On May 22nd, at the 5th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating seven of our authors who have published their debut books this past year. As a lead up to the event, we’re introducing our Debs with a series of interviews about their debut books. This week we’re talking with James Scott about his novel The Kept, which was published by Harper in January and called “a haunting narrative” by The New York Times. James made his One Story debut with issue #96, “The Strings Attached.”
The Kept is a gripping story, full of mystery and complex characters. Set in upstate New York at the turn of the twentieth century, it opens with the scene of a tragic murder. The only survivors, Elspeth Howell and her son Caleb, embark on a journey through the harsh winter landscape to find the men responsible. What begins as a revenge story becomes an intricate and compelling narrative of a mother and son, their late-blooming relationship and harbored secrets.
Our thanks to James for taking the time to talk about upstate New York, his influences, and finding light within darkness.
1. Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?
The book hadn’t been out to editors for long, and I had yet to process the idea that people were reading it (I think this is called denial) so when I was heading out the door one morning and my agent called and asked me if I wanted to talk to an editor, I said, “About what?”
I wish I had a better celebration story, the kind involving a speed boat or, at the very least, jet skis, but because the process is gradual, with the interest and the discussions and the decision and the contract and everything in between and after, I wasn’t sure when to party. (This will be the title of my autobiography: When Do I Party?) My wife encouraged me, though, to revel in it a bit, and we went to a nice dinner.
2. The Kept takes place at the turn of the 20th century in the desolate and harsh landscape of upstate New York. What drew you to this time period and location?
My grandparents lived in upstate New York. I have enough memory of the place to remember the feeling and yet not enough to be beholden to the truth, which is the balance I like to strike. The lake effect snows are the real deal. In this context, ‘real deal’ means something between ‘frightening’ and ‘massively depressing.’ The snow falls as hard and fast as rain. That seemed like a good place to set this kind of story, which is gothic and full of revenge and murder and lies and misdeeds. I love Southern gothic tales especially, but when I started writing, I’d never been to the South, and so the best I could do was upstate New York.
The time period (1897) seemed like one of the last times people could hide as effectively as the Howell family has. The world as a whole was on the precipice of a horrific war and technological marvels and all of it with increasing speed. That notion—of being on the verge, about to plunge downhill—informed the color and tone of the book as well.
3. What kind of research did you do to write this historical novel? Were you inspired by any real places when creating the seedy town of Watersbridge or the violent Elm Inn?
Oh, lots of research. I was worried about getting too involved in the details and so I promised myself to only look up information when I needed it. Still, I read newspapers from the time and spent hours flipping through mail order catalogues, which contain just about anything you might want. Elspeth gets a job cutting ice from the lake, and that research was easy because there are old timey festivals where people still do it. If only Disney’s Frozen had come out while I was writing, I wouldn’t have needed to even look that far.
The hardest research was about midwifery. I spent a lot of time in college libraries reading dissertations and very dry histories of midwife practices. Eventually, I vented to a friend, who, magically, had a friend who not only was a midwife but studied the history as well. What I’d spent three years trying to find she gave me in a fifteen-minute conversation. The lesson, as always, is to not wait to complain.
As far as the setting, I was inspired by the landscape I remembered from my childhood, but nothing too specific. Those places in the book were probably more inspired by other books and films than any real locations or experiences. It will surprise readers to know I’ve actually spent very little time in brothels.
4. Human darkness seems to pervade the novel and its characters—like the murderous brothel owner, London White, and even young Caleb with his constant curiosity about men who kill. What was your fascination with this theme? Did you find some connection between humankind and the harsh northern frontier that you so strongly depict?
It was a tough place to spend eight plus years, I can tell you that much. The story I wanted to tell was a dark one, and it’s certainly populated by characters that are able to navigate that world, but I spent a lot of my time trying to find the light or hope in all of the characters. Even the worst of them has positive traits.
My world view is not as dark as the book’s; it is, after all, fiction. But I’m going to repeat myself to say a couple of things I feel very deeply about this book: 1) I needed a story and a series of settings that could pull what I wanted to from the characters, and that meant something forceful and alarming and rough and 2) I’d rather look for moments of light within darkness than to punish people living in the light by putting them through something dark.
5. This story is very much one of revenge and mystery. When it comes to other stories of those themes, do you have any favorites or influences?
A drive as simple as revenge was a bedrock for the book. But I try to use those elements in the same way as the Southern Gothics I love so much—as a means to explore something deeper about the world, as a path into something more meaningful.
My hope is that both of those things (mystery and revenge) take a back seat as the book goes on and as the drama between the characters and their growing relationship (they’ve never spent much time together before) takes over. I actually became so wrapped up in this aspect of the book that in the first couple of drafts, the mystery wasn’t really answered. It wasn’t important to how I saw the book. My agent, however, very wisely advised me that readers would probably want to know what happened. I guess that’s something readers care about, wanting to know what happened. Who knew?
6. You begin The Kept very boldly with a description of the murdered Howell children. Can you talk a bit about the choice to open the novel with that scene?
It’s strange—the novel has started with that scene since the very beginning, so I haven’t thought much about why. I can’t think of another way to start it. I also knew that the book would be tough for some people to take, and so there was no point in waiting to see. I had no interest in actually showing the children being murdered, so starting in scene with the killings was out.
Obviously it was hard to write. I had to think a lot about the loss of those children, and how to encapsulate that loss and their personalities in such a small space (anything too long and the book would have been stuck in the mire before having a chance to get going). But out of the entire book, that section is the least reworked. The idea had been in my head so long, perhaps, that it came out close to finished.
It’s been really gratifying to hear from people who read that scene, fell into the book, and basically read it straight through. That’s my favorite compliment.
6. Are you working on anything new right now?
I’ve started another novel, set in the 1990s in Vermont. The main character owns an architectural salvage store and he’s also a volunteer diver when someone goes missing or drowns in the town. The Kept has me pretty busy, so I haven’t had much time to work on it, though I recently got away on a retreat and I’m a bit more than a quarter of the way through.
7. What are you most looking forward to about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball?
This may sound corny, but I can’t wait to celebrate with my friends, old and new. I’ve known Celeste, Jamie, Molly, and Rachel for varying lengths of time, and I have read and adored each of their books.
This has all been exciting and overwhelming to say the least, and it will be amazing, weird, incredible and about a thousand other adjectives to be with a group of massively talented people who are also new to this very particular combination of sensations. I’ve known Hannah Tinti for ten years now (which is insane in and of itself) and she’s been such a great friend, editor, supporter and role model that being able to thank her will be a great—and rare—treat. I think that’s the most wonderful thing about this event, honestly, the ability to say thank you.