Everything is relative. It’s just as hard to write a good short story as it is to write a good novel. It’s harder, also, to write a bad novel than it is to write a bad short story. (More pages, more time.) Hardest of all, though, is a good collection of short stories. On the phone with Rion Amilcar Scott, I compared it to hitting ten grand slams in a row. It’s hyperbolic, sure, but not entirely incorrect. Scott’s debut, Insurrections, which comes out today, is a crazy streak of hits.
It’s a book that’s been in the works for over a decade, and many of the stories have appeared (in earlier iterations) in over half a dozen literary magazines. All are set in the fictional town of Cross River, Maryland, a historically black community founded in the early 19th century by the only successful slave revolt in United States history. Scott’s fiction is at once incredibly precise, rooted in contemporary reality, and dreamy, magical, uncertain. I found myself thinking of (and often bringing up) the living master of contemporary short fiction, and fiction of place, Edward P. Jones, but Scott also reaches back to Sherwood Anderson, to Faulkner, to Márquez. Some stories disorient: “Juba” follows a man who is constantly mistaken for a semi-legendary weed dealer. Others puncture: “Party Animal” nearly drowns its readers in lengthy footnotes that savagely parody scientific language. My favorites, “Good Times” (which features an utterly filthy tragicomic Cookie Monster costume) and “A Friendly Game” (about, in part, the cruelty of boys), devastate in plainly realistic but utterly astonishing ways.
Scott grew up in the DC suburbs (Silver Spring specifically), went to Howard for undergrad, and then George Mason for his MFA. Now, teaching at Bowie State (a pronunciation note for the nonlocals: Boo-ee, not Bow-ee) in Maryland, his first book is deeply steeped in this region in which he’s spent so much time. I talked with Scott on the phone about Cross River and place and short fiction. I could also not stop gushing. (I have edited those parts out for you.) This book is the finest collection of short stories I have read in a very long time, and Scott is a major new voice. You can’t afford to miss him.
What is the origin of Cross River?
When I was in grad school I felt like I needed to have a place to write about. You start off reading Faulkner. I also read a lot of comic books as a kid. I needed a united world like Marvel or DC. That’s how my mind works. I thought I would write about the D.C. area, because that’s when I was at Howard and that’s a place I felt comfortable with. I read Edward P. Jones and was like, man, I don’t have the knowledge of the area that this guy does.
That’s maybe a little bit unfair to any writer but Edward P. Jones. He includes an accurate street address in almost every story.
Yeah! I decided I needed to make up a place. A long time ago, when I was at Howard, I wrote this horrible, sort-of slasher story about a slave who freed a bunch of people and died in the process. It was ambiguous whether he lived or whether he came back like Freddy or Jason or something. It was terrible, it was probably offensive. But it was also very special to me, because at the time, I had such a hard time finishing stories. I knew it was terrible while I was writing it, but I needed to push through. I had actually finished it.
That impulse of creating my own place and that mythology that I had come up with at Howard, I mashed them together and that’s where Cross River came from. At the time I had a great uncle who traced our family history to Cross River in Nigeria. I’m not sure if it’s actually accurate, but it’s like, “Oh wow, now there’s a place I can look at on the map and say there’s where my people came from, before all the fractured history of slavery.” That’s where I found the name.
What sort of place is Cross River?
It’s a small town. Another thing that helped me come up with it was Winesburg, Ohio. And we’ve all grown up on The Simpsons. It’s that sort of place, like Winesburg or Springfield, where things get out of hand. It’s also a place where people have a keen awareness of history: they’re all children of this insurrection. They’re trying to live up to that. It’s a place of people who awkwardly stumble towards some sense of freedom. That’s what Cross River is to me.
You’ve spoken about working on a novel and novella in previous interviews over the years. Where did this short story collection come from?
No one ever asks novelists why novels. Like Toni Morrison, she has one short story. It’s incredible! If I ever interview her I’m going to ask, “When are you going to grow up and write some short stories?” Right now it’s sort of a pace I can handle. I can create an entire little world and just stop right there. And it’s all part of a bigger world. At one time I was writing a novel-in-stories and I came to the conclusion that it was just harder than writing a novel. You have to get short stories up to a certain mark. You might be able to make one false move but two false moves? It’s just too much. But I like that challenge.
There’s also a cohesiveness to this book because of the unified world that undercuts these arbitrary categories anyway.
[Linked short stories] feel like almost a different genre. They create this incredible world that I’ve never experienced with other kinds of books.
How did you put this collection together?
Some of these stories go back to 2005 when I started grad school. “The Legend of Ezekiel Marcus,” I wrote in a completely different form for a class. I got to the point where I was like, I need more experience to pull this off. This turned out to be one of the last stories that I completed the book, the first story I started. [Characters from the story “A Friendly Game”] Kweku, Richard, and Wayne were actually in the original version of “Ezekiel Marcus.” I pulled them out because I loved them so much. I’ve been working on these for a very long time. In concept they’ve all been around since the 2000s.
What was Insurrections’ journey to publication?
My thesis at George Mason was this novel-in-stories called The Revelation of Everything.
That’s a really good title.
That’s also the problem of the book. I spent two, three years afterwards just working on it. I ended up making it more convoluted. Many of these stories were part of it. There was a central narrative, there were things that were spinning off of it. At a certain point, I sent it out to a few places and then I just realized, This book is not working. I salvaged what I could salvage, and a bunch of the stories are now in the book. I wrote a whole ’nother book, a collection of flash stories, that came out some time ago from Tiny Hardcore Press. I knew I needed a few more stories to round it out and to connect the stories I just couldn’t live without being in the book—like the last one, the final story [“Three Insurrections”]. It took me three years to write that last story. It had a different title, it was called People in Motion. I sent it out mainly for practice, not thinking anything was going to happen. Then the University Press of Kentucky came back. I had this great editor who shaped it. “Klan” and “Boxing Day,” I added at the last minute. We played around with the order. I had a different one, but the final is a collaboration between my order and the editor’s order. It worked out very well.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on another collection of short stories. Everything I write is set in Cross River. I’m working on a couple novellas that are sort of connected. I expect the novella thing to evolve into something else.
Making a career in writing is like running a marathon. You’ve been working on this book for over ten years. How have you juggled your writing with your work as a teacher and your life at home?
It’s a constant balancing act. I’m sure it’s not any different from work-life balance issues that people have with other careers. I try to make writing a priority. I get very frustrated when I can’t. I have a son, he’s five. He’s a bit of a handful. My life teaching gives me a lot of ideas. Family life gives me a lot of ideas, but less time to execute them. But the ideas are there, that’s a good thing. I guess the answer is I don’t know.
What books or cultural products is this book in conversation with?
I couldn’t have written these if I hadn’t had read Jones. I think of Miguel Street by Naipaul. I read that over and over and over again, particularly when drafting the last story. Dubliners, set in one space, had a huge impact on this book. Invisible Man is always there, always always there. For such a long time when I wrote, it was Invisible Man that would come out. Junot Diaz is a huge influence on what I do: all three of his books, equally. I think about Drown a lot when I’m writing. Junot Diaz was the first person I read who seemed like someone I could know, not somebody that was in the clouds, somebody who came down from on high. That was important. I had been reading a lot of Toni Morrison, who is a huge influence: Sula. And Women of Brewster Place, another book that has influenced the idea of just one location for Insurrections.
Why does place matter? Why is it important to you?
Being the child of immigrants , I see how important place was to the development of who they are. Literally, they would be different people if they had been born here. Always there was this longing and yearning for that place. When I was growing up, I could see that. I wanted to identify with that place. The typical story that you see often is child rejecting that original location. I never did. Most of my friends are immigrants or children of immigrants and growing up there was always that love of that place, that yearning. If being from Trinidad influenced who my parents were, being from the D.C. area, being from Silver Spring, that influences who I am too. I thought it would be interesting to think about how place affected these made up people. They’re made up people, they should have a made up place.
But Cross River is not only place though, it’s the history. We’re all in the historical context, the things we can’t break out of. We’re all products of our time. We’re all products of things that came before us that we may not have any access to or understanding of. So many things that we think of now, down the line, our grand or great grandchildren will think of as ridiculous. Just like we look back and think a lot of the old ideas that our ancestors grew up on are ridiculous. Or great ideas! That’s another thing that Cross River is commenting on.
Cross River is a place that’s both fully fictional but also grounded in the nonfictional context of the Mid-Atlantic, of Maryland. Could Cross River exist anywhere else?
I had a hard time figuring out where to place it. It could only be in Maryland. This is a southern state that forgot it’s a southern state, that doesn’t what to be a southern state. It’s not amnesia, because we know. You grow up, the very few black historical figures that they want to tell you about are Frederick Douglass and Harriett Tubman, because they’re easily sanitized. But they’re of Maryland, they’re from Maryland. So it’s a kind of amnesia but it’s willful. Cross River could only be placed in that place. There was never a successful slave insurrection in the U.S., but I doubt there could have been a Cross River, Mississippi. It was far enough north that it could, suspending disbelief, could have plausibly say this town could have survived or even been founded in the first place. Otherwise it’s totally fantastical.