Back when her novel was different, before it was a New York Times best seller and a story about a secret, Brit Bennett got her first fan. She’s young now, 26—a fact that no one can believe, because her book feels so much older—but she was even younger then, 18, maybe 19. She was in a creative writing class her freshman year of college and she needed a short story to workshop. “I’m not a short story writer at all,” Bennett told me.
Instead, she pulled a scene from the novel she’d already been working on for more than a year, wrote it from the perspective of a girl with a deep, dark secret, and handed out copies to her class. One of her classmates admitted the next week in workshop that she’d become so engrossed in the story that she missed her stop on the train.
When Brit Bennett started writing “The Mothers,” she was the same age as the novel’s young protagonist, Nadia Turner.
Like Nadia, Ms. Bennett was a smart and ambitious African-American 17-year-old who was eager to get out of Oceanside, the Southern California city where she grew up.
Over the next seven years, Ms. Bennett earned an English degree from Stanford University and an M.F.A. from the University of Michigan. She was the first person in her immediate family to leave the country, when she studied at Oxford. All the while, she had been steadily working on the novel. Like her creator, Nadia left home for college and graduate school, meeting every expectation piled on her, but still felt tethered to her community.
When Brit Bennett got the phone call that could change her career, she was sitting in a Coffee Bean in Encino, the neighborhood where the 26-year-old novelist now makes her home.
“I got a phone call from an unknown New York number,” Bennett recalled. Minutes later, she learned that she’d been selected as one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 honorees for her not-yet-published debut novel, “The Mothers” (it will hit shelves Oct. 11).
New York Times best-selling authors Emma Straub and Brad Thor along with Buzzfeed books editor Isaac Fitzgerald stopped by TODAY to share their top picks for the fall. Isaac's Pick: "The Mothers" by Brit Bennett (Riverhead Books, October 2016)
The Mothers grew out of a story Bennett wrote at Stanford, where she was an English major reading a homogenous canon, and reworked at the University of Michigan’s M.F.A. program, but its seeds can be found in Oceanside, where she grew up. “In a lot of ways, I was writing in the direction of my fears. When I was younger, one of the worst things I could have done was to get pregnant. Another thing that really scared me was the idea of losing my mother,” says Bennett.
Brit Bennett is so bracingly talented on the page and so low-key lovely in person that I’ve never heard an untoward word about her, throughout and after the MFA program we entered at the same time—a period during which success (as marked by, say, a major book deal and a string of prestigious publications) goes from an abstract concept to something slightly more fraught.