Interview: Brittany Ackerman
I found Brittany Ackerman’s piece “Mia’s Birthday” in Forever Magazine in the summer of 2021, in the midst of an intolerably painful breakup for which I was wholly to blame. Asked to write an introduction for our conversation, I scanned the piece for the line that so impacted me as to take a deep dive into her oeuvre. My notebook from that summer pinpoints the quote: “How can you tell a friend that you love them, but that you are not capable of being what they want you to be? Can you love them anyway and can that love ever be enough?” Brittany’s work became a lifeline to me in that period of terrific loneliness because she so incisively describes the difficult moments few of us are brave enough to say aloud, let alone confront on the page.
“When I write about my experiences, it’s cathartic, I relive it and I can come to terms with my choices and with things that other people have said,” she writes in one of her Substack posts. Brittany often teaches virtual and in-person workshops on the portrait and snapshot essay to invite others to explore their own interiority in the same way. I found Brittany’s writing at a time when I was petrified at the thought of confronting some painful truths in my life, at a time when writing, the act of turning inward, felt impossible. Still, I recognized myself and my native South Florida in her work: humid heartbreak, daily downpours, and palm tree-littered suburbs. I knew I had to reach out to Brittany because in some ways, we’d led parallel lives, and I was desperately looking for someone to tell me what to do next. She gave me an answer I already knew: write.
Charlotte Foreman: The experience of the protagonist in your novel The Brittanys is informed by your own memories of growing up in South Florida. What was it like to capture Florida in writing, beyond the “Florida Man” trope everyone perceives the state to be colored by?
Brittany Ackerman: It does make for such great fodder for writing because of how different it is down there, hanging off the US. There are things, like Spring Breakers, or the writing of Lauren Groff or Sarah Gerard, that do such a good job of capturing the essence of how surreal and cinematic it is, but in a horrible way. People from Florida or people who have spent time there either get what you’re talking about right away or they just think that it’s a laughable, surreal kind of place. I remember in college, going home for the holidays, I would be in Indiana where it was snowing and it felt very Christmassy and festive, and then I’d go home to Florida where everyone’s like, “Are you going to the MatzohBall?” I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that, but it’s this big, annual party for all the Jews in Miami, at a nightclub called LIV. No, I never went to the MatzohBall. But that’s what people were doing in Florida, or going to see Mall Santa, where everyone’s in shorts and T-shirts.
What I tried to paint as best I could in The Brittanys is where I grew up, in Boca Raton. The scenery and the malls and, still the palm trees, but a very different feeling than growing up in Miami or Central or Northern Florida. You get a completely different experience depending on where you are. I think The Florida Project did a really good job of portraying how big everything is and feels in Orlando. When my best friend and I were growing up, we used to joke that everything in Orlando looks like what it is. Like, there will be a giant ice cream cone, which is where you can get ice cream, or a giant golf ball, and that’s where you go play golf. When I was little, driving to Orlando when we’d go to Disney World, we’d go from Boca to West Palm, then there’s nothing for a while. Then you get to Fort Drum, and there are pamphlets for alligator encounters and you eat your slice of Sbarro pizza and keep heading up north, and then you reach Orlando. I haven’t been back to Orlando in a few years, but I know it’s changed a lot. The last few times that I went, it was definitely getting built up and there’s less and less of that nothingness and no-man’s-land and more and more hotels and convention centers.
CF: Do you ever have a hard time accessing places from memory and staying true to them on paper?
BA: I’m a huge fan of implementing my own research into that. I’m writing something now that takes place in Los Angeles, and I looked up my old apartment on Zillow and did the virtual 3-D tour of the unit that I used to live in ten years ago—it’s haunting. Not physically going to that place, but emotionally going there. I had to do that with The Brittanys too. Many scenes take place in the mall, but a lot of the stuff in the food court has changed since I grew up there, so I googled: what restaurant was here before this restaurant? Sometimes you have to go into a Reddit hole to find what exact Chinese food place was in the food court and look at their menu on some abandoned Yelp page. But that stuff will bring me back when I can actually see the images of it. But, and I’ve talked about this in other interviews, first and foremost, I’m trying to stay true to the feeling of it. If I can’t find the exact name of the fast-food Chinese place, I can make one up, but I want to at least look at where it was in the mall, at what walking path I used to do. Where did I park? Where did my mom drop me off? I try to be as true as I can. Even though it’s fiction at the end of the day.
I think it’s hard for me to actually go and visit Florida because a lot of my time there, especially as a young adult, was really tumultuous and tinged with a lot of sad memories and bad times that my family and I had, and I don’t want to access that. It’s hard for me to get into writer mode and take notes, you know? An example is I love Atlantic Avenue and Delray Beach. I grew up walking those streets. I can lay out where everything is for you, but it’s really depressing. I brought my husband there a few years ago and I had a physical reaction to it. I had to lie down and take a nap after. There were so many heartbreaks on that street, so many firsts.
CF: Do you ever struggle with confronting those kinds of experiences on paper, and finding the right way to portray the people involved in them?
BA: The biggest question I always hear is: “Whose story is it to tell?” I guess I’m old-school in that I think it’s the writer’s story to tell, and the answer to the question of “Does this person want me to write about them?” is: “No!” Nobody wants you to write about them unless they’re a sociopath, or a narcissist, and they secretly get off on being written about. I have weird ex-boyfriends who will email me sometimes and be like, “When are you going to write about me again?” Those people want to be written about. I’m like, “I’m married now, goodbye!” It goes into my junk folder, but I see it. Those are the people who want you to write about them, but everyone else would love to just be left alone. But it’s not their story to tell, it’s your story to tell.
My thesis chair would begin to notice my struggle when I was writing The Perpetual Motion Machine. You’re writing this essay about your brother, but you’re writing around the hard things. You need to write through them. And it was difficult, because the book wasn’t going to have a happy ending of “And now we’re all sitting in a circle and singing Hanukkah songs.” It was going to be open-ended—that’s the life of an addict and of someone who has mental hindrances, it’s a lifelong thing, and we’re going to be dealing with it forever. But I had the support and guidance of my thesis chair and my peers in graduate school to help me feel confident writing those essays. It’s not so much about the people that you’re writing about or the situations you’re writing about, it’s about the universal connectivity of it. When I read an essay, I don’t think, “Wow, what a shocking story,” I think, “My relative is like that, or I have a similar family situation,” and it just makes me feel less alone. It empowers me to tell my stories. But we get a pretty raw deal as writers; the actual sitting down, getting through that mental block of not wanting to conjure up difficult things—there’s very little fun involved. I get a lot of joy out of finishing things, but it’s hard. I’m crying when I write sometimes, or crying so hard that I laugh. I’m a huge fan of treats and rewards and bribing myself. Whatever can get you to that point of knowing that it might help somebody or make someone feel less alone.
CF: What keeps you coming to the page?
BA: Right after our wedding, we went to Italy for our honeymoon and I wasn’t teaching during that time, so I didn’t have any work to do. I was still waiting to hear back about The Brittanys, which was out on submission. I was like, “This is kind of nice to wake up and eat a croissant and then have an espresso and walk around and have no writing time.” It was a very leisurely lifestyle. Then I got an email from my agent that said, “Hey, we’ve got some interest in the book.” I was immediately pulled back into the literary hustle and wanted to get back to do the edits. No part of me was like, “I don’t know if I’m interested in that.” A hundred percent of me said, “Nope, screw the leisurely lifestyle, I want to get back to writing.” So yeah, I’ve tried to avoid it. I tried to imagine a life where I wasn’t obsessed with all of this stuff, but I think no matter how hard I try, my impulse is always going to be to write.
CF: How did you decide to pursue writing and complete an MFA?
BA: After college, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, I just kind of knew I wanted to try living in LA. So I moved out there in 2011, and I was doing PR. It was the only job I could find that had something to do with writing and my English major, but it became clear very quickly that it was not going to be my career path. I eventually moved on to advertising. It was my Mad Men moment. That didn’t work out either. I eventually moved back to South Florida a year later, very heartbroken from a relationship and very lost, and I just didn’t know what to do. I ended up working at a restaurant because I was living at home and my family was like, “You need to get a job and move out and become a person, what are you doing?” So I was working at this restaurant right across the street from Florida Atlantic University. One of the other servers there, who I’m still friends with, was so excited one day because he was just accepted into the creative writing MFA program. I was so enamored by that. I was like, “I wish I could do that.” And he was like, “Why not? Just apply.” I think I took another few months and I was like, “I’m not going to get in.” But I was writing these little snippets about my brother at the time and I ended up applying and I got in.
Everyone comes into an MFA program for different reasons. This route was really one of pure gratitude because I really didn’t think that I would ever actually make it as a writer. I went to every reading, I took every opportunity there was. I took it really seriously. Maybe even too seriously. I was like, “I’m going to come out of here with a book and I’m going to come out of here ready to submit that book and get it out in the world.” I really came into the program just so grateful and ready to work, because I didn’t think that it would ever be possible for me. What initially drew me to writing, I don’t know, I think some of this stuff, we’re born with it. It’s a gift that you can choose to harness and elevate it, or you can suppress it. I think a lot of people will end up suppressing it, unfortunately. I’m not saying everyone has to go to an MFA program to become a writer. But I think if that fire is somewhere inside you, you should see where it goes.
CF: Do you struggle with writer’s block at all?
BA: Not really, honestly. For the most part, it’s just sitting down, putting my phone in the other room, and just getting to work. Jo Ann Beard has a really great interview with Chelsea Hodson in BOMB Magazine from this past year where she says, even if I don’t get any writing done, I’ve spent really good time with myself. I’ve gotten to know myself. So much of writing, and the ideas about writing, are in the sphere of TikTok and Instagram and social media and Twitter, and they are everyone else’s ideas and everyone else’s hot takes, and you have to get away from that. I mean, Jo Ann Beard does it for eight hours a day, it’s pretty wild, but she’s also living in Upstate New York and she’s lucky enough to be at that point in her career. Someday, maybe that’ll be me. I’ve only got thirty minutes, so I gotta make the best of it. But even if I have a bad writing day, at least I’ve spent that time with myself, and I’ve gotten to know myself a little better.
CF: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
BA: When I started working on The Brittanys (originally titled Boca Bitches), I’d never written a novel. I went to the Mont Blanc Workshop in Chamonix, France, back in 2016, and Alan Heathcock was my workshop leader. I brought Boca Bitches, which started out as a short story collection. I had about five of the stories and it was thirty pages, maybe less than that. Alan was like, “This needs to be a novel.” And so I got home and was too embarrassed at the workshop to actually ask how to write a novel. So I emailed him for some advice, and he said,
I think I’ve made it through the gauntlet of rejection slash psychological trauma because of the work itself. This will maybe sound cliché, but it’s true. When I dwell on the past, I get anxious and sad and start to worry. When I think of the future, even fondly daydreaming of where I want to go with my work career life, I ultimately get anxious and sad and start to worry. The only thing that keeps me from getting anxious is doing work, not thinking about doing the work, because that also makes me anxious too, but doing the work. I put my time in every day and I move forward, that’s all I require. Be patient, be persistent, do the work, care deeply and you’ll get anywhere you want to go.
At the time reading that, part of me was like, “I still don’t know if it’s going to happen for me.” But now that I’ve lived to see that all come true, it is true. I truly do believe that, be persistent, be patient, do the work and it’ll happen. It’s really just about how bad you want it, but also, how much you can stay focused and hustling and stay in the game and just keep going with it and not give up. That was definitely the best writing advice I have ever received.
BRITTANY ACKERMAN is a writer from Riverdale, New York. She earned her BA in English from Indiana University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida Atlantic University. She has led workshops for UCLA’s Extension, The Porch, Catapult, HerStry, Write or Die Tribe, and Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She currently teaches writing at Vanderbilt University in the English Department. She is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and her work has been featured in Electric Literature, Jewish Book Council, Literary Hub, The Los Angeles Review, No Tokens, Joyland, and more. Her first collection of essays entitled The Perpetual Motion Machine was published with Red Hen Press in 2018, and her debut novel The Brittanys is out now with Vintage. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee. Find Brittany on Instagram @suboatmilk.
CHARLOTTE FOREMAN is a writer, creative, and yoga teacher born and raised in the drained swampland of South Florida. She received her BA in Written Arts from Bard College in 2020. She is especially interested in hidden histories, cultural ephemera, and the constantly elapsing space between bodies in relation. Her work has been featured in The American Poetry Review, Islandia Journal, Yew! Magazine, FENCE Digital, Hot Pink Mag, and Laid Off New York. Find Charlotte on Instagram @elf__help.