Jason Mott’s Hell of a Book is a dazzling, perfectly balanced novel that mixes fantasy with devastating reality, wit with sorrow, loss with wisdom and hope. BookPage reached out to Mott to talk about how he crafted this novel about an unnamed author whose novel is also titled Hell of a Book, and who has a strange relationship with a possibly imaginary boy.
Your protagonist has an unusual relationship with his own imagination. Does this sense of fantasy and reality bleeding together come from your own experience as a writer?
Most definitely. For myself, and for many others I’d bet, the real world gets a bit overwhelming most days. That’s what led me to books and, later, to writing. The real world was more bearable if I could escape into imagination on a regular basis.
Fast forward a few decades, and I’ve been living in imaginary worlds so often and for so long that, well, it’s sorta hard to turn the dream machine off! But I wouldn’t change that for anything. I feel bad for people who only live in the real world when there are entire universes waiting to be imagined.
What’s behind the decision to keep your narrator unnamed? Was there ever a time when you considered offering a name, even a generic one, to the reader?
The nameless narrator component is a pretty complex one. It serves a lot of purposes for the goals of the novel. Two of this novel’s themes are identity and hiding. Characters are struggling with who they are, who other people think they are and their desire—or lack of desire—to be seen. And so, it followed that the narrator would function beneath this veil of anonymity. I wanted him to be specific in his character but generic in his role, and so having him remain nameless served that goal.
I spent a lot of time debating on whether or not to give him a name. Honestly, naming him felt like a much safer bet. Unnamed narrators generally don’t have a good track record when it comes to how readers respond to them! People want to know who they’re investing their time and emotions into. So for a few revisions, the character did have a name. (And I’ll never tell what it was! Haha!)
But the more time I spent with him having a name, the less I liked it, and eventually I decided that this novel was going to be the one in which I let my creative side fully work on its own terms. And so the name went away.
Your author contends with the very specific anxiety of never really feeling like he knows what his book is about, at least not in the way that other people would like him to. Is that something you’ve experienced, now that you’ve been through the publishing promotional machine a few times?
Once art is created, it no longer solely belongs to its creator. It becomes a shared commodity that, over time, is owned more and more by those who engage with it. That took me a while to learn. I’ve met readers over the years—both industry professionals and regular readers—who have told me what they saw in my books, and sometimes they would see things very differently than I intended, or they would find things I never intended. That took some getting used to. I think it’s a component of every author’s or artist’s life that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough. In Hell of a Book, this gets magnified and even becomes a bit of a running gag at moments.
There’s a sense (avoiding spoilers here) that the narrative gets away from the author over the course of the book, that he was hoping to tell a different kind of story. What is that disconnect? Does this happen to you when you’re writing a book?
My goal for Hell of a Book was for it to function in the way that I believe Impressionist paintings work: to forgo realism and verisimilitude in favor of evocative richness and empathy. In general, my books often end up somewhat different than I expect when I first begin writing them. The way I describe the process is this: When I start a novel, all I know for sure is that I’m taking a cross-country road trip, and eventually I’m gonna end up at the Pacific Ocean. Maybe that’ll be in California, maybe that’ll be in Canada, or maybe even in Peru. Who knows? I just look forward to the journey!
“I feel bad for people who only live in the real world when there are entire universes waiting to be imagined.”
The novel’s descriptions of book touring are surreal. What’s the strangest book tour experience you’ve had as an author?
Oh man . . . this is a loaded question. I’ve had quite a few strange book tour experiences ranging from a man very obsessed with my teeth, to having a media escort who was driving me to a venue come terrifyingly close to plowing over a pedestrian, to finding love—briefly—to passing out in the middle of an airplane aisle from exhaustion. So . . . which of those stories do I tell? I should save some of the strangest stories for future writing projects, so how about a more heartwarming story about a mix-up caused by the letter “e”?
I was in St. Louis, and this woman comes out to my event with her 11-year-old son, dressed in a beautiful St. Louis Cardinals jersey. It was a few minutes before my reading was to begin, and I saw the two of them lingering around the store, obviously waiting for things to start. Everyone takes their seats, and the bookstore owner gives me a wonderful introduction. As soon as I step up to the podium, the boy wearing the baseball jersey raises his hand. He says, with a mixture of confusion and annoyance in his voice, “You’re not Jason Mott.”
And well, obviously I was Jason Mott. But it turned out that I wasn’t Jason Motte, the relief pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals whom the boy had convinced his mother to bring him out to see in the hopes of getting his baseball signed. Pretty strange how something as small as an “e” at the end of a name can ruin a boy’s dreams for the evening.
After figuring out about the mix-up, the boy and his mother actually stayed for my reading and wound up buying my book anyhow. I autographed it for him and basically kept trying to apologize for not being the Jason Motte he’d hoped I was. Luckily, he was a nice kid and seemed to take it all pretty well.
“I’ve gained a new confidence as a writer, and I hope that it leads to more creative exploration and new paths of storytelling in the future.”
What did you learn about yourself as a writer, from a craft perspective or a personal perspective, through the writing of this book?
This might be the most difficult question for me to answer. Honestly, I’m still unpacking what I learned from this novel, particularly from the personal perspective. If I had to give an answer, I would say that I’ve learned to lean into who I am as a person and as a writer. I’ve wanted to write this type of novel for years but avoided it for various reasons. And there was a time when almost no one believed this novel could work. (Full disclosure: A lot of that could be due to how terrible I am at describing my works in progress.) I’ve gained a new confidence as a writer, and I hope that it leads to more creative exploration and new paths of storytelling in the future.
In that same vein, Hell of a Book is obviously contending with a lot of Black Americans’ pain at various points in the story. How did the writing of this novel serve you?
There was a lot of meditation and catharsis in this novel. A massive amount of its creation was simply the act of me trying to figure out my thoughts on life as a Black American. While countless others have added to this conversation, I felt that there were still parts of this topic going undiscussed and, even more, not explored through fantasy/absurdist methods. So this novel served to help me find my own way of—hopefully—contributing to America’s ongoing conversations on race, identity and healing.
“Hell of a Book allowed me, finally, to play with language in a way that I hadn’t been able to before, which made for some of the most challenging and fun writing I’ve ever done.”
The snappiness of the novel’s language sometimes feels like the story is set within the world of a black-and-white film, like His Girl Friday. You’ve said that using this style gave you some distance from the events of the novel. How did that work for you?
So glad you asked this! The first thing you need to know is that there are three great loves in my life: language, writing and movies. I’m a film junkie. I have been for my whole life, and I always will be. And one of my favorite genres is the film noir that emerged in Hollywood from about the 1940s to the late 1960s. The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Night and the City, Out of the Past, Kiss Me Deadly—the list goes on.
When I was writing this novel, I wanted to include my love of that genre and its use of language. Film noir is a beautiful time capsule of language. Its use of slang, its pacing and cadence—film noir treats the American English lexicon in ways that few other media have, and that fascinates me. Hell of a Book allowed me, finally, to play with language in a way that I hadn’t been able to before, which made for some of the most challenging and fun writing I’ve ever done.
How do you hope readers will approach this book, and then leave it?
My hope is that they’ll approach the book with openness. One of the mottos I live by is that you have to be willing to meet others where they live. I believe that mindset leads to better understanding and empathy overall. So I hope that readers come to this book willing to meet it where it lives, which is a place of absurdity, tragedy and uncertainty. I know that can be a lot to ask of a reader, which is why I worked hard to try and offer something rewarding for the readers who come to this book: sometimes comedy, sometimes catharsis, or if I got lucky enough in the writing, maybe even joy once in a while.
As for when the reader leaves? Well, I hope they never leave. I hope this book stays with people. I hope the Author, the Kid, Soot and the world they live in bleeds into the world of the reader for years to come. Because, if that happens, maybe the real-world events that these characters are so haunted by can be changed in the real world. And then maybe these types of stories won’t need to be written anymore. Wouldn’t that be something?
Author photo by Michael Becker Photography