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Shop Talk: S.A. Cosby Is Late to This Interview and It’s Because of Some Dead Bodies

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Shawn “S.A.” Cosby is a writer who needs no introduction. He’s everywhere. His latest novel, Razorblade Tears, was an instant New York Times bestseller. Before that, Blacktop Wasteland garnered nearly every accolade imaginable: Los Angeles Times Book Prize Winner, New York Times Notable Book, NPR’s Best Books of 2020, and more.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to have the chance to sit down and talk “shop” with such a successful author. A dude from the South. Gloucester, Virginia to be exact. I was so excited, I logged into our Zoom meeting ten minutes early.

Over an hour later, I was still waiting, staring at my own bald head on the computer screen instead of Shawn’s, wondering if I’d been stood up.

Turns out, Shawn had an excuse straight out of one of his own novels, a gritty yarn involving dead bodies and a cracked blue highway in the South. I’ll let Mr. Cosby take over from here.

S.A. Cosby: So, my partner runs a funeral home. Last night, about seven thirty, we got a call. We don’t really have a coroner in the rural parts of Virginia. If you’re out in the country, it’s sort of a sliding round robin of funeral homes that pick up bodies. We’d just sat down for dinner, and we get this call. A guy drove his van into this yard and hit a couple people. It’s the State Police asking us to get these bodies to the state medical examiner, which is a good hour away. So, yeah, anyway, we had to go up there and get these bodies last night. And, how do I say this . . . One of them was a very large person. When that person can’t help you move, it takes a lot of work to get them on the stretcher and in the van. We didn’t think we were going to have to take them to Richmond, but one of the cops said he thought he smelled alcohol, so that meant we had to take them all the way to the examiner’s office. By the time I got all that stuff straight, I looked up and it was ten o’clock, and I was like, Damn, I was supposed to do this thing with Eli, and I didn’t call him, and now I got to go change my pants . . .

Eli Cranor: As far as excuses go, that one takes the cake. And I really appreciate you doing this. How do you handle trying to balance writing and stuff like this?

SAC: You can’t pour from an empty cup. I hate saying no. I really do, but I had to say no this morning. I got this white board I got to fill up. You know, my publisher wants the next book. So, yeah, you got to learn to say no, and it’s hard. Sometimes I say no, and people are like, Oh, okay, your ass went Hollywood. And I’m like, No way. Have you seen my house? It looks like we just moved in and we’ve been here seven years!

EC: Okay, Hollywood, I’m going to skip the football analogies and—

SAC: Let me say one thing first. In the South, it’s football, God, and country. In that order. It’s like that in Virginia. I was a wrestler in high school. We never got the love our football team got, man. Our football team in high school was 2-36 in four years. We’d have a pep rally and people would lose their shit. We’d come in and be like, “We’re the wrestling team. We just won a state championship. For the third time.” And it was just crickets.

Razorblade-Tears-198x300.jpeg Blacktop-Wasteland-197x300.jpg

EC: Do you feel like your athletic career shaped your writing process in any way?

SAC: When I was wrestling, I had this coach. He was the most motivational dude. He used to tell us all the time, “The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little something extra.” One day, I was ready to quit. We didn’t have a car. I was hitchhiking to practice. Coach found out and he said, I’ll give you a ride home, but I want you to get your driver’s license before the end of the year. I was like, we don’t even have a car. So he let me use his truck to learn. And I did it. I got my license because he helped me. I say all that to say this, to me, wrestling put in place the things I now use as a writer. Determination. Discipline. Working through adversity and pain. I use those things more than ever now. Listen, when I was a wrestler, I thought I was hot shit, man. I won district. I won regionals. So we’re at the state championship, and I was set to wrestle this guy. I forget his real name, but his nickname was “The Monster.” I was a heavyweight. He was a heavyweight. I was like, I’m gonna win. He was 34-1 and from a bigger district, but I didn’t care, man. I had a letterman’s jacket. I had two girls that liked me. I thought I was hot stuff. I went out there on that mat and that dude beat me like a drum. He did this move where he like Power Bombed me. I remember going back to the bench and my coach saying, “You know why you lost?” And I was like, “Yeah, he was way better than me.” And my coach shook his head and said, “He was more determined than you. You took that match for granted.” Now, as a forty-eight-year-old, middle-aged man, I don’t wrestle anymore, but I do work out.

EC: Does your workout routine help with writing in any way?

SAC: Working out helps me keep my focus. When I’m stuck on something I’ll go lift weights. I don’t ego lift anymore. I’m not trying to deadlift five-hundred pounds. I’m going in there and I’m using dumbbells and doing my thing. After I work out, I feel like my synapses are firing a little better. Makes me feel better too, which helps me write better. Keeps me grounded. There’s a great essay by Henry Rollins, the punk singer, where he says, “The iron never lies to you. It never changes. Two-hundred pounds is still two-hundred pounds.” 

EC: Now that we’ve tackled wrestling and workouts, let’s get into some actual writing stuff. What do you do first? Like right after you get an idea? You mentioned your white board earlier. Is that where you start?

SAC: The white board, that’s actually my second step. My first step is the synopsis. I write a two or three page synopsis. It’s basically just me telling myself the story. Very much stream of consciousness. I just kinda stay on it and write it out. The ending of that synopsis is usually not the ending of the book, but now there’s a path for me to get there. I don’t like to start something unless I have an idea of how it’s going to finish. That doesn’t mean it’ll finish that way. I just got to have a life preserver, like this is how it might go. I always like to say writing a book is like trying to find your way into a house when you don’t have a key. And for me, writing the synopsis is that key.

EC: So you get the synopsis down, then you get on the whiteboard?

SAC: Yeah, exactly. Then I start fleshing it out scene by scene, chapter by chapter.

EC: One of the things that’s always struck me about you is your skill with names and titles. Blacktop Wasteland. Razorblade Tears. Beauregard “Bug” Montage. All those names, man, they scan. Like there’s definitely some meter—some rhythm—going on in there. Do you keep a name bank? What’s your secret to naming characters and books?

SAC: The names generally have two or three meanings. With Beauregard, I wanted to pick a name that’s stereotypically synonymous with white racist Southerners and give it to this African-American getaway driver. For me, a big part of that book was just me saying, Hey, we’re part of the South too. My family goes back to the church my great-great grandfather built here in 1869. So, yeah, Bug’s name was just a way to play off that. With the titles, it’s all about music. It’s funny that you mentioned the meter. I really do try to get a rhythm. You know, something that sounds like a song title. I like taking words that don’t seem to go together and smashing them together. But it’s got to have that rhythm. It’s almost some sort of iambic pentameter. The book I’m working on now, All the Sinners Bleed. You know, that sounds like an Allman Brothers song.

EC: “Blacktop wasteland” is actually a line from the book. So do the titles come first, or do you find them while writing?

SAC: I find them on the whiteboard. This writer named Ed McBain used to say he always started with a really pithy title, then wrote the book around it. I mean, I can’t really start a book until I come up with the title. Then, yeah, sometimes I work it into the book. I’m really weird about that. Guess you could say superstitious. I don’t like to even open a file on my computer until I have a good, strong title. I’ve been pretty lucky. All the titles I’ve picked have ended up on the book.

EC: Do you have any other writerly superstitions? 

SAC: Oh, man. I’ve got five.

EC: Five?

SAC: Yeah. These are just things I’ve noticed over the years. Things that make me go. Number one: my hat. I got a big old bald head. And for some reason, I don’t do my best writing unless I have my hat on. I got to have a playlist. Got to have music playing. That’s number two. If I’m writing action, I need heavy metal, or hip hop. If it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty, as I like to call it, then I go with Prince or something more erotic. The music matches the scene for sure. Number three: I do tend to sip on a glass of whiskey when I’m writing.

EC: What brand?

SAC: It depends. I have a bottle of scotch a friend gave me. But my go to is Elijah Craig. That’s my specialty.

EC: Back to the countdown. Where were we? Number four?

SAC: Okay, here’s the funny one. I had to have surgery a year ago. So I got this nice new recliner. I took one of my first checks from my publisher and bought this recliner with a heated seat. It’ll actually help you stand up if you need that. But I started writing in it. I wrote Razorblade Tears in that recliner. So now it’s like, I got to be in my recliner with my lap desk to write. So I’ve got my music, my hat, my whiskey, my recliner, and at number five . . . We have a cat. We’ve always had cats around here. Our newest cat is named Flipper. I like to have him curled up at my feet when I’m writing. Those are my five superstitions. I know it’s funny, but when I don’t have one of those things, I’m not happy with the final product.

20211007_123129-476x1024.jpg Cosby’s gear.

EC: That’s good stuff. Your chair brings to mind my “Shop Talk” with Stephen Mack Jones. He has a comfy chair he’s fond of. And Roald Dahl. He wrote with a chair and a lap desk. Okay, so now you’ve got all five superstitions taken care of, the synopsis and whiteboard are done—what do you do next? Like how do you actually tackle your drafts?

SAC: I’ll be honest with you, man. I’m lazy as shit. I don’t like doing research. I don’t like doing beta reads and multiple drafts. That’s why I made up a town—I was too lazy to use Google Maps. True story. I don’t care about the geography. I just make this shit up. But I do take writing very seriously. So what I do is once I start drafting, I’ll write the first eight or nine chapters. I usually try to have my books come in at thirty two or thirty four chapters. That way I know how expansive I want the story to be. So I write those first eight chapters, then I’ll send it off to this really close group of writer friends who have been with me from the start. Nikki DolsonKellye GarretEryk Pruitt. I’ll send them those first chapters and just ask them how it feels. Does it flow? I’m a big believer in pacing in crime fiction. I went to a Walter Mosley lecture eight years ago at a college near my house. He said when you’re writing a crime novel or a mystery novel, you’ve got to find things for this character to do when he’s not detecting. Because if you don’t, it’s going to be a really boring book. So I took that to heart. Even though I write more suspense thrillers than detective stuff, I do believe the main characters have to be doing other things and doing them in a way that works.

EC: Do you send your whole manuscript off in increments like that? 

SAC: I’ll send off the first and second sections of the book to my writer group. Then, I wait until I’ve finished the whole thing before sending anything else off. I don’t get too far outside that writer group, though. Has to be people I really trust. Here’s what I’m starting to learn: The more, uh, successful . . .  I guess that’s the word. I ain’t saying that. But yeah, the more successful you get, the more people are going to kiss your ass. That’s the truth. These days I stick to people who are going to be real with me.

EC: Do you aim for a daily word count while you’re drafting?

SAC: I try to finish two chapters a day. I don’t worry about wordcount. You can get too mired in that minutiae. I aspire to the Elmore Leonard school of writing. I don’t follow the rules. Let the editors worry about the commas and the word count. I just want to tell a story.

EC: Do you try to write every day? 

SAC: I’m pretty obsessive when it comes to the first draft, man. So, yeah. I write every damn day. I wrote on my birthday this year. Couple years ago, I wrote on my partner’s birthday. She was so mad. But, yeah, when I’m in the groove, I just can’t pull myself away. If it’s really rocking, I’ll sometimes start writing at seven in the evening and go till two in the morning. I’ve fallen asleep in that chair with the laptop still on. When I’m really jamming, it’s like a high. That sounds trite. People say that all the time, but when I’m really kicking it—when I feel like I’ve raised my hand and the gods are hitting my fingers with lightning bolts—I can’t let it alone. So, yeah, I try to write every day. And then, when I’m done with it, I take two weeks off. I don’t even look at it. Save the file, close the laptop, and let that shit marinate. Can’t start edits too soon because I’m too close to it. I can’t even see what’s wrong at that point.

EC: How do you safeguard yourself from distractions, especially when it comes to social media?

SAC: When I’m writing a book, I actually delete my social media from my phone. I leave it on my computer, but I take the apps off the phone. I started doing that because I’m very involved with social issues. I had a friend tell me one time, “You’re never going to finish this book if you keep arguing with Lars from Des Moines. You got to finish the book, man. Let that shit go.” So I did.

EC: In other words, you take this writing thing pretty seriously. 

SAC: To me, writing is an art form, but it’s also my job. I grew up poor, man. I grew up working really hard manual labor jobs. My first job was on a pig farm. Then I worked landscaping. On a grounds crew. I’ve been a bouncer. All that made me take the idea of people paying me for my services very seriously. I mean, I owe these people my time. I owe them the best book I can write. My grandfather told me one time, “Whatever job you do—be it big or be it small—do it well or not at all.” And I take that very seriously. I don’t wanna curse, but I don’t like to f around when I’m writing something.

EC: After working all those jobs, I’d have to think writing is easier in some ways. Probably harder in other ways too. But what I want to know is why do you write? What compels you sit down and open your laptop every day?

SAC: I would love to say that I write to improve the social contract, that I write to deconstruct the human condition, but honestly, I write because it feels good. Writing is the one thing I think I’m pretty good at. I feel like it’s the thing I’m meant to do. Birds are put on earth to sing. Bees are put on earth to sting you. And I’m here to tell you a story. I don’t want to squander that. That’s why I take it so serious. When I was younger, I knew I was a decent writer, but I was young, man. Young. Drank a lot. Did other stuff you probably shouldn’t do. I had this talent, I thought, but I wasn’t mature about it. My mom passed in March. She bought me my first typewriter. She used to work at a thrift store and would bring me all these real books. Not like Dick and Jane stuff. One day I was talking to her and I’d just gotten another short story rejection. I was in my twenties, and I told her that I was thinking about stopping writing. I hadn’t sold a story. I mean, Stephen King had written Carrie by the time he was twenty six and I couldn’t even sell a damn short story. And my mom asks me, she’s like, “Do you like writing?” And I’m like, “I love it but I don’t have anything to show for all this work I’m putting in.” And then she stares me right in my face and says, “Keep doing it. You don’t owe anybody anything. If it makes you happy and you want to do it, that’s the only explanation you need.” That’s stuck with me. So whether I’m a bestseller, I’m self-published, or I’m just handing out pamphlets at the bus station—I’m always going to be a writer.

View the full article

Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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