Writers & Company

Jason Mott celebrates the Black imagination in his surprising, moving, Hell of a Book

In conversation with Eleanor Wachtel, the American author talks about writing an absurdist story that reflects on racism and police violence. Hell of a Book won the 2021 U.S. National Book Award for fiction.  
Jason Mott is an award-winning American novelist. (Michael Becker Photography)

From tall tales to The Twilight Zone, Jason Mott likes stories about the real world turned slightly on its ear.

His latest novel, Hell of a Book, is a bold mix of absurdist farce and powerful reflections on racism and police violence. It interweaves the stories of a Southern boy and an unnamed author with a loose grip on reality as he travels the United States on a publicity tour. Strikingly original and remarkably affecting, it won the 2021 U.S. National Book Award for fiction. 

Mott's previous novels are high-concept stories often set in the South, such as his breakout work, The Returned, in which the dead mysteriously come back to life; and the critically acclaimed The Wonder of All Things, which centres on a young girl with healing powers. 

Born, raised and still residing on family land in rural North Carolina, Mott spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from a studio in Wilmington.

Black history & The Dukes of Hazzard

"My parents wanted me to have as much of an innocent childhood as I could. And so, probably until I was around 10 or so, my mother in particular did a really good job of filtering out some of the noise — the way that race is viewed in America. A lot of that was filtered out as much as possible, or at least the negative side of it.

"To give an example, my father had these Black history encyclopedias growing up. It was just an encyclopedia of prominent Black figures and Black achievement. My dad would make us read those on the weekends. On Saturdays and Sundays, you had to spend a little bit of time going through these books. They were always within hand's reach in the living room, and so you always had very positive role models and positive moments of Black history that you could go into at any point in time.

"At the same time, I watched all kinds of TV shows. The Dukes of Hazzard was one of my favourite shows growing up, and they're riding around with a massive Confederate flag on this car. I was at that young age where I didn't really even know what the Confederate flag was or what it meant. I just had no idea. I just knew that the Duke boys had a cool car, and I was a kid who loved cars. I loved the show so much that I wanted the The Dukes of Hazzard bed sheets. 

"My mother went and she bought me a set of The Dukes of Hazzard bed sheets. It's got Bo and Luke and Daisy and the General Lee car, with that big Confederate flag on it — that beautiful orange Dodge Charger. So for a few years, I was this young Black kid sleeping on these General Lee Confederate flag bed sheets.

"My mom told me, 'When you were younger, you wanted those bed sheets so badly, I didn't have the heart to tell you no. I knew you didn't have any sense of what was going on.' She said, 'But when I went to buy them, there was a white woman ringing me up, and she gave me the oddest, longest look — this Black woman buying these General Lee bed sheets.' So that's what I mean when I say she worked really hard to let me have as much of a sheltered childhood as I could.

"Eventually, of course, reality comes through the door and kicks it in. But I really still love and respect her for that."

Parodying the book world

"It took so long for this book to happen, but I wanted to, just initially, make fun of authors on book tours and the publishing industry. I went on a book tour for The Returned back in 2013 and had such a surreal, bizarre experience.

"It wasn't until around 2018, or somewhere around that neighborhood, when the discussion of race and all that came into [the book]. But it was also around that time, when I finally got down to writing this book and really was hip-deep in it, it became this goal of mine to make something that talked about the Black condition and the Black experience in a way that had never been discussed before. Or at least, I hadn't seen it discussed before. I'm not saying no one's ever written a book like this, I'm just saying that I hadn't seen that yet.

"There's a certain way in which the Black experience is often told. There's a trifecta, these three touchstone points of the Black story — it's typically the slave narrative, the civil rights narrative and the inner-city youth narrative. Those are the 'Big Three of Black storytelling' — and I wanted to approach these topics and approach the Black existence from a completely different angle.

"I was the weird kid who grew into a weird adult. I didn't want to do it the way everyone else had done it. I just knew that I loved film noir. I love being comedic and goofy in real life. I don't take myself too seriously if I can help it. I wanted to make that the story. I wanted to make that the voice and make that the way that people encounter this narrative, so I could show that the Black experience is all these other things as well. It's a highly imaginative, weird space — there are these weird Black people that exist that are also worthy of storytelling."

I was the weird kid who grew into a weird adult.

The value of imagination

"I wanted to capture what I felt the writer's life was like because that is in many ways how I see my existence. You spend so much time — years — writing a story, living with characters, inhabiting a place, telling that story. It does become part of your reality, even though you know that it's all completely fictional. The characters become your friends and they become part of your identity and you think about those characters as if they were real people. Sometimes those characters become more real to you than people that are actually in your life, and you have to navigate that.

I think the imagination of minorities, in particular, is one of the most delicate things that needs to be protected more than anything else. It needs to be expressed.

"I feel like the Black imagination doesn't get to be zany and funny and screwball very often — like almost ever, I would actually say. I wanted to have this Black character who had a truly overactive imagination that just went to Level 10 because that's the thing that you don't see often in storytelling. I think the imagination of minorities, in particular, is one of the most delicate things that needs to be protected more than anything else. It needs to be expressed."

What's next

"One of the things that I think about a lot right now, and I'm trying to work on some new stuff and I'm sure this will be part of whatever I work on now, is that I worry a lot about the imagination of people like myself and minorities.

"How many imaginations are we losing to this responsibility to be the conscience of America? If you're Black, if you're LGBTQ, if you're some other minority, if you're brown, if you're a female writer, you're supposed to write about that experience. As a Black male, I've got to write about the Black experience. It's just my duty to remind America that these terrible things are happening. And yes, I should be reminding America, because America sometimes will have a very selective memory, and we'll pretend that certain things don't happen, so someone does need to remind them.

How many imaginations are we losing to this responsibility to be the conscience of America?

"But the thing that bothers me is, how many mad kids out there are growing up with these vivid imaginations and these beautiful imaginations that could turn into the next Tolkien, the next Stephen King, the next whoever, who do not write about race and who do not live in that world, their voice doesn't have to be funnelled through that channel of their identity — how many of those are we losing generation by generation?

"Because again, if you're a minority and you're not writing about your minority experience, nobody wants to hear about it. Maybe they've got great, amazing stories that have nothing to do with their minority experience. They just have a great story they want to tell. But we don't get to hear those stories.

"I think that's one thing that worries me and bothers me a lot."

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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