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Reply to: The Kept: Q&A with James Scott

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Replying to: The Kept: Q&A with James Scott

1) Can you tell us what The Kept is about and why you think readers would enjoy it?

The Kept is set in the winter of 1897 in upstate New York in the United States. The story opens when midwife Elspeth Howell returns to her isolated farmstead to find her family has been murdered. All save one of her sons, Caleb, who is twelve years old and in shock from what has happened. After gathering themselves, Caleb and Elspeth are forced to set out to find out who committed this horrific crime and why. As they make their way, Elspeth is forced to confront her past mistakes while Caleb must deal with the world for the first time. The Kept is about the bond between mother and son, the difficulties of parenting, and the strength of family.

These topics any reader can relate to, and I think the enjoyment of the book comes from the unfolding of the plot and the themes that it carries with it. A lot happens, so much that it's difficult to describe and what often constitutes a description is often the first fifty pages or less. Most of my time writing the book was trying to make this plot unfurl in the right way, so that each level gives way to another and another and another... I know as a reader I like being surprised in this way.

2) When and how did you first get the idea for the book?

I first had an image—this came to me around 1999 or 2000—of a boy wiping the snow from a girl's face. A series of questions came tumbling out of that image, and eventually I had enough answers that I sat down to write. But for one reason or another, it didn't work, and I put it away for four or five years. But the story and the images stayed with me, and when I began my MFA program I knew that this novel would be what came out of it.

3) Can you tell us more about Elspeth and Caleb and how you developed their characters?

At the outset of the book, Elspeth is haunted by her past actions. She feels them on her back as heavily as the pack she carries. Her life began as a servant in the home of the van Tessel family, the only child of her parents. When she flirts with the Native American man who works in the stables, both of them are banished from the house, and they build their home on the side of a hill, miles from anyone. She becomes a midwife, and her trips from home are frequent and dangerous in their own way.

Caleb has had his innocence torn away from him forcibly. He's a solitary kid, and other people have asked me if I think he's "weird," but I don't think that's a useful or kind designation. He's different from his brothers and sisters, certainly, and cowed by his father, but he's a brave boy, much braver than I would have been at twelve in any kind of remotely similar situation.

Oddly enough, in writing them I found that I had a lot more in common with Elspeth; Caleb is the one I had to figure out on the page. I drew a lot of arcs to figure out how his thought processes and attitudes were changing. I find that the characters that are more like me tend to be underwritten because I know too much about them already, and somehow—in those early stages—I expect the reader to as well. Because of that, Elspeth was where I concentrated a lot of my editorial efforts. In fact, an early reader for the book thought that Elspeth should not survive the first ten pages. I liked that in theory. It would have been a surprise like Janet Leigh being murdered in Psycho—the star being snuffed out so quickly—but there was too much to say about her relationship with Caleb. I grew to love them so dearly—since finishing the book I miss them terribly.

4) When did you start writing?

I've written since I was a child, for as long as I can remember. Only rarely have I flirted with the idea of doing anything different with my life, but it's always included writing in one way or another.

5) The story is set in 1897 and the historical detail and description in the novel is extraordinary. Did you have to do a lot of research and how did you approach it?

I did some historical research, but not a ton compared to other authors I know who first and foremost identify themselves as writers of historical fiction. I read about removing ice from lakes, and I read a lot about obstetrics in the late nineteenth century, but most of my information in terms of clothing, appliances, and guns came from old department store catalogues, which are a wealth of fascinating information.

6) Who are your literary idols?

Oh, there are so many! I like a lot of the masters of Southern gothic, new and old, from Flannery O'Connor to Carson McCullers to Faulkner to Tom Franklin. I love the Biblical rhythms and weight of Marilynne Robinson. Tim O'Brien was the first writer who made me understand the process of choosing the plot and the words; he demystified the idea that you sit down and stories appear like magic. There are a lot of writers that I draw lessons from whose work I don't think mine resembles in any way (though I'd love it if it did!): David Foster Wallace, David Mitchell, Kazuo Ishiguro... But for me, the one writer I could not do without is Cormac McCarthy.

7) What were you doing before you were writing?

I supported myself with a series of short-term jobs that I wouldn't have been tempted to take on as a career. But even when I was working two jobs out of college, I made time to write.

After I'd published some short stories, I was fortunate enough to teach some fiction classes at an amazing writing center in Boston called Grub Street. I love teaching, and it helps my writing immensely. Those classes helped energize and support me through a long writing process.

8) What advice would you give to budding authors who wish to be published?

First and foremost, I'd ask if they want to be a writer or if they want to write. It's a difficult life with lots of rejection, and if someone wants some abstract idea of a lifestyle, they won't make it. If, however, one feels a burning need to put words on paper, or to tell stories, or to make sentences sound a certain way, then he or she is already on their way. But one needs to keep improving. To this end, I think young authors need two things: someone to emulate and someone to commiserate with. The former helps keep them on track and focusing on what they want to be. The latter helps to deal with rejection and serves as a sounding board. I was fortunate enough to have the incredible Margot Livesey to look up to, and countless other writers who I count among my best friends—and most trusted critics.

9) What are your writing habits?

I usually write new material late at night. A lot of the time, I start off listening to music to get a feeling for what I'm doing or to set a tone. Editing is a daytime activity for me, though, because it requires my full faculties and it's much more of a rigid, systematic process. Running or some kind of exercise is an important part of getting unstuck because I turn over whatever issues I've encountered in the day's writing without actively thinking about it while I run. I write on the computer for the most part, though I take notes on scraps of paper and in notebooks, but once I write it down, I usually remember it well enough that I don't need to consult the notes. I also read every draft aloud in hard copy, red pencil in hand.

10) Have you got another book in the pipeline after this one?

I hope so! The Kept took over eight years to write, and, as I said before, it took four or five years of thinking prior to that. I hope this next one will go faster, but one never knows. I do know it is set during the 1990s in Vermont, a beautiful, independent-minded state in New England, and the main character owns an architectural salvage shop. It's still very much in flux, though, and in the very early stages.

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