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Brittany Ackerman’s The Brittanys is a perfectly voiced coming-of-age story that captures what it’s like to be a teenage girl. Transporting us back to 2004, Ackerman’s debut novel is bursting with bittersweet nostalgia. It masterfully encapsulates a time and place in Boca Raton, Florida, and highlights the growing pains of adolescence, a time full of humor and hardships.
Brittany was kind enough to answer a few of our questions about this relatable and engrossing book. Read on to learn more!
Reading Group Center: You share the same first name with the narrator, and you also grew up in Boca Raton. How much did you pull from your own life as inspiration for the novel?
Brittany Ackerman: I really did have five close friends all named Brittany growing up, and we really did form a group that traversed the halls in middle school and high school in a pack. But where fact meets fiction is that none of the plot in the book, the action of the story, ever happened. Except for the part where my best friend and I really did pierce our ears together during a hurricane when we were bored, but that’s it!
I was inspired by Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville, where the narrator is unnamed, but intuitively known as Jo Ann. The book follows a year in the life of a fourteen-year-old girl in the 70s who is a late bloomer, a bookworm, and hilarious. She gets by with the help of her best friend who is equally, if not more, self-conscious, and the two experience the ups and downs of girlhood in one of my favorite, formative books. I wanted to write my own version of a coming-of-age story, an attempt to capture the mood of the time in reenvisioning my own freshman year experience. I see the Brittany who narrates the novel as more of a cartoon character version of myself, a persona, the version of Brittany I wish I could have been. She’s still flawed and insecure, but I’m hoping she can be embraced as a voice from that time.
RGC: The book explores themes of female friendship and how friendships can evolve over time. What drew you to this theme, and what do you hope readers take away from Brittany and Jensen’s relationship?
BA: My mom always told me growing up that you have friends for a season, for a reason, or for a lifetime. I think when we’re teenagers, everything feels so big, all-encompassing, and we believe the people who are in our lives at the current moment will be there forever. But then you grow up and grow apart, and what’s more important that staying “best friends forever” is to take pieces of those people with you and carry them in your heart. The five Brittanys of the novel all embody different aspects of myself that I wish to express, each one a symbol: humor, innocence, sociable, outspoken, clever, book smart, charming, etc.
Regarding the relationship between the narrator and Jensen, I want readers to understand that even though life can complicate a seemingly unbreakable bond, the love one feels for another person can still live on. Female friendships are so complex due to feelings of competition, cattiness, even because of hormones. But I am drawn to writing about the relationship between girls, between women, because it’s something I still struggle with. Especially as a writer, I often feel lonely in the literary world, and then when I meet or come across another writer whose work I admire, I want to latch onto them and take them to lunch and talk to them all the time. It’s almost like I’m trying to re-create the endless loop that friendship feels like when we’re younger, weekdays bleeding into weekends, time judged not by days of the week, but by levels of closeness with a friend.
RGC: We love how well you captured the early 2000s! Did you revisit any pop culture references from that time period for inspiration as you were writing? If so, what?
BA: I was getting my hair done in a salon in 2003 when a TV screen above the washing station played Madonna kissing Britney and Christina at the VMAs. I remember thinking, truly, that the world was going to end in the year 2000 with the Y2K bug. I begged for an iPod; I had an embarrassing MySpace profile; I intensely decorated my AIM away message; I wore Juicy sweat suits. I lived it. I think it’s more apt to say that these references revisited me and wouldn’t leave me alone. My experience growing up in the early aughts heavily influenced the writing and the way I wanted to tell the story. With the boom in technology rapidly approaching, I wanted to capture a time when the Internet didn’t permeate every aspect of life completely. But where we see in present day a split between someone’s IRL personality versus their social media persona, there was still a divide back in the 2000s between what one might say to a crush in person versus what one would feel comfortable and free to say online on Instant Messenger or to post on someone’s “wall.”
I think one of the biggest influences for me personally though was the female archetype in movies in the early 2000s. Most films circulated around the premise that a girl or woman would have to change their appearance, personality, or pretend in some way in order to get to a desired goal. Think Mulan at the tail end of the 90s chopping off her hair and dressing in warrior’s armor as Christina Aguilera sang about her “Reflection,” wondering when it would mirror who she was inside. Think Legally Blonde in 2001, Elle Woods maneuvering her way into law school so she can get back at an ex. Think Mean Girls in 2004, Cady’s ascension to popularity in order to infiltrate The Plastics. These movies all encouraged “the makeover,” a big secret, a big reveal, and I definitely feel that impacted me as a girl, the reinforcement to hide who I was, to paint a new version of myself to the world so I could be accepted and valued.
RGC: The story takes place over Brittany’s freshman year of high school. What do you think is so transformative about this age and time in a young woman’s life?
BA: Freshman year is often a year of firsts; first year of high school, first time getting behind the wheel of a car, first period, first crush, first date, etc. All these things happening in the span of one year can be beyond overwhelming, and it can feel like an avalanche of emotions and experiences. I think that’s why we need our friends. We need others to support and listen and share, and we need to feel like we have a group, a community, so we know we’re not alone.
I remember reading Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging: Confessions of Georgia Nicolson by Louise Rennison my freshman year of high school. I recall laughing out loud during the scene when the narrator, unhappy with how she looks, shaves off her eyebrows. I once had a boy at school who told me I had sideburns as he pointed to the wisps of hair that were visible when I had my hair up in a ponytail. I went home that night and shaved off the sides of my face all the way up to my ears. At school the next day, I tapped the boy on the shoulder and said, “Look! I don’t have sideburns,” to which he laughed at me and said, “Oh my God you shaved your face!” and I ran away crying. Truly, a difficult time to exist.
RGC: The world looks very different for teens today than it did in the early 2000s, as smart phones and social media have infiltrated teen life. Have you imagined how the book would be different if it were set in the present day? How would it be the same?
BA: The Internet wasn’t as much of an escape as it is today. It was more of a place to express and embrace a different version of yourself; to become bolder with a crush on AIM or to enter themed chat rooms where one could inquire and learn. Whereas now, teens and adults alike can get lost in the infinite doom scroll and waste away hours, days. The web used to be a place you had to go to, the painful AOL buffering login noise that took minutes to just sign in. Remember that sometimes, if the connection was bad, we weren’t allowed in at all. Now the Internet s everywhere. It’s using our faces for recognition, or eyes to see where we hold time on the screen. We have to physically hold the phone to our faces instead of creeping into the computer room late at night or scheduling our turn to go online.
I was very moved by Bo Burnham’s film Eighth Grade that came out in 2018. I saw it in theater multiple times, and I use it in my classroom to talk about social anxiety and the Internet with my Applied Logic and Critical Thinking class. I think if The Brittanys were set in present day, the book would be something closer to that film, where the narrator is still plagued with a generalized anxiety about growing up and becoming a woman, but also encompassing the pull of the Internet and social media and the expectation of creating a name or brand for oneself online. In the early aughts, we were always waiting for someone to enter the chat, for someone to message us back, for someone to come meet us halfway so we could engage. Now we’re out there all the time.
RGC: Imagine you’re part of a book club discussing The Brittanys. What is a topic or question you would like to pose to the group?
BA: Years ago, when parts of this book were being critiqued in a workshop, the question of consequence came up. I’d love to pose the question of how consequence, or rather lack thereof, reads to people. If these girls aren’t getting thoroughly punished by their parents for riding around in golf carts, piercing their own ears, for lying to get out of PE, what then is the consequence of being a girl, what is the price they pay for their actions? Is it something that they deal with internally? Is the anxiety the narrator faces a sort of punishment, self-inflicted, yet without choice?
It’s also heavily my intention that this book will conjure up one’s own adolescent experience, and I’d love for readers to wax nostalgic about their most awkward moments, triumphant ones, their high school days. It would also be interesting to hear groups chat about how they might tell their stories, if they feel the fiction of a novel would be freeing or if they would prefer to essay-it-out. I’d personally love to read a poetry book about teenhood.
RGC: What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received? How about reading advice?
BA: When I was writing my first book, The Perpetual Motion Machine, my thesis chair, Dr. Becka McKay, urged me to write through the difficult experiences and not around them. Because a lot of the issues in the memoir were either still happening, still unresolved, or too fresh for comfort, it was extremely hard for me to face them on the page and get my hands dirty. But with Becka’s advice and support, I was able to write my way through each moment and find compassion for myself on the other side.
As far as reading advice, I think for so long I tried to read what was popular or books that other people raved about online, but in the end, there were so many books I just didn’t get or weren’t for me. I believe every book has an energy, a feeling, and even going to the bookstore and skimming a few pages of something that catches my eye, I can truly feel the voice and intention of what’s inside. I trust anything my writing workshop recommends to me because they know my work, and a few close friends can almost always hit the nail on the head with my taste, but otherwise, I simply recommend that you read the things you want to read and not feel pressure to pick up a book because it’s on a list or you can’t stop hearing about it on Instagram. Pick up a book that you want to take home with you and bring into your world. That’s a very intimate thing, a very special thing.