, as a reader, you’re not aware of it.”
Bennett said the book was inspired in part by the experience of having two sisters who are very different from her, despite being raised by the same people under the same circumstances. It is a novel, she added, that “is very much about identity—how I become me and how you become you,” and “what things we choose and what things are chosen for us.”
In addition to personal identity, the book also unpacks racial and gender identity, exploring the concept of "passing" in a number of different ways. (Bennett said the book's explorations of passing was informed by a book she read about faking a death, and how passing is a type of death-faking.)
While writing the book, Bennett was fascinated, she said, by what it means for the performance to become reality, which she feels sometimes while writing. “You kind of get in this mode where the border between you and the character evaporates a little bit, sometimes in ways that are uncomfortable to me, and sometimes in ways in which I feel less in control than I would want to feel.” Still, she continued, she leaned into the feeling rather than shying away from it. “I wanted to explore the deliberate forms of performance and those forms of performance that take over once you’ve committed deeply to a role.”