Biscuits, heists, and drag racing: we talk to S. A. Cosby

Vannessa Cronin on July 27, 2020
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An interview with author S.A. Cosby

Blacktop Wasteland is one of our picks for Best Mystery and Thrillers of the Month. It's a heist novel set in the rural south, with a cast of believable, relatable characters, led by Beauregard "Bug" Montage doing what it takes to survive and keep his family and his business afloat.

From racism to road races, from domestic spats to diamond heists, from getting out of a financial hole to driving a getaway car, this is a thriller with blood and brains. And heart.

We were excited to talk to author S. A. Cosby about a novel that will surely end up on everyone's list of favorite books in 2020.

Vannessa Cronin, Amazon Book Review: So, how would you describe Blacktop Wasteland?

S. A. Cosby: Blacktop Wasteland is Hell or High Water meets Burt Reynolds' White Lightning but featuring black, rural, southern Americans.

I like that. I was interested to see that like Bug, you're from Virginia…

Yes ma'am.

…because that explains the amazing sense of place in the book. Are the phases and local slang in the novel the phrases that you heard growing up?

Yeah, local colloquialisms that I grew up with, which are kind of fun. When I had to explain them to my Upper West Side editor and agent, it was hilarious. [Laughs] One of the phrases that stuck out was, I have a character in one part of the book, and someone has made some biscuits, and he says, “Yeah, your grandma put a foot in those biscuits,” and my editor and my agent were like, “What does that mean?” and it's just a colloquialism that means that someone really put their heart and soul into cooking something, or they really did it up right. I grew up in a pretty big family. And we were kind of poor growing up, but we had a lot of laughs. I come from a family of characters and raconteurs and barbecue pit orators, and I tried to translate that to the book.

Blacktop Wasteland is a pedal to the metal thriller, but it’s amazing what a heartrending and touching father/son portrait it is, too, even though Bug's dad, Anthony, is long gone. When at one point, Bug’s mom looks at him and tells him: “You could have been better than you are, but you spent too much time looking up to a ghost,” it's very affecting.

Yeah, that's one of the main themes of the story, how we hold on to the idealized version of past: you put these people on a pedestal and you hold that idea in your mind to your own detriment. At the beginning Bug’s so enamored with the memory of his father he doesn't want anybody to slap the dashboard of the Duster because that car represents his dad. Towards the end of the book he begins to realize that he has to let go of some of that hero worship, for his children and for himself.

There’s a stillness at the center of Bug. Like when he's in the middle of the crazy getaway from the shopping mall, with Quan and Ronnie in the car, and he hears "Wham" by Stevie Ray Vaughan on the radio and still manages, in the middle of that chaotic moment, to think he must have hit the PBS station because "Regular radio didn't play instrumental tunes anymore." I laughed at loud at that: the robbery’s gone sideways, someone got shot, but he still takes that moment to reflect on who’s playing instrumental tunes these days!

I wanted him to be the calm in the center of the storm. I have friends and family members who are former military, and one of my friends told me that the best soldiers, the ones who survive, are the ones who are able to keep calm in the midst of the chaos, in the midst of the firefight. And I wanted Bug to have some of that, that personality trait, that ability to stay cool and calm under pressure. I think that one of the best traits, regardless of whether your protagonist is driving a getaway car or giving the closing summation in a murder trial, is being able to keep your calm and keep your cool.

How hard is it to get that balance right between humor and the action and the pathos?

I think it can be difficult but it also gives the work a sense of reality because, you know, the term gallows humor comes to mind. I wanted to have some humor in the book because there are fairly bleak passages…so I used some of the characters to kind of lighten it up, to break the tension. I see that a lot because my day job is at a funeral home, and you see a lot of families using humor to process grief in that situation, so I definitely wanted to have some funny stuff in there. I like to throw a ray of sunshine in there once in a while.

I love the way where you take the humor right up to the line, where it could cross over into caricature, like with Ronnie, but he still feels like a real person, just a real stupid person.

I hate to say it, but it's the truth: I based Reggie on some people that I grew up with. [Laughs] Some of my friends in my misspent youth were Reggies.

Talk to me a little bit about the women in the book, because they are such interesting counterpoints to the men: Kia in particular, but also Bug’s mom, Ella.

I think Kia serves as a Greek chorus for the book. I have a friend who read the first draft and she told me: “Y'know, if Bug would just listen to his wife, this book would be seven pages!” I wanted her to be a fully formed character as well, but also the conscience of the book, Bug's conscience. Bug has a flexible relationship with the truth, with violence, and Kia kind of anchors him, she holds him down from going full-on rogue....I wanted her to be his equal in strength and in character.…Y'know, they're just a normal married couple. It was very important to me to show a black couple like that, just trying to make it every day, trying to be good to their boys. There's a line in the book where he wants to buy her a house that's on a foundation, not on wheels, not a trailer. I grew up in a trailer and I know that desire.

Kia has her work cut out for her. Bug’s conscience is situational: How he's going to respond depends on the situation.

Yeah [laughs], he's very adaptable when it comes to his conscience. With his mom, I wanted to show a counterpoint to his obsession with his father because she's narcissistic, but she's also hurt because she also loved Anthony; she loved that man and it hurts her so much that he left. Those things are kind of intertwined. She's a counterpoint to Kia, and I don't go into great detail in the book, but one could assume that she knew what Anthony was doing for a living and was okay with it, whereas Kia knew what Bug was doing but was definitely looking at it with a view to the endpoint. I wanted his mom to be a strong character and to show the effects of loss in both Bug and his mother. And I wanted to show the nadir of that effect in Bug's mother, as someone who misses her man so much her longing has turned into hate and that hatred is literally eating her inside. Anthony is this larger-than-life character that leans over the book and leans over Bug's life.

One scene that I found totally heart-stopping is when, after the shopping mall robbery, Bug is sitting in an armchair watching the news and realizes that he has a connection to one of the people involved in the robbery and it breaks him down for a minute. He’s a criminal, but he’s all heart.

Yes, a friend of mine gave me a very high compliment. He said Bug is Richard Stark's Parker, with a heart. And I was like wow, I hadn't thought of it like that, but yeah, he is in a way. I know that sounds pretentious, to compare myself to Donald Westlake, but I wanted to show he can do these horrible things and he's violent, but he also cares about people. He's not a sociopath in that he empathizes with people. The fact that he's not a sociopath is remarkable, that he's able to hold it together and do the things that he has to do, and compartmentalize to a certain extent, and so I think that does make him a sympathetic character and hopefully that resonates with lot of people because that was by design. I didn't want him to be an automaton. It's very rare that you get in crime fiction, in my experience, African-American characters that are fully formed. You think of Easy Rawlins. Or August Snow from Stephen Mack Jones' series. I pushed myself hard to make them fully formed. I hope that does resonate with folks.

I'm also thinking about that scene in the gas station when he meets his estranged daughter Ariel, and you can feel the waves of anger coming off her, and yet at the end she puts her hand in Bug’s and he says nothing, just holds it a little tighter, and they stay like that for a minute.

I cried writing that scene, it was hard. [Laughs] Because I wanted to write it in a particular way, I went back and forth with some weird dialogue between them and I finally decided, no, they would just sit there and watch the sunset and...I'm getting choked just thinking about it...and just hold each other for a minute.

Gearheads will love this book. After all, Bug's car, The Duster, is practically one of the characters in the novel.  Are you a gearhead yourself?

We lived in poverty for a long time when I was a kid so a lot of this book was cathartic for me. I tell people the first five or six years of my life are a bad country song. My mom got sick, our house burned down, and my dad left. And so we moved in with my grandmother, and my uncles and cousins were all gearheads. They had old-school cars. My grandad had a '57 Bel Air with a baby blue paint job with white fins.

I had a cousin, who is no longer with us, and he was like Bug, a mechanical genius. Never went to school, never took a class on auto mechanics, but he was a Mozart of motors. He had this jet black Maverick, with white racing stripes. I would sneak out on Saturday night when I was, like, 12—I had no business being out—I'd climb out the window and run meet him at the end of the road, and we would jump in the car together and we would go to drag races. He would race people and sometimes I would ride with him and sometimes I would just watch and, you know, you had to be a lookout for the cops. I loved being around those cars.

Also, because we were poor and because my mom was disabled, we didn't have a lot of money so I became by default a mechanic because we couldn't afford to take our vehicle to a garage. I remember riding my bicycle to the library and coming back with some manuals on how to change an alternator because our alternator had gone bad. I've definitely busted my knuckles trying to change some brake pads or put a carburetor on an engine. So between the joy of hanging out with my cousins who were gearheads, and the reality of having to work on my own car, I've always loved automobiles. I'm a big drag racing fan. My dream is to one day get some Lee Child money and buy myself a '71 Barracuda. I'm a huge fan of American muscle cars so that's my dream, to get myself a car like that one day.

Speaking of: poverty and race are kind of hidden in plain sight in the novel—there, but people barely need to talk about them.

It's there, in the subtext of everything. It's reflective of how you live as a black person in the south. I mean, there's racism everywhere in America, but there's something about being in the south. I grew up in a small town where my elementary school was named after two Confederate generals; there's a Confederate statue in the middle of town that's ten steps away from the courthouse. Sheriff's deputies in my small town were usually guys that graduated from high school that were bullies in high school. Some were racist, some weren't. You grew up with racism around you and despite that, you still have to persevere you still have to move forward and go to work.

And so, I wanted the book to feel like it feels in real life. There's a misconception that as African-Americans we sit around all the time and “racism, racism, racism.” And no, though we talk about situations that come up. The most overt scene about race is when Bug is talking to Javon. And he's telling him not to quit school, to get an education, to get out of this town. It’s the same with Ariel; he tells her, “Your star is too bright to shine in this place.” There's a guy comes to sell Boonie some metal and he's got a Confederate flag hat on. You know, I grew up like that; you had that conversation after they leave. So it wasn't a decision to not talk about it, I think it was a decision to let it percolate under the surface, because that's how it is in real life.

I’m thinking of another scene where Bug's at Wonderland about to go looking for Ronnie, and one of the old hillbillies out front says, "Can't we have one place without you poking your head in it? Goddamn, y'all done took over the White House" and it's jaw dropping, because if ever there was a man who has not benefited from “taking over" the White House, it's Bug. It shows the chasm between reality and the viewpoint of these racists.

And that's a conversation that was taken from real life: me and some friends went to a bar back in the before times. It was right after Obama was elected, and this gentleman was not happy about that. Like you said, there's a great chasm between finally having a black man elected as president and the reality of how it awakened the giant of racism that exists in America. So when that guy says that to Bug, he’s saying what a lot of people felt. But I have a little thing I do in my books when people talk like that. If I have a character who's racist, he's probably going to get his teeth kicked in before the book ends. [Laughs] It's my book, so I can do it.

I love it. I wanted to kick his teeth in, too! I don't want to spoil the ending of the book, how the heist plays out, but is there anything you can tell us about it?

The original ending was totally different, very bloody, very Michael Mann's Heat. I had a friend read it and she said, You know, I think Bug is smarter than that, he wouldn't go out like that, he wouldn't get caught in that situation, and she gave me a great piece of writing advice. She said, You're writing what you want to do instead of what Bug should do. And I thought that was pretty insightful.

The ending that does happen was pretty hard to write for me personally, because there's a lot that goes on in that ending that I was uncomfortable confronting as a reader, even though I'm writing it. There's a lot of what my mom would call come-to-Jesus moments in that ending. And they were difficult, and they were uncomfortable, and they were emotionally rough; some things that are said in that ending are as emotionally violent as the physical violence in the book. But yes, I felt writing that ending, like when you're in a restaurant and you hear a couple (not having a loud screaming match, because that's kind of funny, you're going to laugh that off) having a really serious conversation, and you know that wherever their relationship is, it will not survive this conversation. I've heard conversations like this in a restaurant or bar, and it’s so awkward and you feel, "I've got to get away from this," and I felt like that with the ending, but I bit down and grit my teeth and got through it. I think it ends the story as well as anybody else could have ended it.

Agreed. Care to leave us with any final words?

I say this with all honesty and no sense of irony: I'm a big, old, husky, poor guy from the lowlands of Virginia that didn't graduate college, worked a lot of different jobs over the course of my life, but I always came back to writing, because it's one of the things I'm pretty good at, that brings me the most joy. So, for people to respond to the book the way they have, it's overwhelming. Thank you.


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