Deborah: It gives me great pleasure to introduce Brit Bennett. Born and raised in Southern California, Brit graduated from Stanford University and later earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan where she won a Hopwood Award in graduate short fiction. In 2014, she received the Hurston-Wright Award for college writers. She’s a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Honoree. Her debut novel, The Mothers, was a New York Times best seller. Her second novel, The Vanishing Half, was recently selected for this year’s National Book Award longlist. Her essays have been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and Jezebel. Welcome, Brit. Additionally, I would like to introduce our very special guest host tonight, Zibby Owens. Zibby is the creator and host of award-winning podcast “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Zibby, named New York City’s most powerful book influencer by Vulture, conducts warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Alicia Keys, Lena Dunham, to Delia Owens and Jennifer Weiner. I leave it to you, Zibby.

Zibby Owens: Thank you, Deborah. Thank you so much for having me here tonight. This is such a thrill. Brit, I am so excited to be interviewing you tonight. Just bear with my glee as I ask you questions.

Brit Bennett: Thank you. Thanks for being here.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I snooped on you earlier today doing your Instagram Live with Shondaland to get a little preview of what’s been on your mind. Thanks for that today too. I read about how your mother had told you about this small town which really was the inspiration for this book. Maybe you could share that story with everybody here and go into more how you took that germ of an idea and translated it into what became one of the most sensational novels I’ve read in my entire life.

Brit: Thank you. Thank you for having me tonight. Thank you, everyone, for watching. I honestly don’t really remember the context of the conversation I was even having with my mother. I just remember her very offhandedly mentioning this town that she remembered from her childhood where everyone was so obsessed with skin color that they just married within the community in hopes that their children would get lighter from generation to generation. She said it to me very offhandedly like it was something that everyone just kind of knows. It immediately struck me. All I remember is being like, wait, slow down, slow down. Let’s go back to that thing that you just said. That’s crazy. It immediately struck me. I wrote it down in my phone. I have it in my notes. I just jotted down that basic idea. Then at the time, I was still finishing up The Mothers, so I didn’t really go back to it right away. It immediately struck me as something that was potentially the setting for a novel. It was an idea of a town that’s oriented around this really troubling idea. When you’re thinking about a novel, the idea of having something that immediately presents itself as a problem — immediately, this town presented itself to me as a problem. From there, I thought about, what would it be like to be a light-skinned person in this town that has this really horrific ideology? What would it be like to be a dark-skinned person in this town? That was the basis of the idea of these twin sisters whose lives take them in very different directions.

Zibby: It’s one thing to have a little note in your phone and start noodling on a concept, but it’s another to then blow it out into all these different interwoven stories across timelines and all the rest. What happened between the idea and now? How did you craft it to become what it was in terms of process? Did you outline it? How did you get it from there to here?

Brit: I talk about it as if this was a straightforward journey. Of course, it totally wasn’t. I don’t really outline. I know that it took me many, many drafts and many years of trying to figure it out. I knew immediately that I was interested in these twin sisters, one who you see at the beginning of the book when she has returned to this town with her dark-skinned child, and the other one who’s kind of vanished off into the wind and you don’t know what happened to her. I knew that that was the opening of the book. From there, it was a lot of trying different things out. I didn’t realize originally that I was interested in the lives of the twin sisters’ children. I thought originally it would just be, one half of the book would be one sister and the other half of the book would be the other sister, and that would be really nice and neat. Then I realized I was really interested in their children. I was interested in the men in their lives. I was interested in all these other minor characters that gripped me because of their own stories about reinvention and transformation that really appealed to me. It took a lot of trial and error to try to weave all of those stories in a way that was even coherent, let alone hopefully moving and interesting to the reader.

Zibby: Did you use flashcards? Paint me a picture here. I have to know how you did it because it looks so seamless when you read it. Of course, it’s not when you do it. Did you keep it all in your head? Were you cutting and pasting like crazy?

Brit: Eventually, there were some flashcards. As far as the beat by beat of it, honestly, again, it was trial and error. At first, I thought, is the first chapter Desiree and then immediately you see Stella? Am I going to delay when you see Stella? That became something I was trying to modulate. Then as far as the daughters, I originally thought the book was going to be chronological. I thought, I’m just going to be moving through time. Then there was always something to me that didn’t feel — it felt disjointed, the lives of these women. It didn’t feel like they existed in the same timeline, really. Then once I realized that, that kind of freed me to play around with that timeline and make some other bigger imaginative leaps. There was not a streamlined process at all. There was a lot of frustration, a lot of banging my head against the wall, and fortunately, a lot of really great help from my editor who was just in the trenches with me the whole time trying to help me figure this thing out.

Zibby: Wow. Your editor, then, deserves some sort of medal or something. One thing I was struck by in the beginning was how all the characters had left home in a pretty dramatic way. Desiree and Stella both left. When you go through generations, Jude eventually leaves. Kennedy eventually leaves. Reese has left his family. Early has left his family. They do so, in part, to find themselves, but also just to escape and begin again. I was wondering why you incorporated that theme. What did you yourself ever leave behind that might have amplified this message in your personal life?

Brit: I have never had as dramatic a departure as all those characters that you just described. All of my leavings have just been going somewhere for school or just wanting to move or wanting to do something new. I’ve always been drawn to that idea of leaving home. I think it’s inherently pretty interesting. I also do associate it so much with change. I think that it can be really hard to change who you are when you’re around the same people who have always known you to be one certain way versus once you get a little bit of distance and then you can kind of try out different people. You can play around with who you are in a little bit of a different way. All of these characters experience that similarly. When Stella is growing up in this town, she dabbles with passing. She’s tried it before, but it’s not something she can really get away with because she still lives at her mother’s house. She can’t truly commit to this life as a white woman in a way that she finds herself — she starts to ease into it more once she and her sister go to New Orleans. She can ease more into that life but then fully commits once she has left her sister behind. That’s true of a lot of these characters. Once they gain that physical separation, you can make that mental and emotional separation that is required in order to become a different person or to become the person that you want to be.

Zibby: Is there a piece of yourself that you wanted to change and reinvent in a new place? Is there half of yourself you would like to have vanished?

Brit: I don’t know about that. I do know that in writing this book, I kept thinking about my relationship with my family, which is very close. At the same time, I think sometimes that closeness can feel sort of claustrophobic. You can feel sometimes kind of trapped into the person. For example, I’m the youngest child in my family. There is a sense of always being the baby when you’re at home, which can be nice sometimes in ways and other times can be a little bit frustrating. There are things like that or having these roles that you can be hemmed into. I’m talking about this in a very low-stakes way. The stakes for all these characters are so much higher of the types of roles that they’re trapped into and the ways in which they’re trying to break free from them.

Zibby: The way that they transform is so dramatic. Everything that you would think is static becomes fluid, from race to gender to names. Everything is in flux constantly in this book. I think that’s what’s so unique because you never know who you’re getting to know as they get to know themselves. I wondered if you could talk a little more about that sense of fluidity that nothing is stable except, perhaps, love.

Brit: That was one of the things that really drew me into writing this book. I knew I wanted to write this story that was going to be about passing, but I wanted to write into this literature of passing from my perspective as a twenty-first century writer. From my perspective, I think sometimes the most famous passing literature, it kind of essentializes identity in this way. Sometimes there’s something inherently contradictory about those stories because you have a character who’s moving from one category to another which kind of destabilizes those categories. At the same time, there’s often a way in which, if they are exposed, it’s because somebody senses that you are black. They sense an essentialized blackness within you that you cannot rid yourself of. That is what makes you black, because there is something essentially black inside you. There are those types of understandings of race. There are ways in which I think a lot of passing stories can actually be, they can be sort of transgressive in one way, but also this very regressive way of thinking about identity where identity is essentially fixed within you. For myself, I wanted to write against that. I wanted to write against that idea that there’s anything essential about these identities, the idea that there’s anything stable about them, or that there’s anything even clear.

Stella’s experience of passing when she finally commits to it is that she goes in to get a job and somebody mistakens her for white, and she just goes with it. There’s something so absurd about that because she walked into this office building as a black woman and she left as a white woman. How is that possible? But it is. There was always something, to me, very, absurd is one of the words that I was thinking about this, about these identity categories. Again, they determine so much about our lives. The fact that whether Stella is black or white determines whether she can get this job or not, but she becomes white because somebody believes her to be white and she just says, yeah, I am, so what does that mean that her racial identity determines this very real fact of, can she pay her rent and can she feed herself? At the same time, it’s so flimsy that she can just easily slip into one category. To me, it was that contradiction between those two things of the very real implications of all of those categories of race or gender but also just the flimsiness between them and the way in which they are permeable in ways that we may not easily assume, but in ways that at least I believe to be true.

Zibby: You must be asked all these questions about identity and all this stuff all the time. This must be your bread and butter. You must talk about this forever. Does it make you turn a lens onto yourself to think, how do I feel about my own identity? How important is your race, your gender, your sexuality to you as an author and to you as a person? How did that play into the writing? Is it that you want all that to be fluid? Is it that it’s so central to your core of your soul? Tell me about your relationship to your own identity.

Brit: That’s a really huge question. I guess it’s fluid. It’s something that I don’t have an easy answer towards. There’s a lot of ways within this book I was thinking about ways in which identity and labelling identity can be really important for community formation. For example, when Jude arrives in LA, she becomes friends with a group of drag queens who have all found community with each other and welcome her into this community. There are ways in which forming those types of spaces around identity can be really lifesaving and really important. On the flip side, there are also ways in which labels for certain types of identities can be restrictive. They can feel like they box you in in some way. I was thinking about that a lot for the book too, that moving between ways in which any type of labeling can be really liberating and also ways in which it can make you feel trapped, and these characters moving between in a lot of those different ways.

In a lot of ways, writing the book, I think more than anything, it’s caused me to take a step back, one, when I’m speaking. One of the things that I thought about in this book is the way in which identity is so much more complicated than our language allows. A good example of that is Stella’s daughter. I still have not really decided a way to racially identify her. I don’t really know is the accurate way to describe this person who is a daughter of a black/white-passing mother and has a white father and believes herself to be white. There’s not a succinct way to describe her. Part of it has made me take a step back and be critical of the language that I use in thinking about identity and also in the ways in which I make snap judgements about other people’s identities. Part of the book is that you just have no way of knowing. Identities are not as clear as we believe them to be.

Zibby: I think that it’s true for people too. You don’t know the core of people’s identity on the surface. You don’t know what people are going through on the surface. You could pass by them on the street. It’s like how the drag queens who you reference literally could be somebody completely different. You could just be going through something really challenging. You just might not know. It’s almost like shining an X-ray machine onto everybody. What would that do to society if we all could actually see inside, what was really going on? Maybe everything would be a little better, I hope. I don’t know.

Brit: Maybe.

Zibby: Maybe. Or much worse. Maybe sometimes I don’t want to see inside. In terms of going back to your craft a little bit, even what you were saying with language, the way that you were able to tap into different ways of speaking based on all the different characters and even in so few words paint such a picture of what was going on and what someone’s personality was like and then how you had all these cliffhangers. The scene where the wine bottle drops, that’s going to be a Jeopardy question in fifty years. What’s the biggest cliffhanger? In terms of things like that, did you pick those up in your MFA program, voice and language, I know we already talked about structure, but cliffhangers and building that suspense? That’s something in this book that, it’s so propulsive, not to use an overused word.

Brit: I don’t know. For this book, when I started to realize the structure of it was going to be these pieces, that it wasn’t necessarily this one continuous narrative, that you were going to have these starts and stops, then I did become interested in the idea of those types of cliffhangers. For that section in particular, that’s dead center of the book. Thinking about that middle point of the book or the movie or whatever you’re looking at is usually when something big happens, so the idea of that being the moment where the stories start to converge. Something about the dark red wine on that white carpet was really memorable to me at least when I was thinking about this moment that would convey the shock that this character’s experiencing. I thought about it in that way. In general, thinking about the suspense, I think of this kind of as a fake mystery story because the mystery is not really, where’s Stella? That’s what feels like the mystery at first, maybe, is, we’ve got to find Stella. Where did she go? I tell you where she went. That’s not really the journey.

The journey is more, what has become of Stella or what’s Stella in a more existential way of what happened to Stella? That’s more the question pulling you through. For me, for both of my books, the thing that I did take away from my MFA program was this idea of creating suspense by revealing information instead of withholding it. For me, in The Vanishing Half, from the opening section I tell you, this is Desiree. This is Stella. This is kind of what happened to Desiree. This is kind of what happened to Stella. Here is the setup for the whole town. I didn’t want the question reading the book to just be, what happened to Stella? I just wanted to tell you right away. She’s living as a white woman somewhere. We’re going to go on after giving you that information.

Zibby: What has this been like for you? I know you already had a New York Times best seller with The Mothers which I have to go back and read. Now I’m so excited to have a new thing on my shelf that I can’t wait to get into. You’ve had such success. This was such a blowout hit during such a crazy time of the world. Your life must be somewhat different even if you’re in the exact same place. How does it feel to you to have had all this happen? You’re only thirty or something like that. That’s crazy. What does it feel like that you’ve been set on this trajectory and to have seventeen studios bidding over your movie rights? That’s just nuts. What does it feel like to you?

Brit: I think exactly what you just described. It’s been the weirdest year of anybody’s life. Certainly been the weirdest year of my life. For me, it was just very strange to swing between these poles of being really excited about things happening with the book, being really horrified by everything else. Also, the weirdness of experiencing all of this in isolation has been really strange, talking the TV rights for the book and having these really intense Hollywood conversations just being by myself in my apartment dealing with all of it. It’s been a weird feeling of feeling both really exposed but also very alone and also really excited about the book and also really devasted by everything else happening in the world. It’s been a weird year of swinging between those poles in a lot of different ways.

Zibby: Do you have some amazing work of fiction that’s going to come out of this time of this vacillation between the two poles?

Brit: I don’t know how amazing it will be, but I’ve been writing because, again, I’m by myself. I’m like, what else am I — when it was earlier in the lockdown, I was teaching a class. The class went on Zoom. Then eventually, the class ended in May. I had this five weeks or whatever in between when the class ended and when the book came out. I was basically just working on this next book because I had so much anxiety about what was going to happen with The Vanishing Half. I’m publishing in a pandemic. Is anyone going to care? Then all of the other just normal anxiety of being in New York at the time. I’ve been able to try to pour some of my energy into working on something else. It’s been great to be able to start a new project and think about a whole different new fictional world and give me at least some place to put all of my energy that is just being contained in my apartment right now.

Zibby: Can you tell us any more about that book?

Brit: It’s still very early. It’s about music. It’s about singers who have a lifelong feud. It’s a really different project for me, but one that I’ve been really excited about.

Zibby: Wow. Did you have an eye to make this into something cinematic when you were writing The Vanishing Half, or was that just not even in your consciousness?

Brit: I think that you’re always influenced by watching TV or films or these other things. I’m sure those elements kind of creep in as you’re writing, but I don’t think about casting it or anything like that. I never think that far about anything. I don’t think about it, but I am excited to see what the adaptation will look like.

Zibby: Have you been able to see your family or friends at all, or have you been walled off completely this whole time?

Brit: I got to go back to California for the summer. I saw my family. I’ve been able to see friends at the park and everything while the weather’s still nice, so hoping that we’ll hold out for a few more weeks of nice weather before we all retreat into our winters of solitude.

Zibby: Exactly. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Brit: My advice is very basic advice, which is just read everything. You learn from things that you like and also from things that you hate, so I think reading widely. That’s not to say read everything, like, you have to read everything that’s ever been in print. That’s just to say read widely. That’s one of my pieces of advice. Just be patient with yourself because the work will be bad for far longer than it will ever be good. That’s if you ever feel that your work is good. Most writers I know never feel that way. You have to just learn how to be patient with yourself. Trust that that’s part of the process, is kind of hating your work. The difference is being able just to stick through it and to believe that you can make it better throughout all of the challenges of wresting with the work.

Zibby: What type of books do you like? What are some of your biggest influences? What do you like to read even when you’re tired?

Brit: Different things. I’m sort of a slow reader. I’ve been balancing a lot more nonfiction and fiction these days. I’ve been reading a lot of biographies because of the new book, so lots of music biographies that I’ve been reading. I generally love fiction. The book that I’ve read recently that I loved the most was Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg which came out, I think, last year. The structure of the book is like an art catalog where she is describing photographs, but you don’t actually see the pictures as you’re reading the book. You’re just reading descriptions of them. I love that. I’ve been thinking a lot about, how do you write about art that the reader does not get to actually experience? I’m writing about music that doesn’t exist, so it was really cool to see how somebody is doing that with describing pictures that you never get to see.

Zibby: Very cool. Thank you. I know everybody else is going to have a lot of questions, so I don’t want to monopolize you. Thanks for letting me probe into your inner psyche for a few minutes and find out more of the backstory. Thanks.

Brit: Thanks.

Zibby: Deborah, if you want to…

Deborah: Thank you, Zibby. Thank you, Brit, for that.