JD Scott‘s new collection Moonflower, Nightshade, All the Hours of the Day is a quietly devastating powerhouse of a book. Scott’s characters grapple with horrific traumas; they also encounter immortal chinchillas and globe-spanning malls. These are stories that occupy familiar spaces but also tie in with mythic resonances; the end result, then, is a book that feels both familiar and subtly groundbreaking. I talked with Scott via email about the genesis of their book and finding the balance of the quotidian and the revelatory.
My perennial opening question for writers with a collection is inevitably about sequencing. How did you find the right balance of tones, of lengths, of styles to make this particular book work?
Something I learned from sequencing poetry is that some consideration should be made for teaching the reader how to read your writing, especially if you are challenging what your reader might come to the page knowing about character and plot, style and use of language, narrative and structure. Ordering the stories was hands-down one of the hardest parts of editing this book. One line of logic I followed was trying to gently introduce my reader to the increasing magicked reality of the book, and therefore creating a gradation that lead up to some of the most mythic, cross-genre work. My ordering logic was also backed up by some conversations with beta readers, who encouraged me to front-load with some of my more “traditional” fiction (take that as you will).
The trouble with all of this—especially if some of your stories are wildly different—is that there’s no such thing as an “ideal reader.” I’ve seen online reviews of my collection from readers who probably feel closer to home in pulp-y fantasy novels; one reader said they gave up after the second story, and in my head I was like, “No! I get why you hated the first two, but you were so close to the story about the mother and the magical scroll! You might have liked that one! Or the drowned twin revenant! Or the enchanted mall novella!” At the end of the day, you have to let go and let the book be what the book is.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t imagine a few alternate story orders after the book came out—one for each archetype of reader I’ve imagined in my head—but at the end of the day a lot of care went into that sequencing process, and you have to trust yourself that you created a rewarding journey for the reader. Maybe in the future there will be BuzzFeed-style quizzes at the beginning of story collection ebooks that will automatically re-shuffle the story order depending on whether they clicked the black cat or the Shiba Inu.
Were there any overarching thematic concerns that came to mind for Moonflower, Nightshade, All the Hours of the Day? It’s a book that has a few stories of parents outliving their children, while also featuring immortal chinchillas. Which seems to cover a lot of bases.
I’ve found that readers who are also writers or scholars tend to pick up some of their own thematic interests or obsessions, if that makes sense. And I mean that in a tender-hearted way. The story collection as a type of litmus test. One writer who tends to engage with ecopoetics in their own work asked me questions about animality in mine after reading the collection, and suddenly I had to think about the connections between immortal chinchillas, talking dire cats, and psychopompic sea turtles. Which is my way of saying it’s excellent questions like this that challenge me to re-think what I am doing with family structures and concepts of life after death (and life before death).
What I had noticed in my manuscript, if anything, was moments of loss and hope, although I found other types of reverberations. Most of this came out of the sequencing process we just talked about. I did not set out to write a story collection with certain themes—or set out to write a story collection at all. It was through the editorial process of looking at dozens of stories and trying to find connections between them that a type of pathway to a manuscript opened. With each conversation though, I begin to see my work through different vantage points. The writer Dawn Raffel beautifully saw themes of “possibility” and “transformation,” and that type of feedback from trusted readers becomes part of the way you begin to talk about the book thematically. I really owe it to everyone who has read this story collection and spent the time to carefully form words about it for gifting me a new language to talk about this thing. The thematic concerns, on some level, come from all of you as much—if not more so—than coming from me.
Did you have a particular mall in mind as the inspiration for “After the End Came the Mall, and the Mall Was Everything”?
Not especially, but I grew up in Tampa among a dozen indoor/outdoor shopping malls and countless strip malls (which at the time I thought was everyone’s ‘normal’). There’s probably some Floridaness to this novella that’s operating on an entirely subconscious level. I could move between different malls as a teen depending on vibes and desires, and that teenage energy is present in more than one of these stories. The mall that’s probably most impressed on me is Citrus Park Mall, because I’ve accidentally run into it online about half a dozen times. I’ve fallen down a few internet rabbit holes of “vaporwave” and “vaporwave aesthetics,” and often photos of this mall’s otherworldly neon movie theater complex get posted to Reddit. The architecture of Citrus Park Mall has inspired me enough that it’s found itself in a novel I’m drafting as well.
That particular novella begins in a kind of surreal/dystopian vein and slowly takes on more characteristics of a fantasy story. Did you have that shift in mind from the beginning?
I knew there would be something monomythic about the story, because I was playing around with the nature of quests (and the more familiar questing that occurs inside video games). It wasn’t until I had a first draft that I realized how many notes of the Hero’s Journey I subconsciously hit: the hero’s birth and call to adventure, finding helpers and amulets, tests and trials and crossing a threshold into another world. I knew Joshua would leave the mundane (well, “mundane”) environment of his part-time job inside the mall and enter a ‘dead mall’ portion at some point—and I wanted the dead mall to feel like the air was being sucked out of the reader’s lungs. It wasn’t until I got to writing the escalator scene that I found myself shifting closer to horror as a genre. The first draft ended there—inside the dark escalator—and Joshua’s fate was ambiguous. Since there were also elements of a Bildungsroman in the novella, I wanted to see that aspect of Joshua’s story to the end as well. From the reader feedback I’ve received so far, I’ve found that Joshua tends to be the most-liked character from the collection, so I’m glad his story ended with agency and many possibilities.
And, to build on that somewhat — do you generally have an idea of a story’s relative realism or surrealism before you sit down to write it?
This seems to intersect with structure, tone, and the needs of the story. With “Cross,” which romps through the New Testament tale of the Crucifixion, the magicked logic could be lighter in contrast to its harrowing subject matter. A narrator could walk across an ocean in a few sentences, and it would need no explanation, because it’s simultaneously interlaced with the miracles of Christ and also not about that at all. While engaging with humor and camp (at least inside “Cross”), it seems the attitude toward realism can become something more lackadaisical or cavalier. With “Where Parallel Lines Come to Touch,” which is about a brother coming back from the dead and his relationship with his twin sister, I felt, as an author, more weighted by the logic of the dead returning, because it had to do with these two characters’ realities and desires in relationship to each other. Similarly, in “The Hand That Sews,” I knew this was our world and followed our logic, except for the presence of a magical wish-granting scroll that the mother possessed. It seems the presence or absence of magic can also lend itself to narrative tension, depending on how it’s distributed.
The point in “The Hand That Sews” where the prose gives way to a messaging app made me gasp when I read it — both for the shift and for what was happening within the story. Where did the idea to have that kind of a pivot in there come from?
We’re so emotionally connected to our smartphones, aren’t we? I love this term Amber Case used in her TED Talk called “ambient intimacy,” where we’re not always connected to everyone we know, but we could be at a moment’s notice. All we need to do is open an app. She also describes phones as wormholes, which feels present in this story too. The truth of the story seed is very close to the messaging app image. I stumbled upon a screenshot online of something—it wasn’t the event that occurs in this story—but it was a final message from before an event like a plane crash or something equally dire. I experienced frisson seeing that image. My body tensed up; I got chills and goosebumps. I was amazed at how I could have such a visceral emotional reaction to a JPG of a few lines of text on an iPhone screen.
I also don’t want to spoil what happens at that moment in the story here, but I will say I wrote “The Hand That Sews” in 2015, and something happened in the summer of 2016 and again in the winter of 2018 here in Florida that made editing this story both incredibly challenging and incredibly real. To create the moment you’re referring to, I used one of those ‘online fake phone text generators’ and was trying to anchor tension on the graphic of a fictional text message exchange between a mother and son. Everything unfolded around that. It wasn’t until I got deeper into the editorial process that I wanted some quality of MMS to bleed out, to infiltrate the speech between the mother and son. The phone as a wormhole (or portal) to other people gave way to an actual, magical portal as well….
How do your poetry and prose work influence one another — if they do at all?
My dirty secret is I didn’t read many contemporary stories before writing them. I read poetry; I read novels; I read graphic novels; I read fairy tales and myths. While I’ve done a lot of brushing up since then, some of the stories in this collection are very inspired by poetry, because one of the only tools in my tool kit was letting the language be my guide. I quickly learned that novelistic moves wouldn’t work in the controlled space of a story, and that the poem felt closer as a unit to the short story. Leaning into poetry is still a dear part of my process. Poetry can help create patterns and rhythms that give the writing gravity. I find that almost Philip-Glass-like quality to poetic repetition rewarding in prose—there’s a pleasure for me in finding the same markings and ornaments in the language. My obsessions and concerns in fiction are continuously shifting, but I don’t see the influence of poetry leaving me any time soon.