Book People Talk to Book People: Wesley Browne And S.A. Cosby

S.A. Cosby’s new book Razorblade Tears launches on July 6! Preorder now.

read Change Seven’s review of Blacktop Wasteland here

S. A. Cosby is an Anthony Award-winning writer from Southeastern Virginia. He is the bestselling author of Blacktop Wasteland, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was a New York Times Notable Book, the Sun Sentinel’s and Book Page’s #1 Mystery of the year, a Goodreads Choice Awards Semifinalist, and was named a best of the year by NPR, The Guardian, and Library Journal, among others. His novel Razorblade Tears will be published on July 6, 2021, by Flatiron Books. Paramount Players acquired film rights to Razorblade Tears in January 2021. When not writing, S.A. is an avid hiker and chess player.

Wesley Browne is the founder and host of Pages & Pints Reading Series at Apollo Pizza in Richmond, Kentucky. His debut novel Hillbilly Hustle was published in 2020 by West Virginia University Press. The staff of Merriam-Webster named it one of their top 17 quarantine reads. In addition to writing, he practices law, operates local pizza shops, plays poker, and coaches sports.

WB: First off, thank you so much for talking to me, Shawn. It’s an honor to get to interview you on the cusp of the release of Razorblade Tears. Last July, you had a lot of admirers in crime writing circles, but you hadn’t had a really big novel yet. It also seemed like everyone who had a so-called “pandemic book” coming out was really nervous. Then your novel Blacktop Wasteland dropped and absolutely exploded. It’s just one year later, but how much different does it feel this time around?

SA: It’s frankly just incredibly surreal. The way so many people have connected with Blacktop Wasteland is both heartwarming and shocking. As a writer, the main thing you want is for people to connect with your work. Now it seems like that connection to Blacktop Wasteland is being transferred to Razorblade Tears, and it’s just remarkable.

WB: I’d have to say the glue forming that connection is none other than you. How far along was Razorblade Tears when Blacktop Wasteland came out? Did the success of Blacktop in any way influence or change what you did in Razorblade? Because many of the qualities people loved about the last one are in the new one, but you still succeeded in writing a distinctively different novel.

SA: Well, Razorblade was about 30% done when Blacktop came out, and honestly, writing it kinda kept me sane as Blacktop picked up steam. I think seeing how people were responding to Blacktop made me even more determined to really nail Razorblade.

WB: Mission accomplished. One of the amazing things about Razorblade is the novel’s social conscience. You tackle racism, homophobia, sexism, transphobia, the carceral state, ageism, and probably some topics I missed, all while telling a fast-paced, white-knuckle crime story, and it never takes the reader out of the propulsive action. How hard was that to pull off? 

 SA: it was incredibly difficult because I really wanted to talk about these issues in a way that was not condescending or saccharine. I think as writers our duty is to tell the truth, but I didn’t want to tell someone else’s truth. To that end, I did a lot of research on the issues you noted. I also had members of the LGBTQ community read the book for authenticity to ensure I was writing characters, not caricatures. I thought and continue to think if you tell a compelling story as honestly as you can, the reader will trust you and go along for the ride. 

 WB: What made you decide to tackle something so ambitious? 

SA: I had a friend who is from the same part of the country I am from come out, and their family was not supportive at all. To be frank, I was enraged that their family was being so prejudiced. That incident also made me think about the similarities and differences in the struggle for social justice when it came to other marginalized groups. I wanted to talk about those ideas and address the fact that until everyone is free to be who they are, no one is free. 

 WB: Do you worry you’ll lose some readers? Do you care?

SA: No and no. If you’re the type of person who doesn’t believe that love is love and you think people should be forced to hide their true selves, then I don’t want you as a fan.  

WB: Without giving too much away, Razorblade turns on the redemption of two very different characters, each of whom has done his best to move past a life of crime and violence, but whose redemption can only be found in renewed crime and violence—and it works. How did you balance making them sympathetic in the face of all that?

SA: I think giving those characters a righteous cause elicits sympathy and empathy. I firmly believe violence in your work has to be earned, and if you earn that currency, you can spend it in a way that allows you to help your readers identify with characters who are less than perfect. 

WB: You are perhaps the uncrowned king of the hardscrabble simile. An example of a particularly colorful one from Razorblade is “When he hit the ground, his large and small intestines began to unspool like a ribbon of saltwater taffy soaked in merlot.” Your books are positively loaded with them. Would you be willing to share a simile from one of your books that made you smile when you wrote it?

SA: My poor editors might disagree with you. I’ll admit I’m addicted to similes. I think that’s a consequence of my early love affair with Pulp novels. One that always makes me chuckle is from Blacktop Wasteland: “He likes to play dumb but he slicker than two eels in a bucket full of snot.”

WB: The Commonwealth of Virginia is essentially a recurring character in your writing. Do you think you’ll ever write a novel set someplace else? Would there be any point? 

SA: I don’t know. I love Virginia. It’s in my DNA…literally. I suppose if an idea spoke to me loud enough, I’d consider setting it someplace else, but as of right now, I can’t see that happening. I’m country right down to my boots. 

WB: If Razorblade kept you sane when Blacktop broke, what are you working on now that’ll keep you even-keeled this time?

SA: I’m actually working on a book that is about a serial killer in a small southern town and the black sheriff hunting him, but it’s also about the spirit of a small town and how that can affect the people who live there. It’s on track to be my longest book yet, but that allows me to talk about how the history of a town haunts the people who choose to stay and those who decide to leave.  

WB: If the writing DNA of, let’s say, 3-5 authors could be combined to make one perfect writer, whose DNA are you putting in the mix?

SA: Oh man. Let’s have Raymond Carver, Walter Mosley, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Walker, and Ernest J. Gaines with a smidge of Donna Tartt and Lorraine Hansberry.

WB: What are some books and authors who you’ve read lately that you admired that maybe flew under the radar? Is there anything coming out soon from a less-known author that you’re really looking forward to seeing?

SA: Such a great question. I was blown away by Andy Davidson’s The Boatman’s Daughter, David Joy’s When These Mountains Burn is remarkable. I’m excited for Yasmin McClinton’s new novel Her Name is Knight. Bath Haus by P.J.Vernon is an instant classic. Mia Manansala’s cozy mystery novel Arsenic and Adobe is just lovely. That’s just a few.

WB: Is there any question that you’ve thought, “Man, I always wished someone would ask me, and they never do,” that you want to answer here? 

SA: Well, I wish people would ask me what I’d be doing if I wasn’t a writer and the answer is. . .I’d love to own my own bookstore. 

 WB: Does your bookstore have a name?

SA: Ha ha, yes. The Next Page Bookstore.

by S.A. Cosby, July 2021

Ike Randolph has been out of jail for fifteen years, with not so much as a speeding ticket in all that time. But a Black man with cops at the door knows to be afraid. The last thing he expects to hear is that his son Isiah has been murdered, along with Isiah’s white husband, Derek. Ike had never fully accepted his son but is devastated by his loss.

Like Ocean’s Eleven meets Drive, with a Southern noir twist, S. A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland is a searing, operatic story of a man pushed to his limits by poverty, race, and his own former life of crime.

by S.A. Cosby, July 2020
by Wesley Brown, March 2020

Knox Thompson thinks he’s working a hustle, but it’s a hustle that’s working him. Trying to keep his pizza shop and parents afloat, he cleans out a backroom Kentucky poker game only to be roped into dealing marijuana by the proprietor—an arrangement Knox only halfheartedly resists. Knox’s shop makes the perfect front for a marijuana operation, but his supplier turns out to be violent and calculating, and Knox ends up under his thumb. It’s not long before more than just the pizza shop is at risk.