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Brit Bennett on publishing The Vanishing Half during the George Floyd protests

Bennett joined the Vox Book Club to discuss the book’s timeliness, passing novels, and why she doesn’t write identity as a problem to be solved.

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Vox Book Club live with Brit Bennett, author of The Vanishing Half

Brit Bennett, author of The Vanishing Half, joins Constance Grady for this month's Vox Book Club discussion.

Posted by Vox on Thursday, August 27, 2020

The Vox Book Club is linking to Bookshop.org to support local and independent booksellers.

Last week, New York Times bestselling author Brit Bennett graced the Vox Book Club with a visit to discuss her latest novel, The Vanishing Half. I chatted with Bennett about passing stories, how to write a romance that doesn’t feel controlling, and what it’s like to publish the runaway book of the summer. It was the culmination of our Vanishing Half coverage over the past month, and it did not disappoint. Watch the full video above and read the highlights from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, below.

Once you finish up here, get ready for our September coverage of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, a very funny and very tender campus novel that takes place in 1995, just as email is beginning to take off. We’ll publish our first Idiot discussion post on Friday, September 11.

To make sure you don’t miss anything in the meantime, sign up for the Vox Book Club newsletter.

On the literary tradition of gossip

The Vanishing Half debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, and there was this huge bidding war over the TV rights. What was that like?

Crazy! All those things happened back to back. It was a really strange and exciting month for me. And neither of those were things that I could have ever predicted with this book. I just hoped that people would even want to read books as we experience this epidemic and this crisis that we’re all in. I just hoped that there would be an audience for the book. And I certainly didn’t expect the audience to be so enthusiastic.

Yeah, it’s hugely enthusiastic. And I think part of that comes from the voice of the book, which is just so rich and pleasurable to read. It feels almost plush, like you can wrap yourself up in it. How did you think about the book’s narrative voice as you were putting it together?

I think I knew that I wanted to play with this omniscience, this kind of all-knowing voice that will dip in and out of the different characters and follow them as they go to different places. But I think I also always thought about that omniscience being grounded in the town where the book opens and the town that the book centers around. It tells the goings-on of the people who live in the town, but also follows the people after they’ve left the town to wherever they end up around the world.

That gossip voice is very similar in a way to the church ladies in The Mothers, your first book, who are the Greek chorus.

I like gossip! I think gossip is a really useful mode of storytelling and a really fun mode of storytelling.

It’s so important. I spend so much of my time on Lainey Gossip. What was it like to write this book that’s so concerned with race in the Jim Crow era, and in the decades afterward, and then have it come out in this moment when the national conversation about race has been so galvanized?

Strange. You spend so long writing a book, you have no idea what the context will be like when the book actually comes out. For me, I kept thinking like, “Oh, this book is going to come out in an election year.” And I thought that would just be the context surrounding the book. And then I started to realize that it was going to come out during a pandemic, and then that felt like a context I could not have predicted, and most of us couldn’t have. And then the book came out maybe a week after George Floyd was killed. And the conversation turned so squarely, in that moment, to race.

So it was strange, but I had to realize that any sort of label of timeliness is something that comes from outside of the book. Timeliness is a label that’s applied externally. And it’s definitely not anything that’s in your hands as the writer. It has to do with the context in which a book is released, and which readers greet the book. So it felt very strange, but again, it felt like one of those things that have nothing to do with you in a way, although they do contribute to the narrative surrounding the book.

On how to write a passing novel for the 21st century

So there’s a pretty long history in America of books about passing. And they have some pretty prescribed tropes. There’s Nella Larsen’s Passing. There’s the tragic mulatto. There’s the sort of inevitable crisis at the end. How did you think about those tropes? As you were writing The Vanishing Half, were you interested in reimagining and subverting them?

I was definitely aware of the tropes. I feel like you have to be aware of the conventions of whatever you’re writing into. So I was aware of those tropes, and I knew that most of our passing stories are usually quite moralizing. Usually the person who passes is punished at the end. I knew that I didn’t want to punish Stella per se. I certainly didn’t want to kill her or have her fall or jump or get pushed out of a window. I knew that those were some tropes of the genre I want to avoid.

I knew that I was writing into this long, storied history of passing literature, but I was also writing into it as a writer in the 21st century. And I wanted to look at that genre from my perspective as a young person alive now. And some of that meant trying to skirt some of those tropes in the genre. And some of that meant just trying to reimagine what a passing story looks like in a world where we think of these categories as being inherently fluid.

And that’s one of the things that’s so interesting in the book: There are so many characters who are moving between categories of identity. Not just racial identity, but you also have the characters of Reese, who’s a trans man, and Barry, who’s a drag queen. And even in a way, Kennedy, who is so interested in leaving behind what she thinks of as her identity to explore these new selves as an actress. What is interesting to you about the idea of moving around between categories of identity and fluidity within them?

Once I started to think about this book, I really wanted to just circle around this really huge, huge, huge question, which was just: How do we all become who we are? And that’s obviously a huge question that’s at the heart of probably most stories, in some way. I’m certainly not the first person to ponder this question. But I wanted to write toward that and think about these characters who are all performing in a way, who are transforming in a way, who are making these choices that are big and small but shape them in some way.

I knew that my entry point was going to be these twin sisters who make different choices as far as which race that they want to live and which community they belong to. But I also wanted to explore these other forms of being, other types of identities. To think about passing as something that can be done momentarily, something that can be very temporary and fleeting, something that can be playful, something that can be tragic. I wanted to think about all the different ways in which we make choices that shape who we are, and [think] about the ways in which making those choices and creating ourselves ... can be very liberating, but it can also be very painful.

And there’s the deep ambiguity in Stella in the end, where she’s just so sad, but she’s committed to this life and will never, ever leave it. I think we got some reader questions earlier about that, where people felt that they wanted something more definite to have happened to Stella. But I kind of liked the deep ambiguity of it. I felt like if I wanted to have her make a choice one way or the other, I would read an older passing book.

Stella is so interesting to me. Somebody asked me once, “Do you think that if she had to do it all over again, she would have made the same choice?” And I was like, “Yeah, I think she would have.” I don’t think that she regrets passing. I don’t think that the feeling she has is regret. I just think that she has, as you said, ambiguous feelings about it. She loves and misses her family. But she also feels that she made the best choice for herself to create the life that she wanted to live. She has this feeling that, “It’s my one life, why can’t I live it the way I want to live it?” And I feel very sympathetic toward that argument.

I wasn’t interested in the question of, “Is Stella going to get caught? What’s going to happen when she gets caught?” I wanted to dangle that possibility because that creates dramatic tension, I think. So you want to play with that possibility, which again, is one of those conventions of passing stories: You’re waiting for that moment of exposure. But at the end of the day, to me, that was a less interesting question than, okay, well, “What if she continues to get away with this, then what happens next?” So landing in this place of her continued and deeper ambiguity, to me that was more interesting than “Stella gets caught” or “Stella makes some definitive choice” or “She decides to move back home.” That, to me, was less interesting than just her continuing to burrow deeper and deeper into her own ambiguous feelings about herself.

Yeah, I feel like the ambivalence there is what gives the story its juice and what powers you through it. And it’s also interesting to watch because it takes place over such a long time. It covers 40 years, I think, during which you have the civil rights era and conventions about race changing quite a bit. And I actually learned this month, while we were talking about this book, that there was a period in time where people who had been passing through the civil rights era sort of came out in Jet and Ebony and various other publications. It was like, “All right, I’m passing no more and coming back into the Black community.” Which is obviously not a choice Stella ever makes or is particularly interested in making. What was interesting for you about playing the story out over so many decades and getting into the other generations?

This story, when I started thinking about it, [originally] presented itself to me as a story that is going to be large in its scope. Very different than my first book, which was contained in time, a very linear sort of coming-of-age story. This immediately sort of presented itself to me as something that would be a bit more sprawling in time.

As far as when to set it, I set it relatively late as far as passing narratives go. Most of our really iconic stories about passing are set much earlier in the 20th century. But for me, I found this time period really interesting because of the things that you just mentioned, because of the idea that this person chooses not to be Black in this moment [when] conventions and rules about race are changing very dramatically. She’s doing this as the Black Power movement is ramping up. She’s doing this in the post-civil rights era. And all sorts of these moments are happening at this time. You have the women’s liberation movement. You have the gay liberation movement. You have all of these big moments of social and political change as these characters are deciding what types of people that they want to be and the choices they want to make for their lives. And that felt really interesting to me.

I think there’s a way in which maybe it feels like the stakes of her choice are lower because you’re thinking, “Oh, this person is passing in, like, 1988.” I think people are probably more sympathetic to why somebody would pass in 1915 than 1988. So I knew that was something that maybe would be strange about setting the story as late in time as I did. But again, that was something to me that was so interesting because you’re thinking, “Okay, well, this person has committed to this world now. What does the world look like in 1988?” It’s so different than the world in which she first made this choice to do this. She has to adjust on the fly and mold herself around these new rules of race. She has this daughter with a Black boyfriend. Okay, well, how she would react to that? She now seems like she’s the really out-of-touch white lady.

All of those things became interesting to me, even though they are maybe not as high-stakes. They became interesting to me because those are questions that I had not really asked myself and thought about: What does it look like to be somebody who was passing at a time in which you’re not thinking about people making that choice?

On the importance of making space for joy in a sad novel

So it was recently announced that The Vanishing Half is going to become a TV series on HBO. That’s such exciting news — congratulations! Is there anything you can tell us about that?

Thank you. No, we’re still very early. And I’m not adapting it. So we’re talking to some writers right now, and the shortlist of writers that we’ve been talking to are just brilliant, brilliant people. So I think I’m most excited about that, to be honest: Who the writer is going to be. I’m really excited to hand the book off to somebody else and to see what this book is going to look like transformed into another medium and through somebody else’s creative vision.

Is there any part where you’re like, “This is going to become someone else’s project, and now it’ll be their baby, but I really want this one thing to be exactly as I wrote it?”

I really love the section when you’ve followed Jude to LA and she’s just having a ball with all of her friends. That’s a moment of the book that just brings me joy, and it doesn’t necessarily advance the plot. I could imagine that being something where somebody would be like, “This doesn’t really move the story,” but to me that is such a joyous moment ... her finally having friends for the first time and finding herself in this really big and beautiful world that she stumbles upon. And it’s so different than the world in which you have previously seen her, where her world is very constricted and small and lonely. So there’s some things like that that are close to my heart because they just make me happy. And I feel like they breathe; they bring a sense of joy to the book where there are a lot of really tense and brutal moments.

I am going to be an executive producer so I will have some say, but things like that I would try to fight to include. Because I can imagine that not seeming economical for the screen, but I just think it matters for the character’s story.

It’s also so important because so much of the book takes place in these really constricted little communities, like the gated community where Stella lives and also, of course, Mallard [the color-struck town where the twins grow up]. Can you tell us about how you developed the idea of Mallard, and what history there is that it’s based on?

It came from a story that my mom told me about a town she remembered hearing about growing up. Some of it was some of her stories from growing up in rural Louisiana and the things that she remembered. Some other things were [from] books that I read, or nonfiction articles that I read about similar Creole communities that were very insular. So I drew on some of those texts. But a lot of it was just trying to imagine this place that really literalizes colorism in this way that’s very tangible and concrete, and not an abstract or political idea. It’s almost genetic engineering, what the people in this town are doing, so I wanted to mostly make the town feel grounded, and again, make the idea of colorism not seem like something that people are just talking about — but something that is so present in this town, you cannot escape it.

It also creates another little liminal space, where it’s not like, “There are the Black people in this book and the white people,” but, “There is this very particular group of Black people, and the way they are thinking about the world is different from other Black people within the book.” It’s very careful to not be monolithic, which is part of what I think makes it so rich.

I wanted to focus on the particularities of that community of people who think of themselves as being this third group in this way. And they’re living in the Jim Crow South, which is very much a system of binaries. It’s very much, “Colored drinking fountain, white drinking fountain, which one are you?” These are people who resist both of those categories, and there’s a way in which I feel very sympathetic toward that idea. Resisting the binary is an idea that I’m really interested in throughout this book. But I think the way that it manifests within this town becomes this whole other really insidious thing. They are in pursuit of lightness really for its own sake; it doesn’t bring any actual tangible benefits to anybody’s lives. These are still pretty poor people. They don’t have access to resources. They don’t have money, they don’t have status. They don’t have anything that Stella eventually gains. But at the same time, the lightness is its own reward to them, and therefore they feel the need to punish people who don’t have the lightness.

On how to write about identity without making a person’s identity an obstacle

Now we’re going into the audience Q&A. Jan asks, “Can you please explain how the oral tradition is applied in the book?”

I don’t know if there’s a lot of oral storytelling within the book. I was really interested in lots of different sorts of artistic forms that emerge. So you have Kennedy, who is an actor, and somebody who really feels most like herself when she’s being somebody else. And you have Barry, who is a drag queen, and sort of participating in the playfulness and the artfulness in becoming somebody else in this way. And there is Reese, who’s a photographer, and you have his unique way of seeing. So I was interested in different art forms. I don’t know if I have any really oral stuff, storytelling within the book. But I was interested in these different art forms and how they all relate to how people form identities.

Janey says, “Reese and Jude had a beautiful relationship, and I enjoyed reading about Jude’s immediate acceptance of him. Was it an intentional choice to leave out the conversation that must have happened when Reese tells you he’s trans? I wonder if Jude would have known about trans people coming from a small town in Louisiana during that time.”

It was intentional that that wasn’t going to be a problem. I did not want to write a book where somebody’s identity is a conflict, or somebody’s identity is a problem that has to be solved. You know? That’s not how I see the world, and it’s also not what I find interesting. So the idea that Jude would immediately accept Reese for who he is, I found that perfectly plausible. And I think she rationalizes that a little bit. She says that she knows that her aunt has lived this second life as somebody else. So she’s able to accept it. She doesn’t have to have done research or know about what it means to be transgender for her not to be accepting. And I think sometimes there can be an ahistorical way in which we think about people years ago. We assume that they would be bigoted, when that’s not necessarily what historical records show.

Julie asks, “How did you develop your concept of what it meant to be a twin when you are not one yourself?”

I did not do a whole lot of twin research, I have to say. I drew on some of my experiences of being a sister. I have two older sisters, one who is two years older than me. So I drew on those experiences of sisterhood and the sort of closeness of the bond and the claustrophobia of the bond and how you navigate those things.

But beyond that ... I didn’t want to make the twins seem like clones. And I didn’t want them to seem like they were so polar opposite in that really neat way in which we sometimes tell stories about twins, where they are just so diametrically apart. I wanted it to feel somewhere in between those poles. And I’ve heard from some twins who felt like the twins were drawn well, and that that dynamic was captured well, so I hope if you are a twin who’s asked me this question that you felt that way. But really, I think for me, a lot of it was just drawing on my experience of having sisters that I’m really close to, that I love, but also that idea of wanting to break away and be your own person.

Kristen says, “I’m curious to hear more about the choice to not have the town actually be on a map. It seems to give the town an ephemeral, unreal quality, and allows it to disappear completely.”

That was something that I think I stumbled into. I think part of it was just, I knew that I wasn’t interested in writing history. I was more interested in writing about myth. And I think once I recognized that — that I didn’t have to write this book in a very strict realist, historical kind of way — it liberated me to do the things that I found more fun. So the idea of introducing you to a town and then the town can’t be found on a map, and then at the end that town kind of evaporates, disappears. It was never actually a town in the first place. All of those things I found to be really fun, and a fun way to think about that distinction between idea and place.

And the idea that these characters can escape the place — Mallard — and go other places, but they can never really escape the idea of Mallard and the ways in which Mallard has shaped them. So that felt like a way to lean into that and to create that feeling, that fluidity. There’s invisible borders separating the town from the other Black people who live nearby. And then at the end, those borders themselves are obliterated, and the town is just sort of subsumed into the abyss. So I had fun, I think, writing that and thinking about that town.

It’s kind of utopian at the end, how this one weird little purgatory place just dissolves. There are a couple of questions about Stella. Susan wants to know if you think she could eventually tell her husband the truth. And Judy wants to know why she didn’t tell her mother she was alive.

No, I don’t think she would ever tell Blake.

Blake seems like he would not get it.

Yeah, I agree. I think that she would continue on living her life in the way that she’s lived it. And I think as far as her mother, I think for her there’s that feeling of wanting to slam that door to the past shut and thinking that it’s going to stay shut. Until it gets pried back open, unbeknownst to her, because Jude sees her at this party.

There are lots of people who passed and who would go back home from time to time. Not everybody passed so completely that they would not be in touch with the family at all. But when I was thinking about it, I played around with different versions, like well, maybe she does pop back. But to me, that idea of wanting to completely erase the past and completely start over ... felt like the reason why Stella was passing in the first place. It was less about being white and more about being somebody new. And to me, that is something that she can only do if she has shut the door to her sister and her mother.

She becomes the vanishing half. Julieannie says, “I love your books because each chapter has a poetic, show-stopping epiphany from the narrator or a character. How do you conjure these sentences? Do you build your chapters around these lines?”

No, I definitely don’t. I appreciate that reading. I definitely don’t. When I start a book, I know where I want to start. For every project I’ve done, I’ve known exactly where I want to start. I never know where I want to finish, and I kind of know where I want to go in the middle. And the writing process is just getting from that start to the middle, and then eventually figuring out the middle to the end. So I don’t think of that as writing each chapter in that way.

I’m usually thinking about how I can advance the story and reveal who these characters are. How can I get closer to the characters? How can I make their experiences understandable, even if it’s not something that the reader agrees with or likes? I’m thinking about how to pursue a beautiful image or how to pursue a nice long line of dialogue. I think those are things that come along with revision, and just chipping away at it very slowly over time.

Are you someone who outlines, or do you do things scene by scene, feeling your way through?

I don’t outline. To me that feels like homework. To me, the joy of a first draft is that you have no idea where it’s going. This book, I knew I wanted to start with Desiree returning with this dark-skinned child and the whole town freaking out. And I knew that the middle of the book would be when the stories start to converge in some way. And that was all I really knew. I had to figure out how to get from point A to point B. And maybe if I outlined, it would be easier and more seamless, and it would make more sense. But for me, it’s that joy and that pleasure of discovering, and the characters taking you somewhere you don’t expect and doing something that you didn’t expect them to do. To me, that’s the fun of drafting.

It’s like that line — I can never remember who said it — but it’s something like, “Writing a novel is like making a trip down a dark highway at night with no streetlights.” You have no idea where you’re going, but you can get there the whole way through your headlights.

Julie says, “As a white person reading this book, I found myself starting to picture Stella as a white woman and Desiree as a Black woman, and then questioning why I was doing so. Was this your intention, to push the reader here? And I’m also wondering how this element of the book will change when it comes to the screen.”

That was not my intention, but I find that really interesting. And I think that’s what Stella is trying to achieve. As far as TV, I think there’s lots of ways [that element could change]. Like I said, we’re so early as far as picking our twins. Are you going to actually find twin actors? Are you going to have one person do both characters? Somebody suggested that you can use CGI to make two different actors look like twins, which is something I never thought was possible, but I guess CGI now is so good. There are lots of different things that can be done. But I think that something interesting — for whoever is brought on board — is how do you portray these characters?

Assuming you have one person who plays both, how do you portray these characters? Because I think there is something very, very different in them. Initially when you meet them, you can sort of tell them apart if you know them, through their mannerisms and who they are. But I think as the book goes by, they become so completely different women. I would love the idea of some actor interpreting that in some way with their body and with their face and all these other things that actors can do.

On how to write a love story that doesn’t feel controlling

Jeanne has a question about someone we haven’t talked about at all yet, which is Early. She says, “He’s such a loving partner to Desiree and a cautiously loving father figure to Jude. Why is he someone who comes and goes so much before he quits his hunting and settles into [caring] for Adele?”

What I loved about that relationship was exactly that — the idea of [these] two people that are living their lives separately, but then they come together and they’re not possessive. They’re not controlling. Like, what does a relationship look like in that way? I think we have such conventions for romance, where there is something about possessing someone forever, and that’s what it means to love somebody. And you know, Desiree is coming out of this really abusive relationship. She doesn’t want to be possessed. She doesn’t want to feel controlled. And I think in a lot of ways, Early is also somebody who has been hurt before by people that he loved, and he sort of tends to live that way too.

When I first started working on that relationship, I thought it was a problem. Like, the idea that he keeps coming and going, that was a problem that the story had to solve, and they’re arguing about it. And then I started to just kind of ask myself, why is this a problem? It doesn’t have to be.

There’s a way in which this can actually be really comforting, to know that this person is going to leave and that they’ll come back. Comforting for him and comforting for her, in a way. That’s a little over-simplifying, because I do think that Early is somebody who wants to commit to Desiree more than she wants to commit to him. But at the same time, he accepts her for where she is, and she accepts him for where he is. To me, that was something that I really wanted to just imagine, particularly within a heterosexual couple, is what does love look like when it’s not controlling and possessing? When it’s not about being possessed or possessing somebody else, and when you can just allow someone to be free and you can be free alongside them?

There’s a really lovely tenderness to that, I think, that really comes through. Karl has a question, and I feel like a really bad book journalist for this not having occurred to me before: “Is there a parallel between the Desiree and Stella characters and A Streetcar Named Desire?”

No, there isn’t. I just really loved the names. For me, names are something that come to me pretty early on. Jude was the one name that I struggled with; I could not figure out what her name was going to be. But Desiree and Stella came to me immediately, and I’ve felt that the names, and the sound of them and the feel of them and the connotation of them, said a lot about their personalities and who they are. I do love coming up with names and playing with them in that way.

Jess is asking about the twin’s father, whom we haven’t discussed much. She asks if you can talk about the role of the trauma of his murder, and how that might have been the trigger for their choices later in life. I feel like there is a pretty clear line for why someone like Stella would want to leave this part of her life behind, if that’s something she saw at such a young age.

I wanted to think about the twins having witnessed this really traumatic and also unexplainable and senseless act of violence. And it’s really the senselessness, I think, that leads them to splinter in these different ways. Because Stella has a very logical brain, and she is unable to wrap her brain around why this thing happened. Desiree is like, “Well, bad things just happen,” and that’s not enough for Stella. She’s like, “No, that doesn’t make sense, though. Why does this happen?” And to me, it was that nagging question that haunts her and leads her to struggle a lot with the aftermath of this really traumatic event.

What was so interesting [to me] were the different ways we can react to trauma. Desiree goes back to that house. She lives out most of her adult life in the site of this trauma, and she’s able to face it. And Stella, instead, spends almost her whole life running away from that. That was something I thought was really interesting.

It’s complicated for Stella, I think, because she is both running into the white world because of this traumatic thing she’s witnessed, but she’s also running in the direction of the community that traumatized her. What must that experience be like for her? That was something that felt really fraught and complicated and murky as I was thinking about trying to figure out Stella’s psychology throughout the book.

Debbie wanted to talk about the ending. She says, “I didn’t have an ending in mind, aside from not wanting the story to end, and I felt surprised by the final scene of Jude and Reese in the river. Did one or both of them lead you to there, or was that scene in your mind at some point? And what does the scene mean to you?”

I just kept thinking about this image of them jumping in that river. I don’t know if I knew that would be the ending, but I knew there was something about that I just loved.

The Mothers is a book that has a pretty down ending, and I wanted to do something different. I don’t know that I would call this a happy ending. I don’t think people would, but to me it’s a hopeful ending. I think ending with this next generation — and not only this next generation but [also] Jude and Reese, who are two characters who have experienced so much trauma and so much shame and so much violence in their lives, particularly surrounding their bodies. Them having this moment of bodily liberation, this baptismal moment of carefree joy together ... to me, that was something that felt like this was where I wanted to end.

I didn’t want to land on Stella or Desiree in that way. I wanted to think about what the future looks like for this family. And it’s not, “We all came back together and we’re all going to have Thanksgiving together.” That never seemed realistic to me.

But thinking about what the next generation looks like and how people are able to heal from the pain that they’ve experienced, to me there was something hopeful in that. And I wanted to challenge myself to land somewhere hopeful. I think that’s a lot harder than something that’s tragic. I think tragedy can be a lot easier to conjure than joy or hope.