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Get Lit! celebrates 20 years with Brit Bennett, Anne Lamott, local talent

UPDATED: Mon., April 23, 2018

Brit Bennett, author of “The Mothers,” will be at the Bing Crosby Theater on Friday with poet Maggie Smith for Get Lit’s “Poetry and Prose.” (Emma Trim)
Brit Bennett, author of “The Mothers,” will be at the Bing Crosby Theater on Friday with poet Maggie Smith for Get Lit’s “Poetry and Prose.” (Emma Trim)

In 1998, the Get Lit! Festival was merely a daylong event filled with literary readings.

Over the past 20 years, as the literary community in Spokane has grown, so too has the festival, which now features about 80 writers from near and far.

The local literary community has grown so big though that Get Lit! Director Kate Peterson said the festival could easily be a Spokane-specific event, or casting the net a little wider, a regional festival.

“Because we have such a huge pool of really, really wonderful writers to choose from in Spokane, it becomes necessary for us to choose some of our headlining authors from outside just to create that balance,” she said.

Writers like Jess Walter, Sharma Shields and Shawn Vestal, plus programs like Eastern Washington University’s MFA program and visiting writer series at local colleges and universities, Peterson said, have sustained and celebrated the vibrant literary community in Spokane, nearly ensuring at least another 20 years of Get Lit!

“There’s clearly a need and a want for literary events in Spokane,” she said.

Brit Bennett

Sometimes even authors are wary of the characters they’ve created.

When Nadia Turner first emerged, author Brit Bennett felt like she was the kind of girl she wouldn’t want to be friends with.

At the time, Turner was merely a background character in what would eventually become Bennett’s debut novel “The Mothers.”

Like she does in “The Mothers,” this version of the somewhat rebellious and very grief-stricken Turner had an “explosive secret” that would eventually come to light, but she was not the main focus of the story.

It wasn’t until a writing teacher questioned Bennett’s feelings toward Turner that she became more interested in the character.

“When I started to interrogate why I had resistance towards her, that’s when I became actually really interested in her and that’s when she emerged into the forefront of the novel,” Bennett said.

Readers meet Turner just after her mother’s suicide and just as she begins to date Luke Sheppard, a former high school football standout who is the son of the town’s pastor.

One thing leads to another, and the young couple finds themselves dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, which Turner chooses to terminate.

It’s a straightforward solution, but the events of the summer follow Turner, Sheppard and Turner’s best friend Aubrey Evans for years.

The summer love, pregnancy and abortion all take place in the first chapters of the New York Times best-seller “The Mothers,” which brings Bennett to the Bing Crosby Theater on Friday and Montvale Event Center on Saturday.

Peterson became aware of Bennett after seeing “The Mothers’ ” vibrant cover art all over social media.

She read Bennett’s viral essay, “I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People,” in Jezebel then picked up a copy of “The Mothers.”

“I thought it would resonate with people and she’s a really great writer,” Peterson said. “I don’t want to say it was an easy read, but it was a quick read. It was an enjoyable read so I thought it would be really great for Spokane.”

Bennett chose to start the novel with a distinct ending, the abortion, rather than with a pregnancy, which better lends itself to a narrative, because she was more interested in what would come after an event like that.

“I’m always interested in the aftermath of things,” she said. “I’m like ‘What comes next?’ And there wasn’t a natural ‘What comes next?’ to that question.”

The same is true, Bennett said, of Turner’s mother’s suicide.

“It doesn’t lend itself to an obvious plot but I think that was what really challenged me…,” she said. “That was part of what really hooked me into writing this book for so long and made me want to try to figure that out.”

Bennett began writing “The Mothers” when she was 17, the same age as Turner in the beginning of the book.

She continued working on the book while studying English at Stanford University and finished it while earning her MFA at the University of Michigan.

Bennett originally thought the book would take place during the summer of Turner’s abortion, but, as she grew older, from high school to college to life as a twentysomething, Bennett became interested in what that same path would be like for Turner, Sheppard and Evans.

“Those first few years following college in your mid- to late-20s when you’re making choices and your friends are making different choices and you’re wondering what’s your relationship to the people you grew up with and your family and what do you want for your future, all those questions,” she said.

Because she was, in her words, writing a coming-of-age story as she was coming of age, Bennett felt like she experienced life as several different people in the time it took her to complete “The Mothers.”

Though she might not go through another coming-of-age period as dramatic as that of high school to post-graduate life, Bennett thinks the same thing is happening as she works on her upcoming novel and will continue to happen with future projects.

“We’re all so many different people as we move through the world and as we grow older and as we live,” she said. “That’s the fun part about looking back at art but also that can be a challenge when you’re trying to shape it into something really legible for somebody else, how to make sense of all these fragmented parts of yourself that are in competition with one another.”

“The Mothers,” too, went through quite the transformation in the seven or so years it took Bennett to write the book.

Characters and plot lines got cut, while the titular group of mothers, older women from the local church, only found their way onto the page toward the end of the writing process.

The story of Turner, Sheppard, Evans and the mothers will change even more as Bennett works on a screenplay for the film adaptation of “The Mothers,” which actress Kerry Washington (“Scandal”) has signed on to produce.

Although she’s more familiar with the characters and the story than anyone, Bennett called writing the screenplay the hardest writing project she’s ever undertaken.

“It really is different having to teach yourself how to think in a different narrative language,” she said. “It’s even affected the way that I watch TV now and when I watch films, realizing how economical they have to be with scenes. In a novel you have time and space but in a film you don’t.”

While she works on the screenplay, Bennett is also finishing the follow-up to “The Mothers,” an expansive multi-generational story of a family that gets separated.

The process of writing her second book wasn’t easier by any means, but Bennett realized that she is now quicker to apply writing techniques, like cutting extraneous characters and plot lines, it took her years to learn while writing “The Mothers.”

Knowing that people are likely to read this book, something she didn’t anticipate with “The Mothers,” and wanting to do something different has also made the process of writing her second novel challenging.

But she’s cautiously optimistic that her efforts to embrace the opportunity to explore different questions and branch out in new directions will work out.

“That has been liberating and enjoyable but also can put some pressure on you,” she said. “It’s been an experience. Hopefully it will be coming together soon.”

Other Get Lit! highlights:

Anne Lamott: The author of novels like “Hard Laughter” and “Rosie,” works of non-fiction like “Operating Instructions,” a writing guide, “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life,” and several collections of essays will read from her latest book “Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy.” She will also participate in an audience Q&A and sign books. (Saturday, the Bing Crosby Theater, 7 p.m., SOLD OUT)

“I thought she’d be a really great person to celebrate the 20th anniversary because she’s such a legend in the writing world and then she also has a lot of reach with people who maybe aren’t writers but they love to read,” Peterson said.

Hanif Abdurraqib: Fest goers have three chances to see poet (“The Crown Ain’t Worth Much”), writer (“They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us”) and culture critic (Pitchfork, the New Yorker) Abdurraqib. He’s part of the ‘90s-themed reading “Too Legit to Quit: Celebrating 20 Years of Get Lit,” Monday at the downtown branch of the Spokane Public Library; a writing workshop Tuesday at Auntie’s Bookstore; and Broken Mic on Wednesday at Neato Burrito.

Pie and Whiskey: The Get Lit! favorite, for those 21 and older, will feature readings about pie and whiskey from Adriana Janovich, Luke Baumgarten, Kate Lebo, Sam Ligon, Chelsea Martin, Travis Naught, Jess Walter and more. $5 at the door, includes a slice of homemade pie and a shot of Dry Fly whiskey. Thursday at the Washington Co. Cracker Building.

Comic Creations and Comics in the Inland Northwest: Two opportunities to learn about the art of comics. Comic Creations (Wednesday, The Bartlett) features local comic creators Derrick Freeland, Chelsea Martin, Simeon Mills and Tiffany Patterson, who will all present their original work and share a set of Get Lit-exclusive postcards, which will be on sale for $5.

Mills and Patterson will be joined by Laura O’Brien and Daniel Scully for the panel discussion Comics in the Inland Northwest (Saturday, Montvale Event Center), moderated by Freeland. Conversation topics will include their creative processes, the Spokane comic scene and what comic enthusiasts can do to become more involved.

Get Lit! at the Montvale: One day, three floors full of literary events, including readings, poetry slams, book signings, craft classes, panel discussions, hands-on activities for all ages, interactive poetry from the Portal Collective and much more.

Limited edition posters from artist Chris Bovey, who also created the Get Lit! logo, T-shirts, stickers, tote bags and the festival’s 20th anniversary will also be on sale, as will a Get Lit!-exclusive blend of coffee from DOMA Coffee and pint glasses to celebrate the special beer River City Brewing created for Get Lit.

“Since we’re a nonprofit within Eastern Washington University, we raise funds via grants and fundraisers and sponsorship and donations,” Peterson said. “This year to celebrate the anniversary, we did create a lot of merchandise to try to raise money.”

A Reading at the Park with Nathaniel Tarn and Josh MacIvor-Andersen: Poet/essayist/anthropologist/translator Tarn (“Views from the Weaving Mountain” and “The Embattled Lyric”) and MacIvor-Andersen, author of “On Heights and Hunger” and editor of “Rooted, The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction,” are featured in what Petersen believes is Get Lit!’s first reading at Manito Park. In the event of severe weather, the event will be moved to Auntie’s Bookstore. (April 29, Manito Park, north shelter)

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