Mott, 35, who has published two collections of poems, hit the trifecta with The Returned: It was met with rave reviews, climbed steadily on the New York Times best-seller list, and was snatched up by Hollywood. ABC's hit sci-fi mystery Resurrection is an adaptation of the book. It premiered March 9, drawing an audience of 13 million.
Television fans may recognize the premise of Mott’s book, and the ABC show: It has eerie similarities to the 2012 French TV show Les Revenants ( The Returned) which premiered on Sundance TV in October and which itself was based on Gallic director Robin Campillo’s 2004 feature film also called Les Revenants. (It was released here as They Came Back.)
Mott says he had ever heard of the 2004 film when he began working on the novel in 2010, a good two years before the French TV show aired in Europe. His novel, he adds, was first published in August 2013, two months before the French show premiered on Sundance.
Regardless of its origins, Mott’s story has put him on the literary map.
"You just never expect something like this to happen," Mott said in a recent phone interview. He downplays his good fortune.
"For me, what was important was to focus on the job of writing. . . . Just learn how to write and write well."
A well-crafted story told in poetic yet clean, pared-down language, The Returned follows the fortunes of numerous returnees, who appear in odd corners of the world. Jacob shows up in a rice paddy in rural China. He's guided back home to Arcadia, N.C., by federal agent Martin Bellamy. (ABC's show stars Omar Epps as the fed and relocates Arcadia to Missouri.)
Arcadia is an idyllic town based in part on Mott's hometown of Bolton, N.C., a tiny hamlet of no more than 1,000 souls.
"It's a . . . close-knit community where you know your neighbors," said Mott. "You really felt like you are part of something warm and welcoming."
Mott's father worked in the local paper mill, and his mother was a homemaker. After high school, Mott took up odd jobs, including a stint at a rubber factory. He had been writing since he was 14 but considered it only a hobby. "I never took it too seriously," Mott said, "but my mom was really supportive."
When his mother died in 2001, Mott reassessed his life and decided to pursue his growing passion for literature. He enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where, in quick succession, he earned his bachelor's and a master of fine arts degree in writing.
Mott said his writing had been deeply shaped by his parents' deaths (his father died in 2007). Forced to confront grief, he studied its complex relationship to hope and its role in humanizing us - a theme at the heart of The Returned. He was inspired to write The Returned after having a dream about his mother.
"I dreamt I came home from work and my mom was sitting at the kitchen table. . . . We caught up about what had been happening over the past decade since her death," Mott said. "And . . . she nagged me about not being married."
His mother's appearance may have been a dream, but the returnees in Mott's book are very much real.
But what are they? Ghosts, zombies, alien abductees? And what brought them back? A wormhole? A miracle?
"That's one question I'm always getting," Mott said. "Everyone has their own theory."
Producers of ABC's Resurrection promise they will reveal how the dead came back (9 p.m. Sundays on 6ABC), but Mott's novel leaves the question unanswered. The Returned is not a sci-fi procedural, but a character-driven work of magic realism. The mysteries at its heart are the characters themselves and how they react to the returnees.
Some are delighted to have their loved ones back. Others are horrified.
"They see it as an abomination," Mott said. Some naysayers even murder returnees.
Mott, who is African American, said he's sometimes asked why his work doesn't explore themes specific to the black experience.
"I don't think of myself as representing any group," he said. "It's just not something I think about as a writer or as a person." He is passionate, he said, about something that cuts across ethnic differences: science fiction.
"I'm a sci-fi junkie. . . . I love Star Trek, Star Wars, Stargate. If it has a Star in the title, I'll watch it and love it."
Jason Mott: "The Returned"
6 to 7:30 p.m. Monday at the African American Museum, 701 Arch St. Tickets: Free. Information: 215-878-2665 or www.aampmuseum.org.