The Assembly’s books editor, Wiley Cash, talked to North Carolina author and 2021 National Book Award winner Jason Mott. You can read more on his novel, Hell of a Book, here.
The following is an edited transcript.
Wiley Cash: Do you think of yourself as a North Carolina writer? Does the industry think about you that way?
Jason Mott: I do, yes. North Carolina is such a part of who I am. It’s where I was born and raised, and I am very much a Southern boy, so to speak. But I wouldn’t say that the industry necessarily thinks of me as a North Carolina writer; they think of me as a writer from North Carolina, but I don’t think they view my writing as something that promotes and represents a specific version of the South.
WC: All the way back to The Returned, were you thinking about representing North Carolina on the page, or were you thinking, “Interesting characters, crazy idea?”
JM: A little bit of both. I very much love the rural North Carolina lifestyle that I live, and I think it is a type of lifestyle that is not celebrated as often as it should be. As far back as The Returned, every novel I’ve written is somehow set in or linked to North Carolina.
I think my writing tries to represent the specific version of life that I grew up in. Yes, it’s something I think about consistently in my writing as far as representing not only the state, but especially the rural lifestyle that I’ve grown up in.
WC: In Hell of a Book, the author is recreating the world every day. He’s responding to the psychological trauma of being a Black man in America. And it seems that, in some ways, he is running from eastern North Carolina. When he goes back, it’s a major strain on him. But when he lands at the airport in Wilmington, he says, “Don’t get me wrong, I love it here.”
JM: The travel part of the novel is kind of like The Odyssey: It’s the journey to eventually reach home and have things resolved. The author is running away from North Carolina because he’s running away from himself and his identity and these traumatic moments in his existence. And because those traumatic moments are tied to North Carolina and the place he grew up in, that’s why there’s so much energy spent on avoiding them before coming back to it.
I’m not afraid to say that the book is based on things I’ve experienced. I have a very complicated love-hate relationship with North Carolina. I love the state so much in terms of the people, the culture, the food. Being a North Carolinian means a lot to me as part of my identity.
But North Carolina has a specific history in terms of slavery and being part of the South’s history with race. It makes it difficult, and you often wonder why you love this place. Is this place worthy of your love? becomes the question you ask yourself. Loving something that has harmed you and those who look like you, which is by proxy you, you begin to question it, and you want to flee from it sometimes. That’s what I was thinking about when I was developing that character.
WC: In the early pages of the novel, the author tells us, “Never forget, this is a love story.” I’ve always seen the novel as a love story of the author coming to terms with loving himself. But hearing you talk just now, I’m wondering if this is also a love story about coming to terms with the place you’re from and finding a way to love it?
JM: That’s a good read on it. Ultimately, we become somewhat inseparable from the places we grow up in, the places that imprint themselves on us from a certain age. Loving the place where you’re from is a form of loving yourself. If you cannot love the place you’re from, there will always be a part of yourself that you cannot love. That challenge, that search, that ability to love the place or the part of you—or whatever that is—is part of the author’s quest.
WC: What was life like for you growing up in Bolton? Were you interested in reading and wanting to be a writer?
JM: I grew up a pretty avid writer. I was that quiet kid who liked to read. My sister liked to read, and my mom liked to read, so I guess I inherited it. My mother would take us to the local library in Riegelwood, North Carolina, and essentially drop us off in the children’s section while she went to run errands. She knew the librarians. It was a small town, so people watched out for small kids.
We spent hours and hours at the library reading and just loving it. Books were our babysitters. It was a really wonderful way to grow up. When I was about 14, I came across Grendel by John Gardner, and it was just so powerful. I knew I wanted to be a writer.
WC: All of your novels are speculative or mystical in some way. Hell of a Book, as bizarre as it is, is probably the most realistic novel that you’ve written. Where does that come from?
JM: I think it’s all rooted in a passionate love for mythology and folklore: Greek gods, Roman gods, African gods. Big heroic tales like Beowulf and The Odyssey and The Iliad. Stories where fantastical things were happening. Combine that with growing up and watching reruns of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits and Tales from the Darkside.
It created this love of storytelling where you have a version of the world that is turned by one degree. You watch the implications when that one degree changes characters and behaviors.
WC: Your work is heavily based on your parents and rural North Carolina, and the legacy of your family on the land. How did it feel to bring the National Book Award home?
JM: It’s very slowly beginning to sink in. When it happened that night, there was such an interesting cognitive distance where all objective data—television, friends calling in—were telling me I had won it, but my brain refused to believe it. It created a detached feeling, combined with the fact that there was no huge event [due to the pandemic]. I wasn’t in New York City at some banquet. I was in the office over Zoom.
But I don’t know that it would’ve made a difference now that I’m saying it out loud. For me, being what I consider a very average guy and to have won the National Book Award—my brain would not process it for the longest time. Now, six months later, it has sunk in a bit more.
The short of it is that it was really great, it was just really alien, for lack of a better word. It was like a speculative fiction moment. The world had turned by one degree into some parallel universe where I won the National Book Award. That was the twist.
Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels and the founder of This Is Working, an online creative community. He’s been a fellow at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and he teaches fiction writing and literature at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, photographer Mallory Cash, and their daughters.