The night of the 2017 PEN America Literary Awards Gala, I was obsessively refreshing my Twitter feed. Rion Amilcar Scott, MFA Creative Writing ’08, my friend and fellow MFA grad, was up for the Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction for his story collection Insurrections, and I couldn’t wait to find out if he won.
When he did win, it was certainly a thrill, but not a surprise. At once funny, poignant, and heartbreaking, the stories in Insurrections (University Press of Kentucky, 2016) offer a shining example of why short story collections need to exist in this world. These 13 tales, all set in the fictional town of Cross River, Maryland, follow people who are doing their best and often failing in those attempts, people with good hearts who make bad choices.
Raised in Silver Spring, Maryland, Scott won both the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award and a Completion Fellowship during his time at Mason. His stories have been published in the Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, and PANK, and one of his essays was listed as a notable in Best American Essays 2015. Presently, he teaches English at Bowie State University.
I was lucky to catch up with him and ask a few questions about his writing.
Where do you find time and inspiration to write?
Inspiration is not a problem. Ideas are always flying about. I write about a town of my own invention so it’s not hard to imagine it in motion even when I’m not observing it. My big inspiration is to eventually tell the complete story of Cross River. Time, time is the problem. I don’t have a perfect solution to that. Between my family and my job, it’s often a matter of staying up very late.
Why a fictional town? Where did that idea first come from?
I thought I would write about Washington, D.C., but that just didn’t feel right. I wanted to have something that would center my stories and that would evolve over time. The evolution of Cross River has come to be my favorite thing about writing. I did draw a ridiculous looking map once. I’m glad I don’t know where it is. The shape of the town doesn’t matter to me. The geography is always going to serve the needs of the particular story I’m writing.
How did it feel to win the prize?
Honestly, the night of the award ceremony was one of the most special nights in my life so far. Of course, one doesn’t write for that sort of recognition, but for it to happen goes so beautifully against expectations. I imagined I’d write a book that everyone but a few would ignore. It’s nice to be wrong about that.
How did Mason’s MFA program help you most in your writing and career?
The MFA program was the most important thing I did for my writing. It gave me a dose of confidence that I was sorely lacking, and it connected me with people who I am still in awe of. I discovered a lot of tools to keep the momentum up. No matter what, the story has to get done.
Who were you most excited to tell about your win?
I was happy to tell my son about it. He’s six. He didn’t care.