It feels a bit redundant to introduce you to The Mothers (Riverhead Books, 2016). Odds are you’ve probably heard of it. The novel, basically a guaranteed presence on any most anticipated list for fall, has been hyped by Vogue and the New York Times. Its author, Brit Bennett, recently earned a coveted position as a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Honoree for her stellar debut. It has its own ice cream flavor. Quite simply, it’s everywhere.
The Mothers is an exploration of time, of friendship, of the perniciousness of gossip. And, as the title may suggest, the many manifestations, pains and trials of motherhood. It is miserable and marvelous, a gorgeous, lyrical meditation on the persistence of regret and thwarted possibility.
When we first meet Nadia Turner, the protagonist of The Mothers, she is still reeling from her mother’s suicide and the decision to abort her pregnancy by Luke Sheppard, the local pastor’s son and an injured former football star. Seventeen years old, she’s teetering on the paper-thin edge of hard cynicism and fragility, learning that “pretty exposes you and pretty hides you.” Against all likelihood, she befriends Aubrey, a member of the church ministry and favorite of Luke’s mother. Nadia and Aubrey, who is meek even when not taken in contrast to all of Nadia’s confidence and wit, forge a bond centered, however unconsciously, on their mutual motherlessness. Even as the ambitious Nadia flees their small Southern California town for the University of Michigan and, eventually, law school. Even as the two ultimately fall for the same man.
The Mothers is narrated by a church hivemind, the titular “mothers” who, like the boys of Jeffrey Eugenides’s debut The Virgin Suicides, cannot help but indulge in the same story they pass judgment on. Here, they are sometimes all-the-wiser than their subjects and others entirely out of their depth. Here, gossip serves as both vehicle and character. Bennett has a deft hand for drama, for tragedy. She manages to assemble the elements of melodrama – unwanted pregnancies, affairs, suicides – without dipping into the overwrought or excessively sentimental. She paints her characters as a pointillist, never quite reducing them to their experiences but rendering each as their painstaking amalgam. Such that the reader can never excuse the characters who people The Mothers, or even really blame them, so much as merely understand them.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to Brit Bennett about The Mothers, choosing a medium, and playing with time in her work.
I read that you first started writing The Mothers while you were still in high school. Where was your initial inspiration for, or maybe even your point of entry into, this story?
I don’t have a neat, coherent origin story. Partly because it’s been years since I first started it, and partly because the story has changed so drastically. I can’t remember one particular thing sparking the idea, but I do remember being drawn to the idea about how a secret abortion involving a pastor’s family might affect a church. I grew up in a church that had an active youth ministry that I wasn’t a part of and I was always intrigued by these teenagers who were my age but seemed so much holier than I did. So I first started thinking about how a secret abortion might affect a group of devoted young people. But as I got older, the scope of the novel expanded from a group of teenagers to the entire church community. I think I’ve always felt both inside and outside of the church, so I wrote from that space.
I feel like The Mothers explores that insider/outsider duality quite a bit. It’s particularly emphasized by how strongly the “inside” is drawn through the choice of using the voices of the mothers as an occasional plural first-person sort of groupthink narrator. Which can run the risk of being too much of a device but never does. What was the process of developing that voice?
I think the voice of the mothers developed naturally. I had been writing in this gossipy third person voice and toward the end of my time in grad school, I started playing around with the possibility of locating that voice in actual characters. The church mothers felt like a natural fit. There was always something a little old to me about the voice I’d been writing, so I decided to play around with writing in the mothers’ voice, thinking about their perspectives and their experiences and how they would interpret the events occurring in the lives of these younger characters.
You tackle some very serious issues — abortion, for instance, and as well as suicide — with a great deal of nuance. Which is something we can find in the nonfiction you’ve published as well, such as in your essays “I Don’t Know With Good White People” or “Who Gets to Go to the Pool?” Across genre, you take issues that we tend to address with vitriol or snap-judgments and find some thread of subtlety. How do you decide which medium you’re going to tackle an idea in?
Deciding which medium I use to explore an idea comes down to immediacy. If there’s something urgent that I want to think through — the pool essay, for example — I like addressing it through nonfiction. The Internet makes it easy to join a ongoing conversation. Fiction, at least for me, moves much more slowly. The ideas I take on in fiction are usually ideas that I’ve been thinking about for years.
Who were you reading while you writing this book? Did anyone have a particular influence on you craft-wise?
I read a pretty wide range of books while writing this novel, mostly because I was in school at the time. I think I learned a lot from Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I read that book one summer and I was impressed by all the different ways she plays with time in the book. You have the frame — a woman spending an afternoon in a hair salon, getting her hair braided — which is a situation where time seems to move impossibly slowly, but then Adichie launches into this coming-of-age story where she moves through large periods of time. Time causes me a lot of anxiety — where to linger, what to skip over — so I try to pay attention to authors who manage time well.
I’m surprised to hear time causes you anxiety — this novel plays so well with it. Particularly the effects of time and neglect on the relationship between Nadia and Aubrey. Often, that friendship feels like the central relationship of the book, more so than Nadia’s and Luke’s. How did that dynamic develop?
I think I always saw Nadia and Aubrey’s friendship as the emotional center of the book. I originally envisioned Luke disappearing fairly quickly after the abortion. Then, in later drafts, I wanted to find out what happens if Luke lingers in Nadia’s life, and he became a source of conflict within Nadia and Aubrey’s friendship. I always liked the idea of this unlikely friendship between these two girls who and all the complicated ways they could love and betray each other.
On the subject of later drafts, what was the most recent thing that changed or the newest addition to the book?
I think a few of the biggest changes arrived pretty late. I added the mothers as a framing device around a year and a half before we sold the book. Also, Luke originally had a younger brother, who I had to get rid of because he was clogging up the narrative.
Thanks so much for doing this interview. Before we finish, I’d love to know what you’re at work on now. I’ve picked up some hints from your Twitter of a new book coming together.
Ha! Now I’m like, hmm what have I been tweeting about? Well, I’m working on a new novel set in the South about sisters who get separated. I’m crazy vague about the story now because I don’t exactly know what will happen yet. It’s very early, but it’s been fun to work on a first draft of a new novel. Anything is possible at this point.