True Southern Heritage: An Interview with S. A. Cosby

We also talked about Waffle House hash browns, and who would win driving head to head down a lone stretch of asphalt. I am a big believer that humans are not naturally just violent creatures. Where I’m from, there is no corner store. Red Hill is a dying town bleeding people. Red Hill is like a lot of towns in the rural South. Its propulsion is matched and even exceeded by a full cast of fleshed-out characters and an undeniable understanding of place. The urban milieu is more palatable and in some ways easier to disseminate. Good Southern stories are always rooted to place, and Blacktop Wasteland is no exception. He’s a good husband and father. The rural black identity has been erased and silenced from Mississippi to Appalachia. I know of two lynchings in my family history. While they aren’t necessarily leading roles, a lot of the motivations for these characters’ actions are tied directly to these women. True Southern heritage is not a failed treasonous rebellion. They don’t want handouts, they want opportunities. I love the magnolia trees that line my mama’s driveway. They don’t own that ideal and they don’t have the right to pervert it. It’s rarely three strikes and you’re out. That necessity is what makes those actions tolerable, or even palatable as a reader. They made Southern Pride a code word for white pride. When you tell me a Confederate flag is Southern heritage, you are saying your history trumps my history. I think America lost one of its finest mystery writers earlier this year in Barbara Neely, the activist turned author who wrote the first black detective series I ever remember reading — a black female detective at that. But at the same time there are all these other central characters, from Ronnie and Reggie to characters like Burning Man. She’s the voice of reason in the book. How’d you go about striking that balance, and is it something you were consciously trying to achieve? after a drag race having just smoked some old boy in his Duster, how does he order his hash browns and what song does he play on the jukebox? JULY 14, 2020

WITH SMOKING TIRES, loud exhaust, and blue lights flashing, S. Now mind you the market has always been there, but it’s slowly becoming more reflective of the actual makeup of society. His writing rips at the paper-thin walls that have always defined “the Southern identity.” And while he has long been respected and praised in the crime writing community — having garnered honorable mentions in Best Mystery Stories, and even winning an Anthony Award for short fiction — Blacktop Wasteland marks the premiere of him standing on the stage he deserves. What are these characters hopeful for? I try to create characters and situations that give my readers the background information they need so that when violence does occur it might be shocking but not surprising. I was born in Virginia 40 miles south of Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy. I think in publishing, the “gatekeepers” are seeing that there is a market for rural fiction and voices. Gratuitous violence in books and movies always seems to embrace the antithesis of that idea. But the geographic details are important to the narrative too. Everything is five to 10 miles away from you. Getting those two sides creates a wonderfully dynamic character. I love going fishing down on the river. Can you speak at all about creating that kind of tone and how you do that without completely drowning a reader with it? In the opening chapters, we watch him beat a man then gag him with a wrench. I love walking through the woods behind my house seeing a fawn and its mother in my backyard. And yet in the very next breath he’s at home with his wife, holding her against his chest, their children running with toys in hand in the background. I’ve said this before and it bears repeating. Tell us a little bit about creating these characters and what role you wanted them to play. Up until now we’ve mostly focused on Beauregard, and that’s because in the end I think this is Beauregard’s story. The greatest truth of being poor in a rural environment is you’re only one paycheck away from disaster. A. Talk a little bit about this place, about where this novel is set, and how that landscape influences these characters and this story. They want financial stability. ¤
David Joy is an award-winning author of the critically acclaimed novels The Line That Held Us, Where All Light Tends to Go, and The Weight of This World. It speaks in shorthand that is more accessible for some people. I love having been raised in rural, southeastern Virginia between three rivers. While the setting of Blacktop Wasteland, Red Hill County, is not Mathews, it shares many of the same features. I wanted Beauregard to be as fully formed a character as he could be. How do we get the gatekeepers and readers at large to open their eyes to these stories? The only time I ever went to the Edgars, the best moment of the night for me was getting to hug Walter Mosley’s neck and tell him how much his work meant to me. It’s easy to put a book down when something strikes you as violence for the sake of action, or dark for darkness alone, but Blacktop Wasteland never felt that way. He’s about to lose his business. Do you think that disconnect between the urban and rural identity is lightening, or do you think that’s a continuously growing divide? But like Kia, she is strong and tougher than either she or the reader thinks. But it is a theme that seems to hold more firmly to the rural story than the urban one, and it allows for a balance of hope and fate — characters yearn to escape but seem destined to stay. I think what you’re getting at here is another theme that always emerges in rural noir, and that’s the idea of being stuck in place, landscape as a sort of trap. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of incredible black writers telling rural stories — whether that be a shamefully underappreciated writer like Kentucky’s Crystal Wilkinson or someone more widely known like Jesmyn Ward. I do think it’s definitely different being poor in the country than it is in the city. Bug and Ronnie and Kelvin and Kia and everyone in Red Hill are desperately trying to get out before it’s too late. It felt necessary. On the one hand, we have a man capable of extreme violence. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland roars to life in a street race fever pitch equal parts breakneck thriller and rural noir. Miles and miles of cornfields that separate you from your neighbors. Not just a fierce mother, but someone who has her own agency and desires. Economic factors can weigh on everyone. It’s more like you hit a foul ball and you’re out, so there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. 
Final couple of questions, so we’ll stray away from the serious. Were there any models from characters you’ve loved in similar stories? The inspiration for his character came from a few different places. Never mind the biases that exist against everyone in rural America. From his children needing glasses and braces to the threat of his mother losing the Medicaid that pays for her care, as is often the truth of rural stories, the greatest conflict is making ends meet. I used an outhouse until I was 16. This place we call the South belongs to us too. They want to be able to love without worry and live without fear. Those on the outside often don’t even know these people exist. So in my writing I strive to earn the violence that happens. S. But just because something may be harder to talk about doesn’t mean it isn’t worth discussing. I mean … you’re right, this is predominantly Beauregard’s story, but I wanted Kia to be Bug’s anchor. A wealthy part of town and a poor part. A. When people have asked me about knowing my characters, I’ve always joked that while they may not go to Waffle House in the novel, I know how they’d order their hash browns. So given what you’ve said and that we know they feel trapped, tell us about that other side. I refuse to let that be taken from me, and I refuse to let it be erased. But she is also a strong character in her own right, I think. In other words, some white people in more urban centers think we need their guidance and some black people in more urban centers think we are submissive, like we are all drinking Soma from Brave New World. Aside from you, Attica Locke is one of the only black writers who immediately comes to mind, and again that’s recent. In my opinion, she is just lost and she knows she is lost. I love my hometown. I think there is a huge disconnect with society at large when it comes to the rural black experience. Maybe you can talk a little bit about trying to capture that experience, or just speak to these issues in the larger context of literature and what you’re trying to accomplish with your stories. Yet my great-grandparents and grandparents and my mother and father refused to give up or give in. The terms “rural” and “working class” have become synonymous with “white” for most Americans, and yet you and I know that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I think that’s an interesting question because that feeling of being trapped definitely exists in both urban and rural fiction. The monolithic nature of publishing is beginning to split and crack as more people force their way through the gates to tell their stories, and the publishers see that there is money to be made in the flyover states and the Dirty South — at the end of the day it’s a business. I am a black Southerner. Smothered and covered with a big glass of sweet tea, and he plays Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” in the jukebox because nobody could make the profane sound sacred like Reverend Al. Some of my favorite characters are the women who are often floating around the background, whether that be a character like Jenny or Beauregard’s wife, Kia. Most of all I wanted him to be human, which meant he had to be full of flaws. 
For all of the violence that exists within this story, none of it ever felt gratuitous to me. Single-lane gravel roads that connect you to the main part of town like arteries where the light dies quick once the sun goes down. I love cookouts and house parties. They just want to be able to pay their bills on time. I also think socially we are becoming less communicative and living inside our own echo chambers instead of actually talking like adults. So I think the hopes and dreams of these characters might seem muted or small to some people. But it’d be close as a duck on a junebug! I believe it takes an uncommon amount of courage to carve out a life for yourself as a black man or woman in the South or in Appalachia. The pressures on Beauregard are the pressures the people I grew up with faced and continue to deal with. She is no pushover. I grew up in Mathews County, Virginia, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. There is an unenforced social segregation. But that is to say most of America seems to want to limit the black experience to an urban and inner-city one. They want a house that isn’t on wheels. She keeps him from going too far adrift. Most of the jobs have left town on the first thing smoking. I was told by my 11th grade English teacher that you can write about anything you want but your story has to earn that right. We are either ignored completely as you said or are branded as somehow less intelligent and less concerned about the systemic barriers that exist than other minority communities in other parts of the country. So let’s say Beauregard wanders into the Waffle House at 3:00 a.m. I think the divide is widening. Too often I think black characters are forced into supporting roles as either “magical” characters long on wisdom but short on depth, or strong silent types that exist only as plot devices. But let this be certain: this novel is more than just a high-octane page-turner. A born and raised Southerner with generational ties to southeastern Virginia, Cosby has a distinctive voice that screams from a land overlooked and ignored. ¤
DAVID JOY: This story starts with a street race, but more to the point it starts with a man at the end of his rope. Rural noir, though, that’s something that really has been an utterly whitewashed genre. That’s a hard thing to achieve, but you do it well. Then the same with regards to publishing — how do you see the stage changing, and how do you think we change it faster? They want their children to be better than they are. I wanted to show that we are all multifaceted and full of different faces that we show to different people in different situations. Notice I didn’t say security.   There is a black part of town and a white part. Cosby’s pedal-to-the-metal prose is not to be missed. Your novel strikes that seesawed balance well. The political polarization that has engulfed us pushes that chasm of disconnection wider and wider every election cycle. COSBY: I think the greatest truth of fiction is conflict drives the narrative. Last but not least, when I was growing up my dad kept a ’67 Camaro RS out in the carport that rattled the house every time he cranked it. With Jenny, I wanted to have a character who gave the readers a window into the mindset of someone who wasn’t a “professional.” Jenny is not good or bad. When I write, I’m telling the stories of my mother, my uncles, my grandpa, my friends. We paid for it in blood. I think a lot of people in publishing have a hard time confronting those issues. The only thing that concerns me is that rural writers of color or from the LGBTQ community don’t get as many chances to fall down as other writers. I was raised around tough hardworking men who could fight on Saturday night and sing hallelujah in church Sunday morning. That is to say, while there haven’t been nearly as many black authors given the stage they deserve, crime and mystery have not been completely absent of those voices. But a lot of people have conceded that a love of the South is the sole provenance of Confederate apologists and purveyors of the myth of the Lost Cause. It is not. I spoke with him recently about the novel, and about what it means to be a black writer in this moment working to capture the rural and Southern experience. Violence in real life seems sudden but it is the end result of a multitude of variables. He was inspired by characters that I loved from fiction and film. Like my grandfather used to say, “Pressure will either turn you into a diamond or crush you to dust.” I wanted to write a story that most people could relate to, and most people that I know can relate to staring down the barrel of a big electric bill you let slide for a couple of months because the transmission went out in the car you are holding together with duct tape and wishes. 
The novel is shaped largely by this “rural environment,” perhaps more than any other element. Beauregard is $800 short on rent. Me in my dad’s Camaro and you in Beauregard’s Duster, who takes the finish on a lone stretch of blacktop in the middle of the night? 
Ha ha ha, oh man … Well, the Duster in the book is based on my daddy’s Duster “Big Red,” so I gotta say me. I don’t know that that’s anymore a rural phenomenon than it is, again, an economic one, in that impoverished people in inner cities certainly know that same feeling well. In a way, I wanted him to be an amalgamation of Easy Rawlins and Mouse, or a Southern version of Parker from the Richard Stark novels but with a little bit of Wendell Scott [the first black NASCAR driver]. But like the Stones said, “You can’t always get what you want.”
Wanting his “children to be better” and wanting to “love without worry,” those are two things that help balance Beauregard as a character. He’s human in all the right ways. Can you talk a little bit about that tightening of the screw, the way economy functions as tension in the novel?