Sometimes when a book has been mentioned on practically every must-read list, it seems like there’s no way it can possibly live up to all the chatter. But oh, The Mothers by Brit Bennett really does. It’s full of imperfect people doing the best they can in very real circumstances. So many of us here at Parnassus are in love with it. We’d be thrilled for you to give it a try.
In fact, we made it our pick for the First Editions Club, so that every subscriber will receive an autographed first-edition hardcover. (Yes, there’s still time to sign up and get one.) And we booked Bennett to come to Nashville and discuss the novel with any and all local book-lovers who’d like to attend. That event will be here in the store on Thursday, November 10, at 6:30 p.m.
To give you a little background into the story and its writer, here’s a conversation between Bennett and our Musing editor, Mary Laura Philpott. We hope you’ll enjoy the interview and come out to hear more on the 11th!
How did this story start for you? Take me back to when the idea took hold.
BB: The story started for me when I was in my late teens, a kid growing up in the church. I was interested in teenagers my age who seemed more religious than I felt, and I began to think about how a group of devoted teenagers might respond to an explosive secret. So I imagined a hidden relationship between a motherless girl and the pastor’s son that results in a pregnancy, and the later termination of that pregnancy. I always envisioned this secret lurking in the background of a bigger story about this group of teens, but I later realized that what I considered a subplot was actually the engine driving the entire story forward.
I can guess some of your literary influences — it’s not hard to hear echoes of Toni Morrison throughout this book, for example — but I wonder what authors you’d name as most formative in your development as a writer.
BB: Certainly Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, whose nonfiction and fiction I greatly admire. I also loved Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston. In college and into graduate school, I became obsessed with the work of Dorothy Allison, Jesmyn Ward, Tayari Jones, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
OK, now I’ve got a bundle of questions from Tristan, our inventory manager, who wants to know: You’ve written before about the conundrum of the Good White Person. How have you encountered this during the creation of The Mothers, from your MFA program on through publication? You’ve been supported in many, many ways, but I’d imagine you’ve been patronized a fair bit as well. Do you see the needle pointing more toward support than patronage, or vice versa?
BB: Well, on one hand, I feel grateful for the attention the book has received. It’s rare for a debut novel so solidly centered on a black community to receive such widespread attention, which wouldn’t be possible if white readers didn’t rally around my book. On the other hand, I’ve encountered many well-intentioned but awkward questions about the role race plays in The Mothers. The book is set in a black community outside of the South or the urban North; the characters are middle-class; and the major plot points in the book don’t hinge upon racism. I don’t find any of this especially groundbreaking, but I think the fact that some readers have is more indicative of what we assume a “black story” has to be than anything about my writing in particular.
Now here’s a question I’ve been pondering with Catherine, our special orders manager. She says: I found the way you wrote about abortion in this book refreshing and real, but I’m sure you’ll get a variety of responses. It felt, to me, as though you approached that event in a way that stayed true to the honest emotional responses of the characters, without turning it into “an issues book.” Was that a conscious decision on your part?
BB: Thanks! I tried hard to strike that balance. I knew I didn’t want to write a book that attempted to convince readers how to feel about abortion because didacticism is boring. I didn’t want to write the story where a woman has an abortion and it ruins her, or she’s later punished because of it. That being said, I wanted Nadia’s decision to terminate her pregnancy to be a choice she continues to think and feel deeply about as she grows up. Ultimately, abortion is a complex topic that engenders complex emotional reactions, so I wanted the world of this book to reflect that complexity.
You did it so well. Let’s talk about what you named this book. The Mothers seems like the perfect title. Was that always it, or did you debate other options?
BB: Ha! No, sadly, I tried many terrible pretentious titles before my agent finally suggested The Mothers. I worried that it might be too simple at first, but I like how the title resonates on multiple thematic levels. And it’s easier to remember than the terrible pretentious ones, so . . .
If you could go back and tell the Brit Bennett who was just starting to write this novel one thing, what would it be?
BB: Be patient, kid, because you will spend your entire adult life with this book. It will be bad long before it is ever good, but stick with it, because in the end, it will be worth it.
I love it! What’s your favorite diversion from work?
BB: Definitely television. It’s narrative-driven but doesn’t requiring staring at words, which is what I do all day. And we’re fortunate enough to be living in a time when there is so much amazing television available to us.
Before we wrap up, I always ask: Your favorite thing about bookstores?
BB: The freedom to wander. Bookstores are the only retail space where I feel comfortable really browsing, or contemplating or reflecting on the merchandise before I decide whether to purchase. I love the freedom of wandering through a bookstore, thinking about the books I want to read, remembering books I’ve read, and discovering new books I never knew I’d love.
* * *
From The Washington Post: “If you read The Mothers, you will learn a lot. You will learn what it’s like to experience a mother-shaped absence at the center of your life, as well as what it’s like to feel your mother’s hot, judgmental breath on your shoulder every second. You’ll learn that men, even when they do the wrong thing again and again, have feelings about babies born and unborn. You’ll learn that rigidly cruel actions have roots in sad, earned wisdom. And you’ll learn that Brit Bennett is a writer to watch.”
The Mothers by Brit Bennett
at Parnassus Books! This event is free and open to the public. You may purchase the book at the event or ahead of time from Parnassus Books.