Monday, January 13, 2014

My First Time: James Scott

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is James Scott whose just-published debut novel, The Kept, is earning lots of praise fresh out of the gate with many critics comparing it to the works of Cormac McCarthy.  Set in 1897, the book takes readers on a harrowing journey across a wintry landscape as Elspeth Howell and her 12-year-old son Caleb search for the men who murdered the rest of their family.  “The Kept is a deeply moving, disconcerting novel…Scott manages something quite difficult here, balancing both terror and tenderness with apparent ease. By the end of the book, you’ll be convinced that he can do just about anything” (Kevin Wilson, author of The Family Fang). Scott was born in Boston and grew up in upstate New York.  He holds a BA from Middlebury College and an MFA from Emerson College.  His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, American Short Fiction, and other publications.  He lives in western Massachusetts with his wife and dog.  Click here to visit his website.

My First Time Saying Goodbye

The original idea for The Kept came to me in 2000.  It may have been 1999.  I wrote a few pages, excited by the imagery and the familiar winter landscape of upstate New York.  Something didn’t click, however, and I knew I wasn’t ready, and I put it away.

Only I couldn’t shake it, and I started again in my early days in the master’s program at Emerson College.  I’ve lived with Caleb and Elspeth Howell for fourteen years.  During that time, I’ve moved nine times, met my wife, lost too many friends, gained many others, and married my wife.  The only constant was my bleak story of a quiet child, his flawed mother, and their murdered family.  At times, I hated them and wanted them to go away.  But this was no more serious than a child’s tantrum, and the next day we’d all pretend nothing had happened, because I loved them more than I could say and much more than I could undo with a day or week or year of frustration.

I took the book as far as I could on my own.  I got an agent and he and I worked on the manuscript for three more years.  Trusted friends read drafts.  But still, it was very much my own.  Good readers—and I mean readers in the sense of workshoppers, I guess, those that are trying to help make the book better—understand that ownership and are sensitive to it.  The book went out to editors and it surprised the hell out me that a number of them liked it.  My weird little book? I thought, My story that an agent had told me was unpublishable?  But the book sold, and I edited with my editor, and proofread with the proofreader.  Even her notes, which were fantastic, were filled with statements like This is fine, but… and Did you mean this?  The book still belonged to me.  Caleb and Elspeth were on loan, but I could put them back in their box at any time.  Maybe some part of me needed to believe this in order to keep working.  I don’t know.

The manuscript went to the printers (I suppose.  I mean, clearly someone printed it, but a lot of the details are cloudy to me.) and a beautiful galley came back.  I flipped through the pages and read something at random.  There they were, Caleb and Elspeth, my—friends?  That doesn’t seem to quite cover it, but “family” sounds ridiculous.  Anyway, they were still mine, bound as they were.

I was lucky enough to go to the fall conference for the New England Independent Booksellers Association in Providence, Rhode Island.  This is nice, I thought.  I felt special.  I went to dinner with sales reps and booksellers and other Harper authors.  Some of them had been kind enough to read my book, and they asked me questions and they talked to me about my characters.  It felt strange.  One woman said, “I have a theory about your book I’d like to discuss with you.”  I said I’d love to hear it.  She relayed a very well thought out, plausible alternate reason why a certain twist in the plot had happened.  I stared at her blankly.  I remember telling myself, Say something, you moron.  I gawked for a while.  Somehow, I stammered something out, but I can’t recall what it was.  As a table, we talked about what it felt like to have your book out in the world for the first time.  My book had been out in the world, to me, for about twenty-five minutes.  Twenty-five very surreal minutes.  For people to talk about it, I said, is kind of like someone telling me about a dream that I’ve never mentioned to them.

It got more surreal for me.  The next morning, I signed books at the Harper table.  I tried to make my signatures the same, but sometimes they’d be loopier and sometimes they’d be flatter.  Several of the booksellers had read galleys already, and I answered more questions.  It felt even more dreamlike.  At times, I’d lose track and wonder, How do they know all this?

When I was done signing, I wandered the hall, checking out the other publishers and their books.  A woman with short black hair stopped me and apologized for bothering me.  She held a copy of The Kept under her arm.  She saw me noticing it and said, Oh, I’ve already read it.  I wish I could remember what she said.  Something about Elspeth.  Something sweet and flattering.  What I do remember is it was personal to her.  It’s strange to say, but somewhere in there, in a hotel conference room in Providence, Rhode Island, I understood for the first time that the people who would be reading my book would be bringing their own experiences and personalities with them.  How did I not understand this sooner?

In the days leading up to the release of The Kept, I have been fortunate to do several interviews with very smart people.  They ask great questions and proffer opinions of their own, and again, they are all intelligent and sweet and flattering.  I love it.  I really do.  I worked in the dark for so long that for someone to gather the energy to ask me about what I did with all of that time is an honor.  The sensation I can’t lose, however, is one I’ve been experiencing for a while now: I miss Caleb and Elspeth.  I know this is corny and melodramatic.  I do.  But I picture a copy of The Kept draped over the arm of a chair, a comfortable chair, a reading chair, and there are pages left to be read, and I know that the quiet boy and his flawed mother have been trudging through the snow, huddling around a fire, pulling ice from a desolate lake, sweeping the floors of a brothel, loading their guns with shaking hands, and they’re doing it all without me.

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