S.A. Cosby discusses 'All the Sinners Bleed' and the shadow of the Confederacy Cosby's novel All the Sinners Bleed centers on a Black sheriff in a small Southeast Virginia county. The novel was inspired by his own experiences growing up in the shadow of the Confederacy.

Crime writer S.A. Cosby loves the South — and is haunted by it

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1189276661/1189979557" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest today is crime writer S.A. Cosby. He spoke with our producer Sam Briger about his new novel, "All The Sinners Bleed." Here's Sam.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: In the new novel "All The Sinners Bleed" by our guest, S.A. Cosby, Sheriff Titus Crown is tracking down a serial killer terrorizing his jurisdiction, Charon County, a fictional county in southeast Virginia. The killer's victims are Black children. As he investigates, Titus unravels the racial and religious animus behind the killings. Titus had left Charon County to go to college and to work with the FBI investigating domestic terrorism. But after that career abruptly ended, he reluctantly returned to live with his aging father. Titus was elected the first Black sheriff of Charon, a remarkable achievement considering the prevalence of Confederate flags in the area, the high school named after Jefferson Davis and a statue honoring the Confederate cause outside the courthouse. Titus has to figure out a way to keep the county safe from the serial killer and also keep simmering racial tensions from getting out of hand, especially as a white supremacist group is planning to march in support of what it calls, quote, "Southern heritage."

S.A. Cosby has written several crime novels, including the bestseller "Razorblade Tears" and "Blacktop Wasteland." "Razorblade Tears" appeared on many best of the year lists in 2021. Cosby, whose first name is Shawn, grew up in Mathews County, a place very much like the fictional Charon County, and now lives nearby.

Well, Shawn Cosby, welcome to FRESH AIR.

S A COSBY: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

BRIGER: I'd like to start with the prologue to your book, if you could do a reading for us. And this sort of sets up what Charon County is like and some of its history.

COSBY: Yeah, sure. I'd love to. (Reading) Charon County. Charon County was founded in bloodshed and darkness, literally and figuratively. Even the name is enveloped in shadows and morbidity. Legend has it that the name of the county was supposed to be Charlotte or Charles, but the town elders waited too late, and those names were already taken by the time they decided to incorporate their fledgling encampment. As the story goes, they just moved their finger down the list of names until they settled on Charon. Those men, weathered as whitleather, with hands like splitting mauls, bestowed the name of their new town with no regard to its macabre nature. Or perhaps they just liked the name because a river flowed through the county and emptied into the Chesapeake like the River Styx. Who knows? Who could know the thoughts of those long-dead men? What is known is that in 1805, in the dead of night, a group of white landowners, chafing at the limits of their own manifest destiny, set fire to the last remaining Indigenous village on the teardrop-shaped peninsula that would become Charon County. Those who escaped the flames were brought down by muskets with no regard to age, gender or infirmity. And that was the first of many tragedies in the history of Charon. There was the cannibalism of the winter of 1853, the malaria outbreak of 1901, the United Daughters of the Confederacy picnic poisoning of 1935, the Danforth family murder-suicide of 1957, the tent revival baptismal drownings of 1968 and on and on and on. The soil of Charon county, like most towns and counties in the South, was sown with a generation of tears.

BRIGER: That's S. A. Cosby reading from his new book, "All The Sinners Bleed." So, Shawn, I really thought that was interesting, the sort of idea that the county is founded in bloodshed and darkness and that somehow, that history has haunted the place or tainted it. Can you talk about that?

COSBY: Yeah. I mean, I'm - so I'm a Southerner, born and bred. I was raised in Virginia. I was born in Mathews County. I've lived my whole life, you know, 30 miles from the former capital of the Confederacy. If there's a place that is more haunted by its past and more overwhelmed by its original sin than the South, I'm not aware of it. The South is - in many ways, it's the birthplace of the country, but it's also a microcosm for what's wrong with the nation. And so I'm a big proponent of the idea that maybe the South isn't, you know, supernaturally haunted, but it's definitely haunted by the pain and the bloodshed and the violence that existed here.

BRIGER: Do you sort of see that haunting where - whenever you're walking around or driving around where you live?

COSBY: Oh, yeah. I mean, you can definitely feel it. You can feel it. You know, for years, our local elementary school was Lee Jackson School, named after Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. And, you know, I went to school there.

BRIGER: One name wasn't enough. Had to have two.

COSBY: Yeah. One Confederate statue - one Confederate soldier wasn't enough. We had to really hammer home the point of what we're trying to say here. And so, you know, as a kid, I went to school there. I was taught that the Civil War was the war of northern aggression. I was taught that the Civil War wasn't, technically, if you squint, about slavery. And so those are things that are still being taught to a different - to a certain extent in my hometown today. I think, you know - somebody said to me one time that the difference between the South and post-World War II Germany is that Germans are ashamed of their history, and Southerners aren't ready to accept it. And I think that's - I think that has a lot of validity.

BRIGER: We'll get to some of that a little bit later. But first, you know, I read that you originally set out to write a book about police brutality, but then you shifted, and your - the hero of this book is actually a sheriff. What brought about that evolution?

COSBY: So in - this book was really inspired by the murder of George Floyd and all the events of that summer. And I really wanted to take a book and talk about policing but use it in, like I said before, the microcosm of a small town to reflect the issues and concerns about policing on a larger scale. And what I realized rather quickly is that I did not have enough wherewithal to write about that in a really, truly unbiased fashion. I'm too personally involved in it. I've been pulled over for driving while Black before. I've had my face shoved in the asphalt for no reason just because I was driving a nice car. And so there's a lot of emotion there that I wasn't able to pull back from. And when you write like that, I think you end up sermonizing, and nobody wants a 300-page sermon. You know, you want a good story.

And so I set the book aside for a while, and I didn't think about it. And I had a conversation with a friend of mine who is a former minister. He said something that really struck me. He said, you know, the thing that bothered me the most is when I was a minister, I didn't feel like I actually was helping the least of us, the people who needed my help the most. And that sort of sparked this idea in me about a character who's trying to do that. I didn't want to write about it from the point of view of a minister just because I felt like writing about the police and writing about a sheriff, I could sort of accomplish, on a smaller scale, the things I had originally set out to do.

So I can talk about policing, but also, I can talk about religion, and I can talk about sex. I can talk about class. You know, those are, in my opinion, the four pillars of Southern fiction because Southern fiction is so intrinsically tied up with those issues - with religion, with sex, with class. And those things are intrinsic in the work of Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor or Harry Crews or Carson McCullers or Ernest J. Gaines. You see all of that all the time. It's always in flux in their books. And so I decided I was going to try to write a book like that.

BRIGER: He wants to, obviously, keep law and order in his county, but also, in his personal life, like, his closet is color-coordinated. And his desk, like, his - I don't know if it's his phone has to be, like, 90 degrees to the desk. So he's - and I think he's trying to keep the chaos out of his life, as well. Like, this is a character that's dealing with a lot of pain and trauma, like, both from personal losses, particularly the loss of his mother when he was young, but also, I think, because he's, like, living in this place - he's a Black man living in this place that was part of the Confederacy and where some of the residents still believe in white supremacy.

COSBY: The hero isn't always a person who does the over-the-top angelic, Greek mythology heroic thing. Sometimes the hero is the person who just stands up and say, all right, I'll do it, you know? And so with Titus, that's sort of what happened with him. He wanted to change the police force in his hometown. He was - he had to come home, and he saw things that he didn't like and nobody else was standing up to do it. So he finally did it. And what he finds out is that, you know, being the hero can sometimes make you a pariah. You know, in his town, he has friends that he went to school with, went to high school with, that no longer speak to him because he's the sheriff. But on the other side, he has white citizens who are apologists for the Confederacy who don't, quote-unquote, "trust him" because he's a Black man.

And so he finds himself sort of a man alone, a man on an island. But yet he still is dedicated to protecting his hometown and protecting the people there, even the people that he - as he said, didn't vote for him. And I think that says a lot about Titus and his morality. And I think that in a way, Titus is a little naive. He really believes, if I just apply the law equally, then the law will be equal. And, you know, he's working within a system that I think he thinks is broken that a lot of people think is working just the way it's designed. And so that sort of conflict is, to me, interesting as a writer. I want to see how that character deals with it. I sometimes I found myself feeling sorry for Titus because he really is doing the best he can.

BRIGER: Well, let's take a short break here. If you're just joining us, our guest is novelist S.A. Cosby, whose newest crime novel is called "All The Sinners Bleed." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, our guest is writer S.A. Cosby, whose newest crime novel is called "All The Sinners Bleed."

So as I mentioned earlier, Shawn, in your book, there's a statue commemorating the Confederate cause. It stands in front of the courthouse. It's actually not even, like, a real person. It's just called Old Rebel Joe. And in the book, you write about, like, how this statue and others like it were erected in the South by this group, the United Daughters of the Confederacy. I was hoping you could read that passage for us about the history of these statues.

COSBY: Yeah, I'd love to. Thank you. (Reading) Titus pulled out of the parking lot and slipped onto the road. Night had come and covered the sky above Charon County like a black blanket full of pinpricks. He turned right and drove past the courthouse building. Ricky Sours and his neo-confederates had installed solar lights around the statue of Old Rebel Joe. Titus thought the lights look cheap and disposable, much like the statue itself. It had been erected in 1923 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a part of a coordinated and extensive propaganda campaign to reframe traitors as patriots. After World War I, thousands of Black veterans had returned home after saving democracy from the Kaiser with a renewed sense of dignity. They were heroes, after all. Why should they have to bow and scrape to anybody? Then the Red Summer happened, and white men like Everett Cunningham, Scott's great-grandfather, made it their mission to remind these heroes of their place.

BRIGER: So, Shawn, did you know about that history before researching for the book, or did you come across it then?

COSBY: Yes and no. My grandfather - actually, my great-grandfather was a World War I vet, so I knew a little bit about the Red Summer. As far as the Confederate statues, I had a little bit of that history, but I had found it much later in researching another book, and I was just fascinated by the idea that some 20, 30 odd years after the Civil War and after the history of the country was adjudicated, these folks took it upon themselves to reframe the Civil War. And I think that's a - you know, I think that's a horrible, horrible thing that we're still dealing with today, that we are not able to accept the truth of our history - not just the Civil War, but of, you know, America's history in total. You know, the idea of America is this incredible, wonderful experiment in freedom and autonomy. But the way we got there is filled and littered with darkness and degradation. And I think we do ourselves a disservice being not honest about it.

It's funny. I'll hear a lot of people say, you know, we can't take these statues down. And these people were just people of their time, and, you know, they were fighting for what they thought was right, you know? And I'm like, yeah. And I'm sure Nazis thought they were right, too. That doesn't make you correct. You know, I'll hear people sometimes - especially nowadays, you hear people say, oh, you're trying to make, you know, young white children feel guilty about what their ancestors did. Well, if they don't share those same sentiments, why would they feel guilty? You know, it's that maddening fallacy of logic that drives me crazy sometimes.

BRIGER: Yeah. Knowing the history of these statues, that they were part of this propaganda campaign after World War I, like, really to subjugate Black people, like, what does that do to the arguments that some make about how honoring the Confederacy or even displaying the Confederate flag is just a way to celebrate Southern heritage, that it's not tethered to the history of slavery or white supremacy?

COSBY: I think that's an incredibly naive, if not outright disingenuous attitude. You can't separate those two. You know, I am a Southerner. My Southern bona fides go back to 1867. My great-great-great-grandfather, Gabriel Cosby and his brother Kit Cosby founded the church that I attended for a number of years. When you wave that Confederate flag and tell people that that's Southern heritage, what you're doing is erasing all the Indigenous people that live in the South, all the Black people that live in the South, the huge amount of Jewish Southerners that live in the South. What you're saying is that only one demographic's interpretation of history matters.

And, you know, I am a proud Southerner. I have no intention of leaving. And every scrap of land or every pole that some good old boy erects to put a Confederate flag on, someone who looks like me has bled and died and lived there. And I have as much right to Southern heritage as anyone else. And so I don't plan on ceding one inch, one foot, one iota to someone who has this sort of reimagined, revisionist idea of what the Civil War was.

BRIGER: There's a similar statue in Matthews County where you grew up. Is that still there, or has that been taken down?

COSBY: No, it's still there. We had a - there was a referendum on the election board a few years ago to take it down. And the folks who are in favor of it staying up were successful in wording the referendum in such a confusing way I think people didn't realize what exactly they were voting for, you know. And they messaged it as, oh, they're trying to take away our history and all that. And I - again, that's just - that's frustrating to me. History is - you can have history museums - doesn't mean you forgot it. Those statues are not up for historical reasons. Those statues are reminders that the people who fought a whole war to keep people in chains do not accept their loss.

And I think that's something that, again, has really worn us down as a people, as a nation, that we did not take action to make the people who were literal traitors be treated like traitors. We let the - you know, I think it's the first time in the history of the world that the losers of a civil conflict were able to dictate the terms of how they're remembered. And so I find that frustrating not only as a Southerner, but as an African American. You know, the one in Matthews, the statue in Matthews, is built directly in front of what used to be the courthouse building. And that's a very clear message that, you know, if you come here for a redress of grievances, you'll find yourself wanting because this is what we think of you.

And so, you know, it's funny. In my hometown, I had a gentleman that I knew, a white gentleman, who was like, you know, I don't know why y'all are getting all upset about that statue now. I never heard about when I was a kid. And I wanted to turn to him like, when you were a kid, people were being lynched. You know, you're 68. When you were a child, speaking out against the statue could get you shot in the face. And so I definitely write about that, you know, in my work - not just "All The Sinners" but all my work. I talk about race. I talk about the way that we are slowly but surely trying to understand what it means to be Southern in the 21st century, you know. And I find that, you know, I love the South. I really do. I love where I come from. I love the place that I live. But to paraphrase James Baldwin, because I love the South, I reserve the right to criticize it because I know it can be better than what it is.

BRIGER: So later in the book, there's this white supremacist group led by, like, this wonderfully named character, Ricky Sours.

COSBY: (Laughter).

BRIGER: And he - they hold a march to protect the statue, even though it doesn't seem like there's a plan to remove it. And Titus, your hero, actually has to protect their right to march. And they're marching in Confederate uniforms. And you write, like, what he thinks when he looks at them. You say, he felt an atavistic revulsion roll through his body. The sight of these men, men who thought their lack of complete success in their every endeavor was proof of the falsity of their privilege, in their dress grays made him sick. And I really think that description, men who thought their lack of complete success in their every endeavor was proof of the falsity of their privilege, is really interesting. I was hoping you could talk about that a little bit more.

COSBY: Yeah. I mean, so I've had debates with people I considered friends or people I knew or people I grew up with that this idea of white privilege doesn't exist, you know. There's no such thing. It's like, I had a gentleman tell me, I'm working every day. You know, I'm paying bills. How is that - where's my privilege? Where's my free car? And privilege is not free things. I think people confuse privilege with success. You know, just because you're not successful doesn't mean that you're not privileged. It's like, you could be in a footrace, and your mom can be the one judging the foot race, and your brother can give you a 10-foot head start. And if you lose, that doesn't mean that you didn't have any privileges. You know, it just means you weren't able to take advantage of them.

And so I think there's this idea among some folks that, you know, their lack of success is a proof that their privilege doesn't exist. No, your privilege is to drive down the road without getting pulled over for nothing. You know, your privilege is to go into a store and have a $20 bill that looks a little janky and the person just not accepting it. You don't end up with somebody's knee on your neck. You know, that's your privilege. Your privilege is to have an uncle, have a cousin, have a friend, have a fraternity brother who works at a bank who gets you a good mortgage when you come in, even though maybe your credit isn't 100%. That's your privilege. Now, if you lose the house later on, that - again, it's not emblematic of not having that privilege. And so I definitely am aware of that.

It's something that I've seen growing up, you know, as a kid in the South. When I was 13, I won a chess contest at our school. We had, like, a chess tournament. And there was a kid - I'm not going to name him, obviously - but there was a kid who didn't play chess, who didn't like chess, but he was mad that I had won. And I was on the school bus with him, and he poured some liquid on me. And we got into a fight, you know, as kids do. And, you know, when the principal asked him why did he do it, he was just mad that I had won the contest. He was tired of people talking about how smart I was and all that kind of stuff.

And I remember turning to him, and I'm like, but you don't like chess. And at the time as a child, I couldn't wrap my mind around that, you know? And as an adult, I realized that this particular young man was in a household where anything that wasn't whiteness-centered was taken as an insult, was taken as a slight. That itself is a privilege, to believe that, to feel that.

You know, I've never been ashamed of being Black. I've never been ashamed of being a Black man. But I'm acutely aware that my life has never been easier because of the color of my skin. Just like I have friends who are white, whose - I doubt that their lives have ever been harder because of the color of their skin. And again, I don't want you to feel bad about that. I don't want you to genuflect and grovel about that. I just want you to acknowledge it. I think acknowledging it goes a long way to help healing some of our issues.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview our producer, Sam Briger, recorded with crime writer S.A. Cosby, author of the new novel "All The Sinners Bleed." His other books include "Razorblade Tears" and "Blacktop Wasteland." After a break, we'll hear more of the interview, and our book critic Maureen Corrigan will share her thoughts on Barbie dolls and the Barbie movie. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with writer S.A. Cosby. His new novel is called "All The Sinners Bleed." The action takes place in a fictional county in southeast Virginia called Charon County, which is a lot like the county Cosby grew up in, where the high school was named after Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and where a statue in front of the courthouse honors the Confederate cause. His novel's Hero is Titus Crown, Charon County's first Black sheriff.

BRIGER: So you grew up in southeast Virginia, in Mathews County, a place that sounds very similar to the Charon County of your book. Could you tell us about where you grew up, your family, your home?

COSBY: Yeah. Oh, man. So Mathews County - it is Charon. I'll just be honest with you. I just changed the name so nobody gets mad at me. But no, I love Mathews County. Mathews County's the smallest county in Virginia - population hovers around 8,000 people. And I know all of them. So...


COSBY: Which made dating difficult in high school because you're related to everybody. It's like, oh, I met this girl. She's your cousin. Oh, OK. Never mind. So we had to go next door to Gloucester to date. But it's a beautiful, beautiful place to live. It's right on the Chesapeake Bay. You know, there are farms there. There's - the sea is a huge part of our lives. My dad was a waterman, or a commercial fisherman, when I was a kid. My grandmother worked at the seafood plant where they picked crab meat and shelled oysters and scallops. You know, my grandfather - like I said, he was an elder in our church. He was a man that I looked up to a lot.

Sunday evenings, people would come after church to my grandma's house, and they would just sort of casually gather there. And my grandmother would go get some hamburger meat, or she'd have some venison steaks, and somebody would cook. And invariably somebody would find a jug of moonshine or a jar and pass that around. And I grew up around these really interesting backyard orators and these really interesting, you know, barbecue raconteurs. My uncles and aunts told, you know, just this history of oral storytelling. And I grew up around it. I really love - you know, and my uncles would tell stories, and my aunts would always be - would say, that's a lie. And my Uncle Edward would say, you know, well, if it ain't true, it ought to be. And so just this joy of telling stories or telling jokes.

BRIGER: So what were the books that your mom or other people in your family read?

COSBY: I grew up in a household where people read a lot. My mom read biographies and historical novels, and she read Greek mythology, and she used to make my brother and I - we didn't have a lot of money growing up. But whenever we did get some extra money, she wouldn't just give it to us as an allowance. She would make us solve riddles. And I remember my brother was, like, 15. He was like, I'm getting a job 'cause...

BRIGER: It was too much for him.

COSBY: It's too much mental acuity going on here. But my mom read those books. And my grandmother was huge romance novel fan. So I read all these Harlequin romances.

BRIGER: Oh, really?

COSBY: Yeah. Learned to look up words that I didn't understand. So, you know, you go right to the dictionary like, what does tumescent mean? And, like, oh, OK.


COSBY: And so and - then my aunt and my uncle, respectively, read horror novels and detective novels.


COSBY: My aunt read - my aunt gave me my first Stephen King novel, my first Clive Barker novel. And my uncle was - gave me all of his John D. Macdonald Travis McGee novels, so - "The Deep Blue" something. And I loved those stories. And I remember my aunt, when she gave me my first Stephen King novel, "Salem's Lot," I was 13, and she said, hey; you know, you'll be able to handle this? I was like, yeah, I'll be fine. She said, I don't want your mom to get mad at me. And I was like, all right. And I read the book. And then for the next two weeks, I slept with this popsicle crucifix that I made under my pillow 'cause I was so afraid Ralphie Glick was coming to my window.

BRIGER: So, Shawn, you said something just a second ago about how in Mathews County, there's 8,000 people - you know all of them. And that's kind of what it seems like in your book - that everyone knows each other. Many people are in each other's business. And, also, like, you even know, like, who all the white supremacists are. And, like, everyone drinks at this one bar, like, all the white people, all the Black people. And, you know, unsurprisingly, there's a lot of bar fights there. Was - is that what it is like living there?

COSBY: (Laughter) Yeah. It is. I think it's because - I think in the South you're - in many ways the South, was forced to acknowledge their horrible past and segregation. And so in doing so, we are more accustomed to being around each other, I think, in a way that if you go to, you know, a certain neighborhood in New York, for instance, you don't have that sort of forced reclamation. And I think it's a good thing. I think it's good that we were forced to do that because I think it - you know, it helps move things along as well as things can be moving along. But yeah, there's a bar here. I won't name them. But there's a local bar here that everybody ends up at. And, you know, as people are wont to do when they had a little bit too much of the libations, they have a tendency to adjudicate disagreements with their fists. And I used to be a bouncer there, so I saw a lot of that.

BRIGER: Yeah. I think you've actually admitted to getting in a few of those fights yourself.

COSBY: (Laughter) I am currently 3-0. So (laughter)...

BRIGER: Titus's mother was a big churchgoer, but he stopped going to church after she died, and he's no longer a believer. Like your main character, you lost your faith when you were pretty young. Can you tell us that story?

COSBY: Yeah. So, like Titus, my mother had a physical disability. My mother had spinal stenosis, and it caused her to have physical disabilities and some difficulty walking and so on and so forth. And I remember a specific incident when I was about 9 or 10. We went to a revival meeting, a tent revival, basically. And there was a guy there who was supposed to be a faith healer. And even though my mom was a little bit skeptical, she was at a point where, you know, her physical capabilities were eroding and rather quickly. And so, you know, like anybody, she, you know, decided, what was the harm to go to one of these events? And I remember we were standing in line to get in. And at the time, she wasn't using a wheelchair. She had two canes that she was walking on.

And there were a couple gentlemen smoking cigarettes out front. And my mom used to smoke. And by this time, she had quit. But whenever she saw somebody with a cigarette, she would always get that urge. And she sort of made comment of those guys smoking. And so then later, when we were in the tent revival and the minister was asking for people to come up on stage, two of the people that came on stage - one was on crutches, and one was supposed to be blind - were both those gentlemen that we had seen out front. I remember my mom turning to me. I was a little boy, but she talked to me like I was an adult all the time. She said, well, I see the only thing they're healing is their pockets. And, you know - and then later on, some members of a different church, not my home church, came to pray over my mother in an effort to heal her. And, you know, when that didn't work, they made an assumption - they made a insinuation that she wasn't praying hard enough and that really...

BRIGER: That she didn't have enough faith.

COSBY: Yeah. And that really, really upset me. And I think, you know, I was like - you know, I think I was 11, and I was a loudmouthy 11-year-old. And I said, you know, that's not true 'cause I knew me and my brother had helped her get on her knees to pray and, you know, both of us holding her arms and guiding her to the ground. And so that really did have a lot to do with how I sort of lost my faith in church as an organization. But I never lost my faith in spirituality. You know, I think the church - little C - is a building, but Church - capital C - is a philosophical and spiritual ideal.

BRIGER: So even though Titus doesn't go to church and is critical about institutionalized religion, he can't really get away from its influence. You have this passage where you write, (reading) twenty years removed from the last time since he willingly attended a church service, and he still found himself using the jargon of the devout. It never left you, not completely. The cadence, the syncopation, the King James syntax, it was all there, waiting to reemerge like 17-year cicadas.

So is that your experience? Like, does the language of Bible, like, jump off your tongue?

COSBY: Yeah, it does sometimes, especially - like, I grew up in a Pentecostal church. So, like, I like to say that means our church choir had a bass guitar. So it's a very rhythmic service and it's not staid at all. And so you kind of get caught up in it. And you go there and you're sitting there and, you know - and the cynic in you are like, oh, you know, this is - you know, you're so cynical about, you know, the offering and where's the money going and why does the minister got a new car and all this...

BRIGER: Right.

COSBY: ...Stuff and then somebody starts...

BRIGER: And there's no air conditioning...

COSBY: Exactly.

BRIGER: ...Like in the book. Yeah.

COSBY: Yeah. We're all working on fans, but the air conditioning only works one out of every couple hours. And, you know, you sit there and all that. And then somebody gets up and they start singing an old hymn - you know, an old church spiritual. And then all of a sudden, you're 11 years old again and you're standing next to your grandmother and she's dancing and singing, and all that comes bubbling up. And it's - like, it's unbidden. You don't know what's coming, you know? But it's incredible how much of an impact church has had on our lives in the South, but in the Black community, specifically, how much it was a backbone of the Civil Rights Movement, how much it's been a backbone of social movements ever since. But again, as I said, how easily that comfort can become a cudgel.

BRIGER: All right. Let's take one more break here. If you're just joining us, our guest is author S.A. Cosby, whose new book is called "All The Sinners Bleed." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, our guest is author S.A. Cosby, whose new crime novel is called "All The Sinners Bleed."

Shawn, your wife owns a funeral home in Virginia, and you've worked there in the past. I don't know if you still work there, but you're listed as a staff member on the webpage. What did or what do you do there?

COSBY: So in the beginning, I did pretty much everything except the stuff that you had to be licensed to do. So I leave that to my wife and her staff. But I cleaned. I washed the cars, I washed the vehicles, washed the hearse, vacuum up, carry the trash, did minor repair stuff around the office, you know, fixing an outlet here and there. I did go and do what's called a body removal or body retrieval. So when a person passed, I was the one that went and picked them up. And so all of that really helped teach me a lot of empathy. Like, you get this - when you work in a funeral home, you see people at the worst time of their life other than something personally happening to them, themselves. They've lost someone that's very close to them, that means a lot to them. And so watching the way the staff there dealt with people - and when I mean dealt with, I mean, you know, empathized with them, consoled them, comforted them - it really went a long way to me understanding that everybody deserved that 'cause some of the people that come there aren't nice.

You know, some of the people that come there, because they're in this horrible moment in their life, they can take that out on the staff of the funeral home. And I never saw them raise their voice. I never saw them take advantage of that situation. And so for me as a writer, it went a long way to me looking at my characters - even my horrible characters, like, even the character - the killer in this book, you know, I want to empathize with them. And when I say empathize, that doesn't mean I endorse anything they do and that doesn't mean I sympathize with them. But I want to know what made them that way. How did they get there? And so for me, as a writer, it was an invaluable tool, a lesson in this idea of empathy, of understanding, of seeing things from another person's point of view.

BRIGER: Yeah, I was wondering about that because I thought that - both in this book, "All The Sinners Bleed," and "Razorblade Tears," you have these really affecting passages of people going through very hard moments of grief. And...

COSBY: Yeah, I mean, you know, like, I wrote - when I wrote "Razorblade Tears," in the process of writing it, my mother was terminally ill. And then with "All The Sinners Bleed," I thought I was over that, but I still was processing it, I think. You know, there's a scene where Titus is talking about his mother to his girlfriend, Darlene. He talks about how, you know, there's a pain that only a son knows that he feels when his mother can't hug him. You know, and, you know, I - my mom, like I said, had several physical disabilities. And toward the end in life, it was really hard for her to put her arms around me. And, you know, there's just this thing that you, as a child, I don't care how old you are, you want your mom to hug you. And, you know, it's one of those moments that I think is unfortunately relatable to everyone.

BRIGER: So in your book, you write that there's a funeral home that serves Black clientele and then another that serves white ones, and that funeral homes are the last places in America where segregation is openly tolerated. Can you explain that?

COSBY: Yeah, I think especially in the South, you know, funeral business, you know, came about, you know, in the wake of the death of Lincoln, ironically. He was the first president to be taken to different states to be lying in state. And so the idea that - and also the Civil War advanced funeral business, where kids, you know, going from, you know, Amherst, N.Y., down to South Carolina and they had to get back home. And so it's interesting to me, as someone outside a funeral business looking in, that funeral business was also one of the first places that African Americans were able to find success in the businesswise, where, you know, the funeral home - because white people sure didn't want to put their hands on a dead Black body. And so the funeral home became sort of this economic center in Black communities.

It was the place that you went to talk to somebody about legal matters. You know, that - the funeral director wasn't a lawyer. So the funeral business and funeral homes in Black communities are very strong. It's a very important part of the community. But that being said, the specter of racism hangs over it because for years and years and years, you know, it was a gentleman's agreement that white people went to this funeral home and Black people went to that funeral home. That's broken down a lot in recent years. You see a lot less of that, but - you know, I won't date myself. But I'm not so old that I don't remember when that was a hard and fast but quiet rule. And so that has changed a little bit, but you still see a lot of that.

BRIGER: You mean, like, the people would - the people that picked up the bodies would automatically take the person to the funeral home corresponding to their race?

COSBY: Oh, yeah, even further than that. Like, when the person passed - if it was, like, a hospital, you know - the nurses who called, they never called a Black funeral home, even by mistake. It was always, again, quietly agreed they would just - this person is going to go to this white funeral home. I think what happened was, with everything, as time moved on and people intermarried, we had interracial relationships and just people, you know, getting good sense. It wasn't so much about the social nicety of keeping the races separated, even in death. It became a thing of like, no, we want to celebrate this person's life. And we have a relationship with this funeral home, or we have a relationship with that funeral home.

BRIGER: Right.

COSBY: And it's not race-based. It's more...

BRIGER: Like, the family has always gone to this funeral home. All right, so you said earlier you've gotten in a few bar fights. I wanted to talk to you...

COSBY: (Laughter).

BRIGER: Although, you say you're not an aggressive person.

COSBY: I'm not.

BRIGER: But it sounds like part of that might have been related to one of your jobs as a bouncer.

COSBY: (Laughter) Yeah.

BRIGER: So in the book, your character, Titus, he gets into some fights. He also almost gets into a lot of fights. And there's this thing that he does, which you see in movies and stuff, where you kind of - the prelude before a fight is sort of getting into someone's personal space, right? And, like, I just wanted - like, can you talk about that moment that, like - when you have two people squaring off? It's kind of this electrifying moment where you don't really know what's going to happen next.

COSBY: Yeah. I think especially when I was a bouncer, you saw it a lot. There were confrontations that you could tell were not going to get physical. It was just going to be a lot of talking, a lot of posturing, you know? Those are the guys that wait until their friends show up. And, you know, they're the guys that are always like, hold me back - you're lucky they're holding me back.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

COSBY: And it's like - and, you know, I always love, in that moment, when the guy's friends would let him go.


COSBY: They're like, we're not holding back. By all means, continue. But in the moment where you - the moment where you know it's going to be an actual physical confrontation is when people stop talking and they're just in each other's personal space. You step into someone's personal space. You're nose to nose, or your nose - or your foreheads are, like, less than an inch apart, because now it's become almost that flight or fight reaction is going to happen. And that's when you know something's going to go down. The funny thing, I think - it's funny. Unless people are professionally trained - and I mean, unless you're trained in combat sports - the fight usually devolves into just rolling around and breathing hard. It's always either...

BRIGER: People get out of breath quickly.

COSBY: Yeah, and everybody's wrestling. And then your shirt's untucked and you lost a shoe. And finally, people separate you. And so, you know, of course, there are confrontations that escalate, you know? And - but there is a type of confrontation where it's just, you know, are you tired? Are you done now? Did you get it out your system?

BRIGER: Right.

COSBY: And so obviously, that would move forward. And people would either be kicked out of the bar. Or they get pulled apart and pulled to the other side of the bar, and so on and so forth.

BRIGER: So when you were a bouncer, did you have, like, a move that you, like...

COSBY: (Laughter).

BRIGER: To get someone out of the bar or, like, to neutralize someone that you would have to use?

COSBY: I always found - and it sounds hilarious. I always found a good - especially if you're taller than someone. A good wedgie was good to get them out of the bar.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

COSBY: Just grab them by their underpants and pull those up as high as you can, because it disarms them. And they honestly don't know how to react. And by the time they realize what they want to do, you've gotten them outside. So that was my go-to move.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

COSBY: I didn't like - I didn't want to get into a slugfest with you. I just wanted to remove you from the situation as fast as possible.

BRIGER: Yeah (laughter). Yeah, they probably are never expecting that.

COSBY: Not at all.

BRIGER: Well, Shawn Cosby, thanks so much for being here today.

COSBY: Thank you so much for having me. This was wonderful.

GROSS: S.A. Cosby's new novel is called "All The Sinners Bleed." He spoke with our producer, Sam Briger. After a break, book critic Maureen Corrigan will share her thoughts about Barbie, the doll and the movie. This is FRESH AIR.


Copyright © 2023 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.