WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Shawn! I am so excited to interview you about your newest novel, Razorblade Tears. How does it feel to be one of the biggest superstars in literature today, and what do you think it means to be who you are (a Black man in the South who actually knows where Fayetteville/Lumberton, NC is, for example) and what about you specifically do you think you bring to writing that makes everyone such intense (possibly crazed) fans?
SA Cosby: Well thanks for having me Matthew. I don't think I'm one of the biggest stars in literature or anything but I feel so moved that people are connecting with my writing in such a positive way. I hope that it shows people are willing to read different stories from different voices
MT: I want to note before we talk in depth about Razorblade Tears that I love turning people on to a book before Blacktop Wasteland you wrote called My Darkest Prayer. Can you talk about where your writing has gone between then and now, and how you’ve evolved as a writer through your novels? What books and authors and subjects pulled you into the world of My Darkest Prayer, and how is that different from now?
SAC: I think ,I hope, my writing has become more nuanced since MDP. I love that book. It was my homage to the books I grew up loving like Devil in Blue Dress or RED HARVEST . But it was also my 1st mystery novel and I think I was a bit overly impressed with my own metaphorical prowess lol. But Nathan Waymaker ( protagonist of MDP) is near and dear to my heart. Hopefully I'll get to talk to him again some day.
MT: I know some people may frown upon me bringing race, class, the area where we live in the country into this conversation, but I think it’s important to note that decades ago, Blacktop Wasteland and now Razorblade Tears may not have been possible or been published. This isn’t limited to who you are as a person, but also what you write about, and how you write your books and the characters in them. Can you talk about the way the books are shaped, and the voices of the protagonists, and the way you make your books and characters and stories so addicting?
SAC: I think that you're exactly right. Years ago fiction that starred African American characters had a small niche in publishing. The genius of someone like Toni Morrison cannot be denied. But publishers seemed loathe to give writers of color the same opportunity to experiment in multiple genres that they give their white counterparts. Writers of color who weren't explicitly ensconced in the "literary " camp were seen as a trend. I think today we can say we are not the soup du jour...we are the whole damn meal
MT: I’ve found myself in a lot of books over the years, and I found myself in Razorblade Tears both as someone who is gay and been a victim to hate crimes (though luckily not fatal on my end) and also in ways as the reluctant father figure, the person who’s become nurturing and loving in a very hesitant way. I have more than one great love now in my nephews, and it’s frightening to see how much of me is in them, my sister, my brother-in-law I love as my brother, and I wonder what inspired your passion for this story.
SAC: I had a very close friend who is close to my age who came out a few years ago to their family. It did not go well. At first I was saddened, then I was furious. I couldn't understand how a family could turn their back on their own blood. I wanted to examine that idea and since this is fiction, I wanted to have my characters change as they confront their own prejudice. Because I firmly believe writing is a vehicle of change.
MT: There are some obvious takeways from the book, and maybe some takeaways even I’m not aware of yet (although I’m eager to reread again!). Can you talk about what you hope any reader might get from your writing, and specifically now with Razorblade Tears?
SAC: I hope readers will realize that love is all that truly matters. I hope they realize that redemption is only possible when we confront our transgressions. And finally I hope they take away that you shouldn't wait to repair burned bridges.
MT: What was the hardest part about writing this book? I hate this question, but feel now, with Razorblade Tears coming out, and how it’s more than just a great follow-up novel: were there any fears or a sense of anxiety going into writing the book that would follow Blacktop Wasteland, one of the most well-loved books in recent history?
SAC: I think the hardest part was ensuring I was telling the story in a way that didn't dehumanize any of the characters. That I allowed them to be living breathing people. That was the narrative challenge. I think personally it was a challenge to follow up BLACKTOP WASTELAND. The reception to that book was beyond any of my wildest dreams. I didn't want to let anyone down least of all my readers.
MT: There were some things about Razorblade Tears that threw me, but I also study structure, writing, screenwriting, and so some things I saw coming—and yet I couldn’t stop. I didn’t care. A lot of these things I know did surprise other early readers, but I wonder, whether something is surprising and a twist or something you don’t actually see coming, what propels you through great crime novels other than the shocking turns, and why do you think crime fiction is so important, especially today? What can it do that other genres simply can’t?
SAC: For me crime fiction is the language of the dispossessed, the lost and the broken. It's a universal story telling motif. For me as a reader it is endlessly fascinating. It's the continuous study of the best and worst of us. For me crime encompasses all other genres. A Thousand Acres is a crime novel. The Secret History is a crime novel. The Color Purple is a crime novel. Every novel is a crime novel because everyone has the potential to break societal rules
MT: Where do you start when you write a novel? What was Razorblade Teras like when you first began, and where did you see it going?
SAC: For me I have to sketch out the characters. I like to write character biographies. They never make it into the book but they give me a handle on my protagonist. Once I have that then I can begin.
MT: When dealing with race, class, sexuality, hate, etc, in fiction, or addressing issues in America, what are some issues you felt you had to confront in your novel, and is there a book, for better or worse, you feel your novel is in conversation with? What would you suggest others read along with your latest?
SAC: I think I'll always talk about race class and sexuality because these things are the foundational drivers of not only narrative but our shared communal experience. I don't know if there is a book I consider a companion piece but I was definitely inspired by Kelly J. Ford's COTTOMOUTHS. If you liked RAZORBLADE TEARS you will love that book. It's a rural noir with an LGBTQ heroine. It's so country and raw you can smell the chicken sh*t
MT: Did you write any characters you felt you couldn’t relate to, or maybe characters outside yourself, really in any of your books, and if so, did you ever feel it was hard to write these people and make them real? It never feels you struggled, but I know things can be a lot different on the other side of the page, typing on yoru screen (of if you’re a pro, writing by hand?)?
SAC: I think my villains tend to be awful people because the better your protagonist. I don't identify with them but I do my best to understand their motivation, even if that motivation is repugnant to me .
MT: What books do you feel people need to read today? What books, which authors do you think are most important to dive into today? What book would you suggest anyone to read, and what book would you say is something you turn to maybe keep writing if you feel out of sorts, or to remind you of a love for books?
SAC? Oh man that's a long list but I'll mention a few
Donald Ray Pollock
Ernest J. Gaines
Rachel Howzell Hall
And many many more
MT: I mentioned how I know people who obsess over you in a nearly scary way. You’re that great. Similarly, I wonder who are the S.A. Cosbys in your life, the ones you would kill the read, the authors you love completely?
SAC: I'm totally enamored with Donna Tartt , Dennis Lehane Walter Mosley and Stephen King and Nikki Giovanni. I'd love to have a beer with all of them.
MT: I love that you threw out Pat Conroy and The Prince of Tides once as one of your favorite Southern Gothic novels, something not everyone might consider fitting into the genre. What other books and tastes in general do you think people would be surprised to hear about? Are there any hot takes you can shoot my way? I love that you love Pat too.
SAC: Haha I don't have too many hot takes but I guess people may be surprised to know I grew up reading romance novels. My grandmother had a stack as tall as an azalea bush . I guess my only hot take is ...you can take classes to become a more technically proficient writer but ultimately you're either born a storyteller or you ain't. Nobody can teach you that.
MT: Can you give your superfans any hint at what you’re writing now, and what your next book make be like? How long do we have to wait? What can we expect?
SAC: I'm working on a Southern Gothic murder mystery that's like True Detective Season 1 meets Sharp Objects
MT: Shawn, whether it’s an interview here, or me virtually interviewing you in a private conversation, I always love talking to you about your work. Please stay in touch, and thank you always for being the great writer none of us deserve, but are so appreciative for. You are one of my favorite people and favorite authors, hands down, and I hope there are some people reading this interview and finding out about My Darkest Prayer, or buying a copy of all your books for a friend, or themselves. I hope everyone gets to read your work. It’s phenomenal and deserves to be preserved and cherished and celebrated. You deserve all the best. Thank you, Shawn.
SAC: Thank you for having me Matt. It's been a pleasure.