S.A. Cosby Wishes More Writers Would Address the Fear of Success

What books are on your night stand?

Right now, there are three: “The Passenger,” by Cormac McCarthy, “The Hunt,” by Kelly J. Ford, and “Blue Like Me,” by Aaron Philip Clark. All three are incredible in different ways. “The Hunt” is an inventive serial killer thriller. “Blue Like Me” is an in-depth mystery that examines what it’s like being a police officer and a person of color. And “The Passenger” is classic McCarthy: inventive, insightful and sometimes surreal.

What’s the last great book you read?

“Everybody Knows,” by Jordan Harper. It’s an instant classic, a harrowing trip through the Day-Glo Technicolor Hades that is Los Angeles, and a thoughtful examination of the price of fame and power, how some people will do anything to hold on to them. Jordan has a sparse but powerful style that feels clinical and musical at the same time.

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

There are a few: “A Farewell to Arms,” by Ernest Hemingway, “The Stranger,” by Albert Camus, and “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison. I can’t say why I waited so long to read them, but I’m glad I’ve read them now at this time in my life. I think I understand them better than I would have at, say, 19. At 19, you think you’re 10 feet tall and bulletproof. These books resonate with me now after I’ve learned, through some rather brutal tutelage, how fragile the world truly is.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

Early morning, on my back deck, rereading the signed, weathered paperback of “Darkness, Take My Hand,” by Dennis Lehane.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

Not enough people have heard of two books set in the mid-1900s: “The Real Cool Killers,” by Chester Himes, and “Provinces of Night,” by William Gay. They’re very different — the former takes place in Harlem and the latter in rural Tennessee — but both are snapshots of a particular moment in American history by underrated masters.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

Walter Mosley, Dennis Lehane, John Irving, Jordan Harper, Jesmyn Ward, Kellye Garrett, Jennifer Hillier, Jericho Brown, Ashley C. Ford, Megan Giddings, Brandon Taylor, Eryk Pruitt, Walter Chaw and Sean Burns. They are all fantastic minds with unique perspectives about the world and the folks who live in it.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

How to tan deer hide and turn it into leather, which is as gross and disgusting as you think it is.

Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

The fear of success and how family members can instill that fear in you. There is this weight that comes with any type of success, and I know no one wants to hear from the lottery winner, but I truly think writers need to examine this and really dissect it. There is an existential malaise that can come with chasing your dreams — after you grab the brass ring, what do you do with it?

Which books got you hooked on crime fiction?

“The Big Sleep,” by Raymond Chandler, “The Chill,” by Ross Macdonald, “The Maltese Falcon,” by Dashiell Hammett, “Devil in a Blue Dress,” by Walter Mosley, and “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I read these at an early age and they have had a profound effect on me and how I view the art of novel writing and specifically crime novels.

What makes for a good mystery?

A good question that only the protagonist can answer. Every mystery should ask that question, and every mystery writer should be prepared to answer it through the protagonist and the protagonist alone.

Who’s your favorite fictional detective? And the best villain?

It’s a tie between Easy Rawlins and Philip Marlowe. They are both tarnished knights in a broken kingdom, men of honor in a dishonest world. In terms of villains, Francis Dolarhyde from “Red Dragon,” by Thomas Harris, is a perfect engine of evil: ferocious, implacable and supernaturally determined.

What’s the most terrifying book you ever read?

“’Salem’s Lot,” by Stephen King, is still undefeated. For me, it’s pound for pound the most frightening book I’ve ever read. King has the innate ability to tap into the most visceral human fears, within the most mundane situations. The scene where the two truckers deliver the conspicuously large crate to the basement of the Marsten House still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

How do you organize your books?

I don’t, haha.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

“An American Marriage,” by Tayari Jones. I don’t think people think I read love stories or romance novels, but I just finished “Before I Let Go,” by Kennedy Ryan — I’m fascinated by romance novels and the structure of those stories.

How have your reading tastes changed over time?

They have definitely expanded. I went from reading only horror and mystery as a kid to now reading just about anything I can get my hands on. I find it helps me in my own writing.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

James Baldwin, Anaïs Nin and Donna Tartt.

If you were to write something besides mysteries, what would you write?

I’ve always wanted to write a surrealist novel like “A Confederacy of Dunces,” by John Kennedy Toole, something that looks at the absolute absurdity of life.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

I didn’t enjoy “The Human Stain,” by Philip Roth. It just rang false to me. I try to finish books, but some I just can’t connect with. It doesn’t mean they’re bad. Not everything is for everyone.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

I have not read anything by Eudora Welty, and I have to fix that. Also, I need to read more Larry Brown.

What do you plan to read next?

I’m waiting with bated breath for the new Jesmyn Ward book, “Let Us Descend.” She is one of our most brilliant minds and one of the greatest writers of our generation.

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