An Indies Introduce Debut Author Q&A With James Scott

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James Scott’s debut novel is The Kept. Scott holds a BA from Middlebury College and an MFA from Emerson College. He has received awards from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Tin House Summer Writer’s Conference, Yaddo, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, among others, and his work has been shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize and nominated for Best New American Voices. Scott lives in western Massachusetts with his wife and dog.

What inspired you to write The Kept?

James Scott: There were two main things I took into the writing of The Kept. The first spark was an image that I couldn’t shake, that of a boy wiping the snow from a small girl’s face. The other was reading Southern gothic literature, which I’ve loved since I was young, and transplanting those tales to the closest approximation of that landscape that I knew: the wide-open space of upstate New York on the way to my grandparents’ house or to a cottage my father owns on the St. Lawrence River.

The Kept deals a lot with family and retribution. What do you hope readers take away from your debut title?

JS: That’s a great question, and one that’s tough to answer without giving a lot away. I’d hope readers would emerge with a deeper understanding of the characters and empathy for the things they’ve done and the things they’ve had to do.  More generally, when I finish books I really like, I feel an acute sense of loss — I miss the characters and the world in which I’ve been living. So if someone felt that way upon turning the last pages of my book, I did my job as well as I could.

Were books an important facet of your childhood? If so, what book had the greatest impact on you as a child?

JS: As important as anything. I’ve always been a night owl, and when I was little, I would read by the light from my closet. I read aloud with my mother every night, too, and we took turns reading classics like Tom Sawyer and The Secret Garden and we tore through everything by E. B. White and Roald Dahl and the Chronicles of Prydain, a five-book series by Lloyd Alexander. The book that had the greatest impact on me, however, was The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg. Those unsettling drawings and the one, isolated line from each haunted me, and I wrote stories for all of them, trying, somehow, to finish them.

When did you know that you wanted to pursue a career as a writer?

JS: For as long as I can remember. Before the Harris Burdick stories my most famous work was probably my epic “Mashed Potato Land.” With each obstacle and rejection, though, there’s a recommitment, and to get to this point after working on this book for eight years is both surreal and gratifying.

Are you working on anything now?

JS: I work on stories all the time, but I’ve also started another novel. It’s in the very early stages. The setting is Vermont in the 1990s, and the main character owns an architectural salvage shop.

When you travel, do you stop at bookstores? Any particular indies make a lasting impression?

JS: I always stop at the local bookstore, even if it’s shelves of used books in someone’s old shed (those are very independent!). In fact, on our honeymoon, my wife and I made one stop: Malaprop’s, to stock up for the week. Living in Boston, I became really spoiled by all of the great indies: Newtonville, Harvard, Porter Square, Brookline, etc., but fortunately I recently moved close to Odyssey Bookshop, another amazing store.

My publicist laughed when she saw my list of bookstores that have either made an impression on me or that I’ve heard about for so long that they’ve achieved a mythical status in my mind. I’m lucky enough to be headed to many of them on the tour for The Kept — Square, Lemuria, Parnassus, Tattered Cover, Northshire, Water Street, Gibson’s...  My two homecomings will be Newtonville Books (where I saw hundreds of readings and bought hundreds of books over the years) and Alabama Booksmith (my wife’s family’s local store). I cannot wait.  

What book is on the top of your nightstand “stack?”

JS: I specifically arrange the books in a row so that I don’t feel too obligated to reach for whatever’s on top, but in that row is Duplex by Kathryn Davis, O Pioneers! by Willa Cather, & Sons by David Gilbert, The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee Jr., and The Visionist by Rachel Urquhart.

I keep a couple of story collections there, too, that I read if I’m between novels or too tired, and right now they’re The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg, I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro, and The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell.

If you were a bookseller for a day, what book would you want to put in every customer’s hand?

JS: Giving or recommending a book is kind of like taking a personality quiz about the recipient, so the idea of one book for everyone is slightly terrifying, but I’d say Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. The Biblical rhythm contrasts so beautifully with the tenderness of the images and the vibrancy of the characters. It’s alchemy. I reread it every year.

The Kept by James Scott (Harper, Hardcover, 9780062236739) Publication date: January 14, 2014

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