Author Q&A: Brittany Means

Hell if We Don’t Change Our Ways, by Brittany Means is a superbly told memoir about Mean’s harrowing childhood where she spent time living in a car, homeless, with her mother or with various family members including her fervently Pentecostal grandparents. Means’ childhood was traumatic and colourful. This is a story about a mother-daughter relationship, family trauma, breaking cycles, and forgiveness. 

Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

I think I always knew I wanted to write. My mom wrote poetry, my grandma wrote songs and stories, and everyone in my family loved recounting the events of their life in great detail. So I grew up with the tendency to be a storyteller.

Can you tell us about the structure of your memoir, in particular your calming landing pads for the reader?

Because there is so much uncomfortable, heavy subject matter, I wanted to give people glimpses into my current life and reflections to give them short breaks and also to let them know that we’re in the present together. We made it out, however difficult the processing may still be. I also wanted to be sure that it wasn’t just a narrative for people to get lost in. I wanted readers to stop and think about the implications of my story’s themes in their own lives and the lives of people around them.

Did you have mentors and, if so, how important were they in your becoming a writer?

Absolutely. In high school, I took a creative writing class with Kenneth Barrett. He was the first person to take me aside and tell me that I was a talented writer. It honestly changed my life. He gave me books to read and always had thoughtful feedback for me about my work. Then, in college, I took a creative nonfiction class with Jill Christman. She also told me that I was a writer and taught me so much about essays and taking myself seriously. Cathy Day, also at Ball State, is also someone I credit with helping me find my footing as a writer and learn how to use my skills out in the world. In grad school, I took my first workshop with Kiese Laymon. That class was the first place where I tried writing about some of the events in my life that I hadn’t been able to talk about before, and I don’t think I would have felt comfortable doing that if he hadn’t created a classroom environment where I felt both safe and challenged to take risks. Inara Verzemnieks is another professor I had at Iowa and her guidance helped me find my way through some really difficult obstacles in my writing and thinking. This is already so long, but I’m extremely grateful to everyone who helped me get to where I am and actually believe that I was allowed and supposed to be here.

What was the most challenging part of the book to write? And what was the easiest?

I don’t know if I can say it was the most challenging, but a part that I struggled with significantly was writing about being in an abusive relationship. In drafting, I sometimes ended up reporting the facts of that time without injecting much feeling or commentary. I think I just wanted to be done with it, but it was also hard to get into that mindset because it was a time in my life when I felt very far away from myself. I shut down from trying to live for someone else. I felt a lot of shame writing that section. My brain and my body balked every time I made myself go back. It took a lot of processing in therapy to get through that. The easiest part of the book was the Book of Mark. The events of that section were so loud in my mind that I just needed to get them out. Once I started, it all flowed easily.

Has anyone in your family read the book, and if so, what have they said?

The first family member to read the book was my brother Ben. He read pretty much every draft and helped me piece a lot of memories together as I edited. He’s probably my number one fan girl. Shirley, who I consider family, has read drafts and the final book and listened to the audiobook, and they’ve been so supportive and happy for me that it’s allowed me to be happier for myself. My mom has read the book and her main takeaway is that she hopes it helps other abuse survivors. Other family members have read it and had mixed reactions. Some humor, anger, grief. I don’t know if everyone feels entirely at peace with it right now, but we all love each other.

In addition to being a prose writer, you’re also a poet, which very much comes through in your memoir. Which is your first love? Why?

Poetry is definitely my first love. My mom wrote poetry and read it to me before I was even able to read. I loved those times because it was clear that she was sharing something heartfelt just with me. I could tell even then how important it was for her to be able to put her feelings and experiences into words. I loved the rhymes and her bubbly, loopy cursive. In elementary school, when we started learning rhymes, I wrote all kinds of little poems. It felt good to play in language. It was something that could be all yours, but you could also share it with other people and maybe say things you couldn’t otherwise say. As I’ve gotten older, poetry has been a little home for me. I fell in love with Jeff in part because of his incredible poetry—we actually met in poetry class in college. Honestly, I don’t know if I’m a good poet, whatever that means, but I love writing and reading it. Whenever I want to get into the writing headspace, I open a book of good poetry and let it take me there.

What are you working on now? 

Currently, I’m working on a PowerPoint about the cenobites from the Hellraiser series for a PowerPoint party. I’m also working on my second book, which is more about health and religion. And of course, loosely, my friend Rachel and I are working on a TV show about a vampire therapist.

If you could have dinner with three writers, who would they be?

I would pick writers I know because the idea of getting dinner with someone I don’t know but deeply admire has caused me incredible stress, even as a simple hypothetical. So, my dear friend TM Tucker, who is a brilliant essayist and always a delight to talk to because they have encyclopedic knowledge of many things. Maybe Hanif Abdurraqib, who taught at Iowa for a semester that was cut short by the plague, but whose work and general presence I cherish. And John Steinbeck because I think I could fix him.

What books are you excited to read?

I’m extremely excited to read three particular books that are coming out in the near future. There’s Be Not Afraid of My Body by Darius Stewart, which is a lyrical memoir about Darius’s experiences of growing up Black and gay, of yearning for intimacy, and of struggling with addiction and an HIV diagnosis. There’s América del Norte by Nicolás Medina Mora, which is a novel about a young man from an elite Mexican family who moves between the United States and Mexico and grapples with the themes of whiteness, power, immigration, and the history of Mexican literature. And there’s Sex and the Symphony by Julia Conrad, which is a nonfiction book about the hidden history of women in classical music, including her great-grandmother whose career as a classical pianist was cut short by marriage and motherhood. I read early drafts of each of these books at Iowa and I know they’re going to be amazing.

Tell us about your chickens? How many do you have, what are their names and why chickens?

Yes! I always love talking about my chickens. I have five of them. Four silkies (the fluffy ones) and an orpington (the golden retriever of chickens). Their names are Johenn Sebastian Bawk, Ludwing van Beakthoven, Brittany Jr., Henjamin Flight (named after my brother, Benjamin White), and Stephen Wing the rooster. Werner Herzog famously said, “Look into the eyes of a chicken and you will see real stupidity. It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity. They are the most horrifying, cannibalistic, and nightmarish creatures in the world.” Mr. Herzog, if you’re reading this, respectfully, meet me by the flagpole after school. 

Yes, chickens are easily confounded by simple obstacles, have poor survival instincts, and yes, they admittedly will have a little or perhaps even a fatal nibble of each other when they’re in inhumane conditions. Still, I regularly look into their little eyes, and I don’t see an absence of thought or feeling. I see contemplation, however simple. I see trepidation and excitement and contentment. I watch them groom each other and share patches of sunshine. I hear how they all join in an egg song when one chicken lays, as if they’re cheering her on or sharing her pain. And at night, when I sit with them, I feel love in the way they crowd together on the perch bar to get close to me. How they stretch out at uncomfortable-looking angles to lay a head or wing on my leg. How they trill and droop their heads while I sing Simon & Garfunkel to them. Their intelligence looks almost nothing like ours, but it’s profound by its own rights.

Thank you so much for writing this book and for agreeing to answer all my questions.

Thank you for sharing your time with me!

– Interview by Elena Bowes

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