Brittany Means, HELL IF WE DON'T CHANGE OUR WAYS: A Memoir

Brittany Means, HELL IF WE DON'T CHANGE OUR WAYS: A Memoir

Zibby Books author alert! Zibby interviews debut author Brittany Means about Hell If We Don’t Change Our Ways, a breathtaking, harrowing, soulful memoir about the homelessness, abuse, and instability that enveloped her childhood and the inspiring resilience that got her through it. Brittany describes her writing journey, from elementary school poems to Iowa MFA, and then explains how writing this memoir involved a cathartic weaving of painful memories and present-day reflections. She also talks about her beloved chickens, her literary mentors, her relationship with her mother, and her next project!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Brittany. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Hell If We Don’t Change Our Ways: A Memoir, by you.

Brittany Means: Thank you so much for having me here.

Zibby: So amazing to be here because I remember reading the submission for this book on my flight and just being like, this is the best book ever, oh, my gosh, we have to get this book, and then fighting for it and getting it. I feel like this was hard won. It came out of such a place of passion and enthusiasm from us to you. Here we are with it in hardcover form. It’s very exciting.

Brittany: I know. Surreal.

Zibby: Surreal, yeah. Surreal is a better word, which is why you’re the good writer over here. For people who don’t know what Hell If We Don’t Change Our Ways is about, can you tell them, please?

Brittany: Of course. Hell If We Don’t Change Our Ways is my memoir about growing up homeless and vagrant with my mom. We lived in a car for a while. We were running from her abusive boyfriend. We stayed with my grandparents sometimes, who were Southern Pentecostals. We stayed in shelters. Eventually, I moved in with a foster family until I left for college. It’s the arc of all of the places we tried to go and how we both got out and processed what happened.

Zibby: It can’t be that easy, just on an ordinary Monday afternoon, to have to spill your life story repeated every time someone asks you what your book is about, to have to go into the depths of things that you carried with you for so long. How public were you with new people you met, for example, with your whole backstory?

Brittany: I come from a long line of oversharers, so it doesn’t bother me, really. I think the only time I felt a little self-conscious about it was when it came up at work when someone was like, “Oh, I heard you had a novel published.” I was like, “Kind of.” Then the people you work with every day, you watch their faces slowly, you? The person who sends us chicken pictures?

Zibby: I have to ask, why are you sharing chickens?

Brittany: I love them. I send pictures to everybody all the time. It’s just that thing where you have a pet and you love them so much that they’re doing absolutely nothing but you’re still like, this is the most beautiful thing.

Zibby: How many chickens do you have?

Brittany: I have five.

Zibby: Do they have names?

Brittany: Yeah. I have Lud-wing van Beek-hoven, Jo-hen Sebastian Bach. There’s Brittany Jr. Steven Wing is our rooster. Then I named one after my brother. His name is Benjamin White, so we named her Hen-jamin Flight, but we call her Henjie.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that’s really funny. I love it. Tell me about your whole writing career, essentially. I know you went to Iowa. How old were you? I’ll call it a career even if you’re five years old or something. When did you write your first anything? What was it?

Brittany: We wrote poems in elementary school. I think I might have been in the first or second grade. My mom wrote poetry. She used to read it to me. My grandma told stories and wrote little stories, so I already had that background. I really liked that things could rhyme. I think the first thing I ever wrote was something like, I don’t have a dad, and that makes me sad, which I really wasn’t sad about. I just liked that it could rhyme. I showed it to my grandma. She cried because that was something that really bothered her, is that I grew up without a father. I felt bad for making my grandma cry, but I was also like, words are powerful. You can make your grandma cry with them. I started writing poetry. I mostly wrote poetry until college. It eventually got a little bit better than, I don’t have a dad, and that makes me sad.

Zibby: You know, there’s a lot of truth in that. Short, to the point, simple, effective.

Brittany: Concise.

Zibby: Concise, exactly. Then you transitioned from poetry to prose. How come?

Brittany: I had a creative writing class in high school with a teacher named Kenneth Barrett. I share his name because he was the first teacher to pull me aside and tell me, “You’re good at writing. You should keep writing.” It was a revelation for me because I didn’t really think I was good at anything in particular. I was good at spelling tests, but that’s not the same as being good at writing. I started doing more poetry. Then he assigned, tell us a story about your life. Write a short story. That’s when I really started branching out and doing more of that stuff and doing it more on purpose. Before that, it was just something I did. Then the idea that it was something I could do and be good at was like, now I want to write so much.

Zibby: I’m going to just keep doing this over and over again. Wow. Just take me through your whole life story. I know what happened in high school. We follow along with everything that happened to you in the book, but not necessarily the output from you and where you were thinking about writing itself. Then what happened?

Brittany: I went to Ball State. Originally, I studied social work. I wanted to be in child protective services just because I dealt with them so much as a kid. I had this idea, if I did it, I would do it different. Then in my first year, I learned a lot about the limitations on social work and just how broken the system is. I met quite a few social workers who came and visited classes. They were all so tired and talking about empathy fatigue and compassion fatigue. I really didn’t want to lose what made me want to go into social work. Around the same time, I was going to do a creative writing minor. I had a class with Jill Christman, who has an amazing memoir called Darkroom; two more books, I believe. One just came out recently. She also took me aside after I wrote an essay. She was like, “Brittany, you are a writer.” She said it was a capital W. I was like, I’m not just good at it, but I’m also a writer? I got out of social work. I moved over to creative writing. I started taking all of the creative writing classes. I took a novel-writing class, the nonfiction class, the poetry. They added a film and screenwriting minor. I did that. I just wanted as much writing as I could get.

Zibby: Then the fact that you have this book is sort of no surprise to you.

Brittany: It’s still a surprise. It’s right in front of me. Sometimes I look at it, and I do a double take. I’m like, a book? Me?

Zibby: It is such a good book, though. It’s so stunningly beautiful. You can really tell that you have a poetry background because the sentences themselves are just beautiful, the way you talk about anything and even how some chapters are shorter than others and the way that it all aligns on the page and all of this. Can I read a little something just to show people how amazing you are?

Brittany: Go for it.

Zibby: Here, I’m just going to read this because it’s an example of one of these intermezzo little pieces in between some of the other sections. “Its place remembers it no more. IN 67 stretches diagonally across Indian like a seatbelt. All that time I spent thinking it would take us far away, and it turns out it doesn’t even leave the state. It was never an escape route. Years later, I must have been around ten years old, my mother would tell me she tried to walk in front of a car on that road. ‘They wouldn’t hit me,’ she told me. ‘They just kept going.’ It made me so angry. What could I say? I pictured her lurching out into the headlights, the sharp swerve close enough to blow her hair back, her teeth barred growling at the receding taillights. ‘I’m glad you didn’t get hit,’ I said, a necessary thing to say, heartfelt, limp as the day-old bouquet of wildflowers I’d once picked for her and left on the dashboard.” You have told us so much in maybe fifteen lines of text. This tells you so much about your relationship, what she’s like, what you’re like, what the setting is, what the scene is. It’s really astounding when you think about it.

Brittany: Thank you.

Zibby: You’re welcome. It takes a lot to do that and evoke a whole tone. You can’t help but root for you no matter which piece of this book you look at. It’s amazing. Limp as a day-old bouquet that you gave her, I am just seeing that whole thing. In terms of how you structured the book and the smaller sections, the longer sections, the deep dive, the reflections on memory itself, tell me a little more about that and how you decided to attack this project.

Brittany: When I started, I started with the memories and events that were replaying in my head all the time, mostly for catharsis. Also, they were the ones with the most detail. Ben’s kidnapping and living with Mark and certain times when we lived at the barn, they were just so vivid in my head. I thought about them constantly. I was always trying to frame them for myself. Writing those down was important for me. In part, it felt like I was putting it down, like I didn’t have to carry it all the time, which actually worked, which was surprising. Then I built out from there. I tried to do all the scaffolding, connect the memories. Then I knew I wanted to have present-day reflections, in part because it was important for me to show that I — when I was younger and I was going through something, I wanted to capture how it felt and what I thought about it. I also wanted to be able to step away and say, this is what I know now. Here’s how I’ve changed and grown and learned to appreciate myself and other people and that kind of thing. I ended up kind of replicating the way I think, which is just very full of loops and digressions. The Rube Goldberg machine comparison that I use in there is really how my minds works. It’s just a bunch of stuff leading to other stuff, which I know is how everybody thinks. The mind is really fast and weird. I wanted, also, to give people short breaks because I know it’s heavy content. If someone’s reading and reading and it’s just suffering and reflection, that can be really hard. I wanted to have little landing pads where I can say, you’re here with me. I’m okay. It’s going to be hard again, but just for this little moment, we get to be okay in the present.

Zibby: There was one part of your story when you say something to the reader. I know you might want to put the book down and just not face this anymore, but I don’t have that luxury. You said it a lot better. That was so powerful to me. You’re like, I couldn’t just put this aside. This is my life. As someone who read it and had my hand over my heart, I did have to put it down just to take a deep breath and dive back in a few times because your story is so — the stuff you’ve been through is really astounding, that you had to go through it. Amazing that you are who you are. I don’t know what you attribute that to, if it’s genetics or just you or resilience or what. What do you think it is?

Brittany: It’s really hard to say. I think sometimes I feel complicated because I really wanted to get out of the environment I was in. I wanted things to be better. I wanted to stop being scared all the time and unsure of what was coming next, which, to a certain extent, is just part of life. Sometimes I’ve thought, I worked really hard to get through school and get into college and build savings for myself and move and those kinds of thing, but at the same time, there are a lot of people I love who are still in those environments and dealing daily with that level of fear and insecurity and just struggling. I know that they wanted out as badly as I do. For that reason, I don’t think that there is any kind of special thing about me. I think it’s just a series of circumstances and good timing and having them there holding me up and supporting me even as they made the same mistakes they made. It’s kind of an impossible question to answer. How do you feel good about getting out of something that so many people you love are still in or have died from or are still dealing with the trauma of every day?

Zibby: Sorry for an impossible question, but I loved how you answered it.

Brittany: Oh, no, it’s a good question.

Zibby: None of us really knows how we all turned out the way we did. It’s only conjecture. Maybe because of this. Maybe because of that. Maybe in spite of this or in spite of that. It’s all just a mishmash. I don’t know. I think it’s interesting to think about. There was a book called American Daughter. I don’t know if you read that. The author went on to have a career and this and that. Some of her brothers, they had mental illness. She was like, it was so random. It could’ve not been me. It’s just, the same thing hits a family, and it lands in different ways on different people. That dictates the rest of your life. I don’t mean to belabor this point.

Brittany: It’s interesting. It’s hard not to sit in it and ask it over and over.

Zibby: When you were writing the book, did you look to mentors or other people who had written books about childhood trauma or all of this? Who inspired you, if anybody?

Brittany: I have a bookshelf that’s just — I think I’ve put them all back with the other books. It’s hard to remember which ones exactly. Kiese Laymon’s Heavy was definitely one I went back to. Jill Christman’s Darkroom. In the Dreamhouse by Carmen Maria Machado. Then some psychology books, so The Body Keeps the Score. I think it’s called It Didn’t Start with You. Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft. I had a bunch of books that I went back to all the time. Of course, The Glass Castle. How do you deal with writing about people you love who you have really complex relationships with who may have hurt you, who may have harmed other people you love? How do you tackle it? How do you start a scene, even? How do you get out of the scene? I have almost used those books to dust. They’re all creased and folded over and have peanut butter spills in them because of who I am.

Zibby: That’s wonderful. I think you have taken something that has been “done,” writing about childhood, writing about trauma, writing about coming through things, describing really painful, really painful narrative and all of that, and yet I feel that you’ve done this in a unique way, and even the form itself. The form that it took, the way that it’s told, the different perspectives, I think it’s really original and unique and amazing, but that’s just me.

Brittany: Thank you.

Zibby: Talking about family and being sympathetic to people who may still be hurting other people, how do you wrestle with both sides of the coin? When you love someone, how do you deal with the mistakes, perhaps, or the poor decisions but also maintain that sense of unending love? How do you then put it into words that other people can pick up and get exactly what you mean? Talk a little bit about having to write your brother and your mom, in particular, as characters. They are characters in the scenes, and yet they’re also people that you put the book down and then call or something. How does that work?

Brittany: I think this is a thing that everyone decides for themselves. There’s no good blanket answer. Personally for me, writing the book helped me understand my mom better, in part because we can’t really communicate very well over the phone or in person. She has memory issues and disconnect from reality. Just reflecting on some of the stuff we went through, things that I thought about every day and ruminated on, but actually writing them and really asking myself, how did she get through that? She was in her early twenties living in a car with a little kid who she probably felt a lot of feelings about just because of my conception and not having money and all of the things that already come with raising children, which, to me, seems like an impossible thing. Learning to understand the full extent of what she was going through helped me appreciate, if even half the things that happened to her happened to me and continued to happen and I was raising a kid and dealt with the aftereffects of a long life of drug use and trauma, there is a version of me where I could make just as many mistakes. I could treat people the way she treated me. Learning to understand her and appreciate what she went through also helps me think everyone’s capable of harming people and giving into your most defensive and reactive instincts. If I don’t want to become that, if I don’t want to give into the part of my brain sometimes that’s like, everyone’s going to leave you, so you better leave first, or any number of those kinds of thoughts, then I really do have to appreciate, what was it like for the people who harmed me to get to the point where they made those choices? How do I not make those choices? I don’t know if I answered your question.

Zibby: It doesn’t even matter. I don’t even remember what I asked, but I love what you had to say. I just feel like you are the most empathic person, seriously. That is the epitome of empathy right there, putting yourself in their shoes even though you could so easily take a different tact and feel a lot of different feelings. It’s amazing, really wonderful.

Brittany: Thank you.

Zibby: Tell me about what you’re working on now. Are you working on more poetry? Has that made a comeback? Short stories? Essays? Are you writing anything else for us?

Brittany: There’s a publication-day essay that I’m pretty excited about. I wrote about horror movies, which is one of my favorite topics. Poetry has made a comeback. When I was working on the book, I was so in the mind of prose that I didn’t really write a lot of poetry. Lately, I’ve been getting back into it. I’ve written some stuff that I’m like, wow, I like writing poetry. I can’t believe I stopped doing this for so long. Then I’m working on, hopefully, my second book, which is about — gosh, it’s hard to say concisely. If I really had to sum it up, it’s about how mental health and physical health combine and manifest in religious settings. That could be its own whole Zoom call.

Zibby: That was another concise answer. That was good.

Brittany: Thank you.

Zibby: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Brittany: I always say take care of yourself. I think writing is so magical. When you love writing, it just feels natural. That’s how I process things. Sometimes even as I’m having a conversation, I think about how I would be formatting the dialogue or adding in details from the room or that kind of thing. I love writing. I also think that, like anything, too much of it or doing it wrong — it’s hard to quantify how doing it wrong means anything. I think it’s important to check in with yourself and say, how is it affecting me to be writing this right now? Is it okay that I’m feeling this? Do I need to sit with this? Am I sitting in it too long? Do I need a break from it? I would tell writers just check in with yourself. Feel free to get lost in the words because that’s such a wonderful thing to do. Also, know when to step back out and be in your body and ask yourself questions. Just make sure that you’re okay. Writing is part of being a person, but it’s also good to think, I’m a person before I’m a writer. Or maybe not. I don’t know.

Zibby: What’s clear is that you are definitely a writer with a capital W. I hope that you run into your teachers and send them the book and show them what happened and that you get everything that you want out of taking this book on tour and being around readers and using your craft for good.

Brittany: Thank you.

Zibby: You’re welcome. Congrats, Brittany. So exciting.

Brittany: Thank you so much.

HELL IF WE DON’T CHANGE OUR WAYS: A Memoir by Brittany Means

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