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




WITH SMOKING TIRES, loud exhaust, and blue lights flashing, S. A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland roars to life in a street race fever pitch equal parts breakneck thriller and rural noir. But let this be certain: this novel is more than just a high-octane page-turner. Its propulsion is matched and even exceeded by a full cast of fleshed-out characters and an undeniable understanding of place.

A born and raised Southerner with generational ties to southeastern Virginia, Cosby has a distinctive voice that screams from a land overlooked and ignored. 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. Cosby’s pedal-to-the-metal prose is not to be missed.

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. We also talked about Waffle House hash browns, and who would win driving head to head down a lone stretch of asphalt.

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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. Beauregard is $800 short on rent. He’s about to lose his business. 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. Can you talk a little bit about that tightening of the screw, the way economy functions as tension in the novel?

S. A. COSBY: I think the greatest truth of fiction is conflict drives the narrative. The greatest truth of being poor in a rural environment is you’re only one paycheck away from disaster. The pressures on Beauregard are the pressures the people I grew up with faced and continue to deal with. 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. Good Southern stories are always rooted to place, and Blacktop Wasteland is no exception. Talk a little bit about this place, about where this novel is set, and how that landscape influences these characters and this story.

I grew up in Mathews County, Virginia, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. While the setting of Blacktop Wasteland, Red Hill County, is not Mathews, it shares many of the same features. Red Hill is like a lot of towns in the rural South. Most of the jobs have left town on the first thing smoking. There is an unenforced social segregation. There is a black part of town and a white part. A wealthy part of town and a poor part. But the geographic details are important to the narrative too. Miles and miles of cornfields that separate you from your neighbors. 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. Red Hill is a dying town bleeding people. Bug and Ronnie and Kelvin and Kia and everyone in Red Hill are desperately trying to get out before it’s too late.

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. 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. 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. Your novel strikes that seesawed balance well. So given what you’ve said and that we know they feel trapped, tell us about that other side. What are these characters hopeful for?

I think that’s an interesting question because that feeling of being trapped definitely exists in both urban and rural fiction. Economic factors can weigh on everyone. I do think it’s definitely different being poor in the country than it is in the city. Where I’m from, there is no corner store. Everything is five to 10 miles away from you. I used an outhouse until I was 16. So I think the hopes and dreams of these characters might seem muted or small to some people. They want a house that isn’t on wheels. They want financial stability. Notice I didn’t say security. They just want to be able to pay their bills on time. They want their children to be better than they are. They don’t want handouts, they want opportunities. They want to be able to love without worry and live without fear. 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. On the one hand, we have a man capable of extreme violence. In the opening chapters, we watch him beat a man then gag him with a wrench. 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. He’s a good husband and father. Getting those two sides creates a wonderfully dynamic character. He’s human in all the right ways. How’d you go about striking that balance, and is it something you were consciously trying to achieve? Were there any models from characters you’ve loved in similar stories?

I wanted Beauregard to be as fully formed a character as he could be. I wanted to show that we are all multifaceted and full of different faces that we show to different people in different situations. 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.

The inspiration for his character came from a few different places. I was raised around tough hardworking men who could fight on Saturday night and sing hallelujah in church Sunday morning. He was inspired by characters that I loved from fiction and film. 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]. 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. It felt necessary. That necessity is what makes those actions tolerable, or even palatable as a reader. 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. That’s a hard thing to achieve, but you do it well. Can you speak at all about creating that kind of tone and how you do that without completely drowning a reader with it?

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. I am a big believer that humans are not naturally just violent creatures. Gratuitous violence in books and movies always seems to embrace the antithesis of that idea. Violence in real life seems sudden but it is the end result of a multitude of variables. So in my writing I strive to earn the violence that happens. 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.

Up until now we’ve mostly focused on Beauregard, and that’s because in the end I think this is Beauregard’s story. But at the same time there are all these other central characters, from Ronnie and Reggie to characters like Burning Man. 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. While they aren’t necessarily leading roles, a lot of the motivations for these characters’ actions are tied directly to these women. Tell us a little bit about creating these characters and what role you wanted them to play.

I mean … you’re right, this is predominantly Beauregard’s story, but I wanted Kia to be Bug’s anchor. She keeps him from going too far adrift. She’s the voice of reason in the book. But she is also a strong character in her own right, I think. Not just a fierce mother, but someone who has her own agency and desires. She is no pushover. 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. In my opinion, she is just lost and she knows she is lost. But like Kia, she is strong and tougher than either she or the reader thinks.

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. 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. 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.

Rural noir, though, that’s something that really has been an utterly whitewashed genre. Aside from you, Attica Locke is one of the only black writers who immediately comes to mind, and again that’s recent. 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. But that is to say most of America seems to want to limit the black experience to an urban and inner-city one. 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. The rural black identity has been erased and silenced from Mississippi to Appalachia. Those on the outside often don’t even know these people exist. 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.

I’ve said this before and it bears repeating. I was born in Virginia 40 miles south of Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy. I am a black Southerner. I love having been raised in rural, southeastern Virginia between three rivers. 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. They don’t own that ideal and they don’t have the right to pervert it. 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. True Southern heritage is not a failed treasonous rebellion.

I think there is a huge disconnect with society at large when it comes to the rural black experience. 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. 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. 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. I know of two lynchings in my family history. Yet my great-grandparents and grandparents and my mother and father refused to give up or give in.

I love my hometown. I love the magnolia trees that line my mama’s driveway. I love going fishing down on the river. I love cookouts and house parties. I love walking through the woods behind my house seeing a fawn and its mother in my backyard. I refuse to let that be taken from me, and I refuse to let it be erased. When I write, I’m telling the stories of my mother, my uncles, my grandpa, my friends. This place we call the South belongs to us too. We paid for it in blood. I think a lot of people in publishing have a hard time confronting those issues. The urban milieu is more palatable and in some ways easier to disseminate. It speaks in shorthand that is more accessible for some people. Never mind the biases that exist against everyone in rural America. But just because something may be harder to talk about doesn’t mean it isn’t worth discussing.

Do you think that disconnect between the urban and rural identity is lightening, or do you think that’s a continuously growing divide? Then the same with regards to publishing — how do you see the stage changing, and how do you think we change it faster? How do we get the gatekeepers and readers at large to open their eyes to these stories?

I think the divide is widening. The political polarization that has engulfed us pushes that chasm of disconnection wider and wider every election cycle. I also think socially we are becoming less communicative and living inside our own echo chambers instead of actually talking like adults.

I think in publishing, the “gatekeepers” are seeing that there is a market for rural fiction and voices. Now mind you the market has always been there, but it’s slowly becoming more reflective of the actual makeup of society. 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. 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. It’s rarely three strikes and you’re out. 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. 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 let’s say Beauregard wanders into the Waffle House at 3:00 a.m. 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?

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.

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. 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. But it’d be close as a duck on a junebug!

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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.

 

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