Award-winning novel uses comedy to address the dangers of being black in America | Art Stories and Interviews | Saint Louis

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Dutton/Michael Becker

Jason Mott will read an excerpt from his National Book Award-winning novel Hell of a Book at The High Low on Wednesday, June 29.

Not too far in Hell of a Book the main character, an anonymous black author of a book of the same name, is sent by his publisher to a media trainer, Jack the Media Trainer. The mood of the interaction between them is immediately set by the trainer’s “torpedo” handshake, which the author says could “pierce my spine.”

Jack says the author doesn’t know what his book is about and, in fact, doesn’t know who he is as an author, let alone how to present himself for optimal sales. Jack says it in different ways, all of them weird and funny.

But perhaps the most telling is when Jack says, “Who you are defines the world you exist in.

The author’s agent interrupts the exchange with a video of a shot black child. She demands that the two men look at each other, really look at each other. It is a serious moment filled with real emotion. It’s also, in a way, hilarious.

All of Hell of a Book – which won the National Book Award in Fiction in November – mixes humor with the heaviest subject matter. It’s overtly the story of an author on a book tour who sees a boy, The Kid, whom no one else can see. It is also the story of a boy living in a rural town; it explains how the world is different and dangerous if you are black and what that means for parents and children.

Hell of a Book is part comedy and part drama,” says Jason Mott, the actual named author of the book. “The heavy moments and the serious subjects, it was the meal. It was the main meal I had to work on to be successful. But then the comedy part was dessert, and I love dessert.

Mott says the book and his genre mashup started in 2013. He had recently finished promoting his book Income. It was a great but also “crazy” experience, and he started thinking about writing about an author while on a book tour, an idea his agent initially didn’t like.

Then, a few years later, Freddie Gray was arrested and killed by the Baltimore Police Department. Mott had a close friend living in Baltimore, and the two spoke daily as riots broke out.

“I wanted to make sure he was okay,” Mott says. “It led to this three-week discussion about just being black in America and our memories and our childhood and a lot of different things. And at the end of it all, I was really overwhelmed by it and depressed. And he said, ‘You know, you should write something about it.’ »

Mott decided to combine a story of being black in America with the ultimate book tour, wanting to challenge himself with juxtaposition. While working, however, he says the comedy became a way to deal with the inherent sadness of the subject.

There wasn’t really a moment when he was convinced that everything would work out; it was a book he wrote for himself in many ways. But positive feedback from her agent and early readers provided that reassurance. It is a book that dives heavily into Mott’s perspective and life experience. We see it in the anonymous author’s expressive imagination, which literally renders him incapable of distinguishing reality – an exaggeration of how Mott uses his own imagination as a writer. Another theme that runs throughout the book is people’s ability to become “invisible” in order to stay safe.

“I was kind of the alien kid, so I was bullied a lot, and I remember getting on the school bus and wishing I could just disappear,” Mott says. The book also discusses the danger of drawing attention to yourself as a black person, especially a black man in the United States, and how parents teach their children to fit in.

Mott included several scenes from “The Talk”: the discussions black parents have with their children about a world that is not safe for them. One occurs when the narrator gorges himself on candy outside a Hershey factory while talking to a boy no one else can see.

Becoming invisible is a double-edged sword, in multiple ways, says Mott.

“If you’re teaching a person or even a group of people to assimilate, blend in, and fade out, that’s exactly what they want to do,” he says. “They disappear, they lose their voice, they lose their identity, they lose their ability to be what they really want to be and what they could become. … That’s the dangerous side of this invisibility.

In Hell of a Book, Mott seeks to uncover this lost identity not only as a person but also as a black writer and writer. He talks about the pressure of being told by some not to write about being black and by others to only write about being black.

“All minority artists need to relate to it,” says Mott. “It’s very exhausting, frankly.”

One thing that isn’t exhausting is winning the biggest book prize in the United States. Being on the long list was exciting enough, but getting a phone call from Ruth Dickey letting her know he had made the short list was even better. (Mott was driving and jokes that he almost crashed.)

Then he found himself at the National Book Award ceremony, preparing a tweet of apology for his friends and family who had taken the time to watch the live broadcast. Instead, they called her name.

“I was stunned,” Mott says. “For example, it took me days to start treating it. And now, about seven months later, it’s starting to show.

Find Jason Mott at Up down (3301 Washington Ave, 314-533-0367) for a Left Bank Books event at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, June 29.

Irene B. Bowles