Award-Winning Author Jason Mott Shares Writing Wisdom with MFA Cohort
By Sarah Hojsak
November 14, 2022
Before he wrote his most recent book, Jason Mott had been working on it in his head for 10 years. The feeling of having a story that needs to be told is something many writers, established and aspiring, can relate to. It’s what draws students to Drexel’s MFA in Creative Writing program.
The program, now in its fourth year, places an emphasis on community-building, civic engagement and immersive, experiential learning. A key part of that is hosting visits with successful authors to speak to students about their journey and craft.
Mott, a bestselling author of two poetry collections and four novels, recently spent a day with the new cohort of 25 MFA students as part of the book tour behind his 2021 National Book Award-winning novel, Hell of a Book.
Hell of a Book follows the intertwining storylines of an author on a book tour, a boy named Soot and a figure known as The Kid, tackling issues of racism and police violence while exploring themes of family, fame and what it means to be Black in America.
Students read the novel and came prepared with thoughtful questions to ask Mott—questions that he said he hadn’t been asked on other stops of his tour. Mott talked about his writing process and gave advice that will be helpful to students as they work on their own manuscripts.
According to student Tori Chase, "He gave us two main points to consider: allow yourself to write badly and outline your novel so you have a blueprint of where it’s going so you’re not writing yourself into a hole. He gave us pointers on how he drafts and revises."
Chase, who writes in the contemporary romance, suspense and mystery genres, was eager to speak with Mott because she says that meeting successful writers "gives us inspiration that we too can be successful."
"Growing up, you always hear that it's difficult to have a career in writing. It’s one of the reasons why I didn't pursue writing earlier,” Chase explained. "But when you meet authors who are successful...it makes the goal seem a little less daunting.
"I enjoy listening to other authors talk about how they write their novels and how they are able to successfully publish and sell them. One of the reasons I joined Drexel was to learn how to write a novel in a way that creates hungry fans who can’t wait to get your next book because you’ve crafted a story that leaves an impression."
Students also took a trip to Harriett’s Bookshop in Fishtown, owned by Jeannine Cook, MFA creative writing '22, where Mott signed copies of Hell of a Book. "Both Jason and our students got to see this amazing bookstore that's owned by a Drexel MFA alum who models how to be a literary activist citizen in this world, that celebrates writers of color, specifically women writers of color," said Nomi Eve, director of the MFA program. "It was so much fun, and it just felt so right."
After the field trip, writer and documentarian Angel Hogan, MFA creative writing '21, sat down with Mott for an interview. As a writer herself, Hogan said it’s thrilling to talk with other writers, especially those like Mott who have "been in the game for some time”—working day jobs and writing in their spare time for years before finding success.
"You have an interesting back-and-forth around your experiences, your similarities, how you tackle your own inner critic and, as a Black writer, how you tackle the experience of feeling like you’re not always received in the way you want to be received,” Hogan explained.
"[Mott] had this kind of full circle experience, and it's something that we as writers are really interested in and inspired by. He struggled. He had days, weeks and years where he thought, 'This isn’t going to happen for me,' or 'What am I doing?' or 'Am I even a writer?' which are things that we all think about."
While Drexel’s MFA program is young, it already has an impressive track record of bringing in high-profile writers to engage with students. During their two years in the low-residency program, students primarily work remotely and come to campus three times for residencies, each including an author visit. Previous residencies have hosted bestselling novelists including Chris Bohjalian, Jamie Ford and Madeline Miller.
“One of the things that attracts these high-profile writers to visit is our civic engagement mission,” Eve explained. “In addition to teaching our students to write books that entertain, we're also teaching them that writing is their superpower, and they should use it to make this world a better place. We really believe that writing can be used to elevate marginalized voices; writing can be used to change the world.”
While the program draws students from vastly different backgrounds—the current cohort ranges in age from their 20s to their 70s—the students are all united in their love of storytelling. According to Hogan, “It's priceless to have a community of creatives and writers to be able to reach out to, either with specific questions about characters or details, or plot, or just needing to talk to someone because you're feeling defeated or because you’re excited.”
As a member of the program’s first cohort, Hogan has stayed involved after graduating to help foster community and collaboration among the program’s alumni and current students. She created Black Writers Circle as a safe space for Black writers to come together and share their work at a time of stress caused by the pandemic and reckoning with racial injustice.
“I had been doing a lot of work, thought and conversation around what it is to be a writer standing in this space in this time—particularly what it is to be a Black writer at this time—and then lo and behold, we have this immense gift of Jason Mott coming to visit,” Hogan said. “When Nomi asked if I would be interested in interviewing him, I thought, ‘Interested? I would absolutely love it.’”