Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

26-year-old Brit Bennett’s sparkling debut novel, The Mothers, came of age over eight years and several drafts. She began penning the tale of youthful indiscretions and betrayals while just a teen. Then she carried it with her through college at Stanford and to MFA and postgraduate fellowship programs at the University of Michigan, where she torched and remade the story repeatedly.

The pull of the characters and drama at Upper Room Chapel, a black church in a California beach town, kept her honing the novel despite the gap between her literary ambitions and nascent writing skills. “I felt a type of loyalty to these characters because I had grown up alongside them,” she says. “It’s this crazy leap of faith that someday this book that was so bad for so long would get better. I’m glad I stuck with it and believed there was a good story there somewhere. I just had to learn how to develop the skills in order to tell it.”

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