Books In Conversation
BILL CHENG with Scott Cheshire
Southern Cross the Dog
Let’s get this on the table first thing: I know Bill Cheng. For years, actually. We attended grad school together, and so we often stayed up late in bars talking about things both grand and silly. I have witnessed Bill transfigure via karaoke into a young Tom Waits, pint of Guinness in his hand. I saw the guy get married, cheered from my table, and whooped. That said, to know someone is to never really know someone. Such is the trap of consciousness. And yet the gift of fiction, its privilege, is to allow the reader to inhabit the soul of another—that of a character, sure, but also that of a writer. It’s for this reason, after reading Bill’s extraordinary first novel, that I feel like I’m only just now getting to know him. Southern Cross the Dog has garnered lots of attention for its uncanny voice—and there are several voices in the novel—but most notably for Robert Chatham’s, a young black man in constant sorrow. Robert suffers the unforgiving lashes of racism, poverty, and what seems a cosmos bent on taking him down. But really it’s Cheng’s voice that impresses most, not least because he so generously steps aside and lets the others speak.
Bill and I met at an uptown café for lunch, like we often do, to talk about the novel, and, for the first time in years, I was at a loss for words. This was a new Bill Cheng, for me, anyway, because he had just written a big and beautiful book. A book about the South, about the blues, about the Devil himself. Or I should say, the Dog.
Scott Cheshire (Rail): Okay, first, tell me how you came to write this book, and I’m referring specifically to a Chinese-American, born and raised in Bayside, Queens, writing the experience of a young black male in the early 20th century South?
Bill Cheng: Blues, especially country blues, is something that’s been important to me for a long time. I listened to it almost obsessively when I was in my late teens and early 20s. So when it came time to write the book, I wanted to pay tribute to that. It has a kind of language, and landscape, and mythology all its own.
When we were in grad school together, we had this ideology drilled into us that we shouldn’t write “what we know” but what we wanted to know. It’s liberating to believe as writers that, the stories we tell aren’t limited to where and when we live, or how we’ve grown up but by the things that drive us. For me, it was blues and the kind of world it paints; that feeling of being set upon by the universe and suddenly realizing how fragile the structures in our lives are.
I already know what it’s like to be Chinese and from Bayside. I personally don’t find that experience is particularly interesting or worth sharing, right now. It hasn’t really set a fire in me the way blues music has.
Rail: Tell me more about that. Did the form of blues affect your take on the form of the novel?
Cheng: Not really. Blues has very specific structures of repetition and call and response. The book isn’t really constructed in the same way, although there are sections that do resonate with each other. The music had more of a hand in the plot and tone and setting than the actual form of the book. There were specific songs that drove the idea for certain chapters, certain lines, certain characters. For instance, the flood at the start of the book drew inspiration from John Lee Hooker’s “Tupelo,” and the first line of the epilogue is taken from a Lightnin’ Hopkins song.
Rail: There’s a lovely and sincere acknowledgement at the end of the book, naming several blues musicians. It put a knot in my throat.
Cheng: I was a teenager when I came to the blues. They were difficult years, especially if you’re a sensitive kid like I was—always feeling things a little too keenly. I spent a lot of time not being very sure of myself, worrying about the adult I’d become. I’m also what I guess are now called one of the Millennials. The W.T.C. attacks came when I was a freshman in college and suddenly the whole country became less sure of itself. Everything seemed so impossibly fragile. Blues helped make my world seem more solid. It puts our sadness into a context. It lets us commune through our grief. It both soothes us and savages us. So I wrote this book in thanks to those musicians. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to communicate completely what blues music is and all that it has done for me but I hope Southern Cross the Dog is a step in that direction.
Rail: Speaking of “savaging us,” the characters are often described in terms of “meat,” solely physical.
Cheng: So much of the blues is about pain. Emotional but also physical—the strain of hard labor, of physical exhaustion. The main character Robert goes through a lot of pain. But that pain runs parallel to his mental and spiritual anguish. In some ways, it’s very much a book about suffering and it was important to render a strong and vivid physical experience as a means of understanding that suffering.
We’ve all experienced injustice or humiliation but we don’t necessarily each experience it the same way. Pain is more ubiquitous. It speaks to something ancient and animal in us.
Rail: The book is also about evil, even the Devil. At one point Eli Cutter, says “There is a devil in everything.” Are they the same thing for you, or for Robert, or the world of the book?
Cheng: I believe more in the weakness of men than I do in evil. Robert lives in a fatalistic world where the rules of the universe run counter to his happiness. He’s a young black man living in the Jim Crow-era American South, a society where racism and poverty is systematized. I see that more as a product of greed, ignorance, laziness, fear, and apathy than I do of evil. It’s also what causes Robert and his family to vest in this belief system where the bad things that happen are viewed as punishment from on high.
Now I believe all of us have felt that way at some time or another—that we’ve been selected out by the universe for punishment. But I don’t think that’s actually how the world works.
Rail: Can you tell me about the Dog? The image strikes me as devilish, even hellish. How real is the dog for Robert, do you think?
Cheng: Dogs are a powerful image in blues culture, especially in Robert Johnson’s Hellhound on my Trail. In the book, the main character’s perception of his bad fortune is manifested in a large black dog that follows after him. How real is it for Robert? Real enough that the image frightens him and drives him to desperate measures. Now, is it an actual dog from hell or the product of an unwell mind? That I can’t decide for you.
Rail: The book is also punctuated by “offerings.” I mean like Dora’s pebble for Robert in the opening pages, Eli’s “man part,” and the devil pouch he offers Robert. At one especially lovely moment a small boy offers Robert a piece of candy. Most of the offerings are for Robert.
Cheng: In certain regions of the Delta and in New Orleans, there is a religious folk tradition called hoodoo which was formative to some of the greatest blues songs of the last century. Many of these songs feature totems like mojo hands, John the Conqueroo’, nation sacks, and black cat bones. They’re used to lay tricks, manipulating the spirit world to protect the user or cause harm to befall his or her enemies. In the same way, the physical tokens in the book are used to communicate a spiritual connection between characters.
When Eli passes the devil pouch to Robert, it’s almost as if Eli is extending protection over Robert, but with that protection comes a kind of Faustian debt.
I’m not a superstitious person by any means but I have my own totems. I don’t believe they’re magic, but when I hold them I think about their significance; I think about the people who’ve given them to me, what they’ve meant in my life. That in itself provides a kind of strength, a kind of magic.
Rail: Writers are fond of totems, no? I have my own.
Cheng: I think it comes from that part of ourselves that doesn’t fully trust or understand what we’re doing when we write fiction. There’s something audacious about writing fiction—how we make things up and then present them as real. We sit down to a blank page and construct an entirely new universe. We populate it with people that have never existed, setting them loose on each other. And to us, they are real. We watch them live and love and fight and die. They break our hearts, these little made-up things in our heads. It’s a little spooky.
So we have totems, and rituals—little things that make sense of that process, like we’re just a conduit for a more mysterious power.
Rail: Aside from the blues, I’m guessing certain fiction writers or books have had a large impact on your style, which is considerable.
Cheng: The people we studied with at grad school, for one. I’ve said this before, but we were both incredibly lucky. Without mentioning any names, I don’t think you can get a stronger tutelage in imagination, daring, humility, and technical prowess than we did.
Honestly, there are too many books to name. I can’t even remember all the novels I’ve read between when I started my draft and when I finally submitted my last round of edits. Each and every one of them has had some impact because every book, even the ones that I find only middling, teach me something about stories or language.
One that particularly sticks out in my memory is Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen. It’s a hell of a book. Just under a thousand pages and you come out the other end of it an older person.
Rail: There is a significant shift in tone and style about two thirds of the way through the book with “The Shining New South” section.
Cheng: When I think about constructing a book, I think about it from an engineering standpoint. What structures does the story need? Where is it too slow? Where is it overly constrictive? And always, what is driving the story forward?
Sometimes that involves fracturing the narrative. Sometimes that involves giving space to a new character or changing the geography or modulating the tone. I knew before I launched into that section there’s a kind of momentum I wanted going in. We don’t see Robert right away and it builds a kind of tension that’s finally released when he re-emerges as an adult.
Rail: And there seems a kind of balance between the two white women of the book. Robert’s brother is lynched for spending time with a white woman, and this sets much of the book in motion, and then, later in the novel, Robert becomes involved with Frankie, a French white woman trapper.
Cheng: Yes. If Robert’s brother epitomizes the fate Robert wishes most to avoid—that, he, in fact spends his entire life avoiding—it is necessary that he be forced to confront it. Good advice, I think, for writing and writers both.
Rail: I think that’s true. But Robert does run, is always running from trouble. The book is largely aftermath.
Cheng: The Whitney Museum has an exhibit now called Blues for Smoke. I haven’t been able to go, but my editor went. She e-mailed me this quote on David Hammons’s piece, Chasing the Blue Train: “Hammons installation suggests the constant mobility and multiplicity of the blues––and that it must always be ‘chased’ along the tracks.” That sounds about right. We keep moving because we keep wanting.
Rail: And what does Robert want?
Cheng: To go home.