When Loved Ones Return From The Dead

Mar 5, 2014
Originally published on March 5, 2014 6:08 pm

If someone you cared for died, you might be haunted by questions about how your life might be different had that person survived, about what you might say if you had one more chance to talk. Those questions are behind author Jason Mott's novel The Returned.

The book is now an ABC television series, Resurrection, which premieres Sunday.

Mott tells NPR's Michel Martin that the book was inspired by a dream about his mother returning to life, and how such a scenario would play out if it really happened.

"During the writing process, I didn't want it to be a sad book. I didn't want it to be a book about death, I wanted it to be a book about life," he says.


Interview Highlights

On the dream that inspired his book

I had this dream that I came home from work and found my mother sitting at the kitchen table waiting for me. So I came in and sat with her. And for what seemed like hours, we just talked about all the things that had happened in the years since she passed away. She gave me a hard time about not being married, 'cause that's what my mom used to do. It was just a really warm and cathartic dream where, for the first time in almost nine years, I was back with my mother as true as I had ever wanted to hope for.

On how reunions with the deceased can be complicated

If my mother returned somehow and showed up, she would come back looking for that 22-year-old boy that she left behind, and she would find a 35-year-old man in his place who has different opinions, who's evolved in a very different life from that point forward. So I wanted to really play on that dynamic of how this really would play out.

Once you got the hugging, and the crying and that wonderful moment of being back with the person, what happens when days turn to weeks, turn to months, and time marches forward? How does that dynamic play out at that time?

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Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As we just mentioned, one of the new shows debuting this march is called "Resurrection." It's based on Jason Mott's novel "The Returned." The premise is one that will resonate with many people who've lost a loved one, especially if that loss was sudden. You might be haunted by questions about how your life might be different had that person survived, about what you might say if you had one more chance to talk. Those questions inspired Mott's book, which tells the story of people who are reunited but struggling to understand how the impossible has become possible. Here's a clip from the television show "Resurrection," which is premiering on ABC this coming Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RESURRECTION")

KURTWOOD SMITH: (As Harold Langston) What's this about?

OMAR EPPS: (As J. Martin Bellamy) Did your son go missing, sir?

SMITH: (As Harold Langston) Why?

EPPS: (As J. Martin Bellamy) I have him. He's OK.

SMITH: (As Harold Langston) My son died 32 years ago.

MARTIN: That's a clip from the upcoming ABC series "Resurrection," based on the novel "The Returned." The author of "The Returned," Jason Mott, is with us now. Welcome, congratulations. Thanks for joining us.

JASON MOTT: Thank you. Thank you very much. Great to be here.

MARTIN: So two poetry collections under your belt. But "The Returned" is your very first novel. So how does that feel? First, to have it so well received and then to be turned into a television show?

MOTT: It feels terrific. It's a bit overwhelming. I never expected anything like this to happen at all. So I'm really enjoying it, but it feels wonderful.

MARTIN: Did you start out wanting to be an author of fiction? I mean, I know you've got a B.A. and a Master's in Fine Arts. But was this your goal or did you really consider yourself a poet?

MOTT: Yeah, fiction actually was my first home. When I was about 13 or 14, I started writing short stories and actually discovered poetry a little bit later - probably my early 20s - to meet women, I'll admit that 'cause poetry is good for that. But...

MARTIN: Good to know.

MOTT: Exactly. Fiction was always a place where I wanted to work in the most.

MARTIN: You said in the book - in fact, in the epilogue to the book and you've said in a number of interviews - that the idea came from a dream you had. Would you tell us about it? And I do want to say that I understand that you lost both of your parents, and so I'm sorry for your loss.

MOTT: Thank you. It came out of the fact that my mother passed away in 2001. And in the summer of 2010, I had this dream that I came home from work and found my mother sitting at the kitchen table waiting for me. So I came in and sat with her, and for what seemed like hours we just talked about all the things that had happened in the years since she passed away. She gave me a hard about not being married 'cause that's what my mom used to do.

It was this really warm and cathartic dream where for the first time in almost nine years I was back with my mother as true as I had ever wanted or hoped for. And I woke up from that dream, it was so vivid I expected to find her sitting in the living room that morning. And of course she wasn't there and I couldn't get it out of my head for weeks. So I was talking with a friend a couple of weeks later about it, and at some point in our conversation he said wouldn't it be amazing if that really happened? And what if it wasn't just her? And that's really where the project began, that's where the story started.

MARTIN: At the center of the story are the characters of Lucille and Harold. And their son Jacob who - well, you have to tell this part. You'll have to help me out with not telling people everything. But he died when he was 8 years old. A terrible - I mean, terrible shock for a parent - he died on his birthday party. And he comes back. He's still 8 but the parents are not. And he's the first person that you meet of the returned. Just wondering how you settled upon this family as the centerpiece of the story?

MOTT: Sure. A lot of people ask, well, why did I decide to use a couple that's in their 70s at this point in the story because when the story takes place Harold and Lucille are in their early 70s. And their son passed 50 years ago. So they've had 50 years since the time when Jacob actually passed away. And for me, from a writing standpoint, it was a story that I wanted to tell because when we lose someone in our lives we go through different phases of acceptance, and we go through different phases of understanding and all those things that happen as we kind of deal with the loss of that person. So with Harold and Lucille they've had longer to cope with things.

They've had longer to kind of deal with it. So for them, there was a bit of an unlocking process that occurred when Jacob shows up at the door again still 8 years old, just as he was all those years ago. And they were forced to answer questions within themselves about if they had dealt with his passing and, you know, the amount of blame they felt for it or other feelings kind of radiating outward from that.

MARTIN: Well, you know, your book - it's so funny - it's such an interesting thing because it requires you to hold several thoughts in your head at the same time because, on the one hand, you'd think, oh, of course I'd want to see my little baby again, but then maybe you don't. Maybe you don't actually 'cause maybe you've moved on. Or maybe that relationship wasn't what you - you know...

MOTT: Yeah, definitely. I think that when I was working on the project I began to kind of understand exactly how complicated a topic it really would be for people. For instance, take me, personally - my mother passed when I was 22 years old, I'm 35 years old now. So my mother returned somehow and showed up, she would come back looking for that 22-year-old boy that she left behind and she would find a 35-year-old man in his place, who has different opinions, who's involved in a very different life in that point forward.

So I wanted to really play on that dynamic of how this really would play out. Once you got past the hugging and the crying and that wonderful moment of being back with the person, what happens when days turn to weeks turn to months and time marches forward? How does that dynamic play out at that time? During the writing process I didn't want it to be a sad book, I didn't want it to be a book about death, I wanted it to be a book about life.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Jason Mott. He is the author of "The Returned." It's his debut novel, but the book has just been made into a television show - "Resurrection," which premieres this Sunday on ABC. You know, at first, sure, a lot of people are happy to see these people, but everybody isn't. And then people start getting, you know, wiggy and hostile about these people. Even -these are people who are very well loved. And then this kind of schism arises between the returned - in the book they become - called the true living 'cause they decide they're really the living ones - but these are the people, like, what are they? I just was - I was interested in what informed your thoughts about that?

MOTT: I mostly just tried to keep it as realistic as possible. The idea being that if this event actually occurred, if it was something that happened tomorrow - you would have people who were readily accepting of this miracle of event that happened, they would take back their life loved ones, reintegrate them into their lives and march forward. Then you would have others who would not be able to get past the fact that the dead don't come back, that's just a fact of life. So there would be people who rejected the returned individuals and who were very fearful of them because they were not natural. And at the end of the day, they are not natural, you know, they're - people don't come back except in this one moment. So how do you respond to that.

MARTIN: How are people responding to the book? Or what are they saying to you? It's been out long enough now that you've had a chance to interact with readers about it - presumably they're all true living, I don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

MOTT: Exactly.

MARTIN: But how - what are people saying to you about it? And have you noticed any common themes?

MOTT: The most common thing that I've gotten, which is very humbly and very rewarding, is people will email me with stories of loss that they've experienced, loved ones that they've lost, and they'll tell me how the book made them remember that person in a very positive way. It made them pause from the busyness of their day and really reflect on this individual that they cared about.

MARTIN: One other thing that's kind of interesting to me is - I kind of want to use the term post-racial to talk about the way the book unfolds. And I know that's a term that a lot of people, particularly academics, just makes them crazy, you know. And just makes their heads explode.

Oh, this is not post-racial. But it is kind of post-racial. I mean, one of the interesting things about the character, one of the central characters, you know, Lucille and Harold and their boy Jacob are white - you make that clear, he's a red-head, he's pale, he's freckled. And - but one of the other central characters is somebody named Martin Bellamy, who's the agent who's with the government, the bureau, who is reuniting people. He's in a very difficult position 'cause he doesn't understand it either. And I just - it's interesting that his race emerges at one point because there are just some comments made. But that's not the divide here. You know, the divide is not over race - the divide, the schism that emerges is over people who want to accept these people and the people who don't.

MOTT: Exactly.

MARTIN: And so I'm just interested if being who you are, a young African-American man growing up in the South, do you think it had anything to do with how you saw these things unfold?

MOTT: Well, I think that - the way I like to kind of talk about that question is kind of explaining how the characters came into being and how - the people in my life right now. When my mother passed, like I mentioned, she passed 2001 and my father passed in 2010 - 2007 actually, sorry. And so after their passing, like all children, you want parents. And a couple of my friends, their parents kind of had this kind of adopting process where they kind of brought me into their family and really made me feel like they were my parents. And they happen to be white, which has no impact on their love that they share or anything of that matter.

And so when I was writing the book, the idea - the identities of race never came into the writing process until the latter stages. We were almost done with the book before any character had any race whatsoever. And it came about because my editor was saying the characters are wonder but I can't see the characters, I need to know just simple things - what hair color are they, you know, what kind of skin tone do they have, things of that matter - just the basic facts of what they looked like. And when I was working with Harold and Lucille, I wanted to give a bit of an homage to this family, my friend's parents who had been just instrumental in my writing process since my parents passed away. Agent Bellamy's character was a bit of my own proxy character. His story is reflective on certain degrees of my personal story or my loss of my mother. So that's why he came out as a character who happened to be black.

MARTIN: Oh, he's much more cynical than you are.

(LAUGHTER)

MOTT: He is a bit cynical.

MARTIN: So you got to be that. Right?

MOTT: Exactly.

MARTIN: Yeah. Good for that. Jason Mott is the author of "The Returned." The book has been turned into a television show, "Resurrection," which premieres this Sunday on ABC. And he was kind enough to join us from NPR member station WHQR, which is in Wilmington, North Carolina. Jason Mott, congratulations once again on everything that's come to pass. And thanks so much for joining us.

MOTT: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.