Contributor James Scott’s debut novel, The Kept, has been getting outstanding reviews from The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and more, as well as starred reviews from Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly. But here at Memorious, our interest in Scott goes back to 2009/2010 when Scott’s story “Salt Air” appeared in Memorious 13. In an interview with contributing editor Laura van den Berg, who asks what he is working on at the time, Scott says, “I’m writing a novel set in 1897. It’s been a long haul.” That long haul ended this year in a rich and dense novel that is a coming-of-age story, a murder mystery, and a story of family; this is the story of a mother, Elspeth, a midwife who is a thief of children, and her journey with her 12-year-old stolen child, Caleb, who seeks to avenge the murder of the only father and siblings he has known. The novel’s settings are vivid and lasting, from the homestead the novel begins in to the corrupt town where it ends. To champion a young protagonist in his battle through a largely unforgiving world may be a familiar, albeit satisfying journey for a novel, but to simultaneously bring us into the world of the mother who is this boy’s own only through a terrible crime with violent ramifications takes an art that Scott masters. James Scott has been kind enough to answer a few questions for us about the novel.
What was it like to leave behind Caleb and Elspeth after spending so many years with them? Have you imagined what becomes of the characters beyond the ending of your book?
You spent so much of your mental energy and reserve so much mental space for a couple of people and then all of a sudden they’re gone– it’s strange. I’d find myself thinking, “Oh, this is something Caleb would think” or “This is something Elspeth would do” and it would make me sad, honestly. I miss them. I really do.
So many of your characters are difficult yet compelling. (I’m thinking of Jorah and Elspeth for example, but there are others.) Who did you find most challenging to create with this level of complexity?
Thank you for saying that. The toughest character to write, actually, was the one who you would expect is the closest to me: Caleb. After all, I was once a twelve year old boy in upstate New York. However, Caleb hasn’t experienced the world, and I was quite precocious, and something about depicting his survivor’s guilt at witnessing his family’s murder while maintaining his innocence and inexperience proved really difficult for me.
What drew you to the particular landscape you chose for this novel?
My grandparents lived most of their lives in upstate New York and my father bought a house on the St. Lawrence River, and on those long drives, I would read. As a teenager, I fell in love with Southern Gothic, and because I’d never been to the South, I could only picture those stories happening in a place I was familiar with: those barren stretches of the New York State Thruway. Or, rather, what I imagined took place once you got out of view of the highway.
What kind of research did you do for this book?
I saw a panel with Tom Franklin many years ago, in which he advised anyone writing historical fiction to get a Sears catalog– and he was right. Everything is in there: medicine, guns, clothes, toys. I read newspapers, and looked through a lot of photo banks and museum databases. The toughest research in every way was looking into the history of midwifery and childbirth, but I fortunately eventually found someone who helped me out immensely with all that. She was not only a midwife but a student of history.
What’s the most surprising thing that’s happened for you with this novel’s entrance into the world?
To be perfectly honest, it’s all surprising. I worked on this book for so long while purposefully ignoring what might happen when it was finished and then what might happen if it was published, that once those things happened, I had no expectations. It runs counter to how I usually am, because I usually try to map out all options and possibilities, and so it’s kind of nice to take everything as it comes.
Are you working on another novel and/or do you see a return to the short story? Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
I still write short stories in breaks in the novel action, and I think that’s how I’ll continue. I’ve started another novel, though it’s been tough to work on it with everything that’s going on, that’s set in the 1990s in Vermont.
Last question: what’s in your reading queue? And fellow debut writers our readers should be looking out for?
I loved Molly Antopol’s collection of short stories, The UnAmericans, Rachel Cantor’s A Highly Unlikely Scenario, and Rachel Urquhart’s The Visionist, all of which are debuts, and all of which are fantastic, and I’m looking forward to Jesse Donaldson’s first book, but on my to-read shelf right now is Orfeo by Richard Powers, The Last Days of California by Mary Miller, At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcon, All That Is by James Salter, On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee, and For Today I am a Boy by Kim Fu. There’s never enough time, is there?
For original poetry, fiction, art, interviews, and art song, visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.