Lincoln Michel Your stories are a fascinating blend of genres—fable, realism, science fiction—even as they take place in the same fictional world. Many science fiction writers talk about the radical power of envisioning new futures, about building another world that hopefully changes how we think and live in this one. One thing that stood out to me in these stories is how they re-envision our country’s past, with Cross River being founded by members of “that early nineteenth-century human slave revolt, the Great Insurrection.” Can you talk about how and why you created this town?
Rion Amilcar Scott I’m presumably the descendant of enslaved people stolen from West Africa. So much about my family’s past is fractured and will never be known. There’s always been such a sadness, a heaviness in me from having so little access to the past. It’s that way for a lot of people I grew up with in Maryland or have known. Cross River is a way to reclaim something that was taken from me.
LM In reclaiming that unknowable past, you’ve pushed into imaginative territory you’ve characterized as the “Black Bizarre.” These impulses were present in your first collection, Insurrections, but feel expanded in The World. How did you conceive of these books in relation to each other?
RAS When I came up with the Black Bizarre I was probably thinking of stories like “Rolling in my Six-Fo’,” which I had drafted at the time of the first book but couldn’t figure out how to fine-tune. As a matter of fact, I started that story at the same time I drafted my most conventional story, “202 Checkmates.” I think of the former as the evil twin sister of the latter. But that phrase, the Black Bizarre, really informed where I wanted to take The World. There’s so much weirdness inherent in the black experience that in art, as in life, it feels hidden for the sake of respectability.
I think of this progression from collection to collection like OutKast’s progression from album to album. Their first was mostly traditional hip-hop, with just enough bits of wildness to hint at the weirdness to come.
LM I hope that means we’re in for increasingly experimental Rion Amilcar Scott collections.
RAS I used to think of “Rolling in my Six-Fo’” as an upper limit in terms of wildness, but now it’s kind of like: Why does there have to be an upper limit at all? I’d like to get to OutKast’s Stankonia, but avoid Idlewild—even that one has its moments, though.
LM Part of the beautiful bizarreness of these stories is in the blurring of boundaries and sidestepping of expectations. Mythic screecher birds and magical water-women exist alongside more down-to-earth academics, criminals, and musicians. Is genre something you think about while writing a story?
RAS Generally speaking, I don’t think much about genre until after I put some words on the page and see what I got. When I wrote “The Electric Joy of Service,” initially in response to the prompt for your anthology Gigantic Worlds (2015), it was because I just always wanted to include a robot. That’s it. People have so many misconceptions about “literary fiction.” You see it conflated with domestic realism all the time. The way I see things, literary fiction is my genre because it allows me to pull all these other genres into the sandbox and make a big mess. And of course, part of making that mess is acknowledging that all these genres have their own particular histories. You never want to be that embarrassing lit-fic guy who pretends he invented robots, time travel, or dragons.
LM (laughter) Is that last comment an Ian McEwan subtweet?
RAS I’m tempted to just respond, “I said what I said,” but it’s more a subtweet of a cringeworthy attitude, one that cuts both ways. I once read an annoying article where a tech guy was praising genre fiction and condemning literary fiction as an elitist activity. I can’t think of anything less elitist than literature and books. You don’t need any expensive equipment to experience it like you do with video games; there are no expensive tickets or subscriptions needed as there are with movies. A middle school education, which is still free in this country, provided that it imparts basic literacy, will allow the comprehension of most books. And you don’t even need to spend a dime. Library cards are free. A Toni Morrison novel is far more accessible than whatever VR helmet or augmented reality that guy was peddling.
LM The genre question is pretty fraught these days, but this conflation of domestic realism with literary fiction has always been particularly strange to me as even a casual glance at the so-called Western canon—from Franz Kafka and Edgar Allan Poe to Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez—shows that was never the case. At the risk of asking you the most annoying author interview question: What authors or books made you want to write?
RAS When I was young, I thought I’d be a poet who occasionally wrote prose. This anthology called The Black Poets introduced me to the Black Arts Movement, and so I was writing in that style. At the same time, I was a pretty horrible student, but I worked hard to get into this honors English class because they always seemed to be reading more interesting books. I got there but spent most of my time being a super disruptive class clown. It was really mean-spirited. Initially, in a ridiculous case of the grass is greener, it seemed like the non-honors class suddenly had the more interesting material. And then we were assigned Toni Morrison’s Sula, which I started to read mostly to avoid getting kicked out. But it blew my brain back. I read it on a single Sunday, which really got me thinking about prose and what it could do. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man did the same thing to me the summer after finishing high school. But those two books felt like they were written by gurus on a mountaintop. The following year I read Junot Diaz’s Drown, and it felt like someone I could know had written it, which made me think I could make my way into writing fiction.
LM Do you still write poetry?
RAS Only for myself. I don’t plan to publish any anytime soon. I guess I write poetry for my characters as well—Roland Hudson, at least. I tried to take his poetry seriously.
LM Did you recycle lines of your own poems for Hudson’s poetry, which the professor teaches in “Special Topics in Loneliness Studies”?
RAS For the most part, no. But I did mess with line breaks in a flash story I wrote, though it took more than that to make it into a poem.
LM Many writers claim that music is one of the hardest things to put into prose. Musicians abound in The World Doesn’t Require You, and music itself is central to your creation of Cross River. Characters are “searching for the sound of Cross River” or playing songs built around the “Riverbeat.” How does music play into your conception of things?
RAS My parents come from Trinidad and Tobago, which is known for a whole host of cultural innovations, particularly calypso, soca, and the steel pan—the only acoustic musical instrument invented in the twentieth century. The same can be said about where I’m from, the DC area, where go-go has been the definitive sound for as long as I’ve been alive. It’s very much the sound of gentrification resistance in DC right now.
I’ve always thought of my parents’ homeland and my hometown as these little worlds unto themselves, and that has played into the development of Cross River. It made sense to me that it would have its own music that grows, like all black music in this country, directly out of the blues tradition. When I was creating the character David Sherman as the starting point of Riverbeat, I thought a lot about both Chuck Brown, one of the chief innovators of go-go, and James Brown, who birthed pretty much everything. Some of Sherman’s scatting is a direct quote from Bob Marley, who like everyone else, borrowed liberally from James Brown.
LM Is music a big part of your writing process? Do you listen to music while writing or take inspiration from lyrics or sonic rhythms?
RAS I don’t understand those writers who can work with music or other chaos in the background. I can’t write to music, even instrumental stuff. But it’s still definitely central to my writing process. There was a time when I was getting into podcasts, and so I didn’t listen to music as much. Writing became harder, my sentences more malformed. I think I borrow from rhythms subconsciously, and I’ve always been the kind of person who listens closely to a song’s lyrics, even memorizing them. There have been times when I’ve listened intently to Killah Priest, or some other highly lyrical rapper, to help me reach a lyricism that a story needed but was just beyond my reach at the time.
LM Outside of music, are there other arts or materials you turn to for inspiration? Do you write with mood boards on the wall or a list of quotes at the start of a document?
RAS Like a lot of people, Wu-Tang Clan reminded me of my love of Hong Kong kung fu movies. I used to watch them on Saturday mornings with my brothers. Shaolin vs. Lama (1983) has this ending I admire and watch over and over again. It completely recontextualizes the villain and his motives. After he’s defeated he begs the heroes to kill him saying, “I am the devil, I must die to prove Buddha exists.”
My story “The Temple of Practical Arts” is almost a retelling of some of my favorite martial arts films, including the one I just mentioned, and also The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984), and some Bruce Lee flicks. Not really a retelling, I suppose, but a borrowing of their rhythms.
LM I’m curious if you had to plan out the recurring characters, events, and geography in Cross River with actual maps, timelines, or any other world-building tools?
RAS I recently came across a notebook I was using when conceiving Cross River. There was a stupid-looking map, and the name of the town was so bad. I hoped it was all a placeholder and that I wasn’t serious. But there are certain things from that map I’ve kept: Ol’ Cigar Park is still in the middle of the town and Cross River is still divided into the Northside and Southside. I’ve tried timelines and a glossary, but I could never keep up with them. I finally decided that I don’t need to do all that. That sort of thing just doesn’t work for me. I keep it all in my head, and if I forget something, then fine. Consistency across works is not important to me. The setting and all the other elements should serve the needs of the plot. Cross River and everything in it is akin to Springfield in The Simpsons; it changes based on whatever’s happening in the episode. Of course, there are recurring elements and part of the fun is remembering, forgetting, and seeing if I can get away with using them differently than when they’ve appeared previously.
LM Springfield is such a perfect counter-model to the normal way fictive worlds are discussed—not that I wouldn’t mind seeing a Cross River extended cinematic universe. I love the flexibility of your town’s geography and characters, as opposed to the exhaustive continuity and obsession with canon that’s so common across media nowadays. Have you ever had comic-book-guy readers who demand explanations for some inconsistency in your stories?
RAS I haven’t, but I often get people wanting to know what happens next, which I find odd because to me the stories are done. Even when I bring a character back in a different story, most times they’re usually not center stage. Their story has been told, so it’s just a cameo. Actually, I do happen to have two characters in this book who come back later for more of the spotlight.
LM Is consistency something critics overrate in fiction?
RAS I don’t know about the critics, but I remember reading Lore Segal’s Shakespeare’s Kitchen and learning that a minor character that appeared in it had died in one of her previous novels. I became annoyed with the author! But now, if I encountered me from about ten years ago, I’d say, “Is the book bringing you pleasure? Yes? Then shut up and read.”
LM At the risk of stepping too far down this pop-culture line of questioning, I wanted to ask: If Insurrections and The World Doesn’t Require You were Wu-Tang members, which ones would they be?
RAS I’ve thought about this extensively, and there are two ways to go. If we think of my literature career as a song with back-to-back verses like “Triumph,” “Wu-Gambinos,” or “Protect Ya Neck,” then Insurrections is Inspectah Deck, who RZA describes in his book The Wu-Tang Manual as his “first bullet in the chamber.” Deck leads off “Protect Ya Neck,” and on “Triumph” his verse is arguably—inarguably!—one of the best openers in hip-hop history. I thought of the stories in Insurrections as the first soldiers into battle. I had written some of the stories in The World at that time, but they either weren’t ready or didn’t fit the tone and strategy. So in this formulation, that would make The World Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the wild heart at the center of the Clan. The novel I’m working on now, which I’d rather not explain, would be RZA, the leader.
The other way to look at this is that Insurrections is RZA, as it sets the tone, and The World would be a cross between the wild heart of Ol’ Dirty Bastard and the cerebral nature of the GZA. The next book would be Ghostface [Killah] under this formulation.
LM Whoa, now I’m tempted to ask you which Muppet they would be.
RAS I’ll take you up on that. If we buy into the order/chaos Muppet dichotomy, and I’m not sure I do, then Insurrections is Kermit, the somewhat orderly leader, while The World is Gonzo, a lovable weirdo. The next book is shaping up to be a mix of Animal and the Swedish Chef.
LM (laughter) That’s about as intriguing a description as you could formulate for me: complex, wild, and… Swedish?
RAS Not Swedish exactly but possessing a playful language. That’s what I’m aiming for. I imagine these three books as a loose trilogy. I want to go back and glimpse the Great Insurrection like a scientist building a telescope powerful enough to glimpse the Big Bang.
LM Let’s return to the overlap between hip-hop and fiction for a moment. You’ve taught Kendrick Lamar’s album Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City in fiction classes. How did that go? What lessons from music do you wish fiction writers would learn?
RAS I’m always shocked by how well Good Kid works in a fiction class. Being that it’s a nonlinear narrative, it helped show my students different shapes a story can take. Most of them were familiar with the album but had never considered it as a piece of storytelling. The most fascinating thing is that, as an assignment, I asked the students to put the events of the album’s story into chronological order. I had figured there was a single way to do this, but each student arranged the narrative in a different sequence. These formulations weren’t wrong; it’s just that there are so many different ways to see this story. There’s the cliché about the student teaching the teacher, but the first time I used this move and the students did their presentations my eyes were blown back into my head. That cliché came right to life.
Good Kid works best with students on an intermediate level. Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story” is good for introducing the rudiments of narrative.
LM The new collection features longish short stories, flash fiction, and the novella “Special Topics in Loneliness Studies.” How did you go about choosing which stories to include and what order to put them in?
RAS I envisioned “Special Topics” as a longer short story initially. It was going to be told entirely through five-paragraph essays. I was going to put it in the middle of the book as a divider between the more realistic stories and those that are more out there, which was a really bad idea. Instead, “Special Topics” grew like some kind of weed to practically novel length, and I had no choice but to put it at the end, which provided me some clarity. I always imagined “David Sherman” first and “Rolling in my Six-Fo’” last, as they just feel like bookends—something about the way one starts and the other ends.
“Klan” from Insurrections was supposed to be in this second collection, but during the editing process of the earlier book my editor asked if I had any other stories. I thought it could play well with some of the more conventional pieces in there, adding a dash of wildness. For a long time I wasn’t sure about that decision, as it messed with my plan. “David Sherman” was ready to go then, but I felt it would have overwhelmed Insurrections, which already had bookend stories. A collection doesn’t really feel real until you’ve set that first and last story.
LM “Rolling in My Six-Fo’” has a surprising and brilliant ending, one of several passages I marked up in my copy. Are you the type of writer who knows the openings and endings of stories before you start writing them?
RAS Almost all the fun of writing is in discovering as I go. I may have a vague sense of what the ending is, but generally I like traveling blind and surprising myself along the way. I didn’t have the ending of “Rolling in my Six-Fo’” and its writing was intense because of the racial imagery I was playing with. Several times I was like, What the hell am I doing? Why am I using these minstrel images? Without the final sentence, that story doesn’t work at all.
Openings don’t tend to change. Often the first sentence provides a question that I need to answer with the rest of the story.
LM So how do you know when an ending answers that question of the first sentence?
RAS I wish I had a better answer, but it’s really just about a sound and a feeling. Does this sound like an ending? Have I organically arrived at an image to cap this thing off? You really have to have read enough stories to know what an ending is like.
LM Any favorite endings?
RAS The quintessential great ending is Joyce’s “The Dead.” Those final sentences just bring that story to new life. Edward P. Jones has some great endings; “Old Boys, Old Girls” and “Young Lions” are memorable. The ending of “Virgins” by Danielle Evans devastated me.
LM The novella functions perfectly as an ending for the book since its form, which mixes email correspondence and syllabi, among other things, allows it to pull in elements from previous stories. I’m curious how you approached this structurally, since it’s juggling so many different things.
RAS Because I’ve spent so much time teaching composition and the five-paragraph essay, I wanted to do something with the form within my own fiction. Initially “Special Topics” was supposed to take place over the course of a semester and consist solely of the essays a student turned in. But essays need prompts and prompts need a syllabus, so I started creating these to get a sense of what type of professor would assign papers about loneliness. All this needed context, so I narrated it in third person, but near immediately got bored and decided to have the narrator toss off that mask. All of a sudden I had three characters.
There are all these debates surrounding the five-paragraph essay. Some people say it’s simple-minded, antiquated, and not capable of producing actual good writing. Some think of it as training wheels that can eventually help struggling students to write well. I tended to go with the training-wheels argument when I was teaching Comp, so with “Special Topics” I wanted to see if I could write something worth reading in the format.
LM Did you ever consider publishing it as a standalone novel?
RAS I did, but it’s so intimately tied to the story “Numbers,” and reading them in concert elevates both. “Special Topics” is in many ways me revising myself. “Numbers” says what I want it to say and I’m happy with it, but I always felt that there are a lot of avenues within it to misconstrue the water-women myth. If one were to believe that myth and subscribe to it in real life, it would have deeply misogynistic implications. The believer in that myth would be a fool. I wasn’t sure “Numbers” was clear on that point, and the only way to provide that clarity was to explore the myth more deeply. The other thing is that there are so many trickster characters in the book, from God to Tyrone to Reece. I’ve loved tricksters since I was reading Anansi folktales with my trickster grandmother and watching Woody Woodpecker and Bugs Bunny as a kid. Putting a novel-length work into a short story collection as a sort of recontextualization of the material and calling it a novella is a pretty fucking trickster thing to do.