Brit Bennett and Emma Cline on love, literature, and losing your mind in the time of coronavirus
They wrote two of the buzziest debuts of the past decade. Now the authors return for their second acts.
Though they never had the chance to meet, Brit Bennett’s and Emma Cline’s literary stars seemed to rise in tandem: Both California natives, they released their debuts months apart from one another in 2016; Cline’s heady Manson-family redux The Girls and Bennett’s intimate teen-pregnancy tale The Mothers each offering their own bittersweet, uniquely resonant take on coming of age.
Now newly acquainted — at least through the magic of Zoom pixels and mutual fandom — the duo came together to talk about the inspiration behind their latest books, the trickiness of picking a title, and how they’re spending their quarantine time.
There must be so much fear and anxiety and excitement around releasing your first book, but what changes about that with the second?
EMMA CLINE: I’m just gonna wait and see what Brit says. [Laughs] No, I guess it’s maybe that the stakes feel so much lower? In this particular moment in the world, it’s hard to have that same level of solipsistic engagement with your own ego and neuroses. I think now my main feeling is just gratitude — to have a book coming out and to be reading other people's books and be part of this community that’s really stepped up.
BRIT BENNETT: I totally agree. I have a friend whose second book just came out, and the thing he said he kept reminding himself throughout that process was that you can only control what you can control. And I always kind of knew that intellectually, but I think publishing a book in a global pandemic truly drives home that point. [Laughs] So I think that has given me a little bit of freedom to not stress about this experience. As I was working on [The Vanishing Half] too I kept thinking, what are the second albums that I love, the second novels? What’s special about a second project versus a debut? Because generally, people think of debuts as being autobiographical, or at least based on something personal. And in my case, my debut wasn’t autobiographical but it was set where I grew up so there was that sort of personal element of it, and my second book is very different than that.
Well, that sounds like a good cue to get in an elevator pitch for both of your new ones. Go!
BENNETT: I’d say, it’s a story about two light-skinned twins growing up in rural Louisiana whose lives dramatically diverge — one passes for white, and one lives her life as black.
Emma, yours is maybe harder to pinpoint since it’s a collection.
CLINE: Yeah, the stories all take place in such different worlds. But I think generally as a writer I’m interested in power dynamics and gender performance, all of that.
Let’s talk about the title, Daddy. I wondered if it was a reference to the famous Sylvia Plath poem?
CLINE: I like that! I mean, it wasn’t a direct one, but there’s something about the potency of that word that’s both so innocent but also has this other sort of perverse meaning, and I just liked that doubling. I think that’s what I look for in titles, something with a little torque.
You also tell several stories from a man’s point of view. What are some of the challenges of that?
CLINE: Someone was talking about the #MeToo movement, and they said that so much of it was imagining the inner lives of men who will never do the same for you — having to consider the interiority of these people who often just don’t return that level of emotional investment. And I think society sort of aims you in that direction anyway, at least as a woman — having to imagine what’s going through a man’s mind. So in a way it’s sort of freeing to really jump into it. Because a lot of my male characters, I realized, are not the greatest people...Though the women aren’t that great either. [Laughs]
Brit, your new book begins in the late ’60s, and Emma’s first one was set in that era, which is obviously long before you both were born. How important is research for you, or not?
BENNETT: For me, there are family connections that I was able to draw on, but I didn’t think of the book so much as being some type of historical text. I was more writing toward memory, or even toward the mythology of these places versus the lived history of it. I mean, I don’t want to have glaring inaccuracies! I’d avoid those. But I knew that I wasn’t representing this place as it existed historically; I was representing it as it was described to me by my mother.
CLINE: I think I felt much the same way — that it wasn’t my job to make an accurate historical reconstruction of an era, but to be driven more by, do the emotions feel true to the moment? As human beings, I don’t think we tag our experiences to “The president is Donald Trump! I am experiencing all these particularities of this moment!” No, you’re like, “I’m hating this person, I’m loving that person.”
The conversation around representation in the lit world and who has the right to tell stories has really kind of gone nuclear this year, with books like American Dirt and My Dark Vanessa. Have you guys felt compelled to participate, or do you lean out from that?
BENNETT: It’s a conversation I’ve been having with my students, which has been really interesting. I teach at Stony Brook [University, in New York], and there was this great essay, "The Banality of Empathy," which was about not attaching this romanticized moral view of empathy in fiction, and it just sort of picks apart the whole notion that it’s “good” to climb inside somebody else’s skin.
But all of these things are so much bigger than any one book. So when I saw that [American Dirt] conversation swirling, of course I was following it, I was intrigued by it, but I think we have to continue to have [this talk] about increasing diversity in the publishing world — publishing books by different types of people, all of that is more urgent and important to me than the “Who can write what” question, which I think is what we often land on.
CLINE: Yes! Yes.
BENNETT: I think what’s particularly unique to this moment is that readers are talking back to writers in real time, in ways that like, I go on Instagram and someone can be DMing you “I hate your book.” [Laughs] We’re living and writing in a different moment than when you had to write fanmail or hate letters and then actually send them in the mail, and that’s something that we as writers now have to navigate. And sometimes it’s stupid or silly and sometimes it’s these really valid concerns about stereotypes in fiction and other things that we do have to think about.
You both wrote about these very intimate vivid experiences in your first books, so I'd guess that feedback could get pretty intense.
BENNETT: I had so many people talk to me about their abortions! The strangeness of writing [The Mothers] was that there was really no way of pitching the book without mentioning abortion in some way, so even if I didn’t want to get into a conversation with my Uber driver about it...[Laughs] It was mostly fine, I didn’t really have any combative or tense situations. I think maybe there was something kind of liberating for them to have someone to tell it to, who did not know them and had no investment in their personal lives — it became sort of a means for confession.
CLINE: I also didn’t know to expect that at all. Writing a novel is such a solitary slog for so long, and I think my end point was always the moment when I finished the book, and really I had very little sense of what might happen beyond that. So I was very moved and surprised by teenagers who wrote to me about it, that has been very meaningful and sweet to me. And then of course occasionally I’ll get the outlier — the '60s still seems to offer this magnetic pull to the truest weirdos, which I sort of enjoy. [Laughs]
BENNETT: Emma, I’m curious if you experienced this also, my favorite thing is the men who come to get a book signed and want to make it very clear that it’s for a woman. They want me to know they’re not planning to read it — it’s for their sister, their wife, their daughter! That made me laugh every time.
CLINE: I could tell when people in line had something to give me, and it was always a manila envelope of press clippings that prove that like, Stephen King shot John Lennon, and I'd be like "Okay, thank you! [Laughs] This is actually all making a lot of sense."
You both had your first novels optioned by Hollywood — Brit, yours by Kerry Washington. What’s the status of those projects?
CLINE: The Girls is now at Hulu, and they’re developing a limited series.
BENNETT: Ahh, that’s the best form! That’s so good. I have no update for my project — they renewed the option, but that is the last I’ve heard of it. [Laughs] We’ll see.
People talk a lot now about quarantine brain. Where is yours at?
CLINE: My brain is just a bowl of chili. I am not writing at all.
Maybe passive entertainment feels better than trying to create in this moment? Especially when you've just come off such an intensive period of it.
BENNETT: I rewatched Speed the other night, I watched Moonstruck, those are perfect. Things that are light and easy and just fun. I always hated pandemic movies, so I’m definitely not one of these people watching Contagion right now.
CLINE: I’ve been watching this Grateful Dead documentary series called Long Strange Trip — it’s so fun to be watching it now because it’s all about ego dissolution through psychedelics, which I think could be the answer to everything. [Laughs] And I’m reading a lot of light nonfiction, like The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, and You’ll Never Make Love in This Town Again, which is a tell-all about prostitutes in Hollywood.
BENNETT: I agree with Emma, I do feel like my attention span is shot. I think what’s difficult is not checking your phone every five minutes because everything is changing so quickly. I am writing and teaching, but I have to provide the context that I am completely alone right now, so it’s truly like, write or lose my mind.
CLINE: Me too! So I’m just losing my mind. [Laughs]