When eight-year-old Robert Chatham loses everything to the fast waters of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, he lights out across the country, a refugee seeking shelter with (and from) a Homeric cast of misfits, hucksters, and ne’er-do-wells: the ladies of a "hotel" of ill repute; a piano player whose talent for the blues matches his seemingly supernatural powers of healing; a close-knit clan of trappers, living in swampland itself marked for flooding, behind the wall of a WPA dam. Wherever he finds himself, Robert's gripped and propelled by his fear of the devil closing in behind. Cheng's novel fits comfortably in the tradition of the Southern Gothic, but such simplification shortchanges the power and originality of its language, the artfulness of its voice. Southern Cross the Dog is one hell of a debut.
Cheng took the time to answer a few of our questions about his book, the blues, and the origins of the phrase Southern Cross the Dog.
You’re from New York, and Southern Cross the Dog is about as southern as a book can get. What inspired you to write about that part of the country?
I started this novel as a kind of offering to country blues music. I wanted to be able to re-create in story the kind of experience I feel when I listen to someone like Son House, for example. For me, the only way to do that in a way that felt sincere was to set it in Mississippi, during the era of the prewar blues. Set the book someplace else and at some other time, and it would've been like I was trying to get around something. And you can't do that if you want to write a book you’re proud of.
Your story begins 85 years ago at the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, moving through the early 1940s. Was there something about that particular era that interested you, something that you could build a novel around?
The Great Mississippi Flood was a great starting point, from a storytelling perspective. There's a largeness to it, and its impact shadows the characters throughout the book. For Robert and his family, the flood marks them in a way that's irreparable. The flood and the Mississippi River also occupies this amazing space in the music. There are so many songs about the river, about the levee camps, and about the flood. The idea first came to me when I was listening to John Lee Hooker sing and play "Tupelo." It's absolutely haunting.
I think there’s a misconception about how writers research and how the research is used. Or at least, on my part, I don't think I do the work of going to a library for a long period of time, digesting the information, writing the book so that it is faithful to reality.
The small facts that open up the world of a novel are important and can be like manna to a writer, but the real value in research, in sitting with materials, is that the path of your research reinforces the writer's path through their novel. By which I mean, the way you direct your research tells you what it is you want your novel to be about. You're discovering the world of your novel, not the real world as it can be represented in a novel.
But to answer your question, I read aggressively everything I could about blues and blues music. I listened to blues music for close to a decade before I started the book.
Southern—or Southern Gothic—is a literary genre in itself. Did you have any trepidation in stepping into such a rich tradition?
I didn't really think about it going in—which I think was lucky; it would’ve been paralyzing otherwise. Now that the book is done, I’m a bit cautious of comparisons that are being made now. They’re very complimentary and gratifying to hear, but they also saddle a young writer with a terrible responsibility. Excruciatingly beautiful books have come out of this part of America, but I can't say sincerely that my name has any place next to giants like William Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor.
Does one book set in the American South now make me a southern writer? Is it enough to admit me into one of the richest American literary traditions? It's one book. When it’s put to me that I "wrote a book about the South" I think on some level that's wrong. I didn't write a book about the South. How could I have? To me, the book is about something different. Something more.
That said, are there southern writers (or writers of the South) whose work you admire most?
It almost seems besides the point to go on about William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor or Cormac McCarthy. Their contribution to the world of letters will be felt from now until the last eye has fallen across the last word of the last book. But I would like to single out the late Larry Brown and the New York-born Peter Mathiessen, whose books are visceral and exciting and make me proud about wanting to write books.
What is the meaning of the phrase Southern Cross the Dog, and what is its importance to the novel?
Where the Southern Crosses the (Yellow) Dog is a place where two railroad lines—the U.S. Southern and the Yazoo Delta—cross in Moorhead, Mississippi. The place is referenced in blues music, and in my mind, it seems to reference a place of final rest and peace. A kind of coming home. Which is, in a sense, what I believe Robert Chatham wants.
Music—especially the blues—pervades the book. Was that a starting point or something that grew naturally? Do you have favorite blues musicians?
It was a starting point. It was more than a starting point. It was there before I even conceived of the book. It was there for years, settling inside of me, carving me up in quiet unknowable ways.
As for favorite blues musicians, I have too many. Far too many. I think Lightnin' Hopkins might make it on top of the pile. Big Bill Broonzy, certainly. The problem with naming names is that I’ll always come up with another likely candidate for first place. I list a slew of them in my acknowledgments.
This is your first book—how long did it take to write? Was it a larger (or more difficult) project than you imagined?
About three years to get a first draft. During the editing phase, I think I cut about a hundred pages out of the book, and then fed some more pages back in. The book wasn't an easy book to write, certainly, but that’s part of the joy of being a writer. Solving problems. Working on sentences. Building worlds and populating them. Difficult is good. It keeps things interesting.
Are there more novels coming from you, and will they all be this dark? Are you interested in nonfiction projects, as well?
Hopefully there will be more novels coming from me. Knock on wood. And I hope they won't all be dark, but my writing does tend in that direction. I think I'm pretty light-hearted in person though. As for nonfiction, I like doing essays, op-eds, journalism pieces—that sort of thing. It's a different discipline, requires a different kind of thinking, but I like seeing what comes out.
What are you reading right now?
The Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly. It's also set during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, and it looks like it has a more central role in the book than it does in mine. I've only just started it, but it promises to be an amazing book.
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