Jason Mott is the New York Times best-selling author of, “The Returned.” Mott wrote “The Returned” while working as a customer service rep at a Verizon call center. How explains how he was able to write while working. The book was haphazardly on a mail pile when a bored literary agent waiting for a meeting picked it up off an assistant’s desk and leafed through. He contacted Mott and sold the book to Harlequin. Brad Pitt bought the TV rights and sold it to ABC to create the new ABC TV series “The Resurrection.”
Jason Mott lives in southeastern 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 literary journals. He was nominated for a 2009 Pushcart Prize award and Entertainment Weekly listed him as one of their 10 “New Hollywood: Next Wave” people to watch. He is the author of two poetry collections: We Call This Thing Between Us Love and “…hide behind me…” The Returned is his first novel.
The Returned has also been optioned by Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, in association with Brillstein Entertainment and ABC. It will air in March, 2014 on the ABC network under the title “Resurrection.”
Visit Jason Mott’s official website at www.jasonmottauthor.com.
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Start of Interview with Jason Mott
Jason Hartman: It’s my pleasure to welcome Jason Mott to the show. He is a New York Times bestselling author. His latest book is The Returned and he’s got some others as well. I think you’ll be very pleased to hear about his unique publishing success. Jason welcome, how are you?
Jason Mott: I’m doing great. Thank you for having me.
Jason Hartman: Good, good. And you’re coming to us from North Carolina, is that correct?
Jason Mott: Yes. From a little town called Bolton which is in South East North Carolina.
Jason Hartman: Excellent. Well tell us about your career in publishing. It’s pretty unique, isn’t it?
Jason Mott: Yeah, it’s definitely a very unique point. I started off as a publishing writer, through college at least. I did undergraduate degree in fiction, a graduate degree in poetry, and started working trying to get some poetry books published. In the mean time I was also writing novel manuscripts here and there along the way. And I got two poetry books picked up from different publishing companies here in North Carolina. They were printed and it was very exciting. And at the same time I was working on the same novel that I mentioned. And I finished the manuscripts, sent it out to a few agents, and got lucky enough to find an agent eventually. And then the novel got picked up, television writers got an option and now it’s a television series on ABC. And things are happening really quickly.
Jason Hartman: Fantastic. Well, congratulations on your success. It’s pretty awesome. So my understanding is that you wrote The Returned, and that’s your latest, while working as a customer service rep at a Verizon call center. Is this true?
Jason Mott: That is absolutely true. When you graduate from college with a masters in poetry, there’s not a lot of jobs lining up for you.
Jason Hartman: So you get a job at the Verizon call center with your masters in poetry, right?
Jason Mott: Exactly.
Jason Hartman: This is a crazy world in which we live. How did you do that while working? Has Verizon sent you a nasty letter and asked for their money back saying that you were sleeping on the job basically?
Jason Mott: Thankfully no. While I was at Verizon I did manage to get the job done. There was a unique thing about that job. Ultimately there was only four or five different types of calls. And once you learn that it becomes a very routine job. People call in with a few of the same problems and you learn to tackle those problems. So what I would do is, because I managed to get pretty good writing habits, so every day that I went into work I would take in my notebook and I would have a problem of the day for writing. So that morning I would kind of pick out, I need to work on this character, or I need to work on this section of the project, and I would go to work and as people are yelling at me in my ear about how their phone is broken, I will sit there and make notes about all these different things that I was working on for the character and for the story, then I would go home at night and just kind of download. Just type all of it out and work on the problem. And I kept doing that.
Jason Hartman: So you didn’t bring your laptop to the Verizon call center?
Jason Mott: No, no. I wasn’t quite that bold.
Jason Hartman: Okay, alright. So you brought a notebook in there and as people are just going on and on about their phone problems, you’re actually writing a book.
Jason Mott: Exactly. I was just at it every single day, and talking to people on the phone all day, you get some really interesting character notes. And you find people that have weird habits and weird voices with the way they speak, so it was actually all good fodder for building characters and for building stories and projects. It worked out really well actually.
Jason Hartman: Be careful, because by saying that Verizon might ask you for royalties. You use their customers as character development, huh?
Jason Mott: Wouldn’t surprise me.
Jason Hartman: That’s fascinating. So just out of curiosity, I’ve got to expand on this Verizon thing a little bit because it’s so…Jason, come on, this is a rather crazy story, you must admit. There are only four different problems people call with, you say, huh?
Jason Mott: Yeah, exactly. There’s something’s wrong with my bill, something’s wrong with my phone, I want a new phone, or I’m just kind of calling because I’m frustrated in general. Those are pretty much all the calls that you actually get. They come in different flavors, they’re dressed up differently when they come in, but they’re really all the same kind of calls. So a minute and a half into the call you already know what kind of call type it is and you just kind of start going through the patterns, getting the problem taken care of in that format. And at that point you can mentally start working on the project and start doing a few things on the side as you’re having someone check their phone, check their bill or whatever it is. It’s amazing how you could multi-task. You learn to multi-task really, really well working there.
Jason Hartman: Jason, I can just picture this now. “Will you hold please? Let me just check with my supervisor” and while they’re on hold you’re actually writing a book.
Jason Mott: I try to keep from putting on hold. I don’t like to be put on hold, so I try not to do that. But that’s a brief summary of how it all happened, yeah.
Jason Hartman: Okay, so just take us into the character… what would happen? The irate customer would call and start yelling and screaming, and how did that lead to character development for the book?
Jason Mott: Oh yeah, definitely. People would call in and as soon as the call comes in they’re blasting you: “your company sucks” “you’re terrible” and they would go at it for a minute and a half to two minutes before they even told you exactly what the problem was. They just had to vent. But one thing that was always unique is that typically if you let them get it out, they calm down and you can actually figure out what the problem was. So it was something you learned about.
For me, I learned a lot about people and people’s behavior. I learned that people speak indirectly about the things they really want. If people really want to have something done with their bill, they’re going to talk about 5 other things that are going on until they get around to it. And it just made for wonderful fodder for characters. I could create these characters who’d be talking in a roundabout way and kind of liked to fight each other a little bit, but they were really loving. It’s amazing how people don’t talk directly, but they try to…if you just listen to what they’re saying indirectly you can really find out what they’re looking for.
Jason Hartman: So tell us how the discovery happened. My understanding, and this is another totally unique part of your story, is the book was haphazardly discovered on a pile of mail when I literary agent who was just kind of bored waiting for a meeting picked it up. What happened there?
Jason Mott: Yeah, it would actually be the intern that kind of found it. I’d sent it out to a lot of different agents, and got rejection letters from a lot of different agents. So I didn’t think the project was going to go anywhere. And then after a few months, and a whole stack of rejections I won’t say I’d given up but I’d definitely gotten to the point where I was ready to move onto the next project. Just kind of ready for the backburner.
And then I got a contact – I got an email from this intern that said she’d stumbled across it and she liked it and she wanted to pass it up the chain to an actual agent. And she did, and then a few days later I got a phone call from the agent saying that she’d read the book and she loved it, and wanted to work with me. Things started there. We started learning how to be an agent and a client. We got through the whole initial process, and it was case where this intern who probably wasn’t getting paid very much at all, so I’m very much still in her debt to this day.
Jason Hartman: That’s fantastic. What an amazing story. Well, what advice do you have for people who are aspiring writers or already writers in terms of getting books published, self-publishing, writing, you know just anywhere you want to take it.
Jason Mott: Yeah, sure. I could talk at length about that. I have lots of advice. I think one of the biggest things that I’ve learned, and I was actually speaking to someone about this the other day, is that there is an apprenticeship here that writers kind of have to go through and it’s a very grueling, very tough period. Some people call it paying your dues. I think of it a little differently. For me, the return is probably my fifth or sixth manuscript that I’ve written. Like a full length actual book that I’d actually written. And the others went nowhere. They’re still sitting in the closet, just completely terrible books. But the reason for that is, it took me those five or six other manuscripts to learn how to tell the long story. Writing in the long form is very, very difficult. It takes practice, it takes training. And so there’s a habit to think that the first book you write has to be the first book that gets published because you’re a writer and if you don’t do it in the first book then you’re not meant to do it.
But I think it’s actually the opposite of that. You have to write the first book and expect it to be a failure. You cannot put all of your hopes into that first novel. You go back to the second novel, the third novel and each time you do that you learn more about telling that story of 90 thousand words. It takes practice to do that. So that’s one of the biggest tips I tell people. Don’t be afraid to serve your time and to learn more about writing. If you finish that first manuscript, start your next one. Don’t hang up. Don’t put all your eggs in that first basket, don’t worry about that first book. Finish it, send out queries, then start the next one immediately. Just keep writing. You have to keep writing.
Jason Hartman: So persistence. We’ve heard that one before but it’s certainly true. You’ve got to earn your way and learn how to craft the long story. But you say that crafting the long story is difficult, and I certainly agree with you that it is, but when you look at your first couple of manuscripts that were your apprenticeship, the ones that probably never be published, what changed? What’s the difference? What did you learn specifically in terms of writing the long story?
Jason Mott: I think a lot of it for me was learning the difference between writing for yourself and writing to an audience. Whenever you’re writing a novel or a poem, whenever you’re writing anything you have to remember that you’re writing for other people. When I look at those first couple of manuscripts, the stories that I told there were stories very specific to me. There are a lot of things that don’t get explained because in my brain I knew what the explanation was, but I hadn’t really learned yet how to bridge that gap between the author and the reader. You have to learn how to bridge that gap. Having a wonderful story is good, but if you’re having a wonderful story where the only person on the planet that really understands what’s happening in it is you, you actually have a pretty bad story and it’s hard for anyone else to get into.
So in those early manuscripts I hadn’t really learned the value of the reader and how to speak to the reader and not just speaking to myself in the actual writing. Then as I went on through the other manuscripts I think I got better at that. I learned a little bit more about how this scene is telling the reader this, and I learned how to tweak those scenes and kind of tie it up a little bit better to where it’s spoken the way I want it to speak.
Jason Hartman: Are your books released on audio as well?
Jason Mott: Yes. It’s on audio, it’s on digital. All that kind of good stuff. It’s in all different formats.
Jason Hartman: And do you do your own narration?
Jason Mott: No, I do not actually. The publisher has a wonderful narrator who does a terrific job with it. So at this point no I do not do my own narrations.
Jason Hartman: I’m just kind of curious when you talk about telling the story and the difference between telling it to yourself in your own mind and telling it to outsiders.
Jason Mott: Yeah, I think it’s a very interesting process. I learned a lot of it from doing public readings actually. Myself and a friend, we hosted this public reading series where every few months we read short stories or poems or whatever. And every time I went and did that reading, I would learn a little bit more about how the story that I was telling, the reaction that it got from readers, and what points people were kind of hung up on as listeners… you just learn a lot about narrative and how it interacts with actual audience members or readers or whoever they are. So that was a very helpful period for me as well.
Jason Hartman: Now, see that’s a great tip you just gave. Doing public readings helped you understand how to tell a story to an audience. Because you get instant feedback from the audience. Do they get it? You can tell from the body language if they actually get what you’re saying.
Jason Mott: Exactly. You can tell if they understand what you’re saying, you can tell if they’re drifting off which means that your writing is probably a little flat, you can tell when they’re really into it. If you hit a good note you can hear the audience kind of hold their breath a little bit. You really learn what you have on the page as opposed to kind of thinking what you have there. You can watch the reaction. You can sit there and read the story and hear and see what the story’s doing to people. And that will really help you refine your process as a writer. You can learn what tools make certain things happen to readers or listeners, and it has actually been a valuable tool that I think few writers take advantage of. We get afraid to do public readings because we’re afraid to be in front of a crowd and put ourselves out there. But it really does help. It helps in tremendous ways.
Jason Hartman: Yeah, I would totally agree with you Jason. That’s a very, very interesting point and I really would doubt that many fiction writers would think that they need to practice their public speaking to be good fiction writers.
Jason Mott: Yeah, exactly. And I know a lot of fiction writers who, they’re great on the page, but they haven’t learned how to read aloud but you read their work and you love it and then you go to hear their reading and you think that it actually fell a little bit flatter than you thought it would be. Because learning how to read in front of a crowd and really tell a story, it takes practice.
Jason Hartman: Sure. No question about it. Tell us about your movie deal. Brad Pitt bought the TV rights? Is that correct?
Jason Mott: He did. His production company Plan B picked up the television rights. And I have not met Mr. Pitt. People always ask if I’ve met Brad Pitt. I have not met him yet – maybe one day. But it was a fun process. When we actually found a publisher for it, my agent sent the book to a wonderful film rights guy. He did whatever magic that he does, and about a month or so after we found a publisher, he sent me an Email saying that there were a few different networks and one film studio all interested in the project. So with Plan B, which is the one owned by Brad Pitt, when they kind of came on board, I was already a fan of theirs. I’m a big movie buff. I knew who they were, I knew their body of work. They came to specialize in book to film translations. So I was really kind of already moving in their direction to start with.
And during the talking process, trying to talk about if they wanted to project, their visions came along with my vision of the project. They wanted to keep it true to the spirit of the story, but also bring in new characters and make their own movements as well. And I think we were just a good fit. We kind of understood each other pretty well. So we optioned it, and I really didn’t expect it to go anywhere. Books get optioned fairly frequently, but it’s rare that you actually see them go into production.
So with the option I was waiting and expecting not to hear much about it, and then two months later they had a writer for the pilot, a month after that they had a director for the pilot, and then they started casting for the pilot. Things happened dramatically fast. The book had not even been released yet. We were still almost a year away from actually having the book released. They were casting and they shot a pilot down in Atlanta probably about last year. It finally got picked up in May of last year. They shot the whole season over the summer before the book even launched. So it’s just been a whirlwind in that regard.
Jason Hartman: Yeah, it sure has. Are you at liberty to talk about the business deal, or what did you charge them to option it and what did they pay for it? If you’ll share that, I’m sure listeners would be very interested.
Jason Mott: No, unfortunately we’re not allowed to discuss that.
Jason Hartman: I just thought I’d ask. So that’s interesting. Has that actually been released and appeared on TV yet?
Jason Mott: Yes, actually. It’s about 5 episodes in. It’s on ABC network. It’s called Resurrection. It aired on May 9th and got wonderful ratings, something like 20 million viewers tuned in, it was one of the most highly rated debuts of this year, and they’re about 5 episodes in and they’re doing a terrific job with it. So it’s running Sunday nights at 8pm on ABC.
Jason Hartman: So when it comes to the business side of writing, is the money in the TV deal or is it possible for authors really to make real money on just strictly books? Most people in our industry think the book is just the lead in, it’s an entry point, it’s a business card, it’s a tripwire to a movie deal or a tripwire to selling one’s own services for example if it’s a business person. Or other things like that – maybe to consulting work depending on what the subject matter is of course. I’m talking nonfiction in most of those. How does that play out?
Jason Mott: I would say that the TV deals are really, I don’t want to say overrated, but I think the reality of them and the expectation of them are two very different things. TV deals are not huge. You’re not going to retire from a TV deal, you’re not going to change your whole life from a TV deal or anything of that manner. Same thing for movie deals. Unless you’re JK Rowling TV deals are secondary. If you’re a writer and you plan to write novels, you should really focus on just the craft of writing those novels. You’ll build your reputation, build your repertoire, build this body of work that you can really stand in and kind of represent who you are and build your career off of that.
With television and film, getting one option to begin with is difficult enough but going from option to production is dramatically difficult. To counter perspective, when the television series went out for a pilot last year, it was a pilot season. The network was kind of choosing shows they want to watch and things like that and want to pick up for the fall. So the television series that it got optioned in my book was one amongst about 180 television pilots all trying to get picked up. And I think ABC wanted to pick up maybe 6 new shows. So if you can get optioned for a project and even if it gets produced as a pilot, you’re still one among probably about 180 shows all fighting for the same 6 positions. So those are the odds you’re fighting against.
Jason Hartman: Those are pretty big odds. That’s very true. But on the television show, you do get ongoing royalties, right?
Jason Mott: Yes. You do get ongoing royalties, but those are kind of percentages as well. Even that number isn’t quite as grand as it may seem. If you do have funding and it’s a television series and it gets picked up for syndication, then other things come into play and you’re going to make out a little bit better in that regard. But syndication has to run for 5 years which is against all odds as well. So there are definitely a lot more complicated aspects to the whole process than people think it is. That’s the main thing I want to kind of convey.
Jason Hartman: Okay, yeah. Good point. And I’d just like to ask you a couple more questions before you go. First of all, what places would you recommend where writers can learn their craft better? Outside of working at a Verizon call center, are there any books that you’d recommend? Are there any online courses, university courses. . .?
Jason Mott: Sure. There are two books that I’d definitely highly recommend. One is titled simply The Art of Fiction. And it is written by John Gardner. He’s a fabulous writer whose one of my major influences as a writer. His book really breaks down what fiction is and kind of how to write. The second one is actually Stephen King’s book Writing Down the Bones. He does a just brilliant job of showing you how to become a writer. He’s very good at explaining things. So those two books will do wonders for you. The other tip that I would give is to look for writing conferences. There are lots of writing conferences all across the US and almost any of them will help you become a better writer. Because what they do is they put you in a room with other writers, and you learn to exchange work and learn to see other writers writing from a critical standpoint and that helps you look at your own writing from a critical standpoint as well. So those books and then writing conferences with other writers. Build that community of writers around you, trade work with people, that’s the biggest help you can get.
Jason Hartman: What do you think of writers, and I kind of have a feeling that you’re going to say you don’t use any of this, but some writers do, what do you think about software for writing?
Jason Mott: Yeah, I have not used any software writing. I heard a lot about it – I’ve heard of things that kind of help you organize your thoughts. I think whatever works. If that kind of software helps you then by all means go for it. I think I’m still kind of old school, I use dry erase boards for charting out character outlines and things of that manner, but my philosophy is whatever works to make you a better writer, use that tool and make it part of your life. So if somebody finds writing software to be very helpful for them, by all means use it.
Jason Hartman: Fantastic. Jason, give out your website and tell people where they can find you.
Jason Mott: Sure. My website is JasonMottAuthor.com, if you go there it will give you information on upcoming events, news, about books and all that kind of good stuff. It’s the best place to go and help you find my Facebook account, Twitter account, JasonMottAuthor.com.
Jason Hartman: Excellent. Well Jason Mott, thank you so much for sharing your ideas – you’re a true inspiration. And that was fantastic to learn from you, and the funniest part is that Verizon call center stuff. I just love that.
Jason Mott: It was a good time. Thank you so much for having me.
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Transcribed by Ralph