Brit Bennett’s The Mothers was one of the most dazzling debuts of the past year, a luminous and wise story of young love and friendship, and a big secret in a small town. Capturing the complexities of relationships (between best friends, between lovers, between different generations of women) with a clear and unwavering eye, Brit's work has won critical and popular acclaim — and is set to be made into a movie with Kerry Washington producing. 

Get to know this break-out star ahead of her appearance at this year's Sydney Writers' Festival. 

SWF: You started writing The Mothers when you were still in college. What was the original idea or genesis of the story for you?

Brit Bennett: I grew up in the church, so I was always interested in the lives of young people at churches. I always felt ambivalent about religion, and other kids my age seemed to believe more than I did. The novel originates in that place, I think, feeling both inside and outside of a church community. I wanted to think about what kids my age would do when caught in this big scandal that happens within a conservative church community.  


In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

I originally just envisioned this a book about these teen characters. But as I got a bit older, I became more interested in the larger church community and particularly the ways that these female characters across different generations speak to and past each other.  


One thing that strikes me most about The Mothers is how right it gets female friendships. Can you talk a little about what you tried to capture in the relationship between Nadia and Aubrey?

I always considered this the emotional centre of the story so I knew I’d have to get it right. I kept asking myself, what do these girls want from each other? They bond over their shared motherlessness, but their relationship is also complicated, as all friendships are. There’s love, of course, but also envy and resentment and deception. I just wanted to show the complexity of their bond.  


The book is being made into a film, with Kerry Washington producing. How involved will you be in the adaptation process?

I’m writing the screenplay, which is exciting but also a bit scary because I’ve never written a screenplay before. But I’m fortunate to have a really supportive team working with me and I’m looking forward to learning how to tell a story in a new form.


What books are currently on your nightstand?    

Too many, but the top of the pile: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique, and Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso.


Which writers do you most admire and why?

James Baldwin is so adept at writing in multiple forms — novels, plays, essays — and I admire the beauty of his language as well as the prescience of his perspective on race and American culture. Toni Morrison, for the majesty of her storytelling and her unwillingness to write to a white gaze. Zora Neale Hurston, for capturing black joy.  


For me, refuge is…

Freedom.  


Is there book (or piece of writing) that you consider to be your sanctuary?  

I always return to Beloved by Toni Morrison — a book that is brutal, beautiful, and necessary, which is what I want my writing to be.


What physical environment is your favourite place to read?

A sunny balcony.