CONTRIBUTOR INTERVIEW: Laura van den Berg interviews James Scott

Your story “Salt Air” appeared in Memorious 13. Can you tell us a little about how that story came to be?

Like most stories, it began with a piece of thievery. I was reading Kevin Wilson’s awesome collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, and the title story struck me in particular. I liked the idea of people undertaking ultimately futile tasks simply because they can’t think of anything better to do. I told Kevin I was going to steal it, so I’m not sure if that makes the stealing more or less egregious. The idea (again, Kevin’s idea) kept with me for a while, and then I’d always wanted to write a story about running.

I think I was reading the Murakami memoir at the time. The setting came pretty naturally—one of my favorite places to run happens to be in Maine. Using those aspects as scaffolding, I just needed something for them (there had to be two—I’m nowhere near confident enough as a writer to take on a story about one person running at night) to be running “from.” The fact that they share the same father found me somehow.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing the story?

Unlike many of my stories that I really have to wrestle with and argue with and throw pots and pans at, “Salt Air” came about so quickly and naturally that the hardest part definitely came in the editing process. I think because it happened so fast, the story felt more of a piece than most, and so it was more difficult to see what wasn’t working and then get in there and fix it. So I became stuck. Fortunately, friends unstuck me and gave me some great advice, especially Chip Cheek, who must have known it by heart he read it over so many times and gave such great advice.

What’s your favorite opening line from a short story?

Oh, man, there are so many I love. Not simply because I owe him one, but Kevin Wilson’s first lines are drop-dead amazing. It’s one thing that I wish I could steal from him, but I just have to learn from them, especially the way they often play off the titles. Pretty swell, that Kevin Wilson. But ever? I thought I couldn’t pick just one. But… “Edna and I had started down from Kalispell heading for Tampa- St. Pete, where I still had some friends from the old glory days who wouldn’t turn me in to the police.” Richard Ford, “Rock Springs.” No one could resist reading the next line and the next and the next. And that’s the point. It’s a great sentence. Such a sense of history, a voice, a setting, and characterization all right there. Most great sentences kind of swirl around and fall gracefully like maple seeds. But this one is more like a roller coaster that picks up steam, pauses at the middle (St. Pete) and then races downhill and smashes into a wall.

What are you reading now?

I just read the first three stories in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage, which is fantastic so far. I actually read it in the sauna at the gym, which seems really weird, but it’s a sign of a great story if I don’t even notice how long I’ve been in there. Hopefully none of them are too long, or it may kill me. If you haven’t heard from me in a few days, check the sauna and tell Bonnie Jo Campbell I must’ve really loved her book.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing a novel set in 1897. It’s been a long haul. The book deals with some pretty heavy topics, and I really have to be in a place to get into that. After a bit of a break, I’ve been working steadily again, and I’m hoping to finish it in the next couple of months. I’m really excited about getting more into revision and seeing it as a whole.

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