Jason Mott on his National Book Award-winning novel “Hell of a Book”
The novel – his fourth – follows an anonymous black author who goes on a publicity tour across the country to promote his bestselling novel. The book also tells the story of a young black boy named Soot who lives in a rural town in the not-too-distant past and a character known as The Kid, who may be imaginary.
In his online acceptance speech, Mott dedicated the award “to all the other crazy kids, all the strangers, the crackpots, the bullied ones. The ones who are so weird they had no choice but to be misunderstood by the world and by those around them Those who, despite this, refuse to exceed their imagination, refuse to give up their dreams and refuse to deny, diminish their identity, or their truth, or their loves, unlike to so many others.”
Mott told “BETA” on Wisconsin Public Radio that he likes stories that go beyond the confines of traditional storytelling.
“Don’t get me wrong. I really appreciate a very normal type of storytelling, straight from A to B to C,” he said. “But the ones that always stick out in my memory are the ones that do things very differently and have that kind of creative flourish. When I was younger in undergraduate fiction writing, I did a lot of stories really unique, creative and weird. , and (I) kind of walked away from it, and wanted to go back.”
Luckily, for Mott, he wasn’t under a book contract at the time he wrote “Hell of a Book,” so no one had high expectations for this novel.
“This novel was just me and the page having fun“, Mott said.
Mott said “Hell of a Book” gave him the opportunity to play with language in ways he hadn’t been able to before. This freedom was the result of not being beholden to a book contract.
“It was a novel that I wrote for myself and the frills and the fun and the silliness and then also the heaviness and the accuracy of the language and the use of film noir as a mechanism to tell the story of black America,” he said. “It was ultimately just a place where I didn’t care how the book was going to be reviewed by other people or the people I admire. It was just the book I wanted to admire for my own reasons. , and that helped me write it the way I wanted to write it.”
Charles Youwho won the 2020 National Book Award for his novel “Interior Chinatown”, was one of the judges for the 2021 National Book Award. His comments on Mott’s work: “‘Hell of a Book’ is more than worthy of its title. Playful, probing, raw and necessary, this writing, this novel upset me and upset me, dazzled me, surprised me, and moved me.”
Besides the black author who serves as the narrator, there are also two other very important characters – Soot and The Kid.
Mott came up with the character of Soot as he wrote about his thoughts and feelings about being black and some of his memories of growing up.
“And it was just a hodgepodge of things – some real, some imagined,” he said. “The Kid kind of appeared one day, almost like he does in the novel.”
Mott was reviewing the scenes with the author because he had already written those scenes. While doing some revisions, The Kid suddenly appeared and started talking to the author.
One of the most powerful storylines in “Hell of a Book” is the tragic police shooting of a young black boy. The shooting is broadcast several times on the news, so it is a recurring motif. Mott said these were some of the most difficult scenes to write.
“Almost every day there was a report of a new shooting. I set up a Google alert at some point to try and keep track of things, and it started flooding my email box” , explained Mott. “And so I wanted to reflect that. Writing those scenes was very difficult because it forced me to really deal with how often this thing happens and the feeling that I kind of have when you hear about those shootings. And they just don’t go far, and you try to ignore them because you’re overwhelmed.”
The narrator is a film noir enthusiast and often speaks in a harsh noir style. Mott admits he sees a connection between film noir and what it means to be black in America. He said that film noir is detached from reality, and it’s a space where language works in a very specific and unique way.
“And I think that’s a lot of the way America deals with black culture,” he said. “Black culture becomes this commodity thing where people talk a certain way, and they walk a certain way, and they dance a certain way and all of those things. So I think there’s a parallel in how film noir is kind of seen as this unique genre. And I think, Unfortunately, much of black culture is seen as a unique thing that stands apart from American culture and American identity. So I think there’s a certain similarity there.”
Mott also points out that when film noir was at its peak, black people in the United States did not have the opportunity to be in these films or to share their stories through this genre.
“So I think that’s where there’s a bit of dissonance and disconnection that I’d like to see, that’s what made the novel fun and interesting for me because it kind of felt like the novel was trying to send this message that people don’t think black people connect to things like film noir or all of these genres that we consider very American,” Mott said. “We don’t often think about minorities and love for black kids to somehow connect with them. And they are and they do.”