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  • Tyler Fleser

Interview with Rion Amiclar Scott

Rion Amilcar Scott’s most recent story collection, The World Doesn’t Require You (W.W. Norton 2019), is the second part of the Cross River saga that started with 2016’s award-winning Insurrections (University Press of Kentucky). The collection, which ends with a novella, revolves around the city of Cross River, an east coast town built by rebel slaves in Scott’s alternate reality. Emily Gray Tedrowe has said Scott’s stories “change modes, one after another—realism to science-fiction to horror and back, leaving readers captivated but also intentionally off-balance.” I had the pleasure of talking with Scott about how history impacts his writing, as well as how he builds characters and settings that seem real despite switching genre conventions so rapidly.


The interview below is transcribed but has been edited slightly for clarity.


Tyler Fleser: I wanted to focus on how you write characters and use the past to build Cross River. You’ve talked about how Kin Samson is an analogue for yourself but also how you’ve moved far away from the person Kin represented. We often base characters on ourselves and people we know. Do you see writing fiction as a process of fracturing yourself? If not, what is your process with writing characters?

The World Doesn't Require You book cover

Rion Amilcar Scott: Yeah, I start wherever makes sense. Sometimes I might start with myself. I mean, it's never far from yourself, you know? Like that story “202 Checkmates” [from Insurrections] When I started building that character, the girl, I asked myself: what mattered to me as a 12-year-old? And then how would it be different if I was a girl?


So I might start with myself, but one of the most important things I've learned is that a character doesn't really come to life until it’s separated from the surface area and lived on its own. Sometimes you may start small—you're giving that character a different job or something, but the character really has to start on its own.


I realized this because I was writing a character based on a family member of mine and it wasn't a flattering portrayal. I was really upset with him about something. When the character started taking characteristics that were different than my family member it became a real character. Before that, it was a caricature. In another version of that you’d be a building character based on yourself and you’re flattering yourself.


TF: [Laughs]


RAS: You know, that’s a different type of character.


TF: You also have recurring characters in some stories. I think of Slim. How do you know when you have more stories to tell for certain characters?


RAS: I guess it's just a feeling, you know? It’s usually hard to bring a character back as a main character. And, Slim, I just felt curious as to where he went after that first time. I put him in a slightly different position and the perspective is a little more distant. That reflects the distance of the character from himself at that point. He’s angry at Rachel. That anger also makes a character hard to write. That’s why that story is so short. Because I didn’t want to spend much more time with him—because he’s so rageful.


A lot of times, I just have to ask myself if I'm done with that character. If it makes sense for the character to come back.


I originally I had a brief mention of Darius in the novella and it just didn't make any sense. It was just like, you being cute here. So I took it out. The character has to have some reason to be back on the page. It's all about the story, first and foremost.


TF: You talked in an interview with Roxanne Gay about how white audiences are soothed by different forms of media and how that shows people’s discomfort with the way different folks walk through the world. Could you talk more about that?

Rion Amilcar Scott

RAS: Back in the day, before they were Marlin James and Matt Johnson, they were just guys with one or two books that were not doing well and had dogs. I can't remember which one of them said it, but they said they like seeing themselves in fiction, even if they’re the villain. To me, the white characters in my work are usually not central or even the conflict, you know? The conflict between Black and white is not central. In [Insurrections and The World Doesn’t Require You] I’m writing about something different.


I saw a Goodreads comment. I know I’m not supposed to go on Goodreads. But I’m addicted to it. A guy said, “The writing felt very personal to the author and I wish he had written it in a way that was more eligible for a wider audience,” or something to that effect, and I felt like he was speaking in code—asking that I write in such a way that white audiences and their concerns can be centered. And that’s not what I’m doing. I’m writing from a very specific point-of-view.


And I don't think it’s personal to myself, but people have told me “thank you” for writing in such a way that’s very culturally specific. If you’re from the DC area, if you’re Black, and if you have Trinidadian heritage, then you’ll probably see things in [my writing] that others won't. And that's fine, you know? That's what I do. And if you see anything that confuses you, look it up! I love reading things from other perspectives.


And there are some things I’ll never get, you know? Every artist is specific to a person. I was reading Wyclef [Jean]’s biography and he was talking about The Mis-education of Lauryn Hill—the album. Famously, she wrote that about their relationship and he was like, “there's things in there that only the two of us would understand.” It doesn't make that album any less great for any less enjoyable. It makes it very human.


TF: Hearing you talk about Goodreads makes me think about the reference to “Hatemyprofessor” in your novella.


RAS: That one I’ve conquered my addiction to because a lot of it is just hateful. But Goodreads? I haven’t conquered my addiction yet.


TF: [Laughs] Goodreads is a little less hateful right?


RAS: It’s a little less personal.


TF: Your characters are based on place too, right? You’ve created a mythos in Cross River across these two books. What advantages and disadvantages do you see in creating a fictional place based on a real one?


RAS: One of the advantages is that it's fun. I think of these characters like, these are action figures.


I think one of the disadvantages is that it kind of limits the scope in theory. There's a lot of ideas that I have to change if I want to make it fit in the Cross River saga. I choose not to have the luxury of making something up that is far flung or that doesn’t fit into the structure.


But that's an opportunity a lot of times. I come up with those ideas and then I think, oh well, that's too bad. I'm not going to be able to write about that until I finish the saga, and then a day or two later it'll come back to me, and I'll figure out how that can actually work.


TF: Yeah! And in these stories these characters end up fictionalizing the past. I’m thinking of Arden the Axe-Wielder as one example. I see those and think those moments are playful, like action figures you get to play with. But at the same time, I feel like it's saying something about the way that history and false narratives have a power over people and how that influences the world. Could you speak about that point in the process?


RAS: You know, there's not any one thing. When I'm writing, I'm always pulling in from the real world for verisimilitude or to satirize something. I have these characters and let things come to me to build their world and their existence.


TF: You’ve also used the phrase “dead metaphor” to reference when people don’t know the origins of traditions. Can you elaborate on that?


RAS: There are certain habits that we have as people, and—it's kind of like—we do them, and we think that they're natural or whatever. If you look back, some advertising executive in the fifties wanted to sell more eggs and so we're all eating eggs, right?


TF: Or drinking milk.


RAS: Right and it doesn’t have a lot of nutritional value once you’re an adult. That’s not completely benign, but there are also things that are a lot more malevolent that we believe and accept just because they’ve been done, but we never ask, should we? No, we just do them. I think it’s worth interrogating everything. That’s what I'm putting forward to my fiction. I’m just as prone to following along as everyone else.


TF: What malevolent things do you see yourself bring up in your own writing?


RAS: A lot of ideas on what masculinity is. Incredibly harmful and malevolent, and a lot of times were not really asking ourselves. In “Shape-ups at Delilah’s” that was based on the idea I heard when I was a kid: That women couldn’t or shouldn’t cut hair. That was something that was generally accepted. As I grew older, I was like, what the hell was that about? Why were people comfortable without thinking about that? Something about men’s fingers? No.


TF: I noticed you thanking family members in your acknowledgements. How do the past generations of your family or communities affect your work? Do those influence your stories?


RAS: I like to feel like I'm able to pay homage to the people that came before and sacrificed for me to be here, you know? My parents are from Trinidad, and I try to keep a lot of our cultural practices alive in my life and pass them down.


But those things all become weaker over time and generations and, again, that’s what leads to the dead metaphor problem. [Laughs.] I feel like in my work is, in a lot of ways, meant to pay homage to people that I'll never meet and I'll never know. One of the tragedies of being Black or at least, presumably, a child of the transatlantic slave trade is that it’s very difficult to define connection with the heritage that's been permanently locked off, you know? A lot of our lives are defined by that.


And even then I say presumably. How do I know? So I’m just going to presume because I don’t know anything about those people who were forced to make sacrifices for me to exist.


TF: When you’re making these characters from the familiar, you have to make them unfamiliar. I remember reading “Party Animal” in Insurrections [a story where a man turns into a beast-like creature] and saying “this is off the chain. This is not where I expected this collection to go.” I’d call it absurd. When you do you know to push a story into the surreal and absurd?


RAS: If I’m getting bored. That’s how the novella came about. I was writing this third-person narration and I was like “I’m not excited about this,” so I wrote this sentence, “It is I…” and changed it to first-person right there. With Oscar Wilde, you think it’s third-person, then all-of-a-sudden union. I love that little twist. I was writing something else and that happened. I was bored and I said, let’s see what happens if a robot is in this narrative. It didn’t disappoint.


TF: I had a workshop with Marcus Burke where he told us the thing about writing characters is that you have to know what they want. As you're writing about place in the form of Cross River, have you ever thought about what Cross River wants or what Cross River, as a place as a character, needs?


RAS: I’ve never put it like that. I’m not sure how much I want to give away.


TF: [Laughs] Fair enough.


RAS: I think Cross River is just like anyone else. It wants dignity. It wants to be known. It wants to be understood.

 

Rion Amilcar Scott is the author of the story collections The World Doesn’t Require You and Insurrections, which was awarded the 2017 PEN/Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and the 2017 Hillsdale Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He teaches creative writing at the University of Maryland. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Kenyon Review, Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2020 and McSweeney's Quarterly, among other publications.


Tyler Fleser is a writer from Grand Rapids, MI. He holds a MA in English from Texas Tech University and is currently earning an MFA in Creative Writing at Rutgers University-Camden He’s fascinated with stories that focus on place and the way fiction can build empathy in readers.

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