This Thing of Existence: Talking with Rion Amilcar Scott

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I keep googling Cross River, Maryland, to see if it is real. Of course, it’s not; it’s the city Rion Amilcar Scott created to tell the stories in his two excellent short story collections, Insurrections, his debut collection, and his new collection, The World Doesn’t Require You, out next month. But the way Rion explores the city page after page—the way its legends and culture affect its inhabitants—made me doubt myself.

Cross River was founded in the nineteenth century after the only successful slave revolt in the United States, and Scott’s new collection expands the fictional city in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The city’s myths manifest in the second collection. People are sacrificed to birds large enough to carry them into the sky. A robotic slave desperately tries to escape both his master and other violent insurrectionist robots.

The World Doesn’t Require You is forthcoming from Norton/Liveright on August 20. Scott’s debut story collection, Insurrections (University Press of Kentucky, 2016), was awarded the 2017 PEN/Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and the 2017 Hillsdale Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. His work has been published in journals such as Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, and The Rumpus, among others.

When I had the chance to interview Scott, I was most interested in the transformation between the two books and how he could continue to explore the same world in vibrant new ways.

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The Rumpus: In a lot of the interviews around Insurrections, you talked about a writer’s duty to their obsessions. I was wondering what was obsessing you as you put together this new collection that wasn’t last time or that was different than when you put together Insurrections.

Rion Amilcar Scott: Some of these stories pre-date the stories in Insurrections, or they were written about the same time. They weren’t necessarily revised around the same time. A story like “The Temple of Practical Arts” was a story I just couldn’t make work at the time. I just didn’t have the skills. I think I was obsessed with writing a book that was absolutely true to my vision. Insurrections is true to my vision, but at the same time, a lot of those stories are apprentice stories that I needed to be able to get out to get to that next level.

Rumpus: The fabulism in the new collection is turned up in a major way. What was the intent there?

Scott: I’ve never thought of my work as strict realism. Some of the stories that I had held back from the previous collection didn’t fit there because it has slightly more realist bent. So this is the direction that I wanted to go in. It’s more true to the way I feel or experience the experience of the world. I don’t see magical birds flying in the sky or whatever. But it’s a metaphor of how I’m seeing or feeling this thing of existence.

Rumpus: How are they challenging in a way that’s different than the realistic stories? Is that the kind of thing that you had to grow the skills for?

Scott: Yeah, I would think so. It’s challenging because a lot of these stories supposedly take place in the same world. But I want them to all fit in, so there’s that challenge of making them all fit. There’s a place where ordinary everyday things happen, and also there are these predator birds flying from the sky and snatching people away.

Rumpus: I think the language seems different to me in the new collection, too. A lot of those narrators in Insurrections are older, and they’re looking back on an episode from their teenage years or youth. There’s a distance. To me, the language in the new collection felt more urgent, more immediate. What was the effect you were looking for?

Scott: I hadn’t thought of it in that way. There are fewer nostalgia stories. I think for a lot of Insurrections, I was trying to figure out something. I was using fiction to figure out things that hadn’t made sense to me growing up. For instance, there’s a story called “The Legend of Ezekiel Marcus” in the first book. It’s trying to make sense of the idea that older people have indoctrinated us with toxic masculinity and misogyny. I didn’t necessarily have those ideas in this collection. The narrators are all moving forward.

Rumpus: Well, the teacher in the “The Legend of Ezekiel Marcus” is indoctrinated with the same. You expect him to be the mature one and he’s not.

Scott: Well, someone indoctrinated him. It’s a thing of passing it on, and I think the narrator is trying to figure out how to break that cycle.

Rumpus: One of the themes I thought was new, or amped up, in the second collection is about artistry and ambition and failure. I’m thinking of David Sherman. I’m thinking of Slim. How were you exploring that theme? What were you hoping to find?

Scott: I don’t feel like David Sherman failed.

Rumpus: Not in Slim’s eyes, certainly. He’s a god by Slim’s time. But he’s not failing in that first story?

Scott: I don’t think he failed in that first story. He failed to create this jazz he wanted to, but he found the sound of the town eventually. It’s the origin story of the town’s music, of Riverbeat. I think he was successful, and then he went in a whole new direction and turned his back on everything he knew.

Rumpus: I hadn’t thought about it that way. I guess I see him and Slim beating themselves up in the same way. They are internally frustrated with the work they are trying to create, and I wondered if that mirrored your experience at all.

Scott: A book is always a failure. There’s always this sound in my head that I am trying to get on the page, and it’s always going to fall short. But even in that falling short, David Sherman was able to create something new.

Now Slim—the Slim stories are very old. I just couldn’t pull it off. And then I went back to them and I looked at them and said, Now I’m going to see if I can figure it out, and if I can’t, I’m just going to put these stories to the side forever. I’ve always had these lofty ambitions in terms of my writing, and I’ve always had the fear that my abilities wouldn’t live up to my ambitions. I came to a realization a while ago that that is a good place to be, and it’s good to have ambitions that are greater than your abilities because that is a space to grow. Slim just didn’t have the patience for that, to be in that space.

Rumpus: When did it move from being the stories you were working on to being a collection?

Scott: “David Sherman, the Last Son of God” is very old. That’s the first story I wrote when I graduated from George Mason. And I wanted to do something different than what I had been doing in grad school. I knew it was a good story, but then for a long time, I just couldn’t get it over that hump. I would send it out and editors would be like, “This is good, but there’s something missing.” I met an editor that was able to help figure out what it was missing. I also knew David Sherman was going to start this collection and “Rolling in my Six-Fo’” would be the end. And I thought that would be the last story, but then I started writing this novella, which wasn’t a novella at first. I had been teaching for so long, and I wanted to do something with that. In my composition classes, students wrote three essays and a final exam, so I was going to write a story that was basically that, three essays and a final exam. But once I started, I was like, it needs a syllabus. I created the syllabus. Then I was like, who is this crazy guy that’s creating this syllabus? So I needed to offer some context to figure out who the character was. And so it evolved and I kept watching it expand, sort of in horror. It was going to be in the middle of the book. It would divide the book between the sane and the insane stories. But it became far too long to put in the middle of the book.

Rumpus: The novella is hilarious. And I’ve been to those assemblies—maybe I shouldn’t say this—I know those administrators. It had me cackling. There’s more satire in this new collection than in Insurrections. Does that seem true?

Scott: There is. There is. I’m almost kind of running from satire, but I don’t see any other way to write about higher education than satire. Academia is so absurd in so many different ways. It claims to be this enlightened space, but the exploitation in terms of contingent faculty is mind-blowing if you actually think about it. So that’s one area where they leave themselves open to be mocked. But there are a million different ways in which academia is absurd.

Rumpus: It seems to me that the balance between satire and character development—that ability to balance satire and a haunting story of a character losing his mind or getting someone else to lose his mind—is a difficult balance to maintain.

Scott: You want to tell that joke, but you don’t want it to overwhelm the story. I never lost sight of the fact that I was telling a tragedy even though there are jokes and satire in it. I think that is in the first chapter there, the tragedy of Dr. Chambers. I had to keep that in mind, and that sort of helped center the story. That it’s always about—I didn’t know how it was going to end—but tragedy assumes that it ends with a character’s death. That kept me centered in that particular story.

Rumpus: Well, you pulled it off. How do you think that teaching composition has affected your fiction? I feel like it messed up my writing in some ways.

Scott: Yeah. In the early part, it did. It’s tough because you’re reading a lot of student essays that are poorly written. You’re reading a lot, a thousand pages a semester—I was teaching four or five classes—literally thousands of pages a semester. It’s like reading a Russian novel each semester. If reading good writing makes your writing better, then reading bad writing… What I would have to do is double down on the reading of great work. Those semesters were very tough. When I was playing soccer in high school, we got this new coach, and he wouldn’t allow the varsity players to play with the JV players. He wouldn’t allow them to scrimmage with us. I was a JV player, and I wasn’t very good. His argument was they would pick up bad habits from scrimmaging with the JV players. I thought about that a lot while reading student essays. But it comes with the territory, and it’s all about figuring out how to push back and do things that are going to make your writing stronger.

Rumpus: What about writers who influenced the new collection? Edward P. Jones came up a lot when you were doing interviews for Insurrections. I don’t see Edward P. Jones in this new collection. Maybe I’m getting back to the language and sound of this book, but there’s something more intense here.

Scott: Did you see Edward P. Jones in the last collection?

Rumpus: Absolutely. That’s that cool distance. He does such a good job of moving back and forth in time, using the future tense, but there’s also just a coolness to his writing that was in Insurrections, too.

Scott: Jones is certainly in [The World Doesn’t Require You], though. I was reading him a lot while working on various versions of “David Sherman.” When I initially wrote it was around the time I first encountered All Aunt Hagar’s Children. There’s more than a little Ulysses in “Rolling in my Six-Fo.’” Joy Williams’s Ninety-Nine Stories of God is in there somewhere. I leaned pretty heavily on Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up” in writing some of the essayistic parts of “Special Topics in Loneliness Studies.” The story, “On the Occasion of the Death of Freddie Lee,” borrows from Animal Farm, which if you asked me, I would tell you that I can’t stand. But I noticed the influence coming through when I was drafting it, so I decided to hold my nose, reread, and lean into that influence a bit. Even though my conscious mind doesn’t like that book, there is something my writing mind won’t let go about it. This isn’t the first time that book has broken into my writing process.

Rumpus: You used the phrase “Black Bizarre” in an interview with Roxane Gay. Who else is in that canon?

Scott: I remember making that up on the spot.

Rumpus: I know. I googled it to see if it was a term other people had used. Now you have to coin it.

Scott: I like the term, and I think when I wrote that, I was thinking of “Rolling in My Six-Fo’” because that story certainly falls into the category of weirdness. I wouldn’t presume to put anyone else in that category. I want people to raise their eyebrows and be like, “What the fuck?” But at the same time think, “Yeah, that makes sense.” That’s kind of like how I read Paul Beatty’s The Sellout or how I read Percival Everett.

Rumpus: Maybe, too, you’re leaving the influences behind and forging a new path.

Scott:. When I was working on “Special Topics in Loneliness Studies” I went back to Melville—“Bartleby, the Scrivener.” In terms of satire, that story is hilarious. Laugh-out-loud hilarious. That was one of the things I was reading. When I was writing “Numbers” or the robot stories I was reading a lot of speculative fiction like Daniel Jose Older’s first book and Amber Sparks’s first book. It’s funny that you mention leaving influences behind. I remember finishing Insurrections and proudly thinking I had left Invisible Man behind as an influence. That book weighed so heavily on every sentence I wrote for a very long time. I reread it after Insurrections came out and was horrified by how much I had borrowed from Ellison. I decided to lean hard into that influence instead of running from it while I wrote “Special Topics.”

Rumpus: Is Cross River still just in your head? Have you started making a map? Are there notes someplace?

Scott: Yeah, it’s all in my head. I don’t want it be official because I always think of Cross River like The Simpsons’s Springfield. It shifts and changes based on the narrative’s needs. Early on I had drawn a map, but I don’t think I’ll ever do that again.

Rumpus: I wanted to ask about fatherhood. That’s a major theme of the first book, and you’ve talked about how writing stories changed after your son was born. Has that continued to progress?

Scott: I think so. In “A Loudness of Screechers,” I think one of the reasons the uncle makes that sacrifice is because his brother has children, and he has to make that sacrifice for his brother. My youngest son is one right now. I am a huge part of his life, but if I were to disappear, he wouldn’t remember me. That went into the story when I wrote. Not that specifically—my son wasn’t born when I wrote it—but the father makes this half-hearted attempt to put himself in the place of his brother, but somewhere in his mind, he’s like, “I have to be there for these children.” And he has to live with the fact that his brother took his place.

Rumpus: How do you get any writing done with a one-year-old? My daughter is about to be eleven months. It has been a long year. I don’t know how people do it.

Scott: Do you write flash fiction?

Rumpus: Sometimes.

Scott: That’s what I did when my oldest was a baby. It really helped me in a lot of ways. It helped me to figure out how to compress, how to get in and out of a scene. That was the only thing that allowed me to get things done. When I got to the longer work, it was easier.

Rumpus: You described the process for a story once as just listing words that you knew had to go in the piece. Is your process like that for other pieces?

Scott: I did that with the end of a story collection that hasn’t been published, which is one of the best things I’ve ever written, and I did that also with the last story in Insurrections. Both of those stories were calling for something I hadn’t necessarily displayed in my writing before—they were both calling on a type of lyricism that I wasn’t sure that I possessed. So I needed to do that to sort of stretch myself. And I would love to write like that again. I haven’t had the opportunity. It hasn’t called on that. That was a really enlightening way to write.

Rumpus: It’s never been published? I guess it just feels difficult when you do those need-to-write stories and no one will publish them—because of all that time you poured into them.

Scott: Yeah, I don’t feel that the time is wasted. They were necessary for me to write. I am at peace with it.

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Photograph of Rion Amilcar Scott by Rebecca Aranda.


TJ Fuller writes and teaches in Portland, Oregon. His writing has appeared in Hobart, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere. He can be found online @fullertj. More from this author →