Brit Bennett, a California native, received her M.F.A. from the Zell Writers’ Program in 2014 and then spent a year on a Zell Fellowship. It was that final year that changed Bennett’s life, she says, allowing her to finish her debut novel, a piece of writing that she had started in high school.
The Mothers—which received enthusiastic reviews from the New York Times, the Guardian, NPR, and others—is centered on the lives of Nadia, who becomes pregnant during a relationship with the church pastor’s son, Luke, and Nadia’s friend Aubrey, who eventually marries the man. The titular mothers represent the communal voice of the elderly ladies at church who collectively narrate the opening of most chapters, noting their reflections and opinions as the plot advances.
Bennett launched her career in 2014 with a piece for Jezebel titled “I Don’t Know What to Do with Good White People.” The essay received over a million clicks within days of publication, prompting literary agent Julia Kardon to reach out, setting in motion the process that eventually led to the novel’s publication.
Far from chance and circumstance, Bennett believes her success was due to the combination of time afforded by the Zell Writers’ Program along with that program’s special community.
“The biggest advantage I had obviously was time,” Bennett says of her studies and fellowship in Ann Arbor. “Time to focus on your work and not have to worry about how you’re going to pay your rent or how you’re going to eat. To me, the time was invaluable. But I think the other thing really was the people that I met at the program. I didn’t have writer friends before the program,” she says. “In my program, I met people who became really close friends but who also have become huge professional allies.”
Now Bennett is working on a new novel about two sisters in Louisiana while on a book tour for The Mothers. Her advice to other writers is to keep working and believing in oneself, ignoring others’ opinions. She offers the example of her parents’ concerns when she wanted to be a novelist, afraid a creative field made for uncertain living. Her success changed their minds.
“They’ve been really excited to see that I stuck to my guns and kept working on my book and kept writing,” Bennett says, “and to see people respond to it the way that they have.”