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The news site of UNC Wilmington

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Jason Mott on life and writing after receiving the NEA Fellowship

Jason Mott ’06, ’08M, author and an associate professor in UNCW’s Department of Creative Writing, has been selected to receive a 2024 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. (Jeff Janowski/UNCW)

Jason Mott is no stranger to hard work. He supported himself through earning his BFA in Fiction and MFA in Poetry by UNCW by working at Bed Bath & Beyond and Walmart, and after went on to work at Verizon answering phones while continuing to write. His dedication did not go unnoticed, as on January 24, The National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship awarded Jason Mott $25,000. Mott was selected from a pool of more than 2,100 applications alongside 34 other artists. The purpose of the grant is to support artists in their creative careers.  

Mott is the author of four novels and two poetry collections. Post-graduation, he kept writing and submitted his first novel, “The Returned,” four years later. After sending out his manuscript, he took a month off writing to celebrate and recalibrate, and then began working on his next project, when he heard back from the agent he queried, offering him representation. His manuscript was picked up out of the multitude of submitted works—often referred to as the slush pile—and met with immediate success upon publication. His most recent, Hell of a Book, won the National Book Award in 2021.  

While Mott is private about his projects until they are released into the world—not wanting to spill the beans until he’s had a chance to cook them and taste them for himself—he told me that he is almost finished with his current project. And when he’s done, he plans to play video games and watch movies for a month. Oh, and come to work, obviously.  

Mott knew he wanted to be a writer when he read John Gardner’s “Grendel.” As a child, he grew up spending weekends and summers at the library with his sister. He was particularly fascinated by mythology and folklore. At 15, he’d already read “Beowulf,” so encountering “Grendel” in the classroom threw him for a loop. Mott loved Beowulf because he was a timid kid and Beowulf is a hero who kills dragons and does heroic deeds that timid kids want to do. In “Grendel,” it soon becomes clear that Beowulf isn’t the hero of the story.  

“I was just so blown away by it that I was like, holy shit,” said Mott, “I want to be able to do this to someone else one day, and that’s when I started trying to be a writer.” 

I’ve been fortunate enough to take two classes with Jason where he has dispensed immense wisdom: encouraging students to celebrate our wins and take a break from the perpetual harvest that is modern capitalism, so that we can show up at the page refreshed and excited to begin again. In his classes, you not only learn the art of fiction, but he also pulls back the curtain on what it means to be a writer working and living in this world—information that is, surprisingly, not as common in the creative writing classroom as you would think. His classroom is full of laughter and comradery which is a testament to the kind of person he is. His undergraduate students have dubbed him “the therapist” which I didn’t understand until recently when we were in class and he gave us a writing assignment, something he called “Writing Sprints.” We were given four prompts and three minutes per prompt. The first two prompts were standard fiction prompts, starting with a sentence and allowing us to continue the story. The last two encouraged us to wrestle with what would happen if we didn’t make it in as writers, and what would happen if we did. This sparked a conversation in the classroom where the students had the space to air out their hopes and fears.

Mott hopes to instill perseverance and grit into his students, as he believes this is a teachable skill. His writing philosophy is rooted in empathy and bridging the gap between people, and so is his pedagogy. As he gained more professional writing experience, he realized he wanted to give back.  

“During my time at UNCW, I had a lot of mentors who helped me get through the program and also grow as a writer,” said Mott, referencing Lavonne [J.] Adams, Philip Gerrard, Mark Cox and David Gessner. I would come back for smaller teaching engagements and saw students struggling with the same thing I struggled with, and it was like, ‘Oh, man, I can tell you how to solve that problem, or at least I can point you in the right direction. 

His metaphor for writing after graduating: “It’s like you’re just out in the jungle and you’ve got to navigate it and everyone’s jungle is different, but it’s all chaotic and difficult.” But he hopes that through his classes he can prepare his students for the reality of the publishing world and author lifestyle.   

I kind of picture myself as like the crazy old dude out in the forest who points you toward water,” said Mott. My goal is to give my students a map that says there’s water at these points and there’s people that can help you here, and it’s still the jungle you’re going into but now you have a little bit of a map and a compass.” 

Mott loves video games; his all-time favorite is Dark Souls”. He also loves movies: No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood are two of his favorites. He is also a purple belt in Brazilian Jujitsu. Recently, he’s taken up cooking and makes a killer cheesecake. Mott loves puzzles which is why he enjoys the challenges of a creative project. His favorite directors are the Cohen brothers. Good movies, he believes, can show us the structure of a story, and teach us something new in a fraction of the time it would take to read a book.  

How did he do it? He didn’t give up. He carved out the time for writing and he kept on keeping on. He believes you need to be vicious with guarding your writing time. He thinks of writing like a sport, if you’re not using your muscles every day, they won’t be of much use to you when you go to run a marathon.  

If he could go back to tell his 20-something self anything, it would be to stop worrying about what other people are thinking so much and take more chances. At the end of the day, you need to have something that you care about, something that you can do that you enjoy, and someone to share it with. That’s really all you need in life. All the other shit you really don’t need.  Calm down, believe in who you are. It’s going to be okay. And sometimes the only way through it is through it.  

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