[Check out the first part of this interview
is a poet and novelist. His first two collections of poetry,
We Call this Thing Between us is Love
Hide Behind Me
, were published by
in 2009 and 2011, and his first novel,
, was released in August 2013 with
and has been adapted for the television show,
, by Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B. Mott was nominated for an NAACP Award in the category of “Outstanding Literary Work—Debut Author” in 2014.
airs on March 9, 2014.
This conversation took place in May of 2013.
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum & Matthew Huff:
How did you come up with this idea of the dead reanimating as near-exact copies of their former selves rather than as flesh-hungry zombies or ghosts or something more…. mainstream? I’ve read that the premise emerged from a dream you had.
Yes, I had a dream where I came home from work, just a regular sunny day and my (deceased) mother was sitting at the kitchen table. She was just sitting there waiting for me, much as she had in my childhood when I would come home from school.
It was a weird dream. Humdrum really, a boring type of dream where nothing particular happened. In the dream I just came in like this was a normal occurrence and then she asked me how everything had been going. After that we just spent the entire dream sitting at the table and talking about everything that had happened since she died.
I told her going to undergrad, about grad school, new friends I had made…just normal life. She harassed me about still not being married. There was no dramatic ending to it; I just remember waking up and being incredibly emotionally distraught. I expected to walk out and find my mother in the other room.
I told one of my good friends (Justin Hedge) about this, and he brought up the notion that I might not be the only person with these experiences. “What,” he asked if it weren’t a dream and it was happening to people across the world?” He ended up talking me into writing a short story about the experience. I read the story at a reading we were doing together a bit later, and it was received very well— visceral responses from everyone. After that we talked a bit about whether or not it had potential as a novel, tossed around story ideas, and then I started writing.
So the two of you did a sort of “treatment” for the novel like a film?
Yeah, we bounce material and ideas off of each other all the time. This was one of the ideas that Justin believed in more than I did, but it ended up working out.
is a complex novel with a particularly vivid world. How did you go from dream, to premise, to a world rich with such varied characters, settings, and conflicts?
It started slowly. We started talking about how people would react when their family members started returning. On a small scale, it is first perceived as a miracle. But on a larger scale you’d have to have people who could help place these returned back where they belong or to help you find someone you thought might be returned. Thus the “Bureau of the Returned,” a government agency designed to help return the returned to their families and to make sense of them. They, of course, coalesce an extreme level of political power and wealth as the crisis escalates and, by the end of the novel, are on the verge of taking over the world.
We wanted to develop an organization similar to the Red Cross, something to help people out but also an organization that aided in the organizational properties of the narrative itself…like a character. I figured I needed one government bureau to take the reigns of this problem rather than have many smaller organizations scattered throughout the story. You don’t want to make the reader wander aimlessly; you need to keep the narrative focused as much as possible.
Once we had the Bureau, it was nice because you can give a made-up organization whatever freedoms and limitations you deem necessary. On a small scale (realistically), you have many branches of government that all operate under different rules and circumstances. Then you have different governments that operate differently in different countries. By using the umbrella of the bureau simplified things as it would operate the same on a global scale, the reader doesn’t have to worry about change of rules across various parts of the globe. The book takes a leap from this one small town to this global issue in a simple way. I try not to distract readers too much; that’s something I struggle with on first drafts because I always have tons of distracting elements that need to be streamlined and extricated from the text.
There’s nothing cooler than the massive, faceless corporation. I’ve always been a huge fan of video games and many games make use of this to great effect. I’m a huge fan of this idea and using it in my writing… giving them their own character.
How did you manage to create such a rich, original world without falling into the more standard undead story, i.e.
The Walking Dead
World War Z
Those are great books… but they’re different, that’s all. They’re both well-written, literary, and intelligent. They’re just different stories from
. I never thought of myself as trying to avoid writing another type of book (especially since I’m a big fan of those books), I just chased an idea and the story grew in its own direction.
Like most parents who lose a child, Harold blames himself for Jacob’s death; Jacob wandered off while he was the one who didn’t keep a close enough eye on him. I think this is why Harold struggles so greatly to accept Jacob when he returns. Now he must face his demons… literally…
Exactly. Harold has spent his life hiding from Jacob’s death. Now, there is this paradigm shift and Harold can no longer hide; Jacob is sitting right there on the chair in their living room. That’s why Harold has the most conflict with this change; he can’t hide anymore.
You don’t have any children, but the way Harold and Lucille deal with Jacob and parent him once this conflict is resolved for Harold is wonderfully genuine and authentic. It almost feels “old American”…
Well, I don’t have kids of my own, but when my mom passed, I was twenty-three and my nephew, Justin, was thirteen. I became this type of surrogate wife to my father. I cooked the meals and more or less raised my nephew while my dad went to work. Luckily, I had already quit my job and moved back in with my father to pursue a career in writing, so I was around.
I learned a lot about parenting through my nephew and my father. It was kind of like being thrown into the deep end of the pool; I started my experience raising kids by raising a teenager just a few years after being a teenager myself. It was a quick learning process you might say, because I was learning to take care of someone younger, take care of my father, and also learning to write during this period of my life.
A lot of people have asked me, “Why didn’t you use younger characters for Harold and Lucille?” It’s a popular trend in novels and in Hollywood right now. But the greater the distance between Jacob’s death and his return, the greater the emotional complexity. That’s why it takes the entire novel for Harold to come to terms with what has happened and how things have changed; Harold has been brooding on hiding from his son’s death for fifty years now.
This conflict reaches its climax when Lucille finally confronts Harold about the way he’s treating Jacob. Harold won’t hang out with him or even really acknowledge him; he just sits on the front porch smoking cigarettes while Jacob stands inside the screen door. When Lucille asks why he won’t acknowledge Jacob, Harold says something to the effect of, “That’s not my son.” Lucille smacks him, and Harold has a decision to make. In many ways,
is about marriage; it’s about family.
I’ve never been married, but I drew a lot on my parent’s and my friends’ marriages for Lucille and Harold. I think that in a strong marriage, a good marriage, each person becomes a living representation of the other person’s conscience. So it took Lucille slapping the shit out of Harold for him to be able to embrace Jacob. It took that moment of spurn for him to make that journey. I don’t think I’ve ever properly grieved for my mother; I think that’s partly what allowed me to write so strongly for Harold’s part and to root for him in his journey. Harold and Bellamy were always my focal characters.
The book is more or less about Harold’s grieving and having a second chance. In whatever form you recognize resolution, Jacob’s return was Harold’s chance to find it. Anyone’s death leaves unresolved issues for those still living. Some are bad. Some are good. I wanted to provide, through Harold’s character, some answers to these issues everyone deals with at some point in their lives.
Stay tuned for more of this interview later this week!