Published March 20, 2021

As part of the 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, crime-writing phenom S.A. Cosby (Blacktop Wasteland) and Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Walter Mosley (Blood Grove) discussed their newest books in conversation with Stephen Mack Jones. Cosby presents a “Southern noir twist… a searing operatic story of a man pushed to his limits by poverty, race, and his own former life of crime”, and Mosley returns to his brilliant Easy Rawlins series with “a crackling, moody, and thrilling race through a California of hippies and tycoons, radicals and sociopaths, cops and grifters, both men and women.”

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Thanks to our bookseller for this event, Book No Further.

“The year’s most celebrated crime novel, and with good reason. It’s a soaring, deeply felt, deeply propulsive tale written by an author coming into his full powers…Cosby writes beautifully of the sensations and memories that drive Bug through the night and down the empty roads toward his old life. Dread and excitement combine to create a unique sense of atmosphere, one that will keep readers pushing ahead toward a genuinely powerful conclusion.” ―CrimeReads The Best Novels of 2020

“Easy’s finely calibrated understanding of and commentary on the social and racial climate around him gives the novel its defining texture and power… A new Easy Rawlins novel is always big news in crime-fiction circles, and this fifteenth entry in the series does not disappoint.” ―Booklist

Transcript

JANE KULOW:  Hello, and welcome to Trouble on the Road featuring Walter Mosley and S.A. Cosby, a program in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Jane Kulow, Director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us. If you haven’t read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from our book seller for this event, look no further. Please visit VaBook.org, or you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the festival’s ongoing work at VaBook.org/give. 

Now I am thrilled to introduce our speakers. Walter Mosley, author of Blood Grove, is one of America’s most celebrated and beloved writers. A Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, Walter has written more than 60 critically acclaimed books, television scripts and plays, and has received numerous awards including the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and Lifetime Achievement awards from PEN America, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, and the National Book Foundation.

Shawn A. Cosby, author of Blacktop Wasteland, is a writer from Southeastern Virginia now residing and Gloucester, Virginia. His short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, and his short story “The Grass Beneath My Feet” won the Anthony Award for best short story in 2019. 

Our moderator today is Stephen Mack Jones, The Hammett Prize and Nero Wolfe Award winning author of the Detroit based August Snow thriller series, which is in development for a TV series. The third entry in the series Dead of Winter, publishes in May. Thank you all for joining us today. I am so excited and can’t wait to hear this. Steve, it’s all yours.

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Thank you Jane, sorry about that little glitch. I have to say that I am just over the moon talking with Mr. Walter Mosley and Mr. Shawn S.A. Cosby, two extraordinary writers who have been and are now changing the landscape of not only the genre of crime fiction, but fiction in general, at least in my humble opinion. Well first of all, we’ve already talked among ourselves as far as where we’re calling in from. Walter, would you hurt us again by telling us where you’re calling in from?

WALTER MOSLEY:  I’m not going to go through the whole thing.

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  No.

WALTER MOSLEY:  I’m just in California and close to the ocean. 

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  And I take it the ocean isn’t frozen.

WALTER MOSLEY:  No, not right now. I’m sure it was at some time in the past millennia, but not today.

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  No. Shawn, where are you calling in from?

S.A. COSBY:  I’m calling from the wilds of Virginia. I’m about two hours south of Washington, D.C.. so just far enough away that I can enjoy the quiet of crickets and Junebugs, and also in the summertime fight the good fight against mosquitoes. 

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Well, that’s wonderful. And here I am in the suburbs of Detroit where it is currently 20 degrees, and that is a heat wave for this week. You both have extraordinary new books out. Mr. Mosley, you have Blood Grove, which is just extraordinary. It’s the 15th I believe in the Easy Rawlins series. Easy has grown over the years. Would you agree?

WALTER MOSLEY:  Well he’s grown older. I’ll agree with that, and I think that’s how Easy would look at it, too. He’s grown older and in some ways that’s good, though I think he would rather be a little more reckless and young if he had a choice. He has a son that’s grown now, an adopted son Jesus, who’s off in the world married to the killer Mouse’s ex-girlfriend. He has a daughter and she’s growing up, she’s kind of wonderful. So I think he’s happy, he’s older, he’s in L.A. in 1969. It’s just after the Summer of Love I think. I don’t know if the Summer of Love was ’69, I think it was ’68. But he’s there and as usual, very thoughtful and in trouble. 

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  That’s a sea-change year to bring a story to bring Easy to. Shawn, you have two books, actually. The new one is Razorblade Tears. When does that come out?

S.A. COSBY:  Yeah. That comes out in July, it’s a standalone crime novel. It’s not a sequel to Blacktop Wasteland, but it’s in the same S.A. Cosby literary universe. I’m taking a cue from the MCU and I’m trying to create my own little pocket universe where characters from different works kind of walk in and out of each other’s lives.

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Well, just please remember that Bug is kind of Ironman, so, okay?

S.A. COSBY:  Well, Bug makes a cameo. Bug makes a cameo, and he makes an uncredited cameo in Razorblade Tears. But I think … There’s a scene where a car is damaged and the guy driving the wrecker truck, it’s obviously Bug for anybody that’s read Blacktop Wasteland. Because as he passed by, one of the characters of Razorblade Tears talks about how he has those dead gunslinger eyes, and so that’s a little nod to Bug. Bug will be back. I actually have plans to revisit the characters of Blacktop Wasteland in the future. 

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Tremendous.

S.A. COSBY:  Not right now, but soon I want to go back and talk about them again.

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Well-

S.A. COSBY:  He’s an interesting guy, he won’t leave me alone.

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Well good, good. Readers are going to be glad to hear that. I personally hope it so-called bugs the hell out of you. In both books, there is a familial connection. There is a strong sense of family and duty, not only to family. But can you gentlemen talk about those familial connections that these two gentlemen have?

WALTER MOSLEY:  When I talk about writing and talk about literature, I always say to people that the most important thing is the pedestrian stance of the fiction, and people get upset with me. They go, “What do you mean pedestrian? This is beyond.” And I’m going well, yeah, but if people are going to believe that these people really exist in the world and they’re really doing things in the world, they have to be doing normal, everyday things. They have to be eating, they’ve got to go to the bathroom, they have to have a mother and a father or had a mother and a father and a dog and a child and the things that people do that attaches them, that anchors them to the real world. 

So Easy, it’s interesting because Easy has a real daughter somewhere, he doesn’t know where she is. But he’s adopted one son, Jesus, is off in the world. Feather, who’s his young teenage daughter who’s living with him on this mountaintop actually, in the middle of Los Angeles. You can’t really get the beat of somebody’s life unless there’s a home that they’re going to, somebody that they love, somebody that they want to take care of. So his connections, his good friends and extended family certainly, his daughter, and then the people that his adopted daughter is related to who come into play in this book, that allows you to understand Easy and it allows him to be able to talk about the world in a way which is normalized, and then you can get to the wilder stuff that goes on in his life.

S.A. COSBY:  You know what’s so funny about that, I was going to say what’s so funny about Walter saying that, is that is the exact piece of advice he gave a crowd at a lecture in Virginia about seven or eight years ago, and I was in the crowd. It was about how to write a novel in a year, and that’s the piece that always stuck with me because my first published book was a detective story and he said something to the effect of, “To make your character interesting, he or she has to be doing other things than detecting. They have to have stuff they’re doing when they’re not detecting because they’re not always searching out the mystery.” And so with my first book My Darkest Prayer, I made the character an attendant at a funeral home, so when he’s not detecting he has this job. 

In Blacktop Wasteland even though Bug is this incredible heist driver, he also owns a auto repair shop. He’s a father. He’s got a daughter from a previous relationship, he’s got two sons with his wife, he loves his wife. His best friend and his cousin Kelvin works at an auto repair shop with him. He has a hobby, he maintains and refurbishes this car that belonged to his dad. So you create these foundational segments, you create these foundational pillars in the character’s life and then as a writer, what I like to do is I just come along and just take a hammer to those pillars, and that creates the narrative. 

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Well, these familial connections come from your life, your relationships. I noticed in the forward to Blacktop Wasteland that it’s dedicated to your father. 

S.A. COSBY:  Yeah. When I grew up, me and my dad didn’t have the greatest relationship because him and my mom separated at a early age. I’ve said this before in other venues, we were really, really poor and my mom unfortunately became partially disabled shortly after I was born. If you listen to my early years, it’s like a bad country song. My mom got sick, the house burned down, and my parents split up. For a long time, I had a difficult relationship with my father, really a relationship that was contentious to a certain degree. I’m very blessed that we’ve been able to repair it. He’s still alive, my mom’s still alive, and I just now think I could probably take my dad in an arm-wrestling contest because he’s a larger-than-life character. But writing Blacktop Wasteland, he just turned 75 and I’m still not … I’m 50/50 on it because the dude got hands like, he got fingers like hot dogs. 

But it was a cathartic experience for me to write the book because I was able … And not every book is like that. But this particular one for me was very cathartic and anybody that reads my writing, there is a through line of father-son relationships. I write a lot about broken men and how those broken men affect the people around them. But that’s not a requirement to write that kind of fiction at all, I don’t believe. It’s just the one I got and is what I use, but it’s definitely not a requirement at all.

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  It gives you a focal point to a jumping off point, correct? Would you agree with that?

S.A. COSBY:  Exactly. Oh yeah, exactly. Exactly.

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Now it’s my understanding that you know a little bit about funeral homes, Shawn. 

S.A. COSBY:  Yeah, my significant other owns a funeral home. I work … That’s my day job. So I’m very lucky I can get off whenever I need to, my boss is pretty flexible. But it’s the setting of my first novel. I actually had plans to write a follow up to that novel. There’s a whole series of characters in that first book that I would love to revisit. Those books give me an outlet where there … There’s a lot of heavy stuff in Blacktop Wasteland, there’s a lot of heavy stuff in Razorblade Tears. So my detective character Nathan Waymaker from Darkest Prayer, he’s still serious but it’s a little more cotton candy popcorn as opposed to the sturm and drang of my other work, which there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just sometimes fun to kind of dip your toe into a different pool so to speak. Which full disclosure, that was always inspired by Easy Rawlins and Mouse. I actually named Nathan’s sidekick Skunk because I wanted to keep the animal motif going. 

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Well Mr. Mosley, I was going to ask you about, and maybe this is a weird question. But Easy is growing roses on his rooftop. Am I out of my head to think that that’s kind of a metaphor for a hard man offering a prayer to the heavens? I mean, it-

WALTER MOSLEY:  Well, that’s an interesting question. The previous question that you asked, I’m going to answer this but I have to go back to the previous question, the idea of is your life in these words. Last night … I’m working on a television show that I’m doing with Sam Jackson for Apple TV, and I’m in the middle of a rewrite and it’s really not stressful, but I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to do in the rewrite. So I’m working at it, there’s a time limit. And last night I was dreaming the whole night about if there was a serial killer among the Maasai and that whenever they killed one of the Maasai, one Maasai killed another, they would take … Because they have all this scarification and tattoo kind of stuff going on, that they would cut that off, leatherize it and that would be what they would have for each murder, that kind of thing. And I was absolutely sure in my dreams that it had to do with this television show that I’m writing. And when I woke up, I realized that it did not have anything to do with the television show that I was writing. And really I can’t even forget it, it stuck with me so strongly. I really loved it, but that’s not a thing. 

Now all of that said, okay. So I’m writing a thing, I might even think it’s about my family, but my family doesn’t think it’s about my family, and it’s like that. But my father, he loved growing plants. He created his own breeds of dahlias, he would cross pollinate the plants and did all this stuff, and it was great. He loved … He had these roses in our front yard over on Spaulding near Fairfax and Pico that were gorgeous, giant roses, just giant roses. It was back in the day that nobody was going to steal your roses, it was great. And even though I don’t remember thinking about this before you asked the question, I think that that’s why I had him growing the roses on the roof because he’s a country man. He’s living in L.A. like so many country men and women live in L.A., and he’s growing roses on the roof. So it’s that. 

Now so your question becomes, is he giving up some prayer to say well, I did this so can you forgive me for this hard life I’m living. I actually don’t know if that’s what my father was doing. It might very well have been what he was doing. And if that’s true, then it’s also what Easy’s doing. 

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Yes, yes. Well my original question for you was Cobol, Fortran, or C++? 

WALTER MOSLEY:  Cobol, Assembler, and RPG. Those are the languages I used as a programmer. Cobol, and I coded in binary. I didn’t want you to know, I coded in binary. I could follow the op code, the branch and link register, I really was that deep into computers. I mean, I talk about this stuff to people who do computers today, it’s still what computers are based on but nobody knows it. What, assembler, what do you mean, binary? Binary, I don’t do binary. I say yeah, you do, man. I say, that’s what’s in the computer. 

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  One of the reasons why I brought that up is because I was in marketing communications for a software company long before August Snow. And as a person in marketing I have to tell you, I had no idea what any programmer ever said to me, none.

WALTER MOSLEY:  That’s true, they did it on purpose. They did it on purpose. They wanted to mystify their work so you wouldn’t be able to make them work harder. 

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Well, and here’s the thing. I interviewed a programmer about a new program that was coming out from the company, and I was so lost after 10 minutes I said, “So what you’re telling me is the software does this.” And he looked at me and he said, “Well no, but I guess we could make it do that.” It was a very difficult job. We’ve talked about our characters’ familial impact, and it’s really difficult to talk about writers, especially writers of color these days without bringing up the subject, that do you believe that every piece of writing produced by a person of color is actually a political statement, I mean regardless of genre or young adult, mystery. It’s a question that-

S.A. COSBY:  All writing is a political statement, I think.

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  I’m sorry?

S.A. COSBY:  I was going to say I think all writing is a political statement. I think all writing’s a political statement, whether it’s by a person of color or anybody. I think if you go back to Chekhov, if you go back … Maybe even Shakespeare tangentially is about the politics of the time, he’s writing to the queen, he’s writing for their approval. And so rhetorically, all writing is political. However, I do think there is a certain amount of specification when it comes to writers of color. I didn’t sit down to write Blacktop Wasteland to be a 300-page sermon on class and race, but I did sit down to talk about things about class and race because those are things that are important to me. I don’t think the writer of color has any extra responsibility to write about it because like I said, again I think there’s almost a homogeny to writing where all writing has some type of political discourse, even in the very DNA of the writing, even a very comedic work. 

If you look at a book on Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, it’s a comedic book but there’s a lot of political theory, a lot of social critique in that book, and then you also laugh out loud. I think that’s the secret to good writing is to get your point across, but also be entertaining. Or to quote Mary Poppins, a little bit of honey makes the medicine go down. So I think all writing has a political bit, but I don’t think … I think sometimes people in positions of publishing authority seem to think that. My friend Kellye Garrett talks about this all the time, about how you should be able as a person of color to write a funny, cozy mystery that doesn’t have to mine the 500 year history of trauma that people of color have endured. That’s not saying you ignore their trauma, but you shouldn’t have to do it. You should be able to write whatever you want to write, again because it’s inherently going to have some political commentary or a philosophy in it. That’s S.A. Cosby just speaking for himself, that’s just my opinion.

WALTER MOSLEY:  That’s interesting. I agree with Shawn that all writing is political, but not necessarily consciously political. I mean, I’m sure when George Lucas wrote Star Wars he didn’t realize that he had no black people in Star Wars. I mean he had one black voice, James Earl Jones, but they had no black people. He didn’t even have people with brown hair. I mean he didn’t have people with brown eyes, it was amazing what the future looked like to George Lucas. I don’t think he thought about that and I wouldn’t come up and say well, you’re a racist any more than anybody else in America’s a racist. I would go further when you’re talking about people of color, I’m one of those people who doesn’t believe in the existence of white people. There’s no white country, white language, white history, white religion, the idea that in order to be a country you have to have something in common. And so called white people don’t have that, so that makes all people people of color, just a whole bunch of different colors. 

When I write about Easy Rawlins in 1969 or 1959 or 1949 or 1939, every time I write about Easy, he’s out in the world, he’s on the street. He’s in trouble, and a lot of times he’s in trouble for being black. I can’t avoid that. If I jumped over that and said well I was, right, driving down the street with this French white girl and she was sitting right next to me with her hand all down my lap, you have to say, well did the police drive by, because the police going to stop you for that shit. So I find there are moments that I have to talk about what Easy’s life is. Most of us I think, from then at any rate, don’t think about that as racism. They just say hey man, you got to be careful out there because when the cops stop you, Walter Mosley, when they stop you, you are going to be in trouble, because that’s what happens when the cops stop you. But-

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  I’m sorry. So essentially, it’s not a matter of politicizing race, it’s a matter of experiential, your life experience.

WALTER MOSLEY:  Yeah, what it’s like when you’re on the street. Somebody else on the street, they have a different experience. It’s true. But in the future, in Star Wars there should be some black people and Asian people and brown-colored people and brown-haired people up in there. It’s like you say well, damn. So really, you don’t think we’re there at all, which is a kind of a genocide.

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Yes, yes. Shawn?

S.A. COSBY:  That’s why I used to love Star Trek because at least we got Uhura. We made it in Star Trek, we’re lucky we’re still around, thank God. But I think to Walter’s point … Go ahead.

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  I used to tune in to Star Trek to see Uhura and Sulu. 

WALTER MOSLEY:  Yeah.

S.A. COSBY:  Yeah, yeah.

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  And of course Spock, but it was wonderful to see a version of myself in the future, sharing the future with other people. 

S.A. COSBY:  Oh no, I definitely agree.

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  I want to get back to your writing. Shawn, I know that we are often asked this question, and indulge me if you will. But what is … How would you characterize your process, your creative process?

S.A. COSBY:  I wish I was a really organized writer. I wish … I have friends who have whiteboards that have Venn diagrams on them, and I have friends that have copious, copious notes and all that. I’m just not that guy. I’ll be honest, I’ll be the first one to admit I’m lazy and I like to do as little work as possible. So for me, my process always starts with the what if. Like what if a person did this, or what if this happened, what if a guy who used to be a getaway driver got pulled into one last job, and then I kind of extrapolate from there. What I do personally is I like to write myself a semi-detailed synopsis, but it’s a very stream of consciousness type of synopsis. I don’t punctuate it. I just write out a story like this is what happened, this is first act, second act, third act, and the ending. 

Now often times that synopsis bears no resemblance to the final product. But for me, I always akin writing to trying to get in your house. I have to be able to get into the house of the story before I can start working on it, so I have to see a possible pathway for the story, and then I can start writing. I use the synopsis as a sort of a map or sort of a guide. Like in the synopsis of Blacktop Wasteland, Bug dies in a very horrible … It’s a very Shakespearean death. And of course anybody who has read the book, spoiler alert: he doesn’t die. But there are significant things that happen to him, and there are significant changes to him as a person. Now did I know those changes were going to happen? I had an idea, but I wasn’t 100% sure until I got into the book.

For me, a lot of times writing a book is like improvising on a piece of music. A long time ago I used to play the guitar badly, but the one thing that I loved about it was the ability to improvise, the ability to take a note or take a melody and just kind of see where it goes. You’re still working within the framework of a song, but you can like I said, extrapolate off of that and see what happens. But like I say, I have friends who are very great writers who like I said, have all these just incredible meticulous planning and I’m just not, that ain’t me. Like I said I’m lazy, I don’t like doing that. I do research when I absolutely have to, but there’s a Jack London quote that always sticks in my head. Somebody told Jack London one time, you’re not a very original writer. He said, “Yeah, but I’m one helluva elaborator.” 

So it’s like if I can … That’s a part of writing. The best writing is when you finish a book and you look back at it as for me as a reading like wow, some of that stuff that happened in there was kind of unbelievable but he or she, the author made me buy it. So that’s what I try to do.

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Mr. Mosley?

WALTER MOSLEY:  The question is how do I approach writing?

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Yes. Do you have any set process or … As the question often comes up with writers, are you a planner or pantser? Fly by the seat of your pants, or plot everything out?

WALTER MOSLEY:  Well, the thing I do is that I write every day, and I write every day for about three hours, no longer. Sometimes shorter, but no longer. That’s seven days a week, and 365 days a year if I can make it, it’s usually about 360, I think. So that’s the organization. But of course it doesn’t matter what I’m writing on, I just write every day because I’m working to get there. Sometimes especially when I have a deadline, somebody says we need this book and we need it by June, I’ll write an outline. But my outlines are very simple, I go: One, Easy’s just come back from a hard case. Two, his partners aren’t there and the assistant is there and he doesn’t want her there, so he gives her the day off. Three, the Vietnam veteran shows up. Four … And I get to about 100 and I say okay 100, that’s good enough, I’ll stop. And then I’ll write my novel based on that outline.

But sometimes … I was talking to somebody one day about pornography actually, and we were talking about pornography. I said to him, “Well you know, Debbie doesn’t do it anymore.” And I thought, wow that’s a good title. I should write a book based on … And I did, I started writing. I thought it was going to be a comedy, but it wasn’t. So there was no outline, there was no preparation but the fact, the foundation is, I write every day, so I write every day. And it’s like okay, now I’m writing Debbie doesn’t do it anymore. Hopefully it gets somewhere, or now I’m writing the Easy Rawlins novel that I outlined or the Fearless Jones, or the Leonid McGill or the Socrates Fortlow, whatever. Like that.

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Okay, all right. That’s the discipline, that’s the job before you. Gentlemen, you both have … There are strong females in both Blacktop Wasteland and Blood Grove. Can you speak to what your influences are as far as bringing strong female characters to life, and not cutouts?

S.A. COSBY:  For me, it’s very important … Well, I tackle my female characters like I tackle all my characters. I want all my characters to be three dimensional. I want them to be fully formed people. Characters not caricatures is what I always say. With Blacktop Wasteland, Bug’s wife Kia and his mom and even an ancillary character like Jenny, I always look at it from what drives them, what motivates them, what do they want and what do they need, and what are they willing to do to get those things? Sometimes like with Kia, it’s just I want to protect my family. I’d like to have a house that’s on a foundation and not on wheels. Bug’s mom, what did she want? She wants respect. She wants her man back but he’s gone and he’s disappeared, Bug’s father and nobody knows where he is. So what does she want? That respect, now how does she go about getting it, and why does she take that path? That’s the same approach I take to Bug.

I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t important to me to make sure that my female characters are not buffoonish. I think we’ve all seen those online memes about male writers who write very transient and very just idiotic characterizations of women. I definitely didn’t want to do that. So I think I approach it like I do all my characters. Now for a specific inspiration, the character of Kia was inspired by a lot of the women in my life. My mom is a very strong inspiration for a character like Kia. Now conversely, a character like Jenny in the book is somebody I just kind of pulled out of the air. But she’s based on people I know as most writers do, people I’ve encountered, people who find themselves in desperate situations, and people who are in desperate situations sometimes take desperate measures. 

So, but the main thing is just to reiterate again, draw strong characters, not caricatures. I think if you do that, whether you’re writing about a male or a female, whether you’re writing about a heterosexual person or an LGBTQ person, whether you’re writing about a septuagenarian or whether you’re writing about a teenager, your character should be okay if you keep that to the forefront.

WALTER MOSLEY:  I can’t argue with that. 

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  So empathy is a key to any character that you create? Is that a fair assessment?

S.A. COSBY:  Yeah. Oh, yeah. Even your villains, even your villains. I think a lot of people hear that old song that oh, the villain is a hero in his own story or her story, and that’s true to an extent. That’s true I think to a certain extent. We all want to see ourselves as our idolized version. But at the same time, the villain is a person. Even if they’re repugnant, they’re a person. They’re somebody who has wants and needs and desires and a lot of times a villain is just … Yeah. A lot of times the villain is just a person who’s willing to do what the hero isn’t, is willing to go further, that’s not bound by conventional morality. A lot of times people who are villains know that they’re bad people, they know they’re doing terrible things but they’re able to compartmentalize it. And then sometimes they don’t, sometimes they’re able to fool themselves. I think that’s what makes that type of writing interesting, in my opinion.

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Yes. Well-

WALTER MOSLEY:  I want to say about that, number one, I agree. I remember this Thor comic book where Thanos was fighting Odin, and Odin was saying how evil he was and how base he was and how terrible he was. And Thanos was saying back to him as they were fighting, he says, “But in my story I’m the hero, I’m the person saving the universe.” It was really so much fun to hear that, to actually hear it in dialog. You know what I mean? It was really a nice thing. Listen. The reason … Because the question comes back to women, right? I mean, you say well, how do these men write these women. I’m not … People have strengths in writing and people have weaknesses in writing, and a lot of that has to do with how they’re brought up. 

So for instance when I was a kid, I was 17 and my father and I were down in Galveston, Texas. We were staying with my Aunt Henrietta, who’s my father’s older half-sister. Somebody had just been killed down the street, some guy had been killed because he told his girlfriend he was going back to his wife, and so she killed him, she shot him a whole bunch of times. I was like, “Oh my God, I’m scared to death.” I’m sitting on the bed and my father was laughing, and he told Henrietta that I was afraid. Henrietta walked in the room and she had a purse, she had this big purse. And she said, “Are you afraid, honey?” And I said, “Yes, Aunt Henrietta, I am. I’m scared.” And she said, “Baby, you ain’t got to be afraid. I got a .45 in this here purse. Ain’t nobody getting to you because they ain’t nobody coming through me.” 

It wasn’t … I’m not trying to be liberal with women of any kind. These are the women I’ve known, you know what I mean? And it’s like, and I think that sometimes when you’re raised in a really, a kind of a classically sexist environment, girls can’t do this, girls can’t do that, girls can’t … And it’s like classing the sexes as the races, it does become very hard to understand. You see, television shows and movies where people were writing about black people, they have no idea what black people are like, and so they said, “Well, I’m writing them the way I would write myself.” That’s their form of empathy. It doesn’t work because … So when there’s a character who I don’t understand I don’t write about them, or I write about them as little as possible. But I feel open in certain ways, and I’m not comfortable saying well, it’s simply a matter of empathy. There are things that some people can do and other people can’t do, and that’s what makes the world interesting. 

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Yes. Well-

S.A. COSBY:  Well, I wanted to jump off on that. I agree with that 100%. A lot of the characters in my books, female and male are influenced by the world I grew up in and like I say, we grew up really, really poor. But I grew up around a lot of hard people, men and women, tough people. My uncles worked on the water, they were watermen, they worked on crab boats and oyster boats, and 16-hour days of working those oyster tongs, and then you come home with Popeye forearms. My grandmother and my aunt worked in the crab factory. So my grandfather and my uncles would catch the crabs, and then my aunts worked at a factory that picked the crab. And those ladies knew what they were doing with a knife, and so they were not to be … And I grew up behind a bar, I grew up behind the Shot House. I literally … Right now, if I walk out my door, the building still stands. It’s closed now, about 28 steps is the Shot House. 

I grew up sneaking in there at 13 years old, had no business in there. I saw my dad in there one night and this was after my mom and dad … If you live in the country, my mom and dad separated but my dad only moved eight miles away, so he was in another state. So I saw him in there, and I saw him defend a woman who another man was accosting. I saw my dad slap this man so hard, his pants fell down. True story, swear to God, sounded like a rifle shot when he hit him. I remember turning to my brother, and I remember saying to him, I said, “Well, we’re never going to step out of pocket,” and my brother said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Did you see Daddy just hit that man and his pants fell down? I’m not saying nothing to nobody. I’m going to be on my best behavior the rest of my life.” But I remember as a kid that even though my mom and dad didn’t get along and there were problems there, and again you grow as an adult, you realize those problems really don’t have anything to do with you. They consist of what’s going on between these two adults.

But I remember going home thinking my dad is the kind of man that won’t stand to see a woman accosted. And that stuck with me, that always stuck with me. My grandfather was like that. My grandfather was another, he was a hard person, he was raised in hard circumstances. But they were sweet to us, they were nice to us. And there’s a picture, I wish I had it, where my grandfather is playing with us as kids, and me and my cousin are dressed up as indigenous folks with our headbands on and stuff. And my grandfather has this little Roy Rogers cowboy hat on, it’s about the size of a egg carton. And he was that kind of person, he had that kind of heart in him, but at the same time he was a dude that was strong enough to bend quarters with his fingers. So there were these dichotomous situations where these people I grew up with, and I think that definitely influences the way my writing comes out and the way I see characters. 

The last thing I’ll say about this. I had some cousins that were as we’d say around my way, they go for bad, they was some bad dudes. Even they were folks that were kind to me, would take me along with them on their adventures that I probably shouldn’t talk about because the statute of limitations probably hasn’t run out. But I had cousins like that. So all of that becomes this sort of mythology that you can draw from. But to Walter’s point, I didn’t grow up in a really overtly sexist environment because my mom and my grandma, they ran the household, they paid the bills. My grandfather would come home and hand my grandmother the check and all right, pay the bills and then take some money to go out to the Shot House. So I grew up in this environment where women were treated as equals, they were strong. 

My grandmother and my mother were great readers. My aunt got me started on C.B. King because she would give me his old books. So I grew up in that environment, and so when I go to sit down to write a female character I’m thinking of those women, I’m thinking of those people. And so like I said, I just wholeheartedly agree with what Walter said. 

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Well, I just want to take a minute to let folks that are viewing this, that we’re talking with the extraordinary Mr. Walter Mosley whose new book is Blood Grove, and Shawn S.A. Cosby, who is just extraordinary. The book is Blacktop Wasteland, and soon to be Razorblade Tears. These are writers who are just incredible and please, please add them to your bookshelf, spend the evening with these gentlemen. Let me say this. Mr. Mosley, aside from Easy Rawlins I have read … You produced a couple of cowboy short stories, correct?

WALTER MOSLEY:  Well, just one I think.

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Just one?

WALTER MOSLEY:  Showdown on the Hudson, yeah. I don’t think there’s another one, though I have written a lot. But I don’t think there’s another one.

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Okay. A western, and also science fiction, which your science fiction is amazing. I just wanted to say that you’re extraordinarily diverse in your creativity, and you bring the same passion and insight to any project. So again, thank you.

WALTER MOSLEY:  I think Shawn, you’ve written in the alternate genre, right? Not necessarily … Have you written science fiction? 

S.A. COSBY:  Yeah. Well, nobody bought it but I have written it. But I have a novella that was published a few years ago that’s a diesel punk reimagining of Othello. It imagines Othello and Iago as sky pilots. I actually just wrote a short horror story for The Horror Writers Association of America’s Anthology. I started out writing scifi and fantasy, but I have a fantasy novel and I think it’s out of print now called The Brotherhood of the Blade, and that’s sort of a modern mashup of Highlander and Hong Kong martial arts flicks. I started out reading and writing a lot of fantasy and stuff like that. 

But I do think as writers, there’s an old story that Stephen King said one time about when he wrote his first novel and then he followed it up with another horror novel. And his agent … He had a third novel, he had two choices, another third horror novel and a crime novel. The horror novel was a stronger book and his agent said, “We should print and publish that one, but man, I really don’t want to.” And Stephen King said, “Well, why do you say that?” He says, “Well if we do that, you’re going to be branded as a horror writer.” And Stephen King said, “I was a 28-year old kid.” He’s like, “I thought well, that’s not true. I’ll be able to write whatever I want to write,” and obviously that didn’t bear out as he thought it would.

I think that happens to writers a lot. I think you get, I don’t want to say pigeonholed because that seems a negative connotation, but I do think you get known for something, and you dance with who brought you, so to speak. I love writing crime fiction. I came to it late, I didn’t really think I had what it took to be a crime writer. But you talked about cowboys and stuff, I’d love to write a black cowboy story, a book. I’d love to reimagine some science … I think writers, we’re all I think, infinitely curious about fantastical worlds whether they’re fantastical jewelry store heists or invigorating mysteries, or whether you want to write about the nature of reality. So I think a lot of times you do get sort of put into a box. But if you get to be like Mr. Mosley, you get to kind of break down that box and write what you want, so hopefully I’ll get to that level one day and I can bring back my fantasy novel for the masses.

WALTER MOSLEY:  Right.

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Well gentlemen, this is just an absolute pleasure. I think we’ve hit our time limit, I’m not sure.

WALTER MOSLEY:  We got close enough. I mean if you have something else to ask, just – 

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Well, yes. Yes. 

S.A. COSBY:  Yeah, go ahead.

STEPHEN MACK JONES: So every character … Well, let’s say Easy and Bug, and I find this with the character that I’m involved with, August Snow, there’s always this struggle to stay on a true north path. That’s the way his folks raised him but with the experiences of being a Marine in Afghanistan, former Marine now and ex-cop, having seen things that test that true north path. It’s sometimes easy to sway from that path. Do you find that with Easy and Bug, that their goal is to follow a true north path, but circumstances and experiences often push them off that heading?

WALTER MOSLEY:  Whose true north are you talking about? Are you talking about theirs, or are you talking about yours?

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  I’m talking about what we accept as truly moral, truly ethical, the right path of living a good, honest, nonviolent life, all of the things that we’ve been born and raised to think and be.

S.A. COSBY:  I think it’s –  Oh go ahead, I’m sorry. Go ahead.

WALTER MOSLEY:  When you think about what’s right and wrong I mean, Mouse is a killer. And Easy loves Mouse, so he accepts the fact that Mouse is a killer. He’s not going to have a new testament version of condemnation of his friend because he’s done the wrong thing, so my allegiance to God and country means that I have to turn him in. He would never do that, never do that. He would never do that, it’s not because he’s afraid of Mouse that he wouldn’t do it, and that’s why Mouse likes him. A lot of people won’t do it with Mouse because they’re scared of him. But Easy doesn’t do it because it’s his friend. If he felt that Mouse did something wrong, he would stand up against him.

I think the question is for the characters that maybe all of us work with is that it’s easy to know the right path, but it’s not so easy to survive it. I think that Easy’s always going to be doing the right thing but the question is, will he be alive at the end of that road. So that’s the way I perceive that, the answer to that question.

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Yes, how do you get to that point, yes. 

S.A. COSBY:  With Bug specifically, that’s the crux of the story, is that he has this life that is “the good life,” he’s on the right path. But circumstances both of his own making and beyond his control push him ever closer to straying from that path. And the question is, what is morality when you’re staring down an electric bill and your lights are about to get cut off? What is morality when your mom is about to get kicked out of her nursing home and she’s going to be on the street? What does that mean, and what does morality look like, and how flexible can you make it? I think that’s what’s fascinating for me. Bug does things that I would never do. I think he does those things of because who he is, and I would never do them because of who I am. But I’m fascinated in looking at Bug and deciphering why he does those things. 

I have a character like I said I mentioned before, Nathan Waymaker who’s a licensed private investigator, works at a funeral home. He’s of mixed race heritage, he has a best friend named Skulk who is, a full disclosure, really inspired by Mouse but different character, but inspired by Mouse. And Skulk is a killer, but Skulk is his brother. He loves him and they love each other. But Nathan loves his cousin Walter that owns a funeral home. The people in his life, he loves them and that love allows a certain moral flexibility. He’ll do things to protect them that on the outside may look repugnant or abhorrent. But he lives with that aberration so to speak, because doing the right thing sometimes necessitates doing horrible actions, I think. So I think that’s the crux. It’s true in any form of literature, but I think it’s especially true in crime fiction, where characters are pushed to those limits and pushed to those edges. I think that’s what’s fascinating and what drives me as a writer, because I’m fascinated by that idea. 

My book that’s coming out in the summer, Razorblade Tears about these two fathers, one black, one white, both ex cons, who’s had these gay sons who are murdered shortly after they’re married. And what these men do to not only seek vengeance for their sons but also redeem themselves because neither one were going to win Father of the Year award, and in fact they were outwardly hostile to their sons’ sexuality. What they do to the outside observer is grotesque, but they feel like they have to do it because as is the way with these types of books wrongs have to be right, and debts, they got to be paid and sometimes those debts got to be paid in blood. So I think again, writing as a crime writer allows you to examine the unreliable moral compass, because everybody’s moral compass is a little bit corrupted when time and needs necessitate it.

WALTER MOSLEY:  Or in capitalism. But we won’t go there. 

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Okay. Now last question for me. Would you agree that one of the greatest crime fiction writers ever was William Shakespeare, if we have to talk about genre? I mean come on. Macbeth.

WALTER MOSLEY:  It is true. To use the term crime fiction I think … I mean it’s fine to use that, I would say yes to that. But I would go further to say that there are very few novels I’ve ever come across, even the most experimental that don’t have a mystery at the heart of them, that if there’s nothing to learn, why are you reading, why are you watching, why are you experiencing? Well if you know from the beginning what happened and why it happened, then you say okay fine, I’ll go to the next book now.

S.A. COSBY:  It’s funny, I would agree with that. One of my favorite plays by Shakespeare is King Lear. And one of my favorite books is A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, is based on King Lear. That book is held up as the epitome in some circles of literary fiction at its finest, and it is. It’s an incredible book, I love that book. But at its heart, it’s a crime novel. It’s a novel of secrets and mysteries and horrific secrets and mysteries that are suffused with abject terror. To your point, Stephen yeah, I think William Shakespeare was one of the greatest crime fiction writers, he’s one of the great speculative fiction writers, he’s one of the great horror writers. If you read Titus Andronicus, that’s horror all day long. So I think –  Oh yes, all of this. It’s incredible.

I would love, you take Titus Andronicus and you set it around some magnolia trees, it’s Southern gothic, it’s William Faulkner, so it’s Tennessee Williams. So I think those great writers, you could say that about … To flip the question a little bit, take a writer like Chester Himes who’s one of the great foundational writers of mystery fiction, but he’s also writing great novels of social commentary. Donald Goines is writing, to a certain extent it’s called fiction but it’s also raw, almost transgressive fiction where he’s talking about the DNA, the fabric of the street. So I say great writers, the very best of us open themselves up to a multiplicity of interpretations.

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Yes, yes. Ladies and gentlemen, I have been blessed, honored to speak with Mr. Walter Mosley whose new book is Blood Grove, and Shawn, S.A., Cosby who is soon to be crowned the King of Southern Lore, I think. At least I understand that the crown is being forged right now.  

S.A. COSBY:  It’s made out of Mason jars. 

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  If those Mason jars are full, you’d better call. 

S.A. COSBY:  Yeah.

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  Well again, I want to thank you gentlemen for your time. I hope this has been as enjoyable for you as it has been for me. It’s time for us to wrap things up. Thank you to Walter Mosley-

WALTER MOSLEY:  And thank you.

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  … and S.A. Cosby, and to all of you folks-

S.A. COSBY:  Thank you, Stephen.

STEPHEN MACK JONES:  … who are watching. Oh, my pleasure. And remember, consider buying these books from your local independent bookstore, that’s how they live and breathe. Find your local independent bookstore, or use the link, VaBook.org. You can also check out other events in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book at VaBook.org. That’s V-a-B-o-o-k.org. I’m your host Steve Jones, thank you very much. 

WALTER MOSLEY:  Thank you.

S.A. COSBY:  Thank you.

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