Thriller author SA Cosby: ‘My current success surprises me enormously’

Thriller author SA Cosby: ‘My current success surprises me enormously’

In his hometown of Gloucester, Virgina (8,000 inhabitants), the racist past is still clearly visible, says American writer Shawn Cosby. When he wants to renew his driver’s license at the court, he passes a bronze statue of two soldiers who fought against the Northerners in the civil war. His old primary school is still named after these soldiers who fought to maintain slavery. If the Southerners had won the battle, Cosby says, he might be a cotton picker now.

The 49-year-old thriller writer worked in a tool shop a few years ago. He also regularly worked as a hearse driver for his wife’s funeral company. He recently became a full-time writer. The crime novels that he published under the name SA Cosby over the past three years have been showered with praise and awards. To his surprise, he even receives fan mail from Switzerland and Japan. For the first time he is in Amsterdam, to promote the translation of his third book, Razorblade Tears.

Razor sharp tears is a phenomenal, energy-filled thriller about two fathers, one black, the other white. Free Netherlands declared it ‘thriller of the year’ last week. In the book, the two men search together for the murderers of their homosexual sons, who were married to each other. This results in a search for revenge, in which homophobia and racism are important themes.

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As a child, he wanted to be a writer, Cosby says in his deep, melodious voice. “My mother read fairy tales to me. Because I always asked such critical questions, she encouraged me to start writing stories myself.”

Did you come from an environment in which books played a role?

“I come from a poor, noisy family in rural Virginia. My mother enjoyed reading, as did my aunt and uncle. I also read their books. My own short stories – horror stories and science fiction, which I always wrote in my spare time – have been rejected by many publishers. At the age of 29, I stopped sending manuscripts for four years. It started to feel like I was being rejected myself.”

Were those short stories good?

Laughing: “The rejections were justified. Fortunately, some editors encouraged me. You have talent, they wrote.

“My current success surprises me enormously. But I always knew that one day I would publish. I thought my stories were at least as good as some of the books I borrowed from the library.”

Your first book was published four years ago. How did it go?

“A friend, a dancer, met the editor-in-chief of ThugLit, a magazine for short crime stories. That man published my first stories ten years ago. He also encouraged me to write a book. That was My Darkest Prayer, published by a small publisher. I sold the books from the trunk of my car at literary festivals.”

How is it possible that your second book, ‘Blacktop Wasteland’ [Een laatste uitweg]was published by a major publisher?

“A literary agent heard me speak somewhere. He gave me his business card and asked if I would like to send him another manuscript. I did that at the end of 2018. A few months later Blacktop Wasteland a huge hit in the US. I received praise from all kinds of writers I had always admired. And former President Obama put it on his list of favorite summer reading. My wife convinced me to quit my job. A few weeks ago I was in a Zoom meeting with TV producers when my wife asked if I wanted to pick up a deceased person with the hearse. It’s really bizarre how my life has changed.”

You always tackle big topics in your crime novels. In ‘Razor Sharp Tears’ homophobia and racism. Why?

“Homophobia is a thing in rural America, especially in black communities. A cousin of mine is gay. I had a conversation with him about how difficult it was for him to come out. I also wanted to talk about guilt and redemption and how we deal with them. Some people think that salvation is something that is granted to them. A misunderstanding: you have to work on salvation yourself. But my first assignment is always to tell an exciting story.”

A white and a black man from Virginia who together hunt for the murderers of their sons, is that realistic?

“In the big cities in the southern states there is more interaction between white and black than you think. But you’re right, in real life it would be unthinkable for two such different characters like Ike and Buddy Lee to work together. These criminal men did not, like me, make friends with people of a different skin color in their youth. My privilege as a writer is that I was able to pair those two fathers, to have them talk honestly about their prejudices. There are still white Southerners who do not want such a conversation and who cannot accept that they lost the American Civil War. What such Southerners do not realize is that they have more in common with me, also from Virginia, than with fellow countrymen from New York, Chicago or Los Angeles.

“That said, there are also black Southerners who are very homophobic and do not feel that the fight for gay rights is equal to the fight for equality of African Americans. As long as everyone cannot be free, no one is free.”

How racist was the Virginia you grew up in?

“At a very young age I realized that there were people who didn’t like me because of my skin color. As a 5-year-old I visited a fair. A white boy before me was unable to win a toy animal. When I succeeded, the father of the white boy demanded the toy animal. When I refused, the man spat on me and said the N-word.”

Are there still racial tensions in Virginia today?

“If you had asked that five years ago I would have said ‘no’. Since Trump, you feel that the world is changing too quickly for some conservative white Christians. You mainly find those kinds of people in the countryside. In contrast, Richmond, once the capital of the Confederacy, is now a very vibrant, multicultural city.”

Do your books spark discussions?

“Certainly. A woman wrote to me that she had never accepted her gay son and that after reading my book she started trying to repair the bond. And at a book signing, another woman said her gay son had died believing she didn’t love him. Reading my book felt to her as if she were having a conversation with him after all. Those kinds of reactions are nice. I thought I had written a book for entertainment, but apparently they also mean something.”

How has the success of the last two books changed your life?

“While I used to worry about how I was going to make a living from writing, now I don’t know how I’m going to pay those damn taxes. For the first time in my life I have savings and health insurance. I used the first big check from my publishing company to buy a heated recliner – $600! My younger self would laugh at this purchase. But with a lap desk, I did write my next book in that chair. It’s coming out in June and is called All the Sinners Bleed. For the first time I felt pressure when writing: I don’t want to disappoint my readers.”

What is it about?

“About a black police officer. I wanted to write a book about the many forms of police brutality in the US and about the way religion is used as a cudgel and a comfort in the South, how it divides and brings people together. And also how faith can be used for really dark, nefarious purposes.

“Black police officers are having a difficult time in the US. My main character’s father explains to his son why: the white people in town don’t like you because you’re the sheriff. And the black townspeople don’t trust you because you’re the sheriff.

“The agent in my book is one good guy, a good guy with flaws who struggles with his faith. He hunts down a serial killer who uses the city to dump his bodies. The officer decides that he must defend himself against evil, fight the darkness and keep the city safe. A storyline that represents how I feel about Virginia. I love the state, but at the same time there is a very dark history.”

Your books have such strong titles: ‘Blacktop Wasteland’, ‘Razorblade Tears’ and ‘All the Sinners Bleed’. How do you choose them?

“I only start writing when I have a title. A form of superstition. I like combining words that are rarely placed together. I also like it when a title immediately makes it clear what kind of book you are going to read.”

Before he flies home again, Cosby wants to visit the Van Gogh Museum. “I’m a big fan of his. Not only his art, his combat also fascinates me. Genius and insanity are close together. And some artists who are really, really talented are being tormented. I have the feeling that Van Gogh was always dissatisfied. That his paintings were often only a shadow of what he had in mind when he started.”

The dissatisfaction with the outcome of the creative process is familiar to him, says Shawn Cosby. “My stories are never as good on paper as I heard them in my head.”

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