Lies Bring Tragedy in Scott’s Debut Novel
An exclusive Authorlink interview with James Scott,
Elspeth Howell is a midwife who frequently leaves her isolated farmstead in 1890s upstate New York for months at a time to deliver babies in surrounding towns. With Christmas approaching, she hikes the long trek home through the snow, carrying gifts for her family in her pack. As she approaches, she is met by the horrific sight of her youngest daughter lying dead in the snow. After finding more of her family murdered and barely surviving a shotgun blast herself, she sets out with her only remaining child, 12-year-old Caleb, to find the killers.
|“The initial idea was a simple image—that of a boy wiping the snow from his dead sister’s face.” |
AUTHORLINK: What gave you the idea for this story and how did it develop?
SCOTT: The initial idea was a simple image—that of a boy wiping the snow from his dead sister’s face. Not a pretty image, I know, but something about it wouldn’t let go of me. I tried to write the book at that time—around 1999 or 2000—and put it down (thankfully). I picked it back up again when I went to graduate school five years later. I wanted to write a novel for my thesis, and that image was still there.
AUTHORLINK: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing or did it come to you as you wrote?
SCOTT: I didn’t know for the longest time. Maybe that’s what took me so long to write the book, or maybe that’s what kept me going. I’m not sure. I do know it was the last piece to fall into place. I wrote 40 or 50 wildly different endings, but this one felt right as soon as I wrote it.
AUTHORLINK: How do you build a story around a central character who by most standards could be the villain, if looked at from a different point of view, or even from her own point of view?
SCOTT: I don’t think of her as a villain at all. That was important to writing her, I suppose, that I didn’t see her as being evil. Hero and villain is such a binary format; I wanted to create something a lot more complicated, where every character had some of each, and the difficulty, then, was trying to humanize all of them. For Elspeth, I think her desires are reasonable, it’s her way of sating them that’s so horrifying. And since the desire is relatively universal, or at least understandable, I needed to make it so overwhelming that a reader could identify—maybe just for a moment—with what she does as a response.
AUTHORLINK: Your story has many characteristics often associated with westerns, yet it is set in New York. How did this idea come about?
SCOTT: My grandparents lived most of their lives in Syracuse, New York, and my father bought a house way in upstate New York when I was a kid, and those long, dreary drives for the holidays or the summer stuck with me. I read all the time back then (and still do, obviously) and got into Southern gothic at a pretty young age, but I’d never been to the South, so the only setting I could picture those psychologically complicated tales of violence and empathy taking place was in upstate New York. In terms of westerns, specifically, I enjoy writers like Ron Hansen and Cormac McCarthy, who have updated the genre in a variety of ways.
|“The hardest part was studying midwifery, which took the longest time . . .”|
AUTHORLINK: How did you do your research to recreate this unforgiving, gritty time and place?
SCOTT: I saw a lecture with the wonderful writer Tom Franklin a few years ago, and he said his greatest piece of advice was to buy a Sears catalog, because everything is in there, and he was right—clothes, medicine, weapons, candy. Elspeth gets a job cutting ice from the lake, and that’s something that’s always interested me. That research came easily. The hardest part was studying midwifery, which took the longest time, and was the densest and most disturbing material to get through. Eventually, a friend directed me to a midwife who also—luckily—studied medical history, and she helped me immensely.
AUTHORLINK: What challenges did you have, as a man, in writing a story about a woman, who has to take on a man’s role in avenging her family?
SCOTT: There was a lot of blind faith on my part, and the biggest example is probably what you’re asking about—I never once thought about how readers would receive a man writing from the perspective of a mother.
With some of the traditions I was looking at, the male and female roles are so well defined that the gender roles became another way of playing with expectations. Subverting those expectations meant surprising the reader, and that’s something I always try to do. I never want a reader to know what’s on the next page.
|“I learned to write short stories after failing numerous times to write a half-way decent novel.”|
AUTHORLINK: You published short stories before your debut with this novel. Do you think your success with those helped in writing and selling the novel? Did you try to sell other novels before this?
SCOTT: I learned to write short stories after failing numerous times to write a half-way decent novel. I needed to understand arcs and compression, beginnings and endings, and short stories helped immensely with that.
I think publishers looked at the novel all on its own, as they should, but in terms of finding an agent and making friends within the writing community, writing stories gave me a foundation and some confidence. Maybe someday I’d like to tackle a collection, but I think I’m a novelist at heart. I like all those open spaces.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?
SCOTT: I’ve started another novel, set in the 1990s in Vermont, but it’s a long road. This one took more than eight years, so I’m not in a rush. And I’m enjoying touring with The Kept, going to independent bookstores I’ve heard and read about my entire life, but it’s made it tough to work on a big project that requires so much attention.
|About James Scott:|
Scott was born in Boston and lives in western Massachusetts. His MFA is from Emerson College. His short stories have appeared in Ploughshares, One Story and more.
About Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.