WRITERS TELL ALL
"That Dog Can Hunt!": S.A. Cosby on Expanding Characters, Minorities and Crime Writing, and the Paths We Choose
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Shawn! I really loved My Darkest Prayer, and with Blacktop Wasteland, your newest book, you’ve really shown more of your skills, taking this popular storyline—a poor younger man with a tragic background is an amazing driver and becomes involved in crime—and you help reinvent the story and add to it in so many ways. How did this book idea come about, and why do you think so many people will relate to it and love it with a book like Drive and movies like Baby Driver? How do you think being a black man in America complicates the narrative, drives it forward, and brings it to new heights?
S.A. Cosby: First thanks for having me. The idea for this book began as a short story that was published in the last issue of ThugLit ( shout out to Todd Robinson). The main character in that short story refused to go gently into that good night after I finished writing the tale. Eventually I decided I wanted to know more about him and that idea eventually became Blacktop Wasteland. I grew up in a small town in Virginia with limited entertainment options. Most times we ended up drinking cheap liquor, hanging out at a bonfire and souping up our rolling wrecks. Cars and the freedom they represent have always been a huge part of my life. My cousin used to take me with him to illegal street races where his Maverick would blow the doors off everyone else. I wanted to recreate the visceral thrill of doing 0 to 90 down a quarter mile.
I think being a black man in America doesn't so much complicate that narrative as gives me an opportunity to expand it. I can explore areas in my story that are often ignored.
MT: The protagonist in your new novel, Beauregard, is no stranger to crime, but he’s also got this amazing mystery, along with several other characters and their points of view at play. How hard was it to wrestle different points of view, timelines, and storylines in this tour de force novel?
SAC: Its challenging because I wanted to create a tight narrative with one POV but other characters wanted their time in the limelight. In the end I tried to give them strong supporting roles but i did my best to keep the main camera on Bug. In the end it’s his story but the other characters are like threads in a tapestry. they help to complete the picture.
MT: What books and movies do you feel inspired this? What books were your formative books, the ones that shaped you most, and what are your favorites now? What about authors? What authors and books really deserve more attention than they’ve been receiving?
SAC: As far as movies that may have inspired me one of the most important ones was HEll OR HIGHWATER. The way it talks about poverty and how it affects generations really struck a nerve with me. That being said it was still the story of two poor white men and in America there is a wide chasm between being poor and white and being poor and black. I wanted to tackle some of the same themes HOHW did but through the eyes of the people I knew and loved growing up back in my small town. Another film that really inspired me was Greased LIghtning The Wendell Scott story. Not so much narratively but because it told the story of the first black NASCAR driver in history. It talked about the hope and dreams of rural black Americans. As far as books I studied the modern masters. Walter Mosely, Dennis Lehane, Gillian Flynn , Daniel Woddrell, Ernest J Gaines, Zora Neal Hurston and so many more. My reading tastes are varied but I love stories that examine the dichotomy between who we are and who we think we are.
Right now I’m reading a couple of really good books. I’m reading Where The Light Tends to Go by David Joy. It’s truly a moving and lyrical book . I’m alternating between that and Chuck Hogan Prince of Thieves. But I tell you the writers that i look up to , the ones that are really pushing the definition of what crime fiction can be are Legion. Eryk Pruitt, Kelly J Ford, Kellye Garrett, Angel Luis Colon John Vercher, Jennifer HIllier Donald Ray Pollock ...these are just some of the writers that I look at and shake my head with wonder and awe at what they are able to achieve with the same 26 letters in the alphabet that are in front of me.
MT: There are so many tragic elements that come to play in the novel, dealing with so many different stories—all somehow connected to Beauregard. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, although we do know his father isn’t in the picture from the novel’s beginning. Can you talk to us about what role tragedy and intense traumatic events play in this novel, and how that might translate into real life and your worldview?
SAC: A lot of my work uses pain as a central motivator because pain is universal. Whether it's physical or emotional we all understand pain. Like REM said Everybody hurts. So when I write I tend to create stories that are centered about pain and our responses to it. How it shapes up and molds us even as we try to move through it and get over it. I think it’s the one thing that crosses all the cliched boundaries and hierarchies.
MT: At some point in the novel, the criminal becomes the victim—again, I don’t want to go into spoiler territory, but it’s so interesting how we think this will be a normal heist novel, but that’s barely half of Beauregard’s story (if that much—really barely half of what we see). Can you talk to us about repercussions, consequences, and how that’s played a part throughout the lives of Beauregard, his father, and other characters in the novel?
SAC: Well its all about the sins of the fathers being visited upon the sons right? We are all recipients of an emotional inheritance. If you are lucky it’s one of growth and maturity. But for a lot of people we end up paying for the mistakes of our fathers and mothers. Our forefathers sometimes inure debts that come due on our watch. How we deal with those repercussions reveals our true character.
MT: Who do you feel is the real victim in the novel? Do you feel there are clearly defined roles, both in real life and in great fiction, including your own? What makes a character like Beauregard relatable and lovable despite planning and executing crimes, and what do you think is the appeal of the criminal world and dark side of people to readers?
SAC: I think everyone in the book is a victim to a certain degree but they also have varying degrees of agency. I think , or rather i hope readers are drawn to Beauregard because he is a fully realized complex character with a multitude of layers. Ultimately this is what the book is about. Can you be “ two types of beasts.” ? Or do you have to choose a path and follow it to the exclusion of all other roads? I don’t know if the book answers that question but i really enjoyed asking it.
MT: You’ve written really different novels—so very different—and also so very wonderful. What do you feel, when creating these incredibly diverse novels, is the most important aspect of writing? What really puts your writing above the rest, and ensures that this book will count, this book will be different, and this book will matter? What is most important to you?
SAC: I don’t if I think my books are that much better than anyone else’s but I will say I do my level best to tell an engaging story. No one is gonna care about your metaphors and symbolism if the story is boring. The story is everything. It’s the motor that drives the car. Whether the car is a hoopty or a boss high toned work of art depends on the individual writer but I try to make sure you are never bored reading one of my books.
MT: Diversity in crime fiction has come a long way (with writers of color, different sexes, sexualities, etc) but it’s also got a long way to go. You touch on a lot of hard and important points about being marginalized in America—not just about race—but why do you think that of all genres, crime fiction, mysteries, thrillers, etc, are the books that allow room for growth? Do you think anything we’ve talked about so far comes into play?
SAC: Because the desperation of living on the margins is tailor made for crime novels. The feeling of looking down the barrel of an electric that has to be paid or a medical procedure that you can’t afford lends itself to tales about our darker impulses. I like to say some novels that people would classify as “literary” like to do a lot of talking about how miserable their characters are. Crime novels have their characters do something about it. Now what they do may not be the best solution but by acting , by moving they determine their fate. As a black man growing up in the South so much of my life for so long was determined by someone else. Taking that power back is at the heart of a lot of crime novels regardless of the color of the protagonist but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I yearn to tell the stories of my people where we are sidekicks or magical wisdom spouting caricatures. Where we determine our fate even if its tragic.
MT: When you write, who do you write for? Yourself, a certain type of reader, critics? Do you think writing for different types of readers, or for yourself, affects how you write, and changes your writing?
SAC: I guess if I’m being honest I write for myself first. If I’m not into the story I’m not gonna finish writing it. But as I grow as a writer I do seek to write for a broader audience but in the beginning it’s for me. I gotta have fun with it. The thing about being a writer is that its such a solitary endeavour. It’s you and the computer or notebook and no one else. It’s like telling a nine month long joke then waiting a year to see if anyone laughs. You have to trust your instincts. You have to believe no matter how hard it get that you’re on the write track.
MT: When you were going through the writing process for this novel, what was it like? How many drafts did you complete and how many times did you have to go through revisions, story edits, anything? Can you give us a peek inside your creative process?
SAC: i think the main thing i want people to take from Blacktop Wasteland is an understanding of how hard it is to be the person you tell yourself you should be when the whole world seems to be telling you that you can’t.
MT: I know that I, for one, am dying to know what you’ll be releasing next. Can you tell us what book you’re working on now, or what your current work in progress is? I know that if they aren’t already hungry for more, fans will be ready after Blacktop Wasteland’s release for another S.A. Cosby novel.
SAC: I’m working on a rural revenge novel tentatively titled Razorblade Tears. its about two fathers one black one white both ex cons who seek revenge for their gay sons who were murdered in what at first appears to be a hate crime. As they seek revenge and learn to coexist they also seek redemption for not accepting their sons and their sexuality. it’s also violent as hell. LOL
MT: Thank you so much for talking with me, Shawn. I really loved reading your book, and I really loved getting to know Beauregard and really everyone in the novel. It was a joy getting to ask you these questions. Feel free to leave us with any lingering questions, thoughts, feelings, or anything else, and I really look forward to fans getting to know your book so well. I’m so excited for its release.
SAC: I just want to thank you for giving me the chance to talk about Blacktop Wasteland. I’m proud of the book. As Bug would say I think “that dog can hunt!”