It was less than a month ago, when it was announced that author Jason Mott's debut novel, The Returned, had been optioned by Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company, with the goal being to develop a TV drama series for ABC, based on the "high concept" novel.
In light of conversations we've had on this site about the dearth of novels by black authors adapted for the screen (big or small) here in the USA, and in this case by a high profile, A-lister like Brad Pitt, it didn't take much coaxing to get me to act on the opportunity to interview Jason Mott - while I still could, before he becomes one of the so-called "untouchables" in Hollywood, when it would become a challenge to reach him.
The novel, The Returned, won't be published until September 2013, so I obviously haven't read it, and I'm guessing no one else as - well, except for those who are involved in the TV adaptation of it.
There was reportedly a bidding war for the rights to the novel, among several production companies and studios, suggesting that it's a strong, commercial, high concept work that will translate well to the screen.
So, what's The Returned about? Here's its short synopsis:
A family gets caught up in a worldwide event in which loved ones return from the dead exactly as they last were in life. Lucille and Harold Hargrave wonder: Is their dead eight-year-old son’s return a miracle or an impending sign of something horrible?
Mott, who, by the way, is also a published poet and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, says the story was inspired by several things - from reading literary classics like The Odyssey, I Am Legend, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Lord Of The Flies, as well as and comics and graphic novels, to sci-fi movies like Soylent Green, to a dream he had two years ago, which stayed with him.
After tracking him down on Twitter, and getting his email address, our interview soon happened. We covered everything from the novel itself (how it got Brad Pitt's attention, what we can expect, etc), to the writer, Jason Mott (his inspiration, influences, goals, etc) in what I think is a comprehensive read.
As you'd expect, there were questions about the upcoming TV project that he couldn't yet answer, or couldn't answer in full, with good reason.
TO: From the quick research I did, while "The Returned" is your debut novel, you've written and published 2 books of poetry, is that correct? I haven't read your work yet, but I'm curious about how you made the leap from poetry to writing what sounds like an epic, sci-fi/mystery/thriller novel.
JM: Yes, “The Returned” is my debut novel, but I’ve actually written fiction for a very long time—longer than I’ve written poetry, now that I think about it. I tend to oscillate between the two. I’ll spend several months (or years) writing fiction, only to step away from it and write exclusively poetry. In school, my undergraduate degree was focused on Fiction while my graduate degree was focused on Poetry. I think of myself as a bi-athlete.
TO: Will you be involved in the adaptation of the novel?
JM: Most likely, only indirectly. I’ve had a couple of phone calls with some people on the production team, but that’s about it thus far. I would love to be involved but, at the same time, I respect the team taking charge of the project and I trust them to handle “The Returned” wonderfully. Plus, my plate is already pretty full these days.
TO: Is screenwriting something that you plan to pursue, on top of your poetry and novels? Is Hollywood a goal?
JM: Screenwriting is most definitely something always in the back of my mind. I’m a huge film geek and I do have some stories that I feel would translate well to the screen. So, yes, I would say Hollywood is a goal, just not an immediate one. I would also say that writing for comic books is also a goal. I have a few comic book scripts that I would love to get into the right hands, but that’s another story. Ha! My immediate goal is committing myself to the success of “The Returned” and to build my reputation as a novelist. Hollywood, comic books, whatever else…I’ll cross those particular bridges when I come to them.
TO: A question that I think many will have is, how did your debut novel come to Brad Pitt's/Plan B's attention, given that it's still a year away from being published? Apparently there was a bidding war for it between several studios and production companies. How did you get to that point, from the time you started writing it, to studio bidding wars for rights to it?
JM: Ah, the backstory. Haha. Well, it’s all a bit of a whirlwind and it’s both more exciting and less exciting than most people expect. The idea for the novel came to me in July 2010. I spent about a year working on it and, luckily, landed a terrific agent (Michelle Brower) not long after I completed it. We then spent some time polishing it up and, when we found my publisher, MIRA, my agent teamed up with a magnificent film rights agent named Sean Daily. And, for lack of a better description, Sean worked his magic.
This is the part of the story that’s less exciting than people think. Since the news came out, lots of people have been asking me if I know Brad Pitt. I think people imagine this scenario where Brad Pitt and I met over coffee and I wowed him with this amazing pitch and we became fast friends. I wish it was anything that dramatic! Haha. The truth is Sean Daily did all of the work. I was busy working with my wonderful new editor at MIRA. Then, every so often, I’d get an email from Sean saying that such and such was interested in making a movie out of the book or that so and so was interested in making it into a TV show. He really handled all the particulars. When the bidding war broke out, he was the man in the trenches. I just tried to stay out of his way and let him do what he does best.
Eventually there was a pretty exciting week where I did conference calls with several producers from the realms of both television and film. In the end, the team from Plan B and Brillstein seemed to fit best with my hopes for translating “The Returned” to the screen. They really are a great group over there!
TO: Can you tell us anymore about the story, the key characters in it, what we can expect, dominant themes, message, and anything you can tell us about the novel's contents, other than the short synopsis that is public.
JM: At the end of the day, “The Returned” is a book about the connections between people. It’s a 300+ page snapshot of a world in which connections broken by death are, suddenly, re-established. It’s about being reunited with someone that you’ve let go of—whether you wanted to or not. I think readers can expect to be put in a position where, once they’ve finished the book, they retrieve photo albums from the back of the closet and, for at least a little while, try to reconnect with someone they’ve lost.
If I can achieve that, if I can help people remember someone they loved, someone they haven’t thought about in years, then the book will have been a roaring success to me.
TO: Any other projects in the works - whether poetry, novels, or even screenplays/scripts for movies or TV?
JM: Right now the biggest thing on my plate is my second novel. I’ve just started into that full swing and I’m very excited about it. However, I will admit to working on a few comic book scripts on the side as well as toying around with a movie script I’d like to, eventually, turn my full attention to. But that’s further down the line. First things first. My poetry has been placed on the back burner for now, but I’m sure the pendulum will swing back in that direction very soon.
TO: An option isn't always a guarantee of anything; is there an ETA on when the novel will become whatever it is that Plan B wants it to be? How far along in the development process is it?
JM: At this point, from what I hear, they’re developing a script for the pilot. I haven’t heard much in regard to a specific timetable. But, then again, I’m pretty busy working on things relating to the publishing side of “The Returned” these days.
TO: You identify primarily as a writer? Or more than that?
JM: Writing is definitely where my heart is. It’s where my heart has always been. So while I am many other things, I’m a writer first and foremost.
TO: Influences and inspirations?
JM: John Gardner and William Golding are probably my biggest writing influences. John Gardner especially. “Grendel” and “October Light” are books that I reread every year. After Gardner and Golding it becomes a very long, complex list of novelists, poets, comic book writers and movie directors who have influenced me. I will say that the Cohen Brothers are probably my favorite directors right now—with Darren Aronofsky and Korean director Kim Ki Duk hot on their heels.
TO: Some of your own favorite writers?
JM: This list could get obnoxiously long, but here are a few: Cormac McCarthy, Neil Gaiman, Junot Diaz, Mark Waid, Toni Morrison, Dalton Trumbo, J. Michael Straczynski, Orson Scott Card, A. Van Jordan, Pablo Neruda, and Joseph Campbell. Okay…I’ll stop now. Haha.
TO: What are you reading currently?
JM: I recently finished “The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey and “Age of Miracles” by Karen Thompson Walker. Both pretty amazing books! I also just finally got around to reading Frank Miller’s “Batman: Year One.” Miller’s got a definite knack for working with Batman.
TO: How long did it take you to write "The Returned?"
JM: About a year, I guess. More if you count all the editing. It began as a short story, then a novel outline, then the actual novel.
TO: You're currently based in North Carolina, correct? Any plans to move west?
JM: No plans…yet. In my heart, I’m a country boy. I love North Carolina and I love small-town life. But, at the same time, I’ve got friends in California and, more than that, there are a few more opportunities for writers out west. So we’ll see. As long as I’ve got my laptop, I’m happy wherever I am.
TO: As you were writing the novel, did you do so knowing that you wanted to see it adapted for the screen, big or small?
JM: Not at all. I try not to think about that kind of stuff when I’m writing. I’m really good at getting tunnel vision (just ask any of my ex-girlfriends) and, when I’m writing, I pretty much just tuck my head down and focus on the story. Anything else—thoughts of making it into a movie, thoughts of marketing it, etc—gets tossed to the wayside. Once I’m done I’ve got a core group of friends who read my work and offer feedback. They’re usually the ones who will say things like “This could be a good movie” or whatever. A good friend, Justin Edge, believed “The Returned” would make a good movie or TV show from the very beginning. He has terrific instincts for what a story can become. He’s terrific at seeing the big picture—imagining all the ways something can develop. I don’t think I really thought about it.
TO: Would you say you have style, or are there common themes that run through your work, no matter what format?
JM: Most of my work deals with either small town life or heroic stories. I was born, raised, and still live in a town of fewer than seven-hundred people. I live on a dirt road. I tell some people this and they look at me like I’m an alien, but I really do love it. There’s a strange intimacy and complexity in small towns. Everything and everyone has a story, and when you interact with someone, you’re not just dealing with them, you’re dealing with their entire family and, to an extent, that family’s history and even the history of the place that family lives. I live in a town where, when you meet someone, they first want to know 1) what your last name is and 2) which area you’re from. With those two pieces of info, you’d be amazed how much you can learn about someone around here.
There’s a lot of richness in that and the other “anomalies” that can only be found in small towns. So my fiction tends to try and explore those things.
My other love is heroic tales. I’m a big Joseph Campbell fan and the study of the hero has always fascinated me. I’ve studied up on “society and the hero” more than most people would believe. I’m utterly enthralled by it. That’s why a lot of my poetry deals with folklore, mythology, comic books, and superheroes.
TO: Short term and long term goals?
JM: Short Term: make “The Returned” a success. Also: try not to drive my editor and agent insane. Haha! I have no idea how they put up with me sometimes.
Long Term: establish a diverse and meaningful body of work. Something that combines John Gardner with J. Michael Straczynski or Neil Gaiman.
Jason Mott lives in Bolton, North Carolina. He has a BFA in Fiction and an MFA in Poetry, both from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His poetry and fiction has appeared in various journals such as Prick of the Spindle, The Thomas Wolfe Review, The Kakalak Anthology of Carolina Poets, Measure and Chautauqua.
He was nominated for a 2009 Pushcart Prize award.
His inspirations often come from mythology, folklore, exploration of the sonnet form and, most often, comic books. His first book of poems We Call This Thing Between Us Love was a finalist in the 2009 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Contest and was published in December 2009.
His most recent collection “…hide behind me…” is available now from Main Street Rag. It can be purchased here: www.mainstreetrag.com.
I thank Jason for this time, and we look forward to seeing what comes from The Returned, as well as his other film & TV-related projects.