by Cara Matteson
This month, we’re reading “The Mothers” by Brit Bennett, a novel about motherhood, friendship, and love. We’re very excited to share our conversation with Brit.
I’d love to start at the beginning — how did you become a writer? Is this something you knew you always wanted to do?
It’s something I always wanted to do, but I never expected it to happen. I didn’t grow up knowing artists or people who were writers, so it seemed like something other people did. But when I was a kid I would write short stories on the family computer and was always reading–my mom really instilled a love of reading for me–so it was something I gravitated toward and always carried with me.
I’d love to talk about your book, The Mothers. What has been the most surprising or your favorite response to The Mothers so far?
A lot of clergy reached out to tell me how much they loved the book, which was surprising. I wasn’t sure how the church community was going to respond, given the nature of the story, but so many priests and pastors have emailed me or approached me to tell me how much they enjoyed it. Another surprising response for me has been the praise from around the world. I thought that language barriers and distant geography might not allow the story to translate well but hearing the love from Australia to Europe has been incredible.
What compelled you to tell this story?
I grew up in the church so I’ve always been interested in the lives of young people in church communities. Particularly a small church, like the one in my book, where everyone knows everyone’s business. So I started to wonder what would happen in a scandal rocked a church, and the source of that scandal was the church’s young people.
There’s a quote from a recent interview you did that struck me. You said…“I’ve had young black women tell me that this is the first book they’ve encountered that portrayed young black women with emotional depth…It’s sad that there’s something unique about depicting black girls who have interior lives. I think that’s telling of the state of literature.” How do you want to continue to push the literature world to be more inclusive and representative?
I think it’s important to tell real stories that show real humanity. It sounds simple but that’s what’s lacking. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a great quote on stereotypes, she said: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Too often we create these one dimensional characters but that’s not who real people are.
Many authors talk about the love/hate relationship they have with their own writing. What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired or stuck?
Toni Morrison said that writers aren’t blocked, they’re just empty. If that’s true than you need to find something that can refuel you. That might mean reading or watching great works, whatever it takes for you to fill up your imagination. Sometimes you can also be bored by what you’re writing. If you are, you shouldn’t write it. Sometimes I’ll be writing a scene and think, I don’t care about this, I don’t want to write this. So I stop, because if I don’t care, my readers won’t care. You can also be stalled because of fear but you should chase that fear. If you aren’t scared by what you’re doing, then why are you doing it? It’s important to follow where you’re afraid to go. You need to figure out where the block is coming from–emptiness, boredom, fear–and then take steps to counteract it. Above all, you need to have patience with yourself and know that you’ll get there .
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read! Read good books, read bad books, but you have to read as much as you can. As I mentioned before, you also need to have patience with yourself. A lot of writers stop before they get good. Ira Glass talked about the taste gap. You start writing because you have great taste but then stop because your own skills don’t match up. You have to work on closing that gap and it takes time. Too many new writers stop too soon.
I’m sure that being a writer can be emotionally draining. I’d like to talk about self-care for a bit. What does self-care mean to you?
This is something I had to learn and still have to work on. I come from an industrious family who looked down on idleness. If you were sleeping past 9am, you’d get a knock on your door. I have had to learn how to take time for myself, because it’s important. It’s especially important because since I started writing full-time, work can essentially never end. In the beginning, I would wonder why I felt so burned out and it was because I didn’t focus on carving out down time. So now I make an effort to stop and watch TV, go to concerts, hang out with friends, do a little something that gets me away from writing.
At Girls’ Night In, we believe that engaging with your community and surrounding yourself with powerful women is important and a way to take care. What woman or women are inspiring you right now and why?
Oh there are so many! Most of the people who inspire me are women. My mom, Michelle Obama for her grace, Viola Davis for her ability to breathe life into her characters, and Beyonce, because talk about a hard worker. I don’t think she sleeps! She also is an incredible artist who brings a freshness to her work. I want to be like that. I don’t want to write the same books, with the same characters.
I just want my work to grow throughout my career. I want to take risks, I want to challenge myself, I want to constantly follow my changing interests and create something fresh each time.
And last but not least — what would you like your personal legacy to be?
This is a tough one. I think I’d like someone to look back and see that I was a good person who tried to do the best I could. That’s why I love Parks and Recreation, it’s good people trying their best. I also I want to be remembered as someone who who moved through the world with empathy — not someone who created division.
Photo by Emma Trim
Interview by Cara Matteson