A Hell of a Book, a heckuva literary event


You can’t help but love Vicki Newell.

The ebullient director of Chatham Literacy always delivers cheer wherever she goes. And though she wasn’t officially on the program Saturday — at the “Fall for Literacy” fundraiser for her organization at the Ag Center in Pittsboro — she was seemingly everywhere, spreading her boundless enthusiasm for literacy, and her organization, throughout the room.

I’ve rarely missed a Chatham Literacy event over the last few years. Among the nearly 200 people who joined the festivities on Saturday were many familiar faces and friends who, like me, are regulars at these fundraisers. One reason these twice-yearly author-focused get-togethers are so popular: Vicki’s always able to attract notable, noteworthy best-selling writers and bring them to Chatham County to share their own literary journeys — and to help build Chatham Literacy’s pocketbook, enabling it to continue to provide free tutoring and literacy programming to adults who live and work here.

Jason Mott was the draw this time around. Mott wrote the National Book Award-winning “Hell of a Book” — I interviewed him for a story in these pages a couple of months ago — and he shared his rollicking adventures as a writer (and Verizon customer service representative; you had to be there for that) at the Ag Center.

Mott’s debut novel, “The Returned,” catapulted him to a rare place: it was optioned for a television series before it actually was published. On Saturday, he shared the experience of formulating the ideas and events that compelled him to write “Hell of a Book,” a novel whose story arc follows a surprise best-selling author of a “hell of a book” on a national book tour, which evolves into a tour of self-examination. (Trust me, it’s a special read.)

It was an idea his agent and publisher each discouraged. Circumstances and real-life events, though, pushed him to keep working on the story over the course of several years. That evolution became a revelation: Mott’s passion project — a decidedly unusual narrative, with unnamed characters and shifting realities and imagery — immediately resonated with readers. Winning the National Book Award for fiction was among the least of its accomplishments.

Mott decided as a boy, growing up in southeastern N.C., to become a writer. He studied poetry and even today starts book tours and speaking engagements by heading for the airport from his home on dirt road in a place — like areas of Chatham County — with internet so sketchy that Zoom calls are nearly impossible.

But he loves his home. He loves storytelling, and he loves words. And all of us there on Saturday loved the fact that he was with us, helping raise another $25,000 for Chatham Literacy.

Vicki’s organization has an annual budget of around $260,000, but volunteers who contributed more than 7,000 hours of service in the last year make Chatham Literacy’s impact incalculable. Over the past year, it served nearly 150 adults with 3,000 hours of instruction. Vicki, her staff and more than 40 volunteers enriched lives by giving them the power and freedom that reading and reading comprehension deliver. Who can put a pricetag on that?

There was a point during Mott’s own literary journey that he described what was to become “A Hell of a Book” as his personal “magnum opus of failure.”

“I thought I was writing the worst book ever,” he said. “It made no sense.”

Too many people in Chatham County have felt the same way about words they see on a page. Thankfully, they — and we — have Vicki and her Chatham Literacy staff to do here what Jason Mott was able to do with his book: make the story come together.