Latest book by Grand Forks Central grad gains praise from New York Times, NPR

Booksigning for James Han Mattson's "Reprieve" set for Saturday, Nov. 13, at Ferguson Books at Grand Cities Mall

James Han Mattson's recent book "Reprieve" is a 2021 Fall book pick by the New York Times. Mattson will be signing books at Ferguson Books in Grand Forks Saturday, Nov. 13. Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

James Han Mattson, a Grand Forks Central High School alumnus, has written a book, titled “Reprieve,” which has been named by Publishers Weekly as a Top 10 Literary Fiction Title.

Garnering accolades and quite a bit of attention in the literary field, "Reprieve" has been recommended by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune and Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar magazines, among others.

Mattson has been invited to sign copies of his novel from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 13, at Ferguson Books in the Grand Cities Mall, 1720 S. Washington. He also plans to sign books from 4 to 6 p.m. that day at the Ferguson Books in West Fargo.

One reviewer, author Kiese Laymon, calls the work “an eventual American classic that is unrelenting in its beauty and incisive cultural critique.”

“Reprieve” has been hailed as “a chilling and blisteringly relevant literary novel of social horror” and “a provocative exploration of capitalism, hate politics, racial fetishism, and our obsession with fear as entertainment,” according to


Mattson said his agent has had some “good nibbles” about the book being made into a movie. “We’ll have to see what comes of it.”

It took him four years to write “Reprieve,” published last month by William Morrow, one of the industry’s premiere fiction and nonfiction publishers and an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Mattson has also sold the book, described as a “nail-biting horror saga,” to Bloomsbury Publishing in London for distribution in more than 50 countries, he said.

Murder mystery

Set in Lincoln, Neb., in 1997, “Reprieve” is about four contestants who make it to the final cell of a “full contact” haunted escape house, a venue where customers waive liability and willingly submit to bodily harm. They must endure the torment without yelling the word “reprieve” to win a substantial cash prize. But before they can complete the challenge, a man breaks into the room and brutally kills one of the contestants.

Describing Mattson’s book as “creepy” and “gory,” author Isaac Fitzgerald praised it as the “Best Spooky Story” and one of five best books to read this fall on a recent NBC Today Show segment.

“It has incredible characters -- it is very character driven, that’s the mastery of this book -- you are going to care about them so deeply,” Fitzgerald said.

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James Han Mattson, a 1995 graduate of Grand Forks Central High School, has written his second book, "Reprieve". He's been invited to sign copies of the book from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 13 at Ferguson Books in the Grand Cities Mall. (Submitted photo)


Though “Reprieve” has been described as “literary horror” and a “thriller,” Mattson said, “I don’t consider it a thriller so much.”
“If you come at it as a fast-paced thriller, you’ll be disappointed,” he said. “(Readers) should come at it as ‘literary fiction with horror elements.’ But it is not an unrelenting gorefest.”

As an author, Mattson has been lauded for literary skill in drawing readers with in-depth background and rich character development.

In “Reprieve,” which follows his first book, “The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves,” Mattson explores racial fetishism, which he defined as the use of race “to categorically determine desirability despite that race’s physical, emotional and intellectual diversity. It diminishes a human to a set of preconceived ideas, making the fetishized person an interchangeable commodity.”

Native of Korea

Born in Seoul, Korea, Mattson was adopted at age 3 by Ron and Donna Mattson of Grand Forks. The second oldest of the Mattsons’ four children, he graduated from Grand Forks Central in 1995.

Growing up in Grand Forks, he had “no idea” he would pursue a writing career, he said. “In college, I didn’t either. (But) I always loved to read; I loved to read fiction mostly.”

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James Han Mattson, who grew up in Grand Forks and graduated from Grand Forks Central High School in 1995, is the author of "Reprieve." The book has been selected by Publishers Weekly as a Top 10 Literary Fiction Title. (Photo by Ria Czichotzki)

Later, in Lincoln, Neb., he took creative-writing courses at the University of Nebraska, spending four years studying his craft. But it was at a writing conference -- “like a master class for writers,” he said -- where he contemplated another path. He met Ron Hansen, a novelist, essayist and professor, who “took me under his wing,” Mattson said.


Hansen encouraged him to attend grad school for creative writing.

“He was the first real writer that said I had something,” Mattson said. “It was the first validation to go into a business that’s really hard to break into.”

The recipient of awards from the Michener-Copernicus Society of America and Humanities North Dakota, Mattson is fiction editor of “Hyphen” magazine.

North Dakota influence

The experience of being raised in North Dakota is ever-present in his writing.

“My upbringing in North Dakota influences almost everything I write, not because of the setting, really, but because of the stark sense of alienation and isolation I experienced there,” he said. “I was a gay Asian kid who stumbled awkwardly through life, trying as best I could to fit into a place that wasn’t particularly welcoming.”

In childhood and adolescence, Mattson often spent many hours wishing he were someone else, somewhere else, he said. “I wondered about other people’s lives. At that point, I thought their lives were better than mine. I think that enlarged my imaginative capacities.”

Watching others on the street, in school or church, he would “fashion entire fictional lives for them, pretending that I inhabited that life, that I wasn’t me,” he said. “This was why I wound up writing fiction, I think; this desire to be someone else, if even for just a bit.”

As an adult, “I’m mostly fine with myself,” he said. But “I do think about other people’s lives all the time. If you want to be a fiction writer, that’s integral. You have to think about other people’s lives, and what it means to live those other lives.”

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at or (701) 780-1107.
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