Maximum Shelf author interview: S. A. Cosby

Following Friday’s review of All the Sinners Bleed, here’s S. A. Cosby: The Light in the End.

S.A. Cosby is an Anthony Award-winning writer from Southeastern Virginia. He is the author of My Darkest Prayer, Blacktop Wasteland and Razorblade Tears. His fourth novel, All the Sinners Bleed (Flatiron Books, June 6, 2023), introduces Sheriff Titus Crown, who has returned to his Southern hometown and is out to right some wrongs from the inside. When not writing, Cosby is an avid hiker and chess player.

Is Sheriff Titus Crown a hero?

S. A. Cosby

S. A. Cosby (Sam Sauter Photography)

He is, but like all heroes, he’s flawed. Flawless heroes are boring. It’s the reason they had to give Superman kryptonite. A perfect hero is aesthetically something to aspire to, but existentially it’s a bit of a dud. It makes the hero stronger that they’re able to overcome those flaws and still do the right thing.

How well does he fit the classic loner noir detective model?

He is a classic noir detective–even though he’s the elected sheriff, he has more in common with Philip Marlowe than with Wyatt Earp. But he has a strong support system that a lot of those classic heroes didn’t have. He has his dad, his brother–I really love their relationship–his girlfriend and some of his deputies. Even though he’s their boss, he does respect and lean on them. But at the end of the day, he is the lone man standing up for what’s right. He’s the one that has to face the devil, eventually, by himself, and that’s by design. I’m fascinated with what somebody does when they’re faced with a life-changing moment. How do they stand up? And it’s most interesting to me when they stand up in those moments alone. You know, character is what you do when no one is looking. I wanted to firmly put him in that situation.

How important is a character’s backstory?

Incredibly important. When I create characters, I do their full biographies, and a lot of the time none of that makes it into the book. I create long documents about their childhood, their past, their likes and dislikes, intrinsic quirks. Even things that will never be revealed completely still influence the character’s arc, their decisions, their decision-making process. You don’t need to know everything about Titus, but you need to know that the things that have happened to him have shaped him, have defined his morals and his idealism, and his small bit of nihilism.

Titus is part of that tradition of the lone wolf, but he’s also very much in the tradition of the local boy made good. Charon County is so much a part of who he is, whether he’s in the FBI or, now, the sheriff. There is a proprietary sense about him. He cares about this place, and he knows some of the people–most of the people–don’t particularly care for him because he’s the sheriff, but he still feels protective of this place. The roots of Charon are so deep in his psyche.

What makes for a compelling villain or protagonist?

Your protagonist is only as good as your villain. You need a villain that matches the protagonist in drive and intellectually, but also personality-wise. Eminem and Kid Rock were both coming up in Detroit at the same time as rappers, and people would ask him why he would never battle Kid Rock. And he said, because beating him wouldn’t have meant anything, because I don’t respect his skill. He didn’t see him as a worthy opponent. For Titus, I wanted the villain that he has to face to be a genuine threat, not just physically but intellectually, because I wanted his triumph to mean something.

When readers get to the end of the book, they’ll realize that Titus understands some of what the villain has gone through. That creates a pretty interesting dynamic, to show the differences between these two characters. There are elements in their background that are similar, but whereas Titus went the way of wanting to protect people and not giving in to the pain of his past, the villain chose another route.

How important is place to this narrative?

Place is important in all my stories, but I think it’s the most important aspect of this story. In my previous books I’ve written about place as a more general, macro idea. I’ve written about THE SOUTH, all capital letters, what that entails and what that means. I’ve spoken ad nauseum about how proud I am to be from the South but at the same time how much I recognize the flaws that are here. As an artist, I think it’s my duty to examine that. With this book I really wanted to delve into the micro of that, and what’s it’s like in a town like Charon, which has a deep history. It has this sort of mythic quality to it. The citizens experience it in totally different ways. The white citizens experience it differently than the Black citizens. The young citizens experience it differently than the older folks. This town can have a multiplicity of definitions based on who you are and what your background is. I think place gives the story its weight. Charon County is a secondary protagonist and antagonist in the book.

Is this a novel about race?

In Southern fiction four things will always come up: race, class, sex and religion. Those are the four pillars of Southern gothic fiction. All are represented to various degrees in All the Sinners Bleed. As an African American person, I’m always going to write about race, because race is always a part of the conversation for me. People ask, why do you have to bring up race? I didn’t bring it up. This country brought it up; my life brings it up. Race is important, because Titus is a Black man, the first Black sheriff in this town. But religion is also on the forefront, maybe even more so, because in the rural South, there is an incredible hypocrisy that comes up with religion. Small towns with 25, 30 churches talk about Christianity as a concept but not as a practice. Flannery O’Conner said she doesn’t believe the South is Christ-centered, but Christ-haunted. And I believe that’s emblematic of the hypocrisy of the modern Christian evangelical movement, that you purport to love your sisters and brothers in Christ, but you vote against helping people, you vote against empathy. You live in a world where you thump a Bible and worry about the lives of children, so to speak, but once those children are out of the womb you could not care less about them. I wanted to talk about all of that. Religion can be a hammer to break down doors or it can be a cudgel to beat you down, and I think it’s represented in both ways in the book.

Is it difficult or draining to write bleak stories? Or is there catharsis there?

It’s never as draining as you might think. I’m a pessimistic optimist; I write these bleak characters in these bleak situations, but my characters triumph in the end. Not without some difficulty, some wounds and some scars, but they triumph. I was raised Southern Baptist, and I have this Old Testament philosophy that “I’ve never seen the righteous forsaken,” to quote Titus’s father. I write these really dark, morally complex characters and situations because I want the good guys to win, because that doesn’t really happen in real life. If it’s going to happen anywhere, it should happen in my book; I’m the one writing it. So as dark as my characters and their situations can be, they come through with the light in the end.

This interview originally ran on February 13, 2023 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

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