Sunday, January 23, 2022

Hell of a journey: National Book Award winner Jason Mott creates his own path to writing ‘Hell of a Book’

Jason Mott, UNCW’s distinguished writer-in-residence, won the National Book Award in November 2021 for his fourth novel “Hell of a Book.” (Courtesy photo)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C — It took almost a decade, multiple no’s from publishing houses, and a preliminary screenplay before Jason Mott saw his fourth novel “Hell of a Book” come to fruition. Yet, he knew early on, it was the book he was meant to write.

Seemingly, the critics agree.

A graduate from UNCW — and the distinguished writer-in-residence at the university — Mott’s “Hell of a Book” is a 2021 National Book Award winner, the most prestigious literary prize in America.

“It’s definitely come with a lot of adulation,” Mott said from his home in Bolton, N.C. “A lot more attention than I ever could have expected.”

In its most simple form, the playfully written and engagingly gripping book follows a writer on a fast-paced book tour. Yet, subplots of secondary characters, dealing with racial strife in the South, bring moments of raw intensity. 

“Hell of a Book” has won the 2021 Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction, and was longlisted for the 2022 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the 2022 Aspen Words Literary Prize, and the 2022 Joyce Carol Oates Prize.

Mott will read from his novel, talk about the experience of writing it, and sign copies on Jan. 23 at Cameron Art Museum (register here).

“I prefer to talk more,” he clarified when asked from which passage he will be reading. “From a very young age, we’re all conditioned to fall asleep when people read to us. So I try to spend most of the time engaging with the audience — answering questions, talking about why I did a certain thing, talking about writing, talking about writing life.”

“Hell of a Book” could be mistaken for a memoir, a far cry from Mott’s earlier fantasy fiction work. It’s been a work-in-progress since 2012, inspired by Mott’s travels while promoting his debut novel “The Returned.” (The New York Times Bestseller was optioned by Brad Pitt’s company, Plan B, to become the American-fantasy TV series “Resurrection,” which aired on ABC from 2014 to 2015.)

“When I finished that book tour, I told my agents I wanted to do a book about an author on a book tour because it was such a big dramatic shift for me — a wild experience,” Mott said. “But it was shot down.”

Not once, not twice, not even three times. “It was more than I cared for,” Mott said. 

The writer fleshed it out anyway and first wrote “Hell of a Book” as a screenplay. Though the initial draft was vastly different from the novel, the screenplay helped adapt its snappy discourse and madcap pacing.

“I’m a big fan of film noir,” Mott said. “I watch them all the time, and that kind of dialogue already was in my head. But writing it in screenplay form definitely helped to see where its heartbeat was.”

Still, Mott shelved “Hell of a Book” to continue working on multiple other projects.  Eventually, he published “The Wonder of All Things” in 2014 and “The Crossing” in 2018. 

In the interim, the Black Lives Matter movement gained steam. Names like Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray consistently made headlines and highlighted police brutality in America. Mott said he began assessing ways to process what he was witnessing in the present, while also considering his past more thoughtfully, working through childhood experiences and Black adulthood in the small-town South. 

“I like weird stories that are not direct linear narratives,” he said. 

So he fused his early pages of “Hell of a Book” with new prose he was working on to “create a very complex discussion of race in America.” However, Mott didn’t want it to only focus on calamity; he approached it comedically as well, blending levity and light, humor and absurdity.

“I wanted it to balance this place of comedy and tragedy because I think that’s what life is like,” Mott said. “Oftentimes, when the Black experience is discussed, it is discussed only in horror, and God knows there is reason for that.”

The novel deals with overt racism, especially with the character arc of Soot and his father and grandfather, Daddy Henry. The family is from Whiteville, N.C. — “a sleepy, small southern town in a sleepy, small southern county with a long history of strawberry production and lynchings,” Mott writes in “Hell of a Book.” 

He utilized the work to tackle issues like colorism and the aftereffects racism has when it trickles down generation after generation. Some of the most harrowing circumstances, Mott said, can exist in the same place where people also “laugh and breathe.”

“I wanted to have fun and have these flourishes of beauty,” Mott expressed. “Because, you know, I think there’s a danger in painting the Black experience as only this terrible, tragic existence. I laugh, I cry, I have fun.”

“Hell of a Book” is not necessarily what many expect from a writer that previously focused on the supernatural and sublime. Mott tackles tough topics but still blurs the lines between reality and fantasy. While the novel addresses bullying, grief and mental illness, it’s countered by over-the-top adventures and anchored by the desire to be loved, familially and romantically. 

The parallel storylines move constantly, centered on the protagonist, simply named “Author.” Mott said Author is the stereotypical writer everyone associates with the profession: a drunken womanizer, living his best “Bukowski life.” He traverses from city to city, taking readers along his ferocious journey into writerhood (the novel sets pace with him running barenaked through a hotel hallway, away from a husband who is chasing him down for having an affair with his wife).

Interspersed are characters whose roles and connections to Author aren’t entirely clear. Are they vestiges of who he once was or representations of people in his life? Are they imaginary?

The same questions can be asked of Mott: Where do his characters end and Mott’s real-life experiences begin?

“Well, that’s only for me to know,” he said. 

Some of the sections, though he wouldn’t name which, contain essences of truth.

“And it, honestly, felt a little too exposed,” Mott said. “I’m not a memoir writer, I’ll never be a memoir writer. So I think I went back to the Author book-tour story because it allowed me to still have a fair amount of personal investment but also put a layer of fiction on top of it that I could control and modulate and felt more comfortable working within.” 

Not naming some of the characters — Author, The Kid (who follows around the author throughout the novel) — became a metaphorical device to represent a Black person from Anywhere, USA. But it wasn’t always meant to be that way. Mott’s earliest outline began differently; Author had a name.

“I knew immediately that it was a terrible choice,” he said. “There is this theme throughout the novel, whether you’re a best-selling author or some poor kid who grew up in the South, there are all these people who have this shared experience that is being Black in America, and it transcends their economic status, it transcends time. It is unified, for better or worse.”

The South is a place Mott constantly roams, figuratively and literally, for inspiration. It has its ghosts, sure, but he is more fascinated by its modernity, specifically in its blend of people, so often overlooked. He once told an interviewer he is always trying to “figure out the South” in his work.

Whereas many may paint it with broad brushstrokes as a place where “white people hang out and everyone else is a subclass,” Mott said his point of view aims to differ from the black-and-white power structure penned so frequently.  

“It’s much more mixed than people actually give it credit for,” he said, rattling off pockets of communities — “that I would argue aren’t really pocketed anymore” — from Vietnamese to Mexican, Korean to Puerto Rican, among various genders and identities, trans to LGBTQ. 

The book begins with Soot, a dark-skinned young boy, hiding from his parents in their home. Often bullied, his mom and dad want to safeguard him, lavish him with love and his favorite foods, compliment his imagination and talents as a writer.

“They’re trying to protect their child from the dangers of the world and give him the best childhood they can,” Mott described. “And I think every parent can connect to and relate to that, regardless of color, race, creed and gender.”

Soot has a desire to be what Mott writes as “unseen,” a superpower to become invisible. Yet, in this normal childhood wish, subtle yet powerful and larger implications about facing the world as a minority illuminate.

“The invisibility that you sometimes get, you don’t know whether you want it or not,” Mott said. “Then it’s juxtaposed against this sense of extreme visibility, where you know you are the only Black person in a room — very visible, where you want to sometimes disappear. But the problem with disappearing is you lose your voice and you lose your identity, and you lose your ability to affect change. That’s the drawback.”

Mott speaks from a place of familiarity, beyond his character’s experiences. The writer said he, too, was going through an identity crisis when getting “Hell of a Book” out into the world. He had become bored with what was “expected” of him as a published author and wanted to change up his voice. Mott said he didn’t want to continue on the same path of writing he already tackled in “The Returned” and “The Crossing.” 

“It was becoming work,” he said. “I was still writing, but I wasn’t doing it in a way that I wanted to. I think that happens to a lot of writers — the industry puts you in a box and it’s very dangerous being pigeonholed. Writers should always be growing and evolving and progressing.”

Mott pushed “Hell of a Book” to many publishers but believes most couldn’t see beyond what sold well in the past and preferred to follow the same ol’ formula. 

“Fans want to pick up a Jason Mott book and say, ‘Oh, yeah, I read his work before — this is gonna probably be similar to that so I know what I’m getting.’ And as a reader, I’m guilty of that, too,” Mott admitted. “And that’s what the industry follows.”

To step into this experimental territory fully — tap into the “weird worlds” he said he once wrote about in college — Mott abandoned his publisher after finishing “The Crossing.” He admitted it was a scary decision, not made lightly or out of any bad blood or tension. It just organically became his next career move.

“To suddenly walk away from a contract that was existing, to go off into the wilderness to make art, that’s a very terrifying thing,” Mott said.

As he began writing “Hell of a Book,” Mott said frequent doubts washed over him and persisted throughout the entire process. He remembered texting a friend one day: “‘Nobody’s going to buy this book. It bounces all over the place. There’s so many things going on, so many threads that are happening, so much hidden meaning — too much happening on the page. I don’t think anybody’s going to get it.’”

Yet, his agent supported the shift, encouraged him. “‘Just sit down and write it,’ she told me. So I did,” Mott said, shedding worries over whether a publisher could “market it,” one of the roadblocks he and his agent heard over again. While minorities and Black culture resonate with readers, how Mott was writing about it was so fresh there was no blueprint for its publicity.

“Essentially, in the industry, you’re approaching a very familiar conversation from a very unfamiliar way,” Mott further explained. “There are certain things that you can hit: the slave narrative, the civil rights narrative, inner-city coming-of-age narrative — the whole trifecta of Black storytelling, that’s how that exists. So I think ‘Hell of a Book,’ because it was doing film noir, multiple timelines, and had an unreliable narrator doing this style of dialogue I don’t think I’ve seen the Black storyteller do from Black film noir — that just doesn’t exist in novels.” 

Mott signed to publisher Dutton Books and connected to an editor who received the writing of “Hell of a Book” the way Mott intended. Aside from the book’s prestige and recognition — not to mention inevitable sales that followed — “Hell of a Book” was rewarded praise, not pushback, from Mott’s readership, new and old. He has hidden Easter eggs from previous work in its narrative, which has added to its appeal.

“My old readers are absolutely loving this because of the callbacks and nods since I wrote this when I was on tour for ‘The Returned,’” he said. “Now, suddenly, there is this whole new kind of era with a whole new kind of fan base of people who are really just discovering my writing.”

While the fanfare and the accolades have been reaffirming, following through to find his creative freedom and trusting his gut has outweighed everything else, Mott said. Also gone is the pressure to uphold anyone else’s expectations.

“When you bet on yourself, put all of your money on yourself, and it pays off, you suddenly feel better about your ability to make decisions and judgments,” Mott said. “I reached this point where I basically said, ‘I don’t know how this book’s gonna turn out, I don’t know if it’s gonna find a home, but I’m just going to do what I want to do, write it for me’ — as goofy, as weird, as complex, as strange as I want it to be. I trusted my instincts and made all the decisions I wanted to make for me, and suddenly it became my most successful project ever.

“What I learned is, if you have no one singing the song that you want to hear, you have to eventually sing it yourself.”


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Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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