Jason Mott realizes a writer’s dream with success of ‘The Returned’


Jason Mott, author of the book “The Returned” (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Rejection weighed on Jason Mott, weighed on him so heavily that he was starting to feel “conquered.” He’d written four manuscripts that no literary agent wanted to touch. He had no reason to suspect that his fifth — crafted in the snatched hours before and after his shift at a Verizon Wireless call center in his native North Carolina — would be any different.

To Mott’s surprise, his fifth attempt — “The Returned” — not only was accepted by an agent, but has exploded into a hit, landing on the New York Times bestseller list and being developed into an ABC television series called “Resurrection” that is scheduled to premiere in March. Mott’s debut novel is a highly accessible and compulsively readable narrative about a worldwide phenomenon in which huge numbers of dead people come back to life decades after their deaths and attempt to resume their former existences.

Mott, 35, who is scheduled to appear at Politics and Prose Bookstore at 1 p.m. Saturday and at the Baltimore Book Festival at 4 p.m. Sunday, talked with the Post’s Manuel Roig-Franzia. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

How did you get the idea for the book?


"The Returned" by Jason Mott (Harlequin/Harlequin)

It was a classic visitation dream. So, my mom was sitting at the table and I came in and sat with her and, for what seemed like an hour, we just talked about all the things that were happening in the years since she passed away. It was just catching up basically.

She gave me a hard time for not being married. . . . It was really warm. Nothing dramatic happened. It was just us sitting and talking for an extended period of time.

I woke up the next morning and genuinely expected to find her sitting at the table. It was that vivid.

In popular culture, it seems that the undead are often menacing — scary zombies or vampires. But your “Returned” characters are more benign, in fact “calm, stoic Returned nature” was the way you described one character’s demeanor. Why did you choose to portray the Returned that way?

I didn’t want to write a horror novel. Which is not to say anything bad about horror novels or zombie stories. I’m a huge fan of the zombie genre, vampire stories. I love them.

I wanted a story about people coping with loss and people really understanding what life means after someone passes away. And so, when the Returned show up, they’re the physical manifestation of these people. They’re people. Suddenly this moment in their lives is back.

There are changes that occur in people when someone dies. I’m not the same person I was when my mother passed away. If she came back looking for her 22-year-old son to act as he did then, she wouldn’t find that.

I thought that was more interesting and had more material for me, as a writer. I wanted to write a story about people working through tough times. How do you cope with someone’s death?

Even myself, during the writing of this novel, I found out that I wasn’t as comfortable with some things around my mother’s death as I thought I was.

What was it that made you uncomfortable?

I was at that stage where you think you’re invincible and everyone around you is invincible. So, on the day that she passed away, I could have gone to the hospital earlier and visited her before she passed away. But I didn’t go because of the fact that I thought, “No, she’ll be fine. Nothing ever happens to me. Nothing ever happens to my family.”

Then, all of a sudden, the opportunity passed. And she was gone. And I never really kind of coped with that. I kind of buried it and marched forward. I never really processed it. I never really came to terms with it — that guilt that kind of lingered behind. That kind of permeated my life going forward.

During the creative process, did you come to any conclusions about how people of faith and people who either have wobbly faith or are non-believers relate to death?

Loss echoes in a dozen different ways in people . . . it’s all the same coping method, just kind of dressed slightly differently.

One thing that I did when I was working on the project is I went around and I would talk to people about people they had lost and I would say, “How would you feel if someone came back?” Some people who were driven by faith would say they wouldn’t necessarily believe that you could bring a loved one back because when you bury people they don’t come back until the Rapture. You get that Southern, really kind of Baptist answer. And I got very similar answers from people who were pretty much atheists: “People don’t come back from the dead.”

Have you thought about who you would bring back from the dead if you could?

I’m very torn on that. Would I like to hug my mom and kiss my mom again? Of course. I would love that very much.

But at the same time, death is a part of life. It’s an inevitability. And the harder we fight that fact, the harder we cling to the idea that we should all live forever and be best friends. It kind of sets you up to hurt worse.

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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