I have been reading Jason Mott’s work for over a dozen years, since we became friends over a shared interest in comic book poetry at a time when not many people were writing comic book poetry. Since then, he has had something of an amazing career: He’s become a New York Times-bestselling author; a Carnegie Medals For Excellence longlist nominee; and this month he was named a National Book Award winner for his latest novel, Hell of a Book. He is also the author of two poetry collections, We Call This Thing Between Us Love and hide behind me, and three more novels: The Returned, The Wonder of All Things, and The Crossing. The Returned, Jason’s debut novel, was adapted into a television series that aired under the title Resurrection.
Before Hell of a Book came out, I had the honor of reading a screenplay that contained some of the ideas that became the novel. It was so good: snappy, surreal, satiric, and moving. I was excited to get my hands on the novel when it came out and have not been surprised at the wave of positive attention the book has attracted.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jason Mott after he was short-listed for the National Book Award. At the time of this first exchange, the winner had not yet been announced.
The Rumpus: I’m so excited about your success with Hell of a Book—a New York Times bestseller and now on the National Book Award shortlist! How are you feeling?
Jason Mott: I’m thrilled! By the way, “thrilled” is pretty much how I feel about being a [National Book Award] finalist. It’s incredibly surreal. Sometimes it feels like I’m watching it happen to someone else. My brain is still struggling to believe it’s actually happening to me!
Rumpus: This book is a bit of a departure from your previous novels, The Returned and The Wonder of All Things, though they both have instances of the supernatural in them. Your third novel, The Crossing, was your foray into teen dystopia, exploring a world felled by plague.
This feels like a very different book: a little more edgy, more satirical, and some very pointed discussions of race. How do you feel this evolution happened? The style, the voice, the subject matter?
Mott: That’s a pretty tough question, actually. This evolution came about for a lot of different reasons. Honestly, I think this book is partly due to me being a bit fatigued with telling stories in the same manner again and again. While I’m very proud of and still very much like my first three novels, as a writer, I thrive on creativity and experimentation. [Stylistically] my first three novels are all very closely related. Even though they are very different novels with very different stories and characters, the creative process and the creative voices are similar. I recognized this a few years ago and after my third novel, The Crossing, I could feel my creative bonds drawing ever tighter and, frankly, I didn’t like that feeling. So, I made a decision and a commitment that whatever I wrote next would be something wherein I allowed myself full creative license and freedom. I needed artistic fun, freedom, and experimentation. And Hell of a Book is the result of that.
Rumpus: I was lucky enough to read an early screenplay that contained a lot of the ideas in Hell of a Book. But the screenplay was shorter, more surreal, and although it packed an emotional punch, you managed to put a huge amount of nuance and dramatic weight in the novel by including alternate points of view. Can you talk about how your novel and screenplay are related, if you think they are related? How did the screenplay lead to Hell of a Book?
Mott: That screenplay was something I wrote just to stretch my screenwriting legs. Screenwriting is something I’ve been dabbling with for a while now. And, actually, I wrote that screenplay because I had pitched a novel about an author on a book tour a couple of times, and it had been summarily shot down more than once. So I wrote the screenplay just as a means of having some creative fun. Now, the screenplay was quite different from the novel. The screenplay didn’t have the personal components that came into being during the writing of the novel, nor does it have the discussions of race and identity that Hell of a Book contains. So, in many ways, I think of that screenplay as a rough draft of the novel that came later.
Rumpus: When we met, we had a mutual love of poetry, comic books, and film noir. I can see film noir influences in your latest book, for sure. In some scenes, the speaker of the book uses film noir language to interact with other people. For example, in the first chapter, when the speaker encounters an elderly woman in the elevator, their interchange begins:
“‘Hell of a night,’ I say. ‘I could tell you stories,’ the Blue Hair replies, quick as a whip. ‘I’ll bet you could. You’ve got that look about you.’ ‘Life’s chaos,’ the woman says, sounding suddenly like an oracle. ‘It’s all just a runaway mule hell-bent on destruction.’”
How did the film noir genre become a major part of Hell of a Book?
Mott: In the beginning, the use of film noir language and style was just something that I did to make the writing enjoyable. I’m a huge noir fan, and I flat-out had fun writing in that voice and style. Then, as the novel matured a bit, I began making the noir styling more than just cosmetic, but functional to the overall narrative. It started to reflect the extent to which the main character was attempting to escape his reality of trauma and insecurity.
Rumpus: The book tackles serious subjects such as police violence, legacies of racial violence, and the impact of race on a child’s destiny. Tough but timely topics. The unnamed author of the book states that he feels uncomfortable with these topics, but you don’t seem to be.
Mott: Well, I both am and I am not. By nature, I’m an extremely shy introvert. I don’t like being in the spotlight. I tend to speak softly, and I’m always looking for opportunities to disappear into the night, so to speak. So, while I’m confident talking about topics of race, identity, and the Black experience in America, I’m not very comfortable talking about them to many people. These are conversations I tend to reserve for close friends or small groups and, in the past, I haven’t felt confident enough to bring them up directly in my writing. They’ve always been there in very small doses, but it was all indirect and heavily veiled. However, with Hell of a Book I was tired and frustrated with other people not saying the things I wanted to be said. I know that sounds a bit foolish, but I think most of us go through life thinking “Well … someone else will fix it,” or “Someone else say something, so I don’t need to say anything.” Eventually, however, we all have to come to realize that there are certain things that only we can say, certain things for which there is no voice other than our own that can talk about these things in the specific way we want to see or hear. That’s what happened to me. That’s why I decided to finally speak up and speak directly.
Rumpus: Some of the most enjoyable parts of the book are satire of the writer’s life: the unnamed author has a meeting with an image consultant, phone calls with the agent, many media interviews and readings that morph nightmarishly in the main character’s mind. People have a funny idea about the glamorous life of authors, and this plays into those ideas, right?
Mott: Definitely! There are few mystiques quite as engrained in the collective American psyche as the “Mystique of the Writer.” People always think of writers as rich, drunk, womanizing, and suicidal. There’s this engrained idea about how writers live and how books come into being, and the reality of those two things is almost never what people think. So that’s what I wanted to play with in this novel. It was a way of saying, “I know who you think I am and how you think my life is, and I’m going to use that to my advantage to say something.”
Rumpus: Are readers making the mistake of confusing you with the unnamed author in your book? What’s the most tactful way to remind people that characters in fiction do not always reflect the author, or that not everything is thinly veiled autobiography?
Mott: Well … here’s the thing about that: There actually is more than a little autobiography in this book. Haha! A large part of how this novel came into being happened because I wanted to take a direct look at my own life and the impact that race and racism has had on it. So during the writing, I copy/pasted directly from my own life and then tweaked the image by a few degrees—just enough for plausible deniability—and sent the book out into the world. If I’m honest, I only did this because I didn’t believe the book would actually get published. Haha! As I was writing it, the project felt so strange and so out there that I was sure no publisher would take it and no reader would want to read it. So that gave me the courage to pour myself and my personal facts and experiences into it.
So, while I fully agree that readers too often read fiction and decide for themselves that “this must have really happened,” in this case, some of that is true. But for those readers who tend to believe that about everything, I think simply saying “I’m glad it feels so real, but that doesn’t mean it really happened to me,” is a fair, polite, and tactful thing to say.
Rumpus: You grew up in a small town in North Carolina, which the speaker of Hell of a Book does as well. The speaker talks about the town’s calm and beauty, but also the threat of the history of the South and still-fraught race and class issues. How much does your location influence your work? Do you think where we live inescapably influences our writing?
Mott: Where I live heavily influences my work. I’m a Southern boy and I consider myself a Southern writer. And that’s by choice. I write about the South because I’m trying to figure it out. There’s a very complicated history tied up in the southeastern United States, and the longer I live here the more complexities I see and want to write about. So, for me, this place into which I was born will always influence my writing. I don’t think that has to be true of everyone—honestly, I would hate to see a world in which it was true of everyone because we need varied imaginations and storytelling—but it’s true for me.
Rumpus: Many people do not know that before you wrote blockbuster bestsellers that got made into television shows and nominated for awards, you wrote speculative poetry. How did your start as a poet influence you as a writer? Do you think you might publish poetry again? My favorite, “…hide behind me…” is the one I’m always recommending to friends.
Mott: Well, honestly, you were one of my major poetic influences. I initially got into writing poetry as a type of “creative palette cleanse.” Fiction has always been my primary form of writing, but I sometimes get burned out doing the same type of writing—which is why I’ve dabbled in fiction, poetry, screenwriting, and even a little nonfiction. In my late-twenties I went back to school as a non-traditional student pursuing an undergrad degree in fiction. The program required taking out-of-genre classes, and I chose poetry because, well, I liked epic poetry of old. Somewhere along the way I decided I wanted to write about mythology, folklore, and comic book superheroes—three things I loved as a kid and as an adult. But, at that time, there wasn’t a lot of poetry working in the realm of superhero poetry or updated mythology. My teacher at the time—the wonderful Lavonne Adams—recommended I check out two poets who were doing wonderful work with both superheroes and mythology in contemporary poetry: Bryan Dietrich and Jeannine Hall Gailey. So, I immediately read both Krypton Nights and Becoming the Villainess and, with that, you might say I “found my tribe.” The work that you and Bryan were doing at that time gave me the permission and confidence I needed to try and find my own poetic voice in that realm. So, on that note, I’d like to say thank you for being the amazing writer you are!
Rumpus: Thank you, Jason. And congrats on the well-deserved attention for Hell of a Book.
**Interview note: the remainder of the interview was conducted after Jason’s National Book Award win.**
Rumpus: So, you won the National Book Award for Fiction! Congratulations on a well-deserved win! How are you feeling?
Mott: It’s hard to describe how I’m feeling. “Wonderful” is the obvious—and true—answer, but it’s more than that. It’s a strange mixture of disbelief and elation, confusion, and splendor. From [November 17th] onward it’s been a whirlwind of congratulatory texts, emails, phone calls, and carrier pigeons. Haha! It’s easily one of the greatest moments of my life. I’ve been traveling since on what I call my “Victory Lap.” Essentially, I’ve been driving around North Carolina having celebratory lunches, dinners, and sleepover parties with the friends and loved ones who have helped get me here. The win is irrelevant if you don’t have someone to share it with. And, thankfully, I have amazing people in my life to share this moment and this win with.
Rumpus: Everyone is talking about your amazing acceptance speech:
I’d like to dedicate this award to all the other mad kids, to all the outsiders, the weirdos, the bullied, the ones so strange that they had no choice but to be misunderstood by the world and by those around them…This award is dedicated to the ones who, in spite of this, refuse to outgrow their imagination, refuse to abandon their dreams and refuse to deny, diminish their identity or their truth or their loves. Unlike so many others.
Can you talk a little about your speech and its themes?
Mott: The response to my acceptance speech caught me completely off guard. For weeks leading up to the event I said I wouldn’t write an acceptance speech because I knew I would not win. Then, about twenty minutes before the start of the event, I decided to write the speech “just in case hell freezes over and I win.” Since that night, people have been quoting it and spreading it around social media. It’s humbling and amazing.
Regarding its themes: Well, I’ve always been an outsider. I’ve always been too much of something or not enough of something else that was needed to fit in. That was the source of a lot of pain, grief, sadness, and loneliness in my younger days. And then, thankfully, I found my tribe and life got better. I found where I fit. But I never forgot the kid I was or the way I felt. That feeling is still very much a part of my every day, and I just wanted to dedicate that win to not only that part of myself, but also to all those other people out there who have also failed to “fit in.” I know how it feels and I wanted them to know that you don’t have to fit in to succeed. You can stay true to yourself and, more importantly, your imagination, and carve your own path in this world. Why fit in when you can stand out?
Photograph of Jason Mott by Michael Becker Photography.