CHATHAM CHAT | AUTHOR JASON MOTT

His ‘Hell of a Book’ is a national best-seller. Here’s how it developed.

National Book Award-winner to highlight Chatham Literacy event Nov. 5

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Jason Mott, author of the National Book Award-winning novel “Hell of a Book,” one of the most acclaimed novels published in recent years, will be the featured speaker at Chatham Literacy’s 2022 Fall for Literacy Luncheon. It’ll be held beginning at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 5, at the Agriculture & Conference Center in Pittsboro.

The CN+R’s Bill Horner III recently spoke with Mott at length about the book; you can view the full interview on the News + Record’s Facebook page. Here’s a transcript of a portion of that interview, edited for length and clarity.

For more information about the Fall for Literacy fundraiser, go to chathamliteracy.org.

Let’s start with your story, which is in part a North Carolina story. Share a little bit about your background and the road to becoming an author …

I’m definitely a born and bred North Carolinian. I grew up in and still live in Columbus County. In my early 20s, when I became serious about writing; I got an undergraduate degree in fiction from UNC-G. By the end of that I was burned out on fiction, so I got a master’s degree in poetry. As it turns out, with a master’s in poetry, what you do is you get a job answering phones at Verizon Wireless — that’s where I worked for about four years.

I was still writing novels, though. During that time, I had a poetry collection published, but no novels. But then in 2012, I finally found an agent who liked my recent manuscript, and I sold the novel (“The Returned”) which turned into a TV series. It was a pretty long, winding road, but, thankfully, I got fortunate in having the breakthrough and have been a writer since then.

What was it like to have your first novel adapted into a screenplay and broadcast on TV? What was that like for you?

It’s pretty mind-blowing. I did not expect it; I was just happy enough to have found an agent and then a publisher. When I asked my agent why she was sending it to another agent who handled TV adaptations, she said that sometimes they like to adapt things into TV shows — which, for me, was a completely foreign idea.

Then the TV show aired before the book even released, which just never happens. I got kind of a Willy Wonka “golden ticket” syndrome, where the whole process was on fast forward. It was fun. I got to go watch them do filming and be there when the actors were playing the characters that I dreamed up, which was magical.

Let’s talk about “Hell of a Book,” which is, in part, the story of an author on a book tour for a surprise best selling book. I’m curious about the genesis for this book and its development …

Since no one sends you on a book tour for poetry, the tour for “The Returned” was my first one, and it was a whirlwind of chaos and humor — very surreal and funny, and I thought people might want to read about that.

My agent and my editor both thought it was a terrible idea, so I went off on my own and wrote about a half a manuscript about this author on a book tour. The discussions on race that ended up in “Hell of a Book” weren’t part of that foundation, though. I set it aside until about 2017, 2018, when the Freddie Gray incidents occurred in Baltimore. I took content from discussions with a friend regarding race and identity and our feelings about America, and combined them with the story of the author on a book tour. So it started around 2012 but didn’t really galvanize until 2018 or 2019.

“Hell of a Book” was a National Book Award winner, of course, and the book won the 2021 Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction and was a finalist for a long list of other literary prizes. The words reviewers used to describe it included “brilliant, inventive, playful, searching, raw, provocative, dazzling, hilarious, moving, surprising.” And I’ve heard you talk about this as kind of an absurdist novel. But obviously, there are some elements of a memoir. How did the story come together?

It was challenging, but also liberating and fun. It was the first novel that I’d written in quite some time where I did not owe the novel to a publisher. It was just me and the page for the first time since 2012, basically. I knew that I wanted to write something that was a discussion of these topics in American history and American culture.

I tell people there’s nothing new in the novel, but I didn’t want to discuss these topics in the way other authors had. I didn’t want to do it the way that Toni Morrison had done it, because I can’t be Toni Morrison. I didn’t want to do it in the way that James Baldwin had done it, because I can’t be James Baldwin. So I decided to embrace the silliness and the absurdity of the way I see the world oftentimes, and I started adding that in.

The hardest part was balancing the humor and the absurdity with the very serious moments; the entire book wants the reader to be in these binary positions at different times. I want you to be laughing at the absurdity of what you’re seeing one moment, and then nearly in tears, thinking deeply about these social issues in the next moment. So learning to modulate that pendulum and make it work was probably one of the most challenging parts; it took quite a lot of revisions and fine tuning.

There’s intentional ambiguity in the book …

It was really interesting and surreal how the timing of the book worked out. I wrote the book in earnest in 2018 and 2019. It took about a year and a half of hard, focused work to get the book to a semi-finished state; it’s never finished ’til it’s published.

So my agent and I were revising it from late 2019 to early 2020. We put it on the market literally a week before the Freddie Gray incidents and the riots of 2020.

It was very surreal how the timing of that worked out. At the exact time when the country was kind of exploding was the moment the book was hitting the market, and we knew it would still be a year before hit the stands. So it was like, what do you do with that? By September and October, we had sold the book to the editor and were finishing revisions, but the summer of 2020 had just happened, so what should we do? You’ve got this book that talks about these topics; do we go back in? Do we somehow edit to try to acknowledge what just happened in 2020? And you’ve got this book that talks about these topics? Do we go back in? Or do we not?

And the final decision was that we did because the sad part about the novel is that it is essentially timeless. You know, the summer of 2020 was not a new thing. It was not a freak announcement, a freak anomaly; it is a recurring theme in American history. So the book incorporates that idea in and of itself — the fact that what happened in 2020 is not unique. It definitely took some time; we had to think about what was happening in the world and how publication schedules work. It made it a little bit tricky, but I think we landed in the right spot.

Was there anything about the reception of the book that particularly surprised you or delighted you once it was published, and once it became the best-selling phenomenon that it has become?

Yeah, I was completely surprised. I think the inclination is for people to assume that now that the book has done well, and it’s won the National Book Award, you always knew that was going to happen, and the truth is, it’s the exact opposite.

I was terrified throughout the entire process of writing it that it would never find a home because it was such a weird duckling. And even when my agent and I started trying to sell the book to publishers, a lot of them passed on it. My agent said, “I think it’s the fact that it is a different book; publishers ask for different books until you give them a different book.”

And you don’t really know what to do with it or how to market it. So for me, I had a lot of fear. Even though it was saying important things that people want to hear about and discuss, when the book initially launched, I was really afraid that it just would not find its audience. So when it did, I was just over the moon. I still continue to be in awe and disbelief of how people have connected to it and how it’s done on its own.

You’re coming to Chatham County in November … what will you share for the audience at Chatham Literacy’s “Fall for Literacy” event?

I’ll talk about how the book came to be and some stories from touring. But the thing I really love is answering questions from the audience about writing, about publishing, about storytelling, about all the things that they want to learn about.

I’ve been on tour for almost a year and a half now, so I’ve talked about my book enough that when people ask questions about their writing or about their storytelling or about things that they’re working with, I get really interested, because then it’s a new problem to solve, a new discussion to have. So I’m hopeful that the audience will come out and bring questions and make it a really lively discussion.

Tickets for “Fall for Literacy” are $75 and can be purchased at chathamliteracy.org.

 

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