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Writing and Other Shenanigans: An Interview With Author Jason Mott

What would you do if you opened your front door and your deceased loved one stood before you? Not some “Thriller” music video creature of the undead, but your actual loved one… Just as perfect and human as the last time you saw them. Would you run screaming in the other directions? Would you throw your arms around them in welcome or just simply stand there in a state of shock? Honestly, when I put my grandmother on the other side of that door, the one thing I could see myself doing was giving a big, overly joyful smile. Well, that and an almost guaranteed hard, thudding faint.  These thoughts have been in the front of my mind ever since I read the synopsis for the upcoming book The Returned, (as seen in photo 1) the debut novel from author Jason Mott (as seen in photo 2). In the book, Lucille and Harold Hargrave, an older married couple, open the door to find their 8-year old son, Jacob, who died on his birthday in 1966. Jacob is one of the many deceased loved ones returning all over the world.  

For a book that hasn’t even hit the shelves yet, The Returned is creating a wide range of buzz from eager readers as well as approving nods from Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. Plan B & Brillstein Entertainment conquered a bidding war for the rights to the book and The Returned is now being filmed as a pilot for ABC. I recently had the pleasure to speak with author Jason Mott about his debut novel, the pilot and his life as a writer.

thalo:  Describe your novel to me in one sentence.

Jason Mott: People grapple with loss when their loved ones return from death.

th:  What was the inspiration for you novel?

JM: It started with a dream.  My parents are both deceased.  My mother passed in 2001, and my father in 2007.  In the summer of 2010, I had a dream that, one day, I came home from work and found my mother sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for me.  For the rest of the dream she and I simply sat and talked about all the things that had happened in my life since her passing.  It was really cathartic and one of those dreams that was so vivid, I woke up half expecting to find her sitting in the living room.  The feeling stayed with me for days and, when talking to a friend about it, he said “Can you imagine if that really happened? And what if it wasn’t just her?”

Not long after that chat, I began working on The Returned.

th: Did that make writing the novel difficult?

JM: At times, it did make the writing difficult.  There’s one character in the novel named Martin Bellamy who is, very directly, my proxy.  He’s a character who has lost his mother and, at the end of the day, it’s really the story of the death of my mother.  It was difficult writing that character’s tale some days.  But it was also something that I needed to do.  As a writer, if you’re not willing to invest yourself in the work, what’s the point?

th:  Did you do any research for your book? If so, did you find anything in particular that peaked your interest personally?

JM:  Most of my research came from just talking to people about loss.  Whenever I’d talk to someone about the project I was working on where loved ones come back from the dead, so many people would begin talking about some person they loved who had passed away.  And, sometimes, they would talk about how they’d feel if that person, somehow, miraculously showed up at their front door one day.  Their feelings were always really complicated and surprisingly unpredictable, but they made for great research for the project.

th:  How did you come up with the locations and character names for your book? Did they change during the process?

JM:  The locations are deeply based off of the area I grew up in and currently live in: southeastern North Carolina.  In the novel, the town is called Arcadia.  It’s blatantly named after the town my mother was born and raised in: East Arcadia, NC.  Character names are always tricky.  For the central characters, it took a few weeks of testing out various names until I found the ones that I felt resonated the best.  For many of the peripheral characters, I’m a motorsports fan and I had a little fun by naming them after race drivers…and a few supportive friends.

th: What was the single most difficult challenge you faced when writingThe Returned?

JM:  Balancing the internal and external conflict with the writing style was the most difficult, I think.  In my opinion, finding that balance is always the holy grail of writing.  Too many writers spend entire novels with characters feeling a lot but doing very little, and then a lot of other writers spent too much time doing exactly the opposite.  So, hopefully, I’ve struck a balance in The Returned.

th:  You spent so much time with this group of characters. Was it hard to let the characters go when the novel was finished?

JM:  Yes and no.  Living with characters during a project is little different than living with people.  Sometimes it’s great, and sometimes you get tired of seeing them.  Haha.  I’ll never truly “let go” of these characters.  They’ll always be a part of me, more so than most other characters I’ve written.  But, at the same time, I’m ready to let them go out into the world on their own and meet new people.

th:  The Returned was picked up by Plan B and Brillstein Entertainment Partners and is now being filmed as a pilot for ABC. Tell me about that process.

JM:  I always wish I had a great story to tell in response to this question. Haha.  But the truth is my agents are so awesome, that they did all the hard work.  When my literary agent, Michelle Brower, first sent the manuscript out to editors, she also sent a copy to a wonderful film rights agent named Sean Daily.  Sean was really excited about the project and hopeful that it would get picked up.

About a month after we sold the manuscript to my publisher, I got an email from Sean saying that there were various people interested in the manuscript.  At one point there were three networks and one film studio with their eye on it.

After that I spent about a week talking to people from the various production companies and Plan B and Brillstein Entertainment really impressed me.  They were so enthusiastic and, more importantly, straightforward with me about their hopes for the project and what they had planned for it that, in the end, I couldn’t say no.

And, frankly, it was one of the best decisions Michelle, Sean and I ever made.  Plan B and Brillstein Entertainment are amazingly talented and artistic people.  Throughout the whole process so far they’ve been more welcoming and genuine than I ever dared imagine.  There are friendships being formed in all of this business that’s happening, and I’ll admit that I didn’t expect that.  But I’m ecstatic about it.

th:   What are you most looking forward to seeing brought to life in the pilot?

JM:  Everything!  Haha.  I have a hard time picking preferences because I know so much about the characters and even the actors playing those characters.  Pretty much the entire cast has contacted me and chatted about the project and the novel—I made sure to get them some advanced copies.  They’re just unbelievably friendly and intelligent people.  It’s been great hearing their thoughts on the characters and the story.

Aaron Zelman’s work with “The Returned” pilot has been nothing short of fantastic.  That guy impressed the hell out of me.  Honestly, there were a few changes he made in the pilot that I wish I’d made in the novel.  I’ve got some deep respect and admiration for Aaron.

th:  What are the most important qualities in remaining sane as a writer?

JM:  Are any writers truly sane?  Haha!  I think the hardest thing is shutting out the voices of doubt.  In the writing process, there are just so many opportunities for rejection, so many chances to give up.  Rejection letters hurt.  Even though it’s nothing personal and it doesn’t condemn you to death as a writer…it can certainly feel like it.  It’s so easy for insecurities to find traction.

The most important thing, plain and simple, is to keep writing. Period.

th:  Do you remember how your interest in writing originated?

JM:  Vividly.  It’s all owed to John Gardner’s book Grendel.  I grew up loving the epic adventures: “The Odyssey”, “The Illiad” and, particularly, “Beowulf”.  So when I was about 13 or 14, I came across an excerpt from John Gardner’s Grendel.  For those who haven’t read it, it’s the story of Beowulf told from the monster’s point of view.  Well, that basically blew my mind. I didn’t know that, as a writer, a person was allowed to do that, to take a story as large and established as Beowulf and reinterpret it.  He breathed new life into Beowulf and gave me license to write.  I vividly remember thinking “Wow! People can do this?”  Not long after that I started writing little stories.

th: Is there a different process for you when writing poetry vs. writing a novel?

JM:  Definitely.  By its nature, poetry is much more “bite sized.”  It still takes planning, but not on the scale required for a novel.  My novel-writing process is extremely systematic.  My poetry-writing process is as well but, again, the novel is just that much larger.

The two processes are far too much to go into here, but one big difference is that, with the novel, overall cohesion is dramatically more important.  With a poetry collection, things can be “apart” and yet “together” all at the same time.  With the novel, there’s much more dovetailing that has to happen in order for a narrative to be cohesive and carry a reader through.

th:  So, what’s up next for you? Is there another novel on the way?

JM:  Definitely.  Right now I’m hip deep in the next novel.  I’m pretty excited about it, but it’s still too early for me to talk about it just yet.  I will say that it’s another magical realism story that takes place in a small, southern town.

Apart from that, I’ve been testing my skills at comic book and screenwriting.  Those are both mediums that I love and I could be very happy writing in them in addition to novels and poetry.

th:  Is there a topic that you really want to write about?

JM:  Heroes—and I’m not just talking supeheroes.  In a sense, I’m always writing about heroes.  It’s a topic that is a perpetual thread in human society and something that’s painfully complicated.  I love finding comparative literature on the subject and, for me, it’s the aspect of writing and human nature that I’m most fascinated by. 

th:  What is the best piece of advice you have ever received when it comes to writing?

JM:  “You’re only as good as your work ethic.”  I’m paraphrasing, but one of my writing mentors, Philip Gerard, instilled that in me a long time ago and I really do believe it can be the foundation of every writing career.  There’s a horrible misconception that good writing sort of “just happens.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It takes daily effort and work.  I always tell people:  If you wanted to be an Olympic runner, you’d run every day.  Writing is no different from that. 

th: Ok, last question. This question is obviously the most important and will define you for decades to come. What’s your favorite word?

JM: Two words: "shenanigans" and "huzzah!" I overuse those far, far too much.

Editor's note: Reviews for the The Returned are already starting to pour in. I’ve read the words “brilliant”, “stunning” and “exceptional” several times from the lucky few that have already gotten a peak. As a fan of books and being swept away by an amazing story, I can’t wait to read it. The Returned will be available on August 27, 2013.

The Returned  was also featured on 

Photos 1 -2 courtesy of Jason Mott

Since this interview took place, Jason Mott was featured on "10 Must-Watch Summer Breakouts. "The Returned" pilot was also picked up as an ABC series titled "Resurrection". Rock On!

Website for author and book