One of the spring's most buzzed-about debuts, Bill Cheng's Southern Cross the Dog is the story of Robert Chatham, who was just 8 when the 1927 Mississippi flood destroyed his home and his family. As Robert wanders the Delta, in search of his kin and trying to outrun bad luck, Cheng creates a truly American story that mingles myth, music and a little bit of magic.
Writers are often admonished to write what they know, but you did the opposite with Southern Cross the Dog. You're a Chinese American from New York City; your characters are black and white Southerners from rural Mississippi. Why did you decide to set a novel in the South?
You have to write toward your interests. For me that was the Mississippi Delta of the great country blues singers. When I was a teenager I listened a lot to blues musicians like Robert Johnson, Son House, Big Bill Broonzy, Mississippi John Hurt. There was something about that music—the frustration, the melancholy, the resignation but also this great joy—that resonated with me. When it came time to write my first novel, I knew I wanted it to pay tribute to that world.
What kind of research did you do to help you establish the place and the characters' vernacular?
As a reader, the expectation I have for fiction is that the story be credible without it being obliged to hew too closely to fact. That’s where the real joy is in telling stories—asserting a reality that doesn’t exist and blurring the boundaries between what we believe and what is actual. For me, the research is a means of communing with the novel, fleshing out its contours and seeing what images the brain is pulled towards.
The more I read, the more tools I have. You never know when you’ll need to summon up Chandler or Shakespeare or Springsteen in the treacherous back swamps of the Delta.
Everything short of boarding a plane, I did—I went to the library; pulled old photos out of digital collections; summoned up land masses on Google Maps; read books by folklorists and ethnomusicologists (notably Alan Lomax and John Work); listened to records; perused the radio archive at the Paley Center for Media in New York City; photocopied pages on dynamiting out of an old handbook; read Honeyboy Edwards’s memoir The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing; watched PBS; pulled up clips on YouTube of Mississippi John Hurt on Pete Seeger’s 1965 series Rainbow Quest; watched flood footage recorded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, listened to a recording of Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Slim and Sonny Boy Williamson talk about life during Jim Crow (“You didn’t say, ‘Give me a can of Prince Albert [Tobacco].’ Not with that white man on that can. You say, ‘Give me a can of that Mister Prince Albert.’”)
Most of that, however, never made it into the book.
"Southern cross the Dog" is a colloquial term for the geographical point at which two railways intersect. Will you tell us more about the title and its significance?
Literally, there are two railroad lines that used to intersect in Moorehead, Mississippi—the U.S. Southern and the Y.D. or Yazoo-Delta line (colloquially referred to as the Yellow Dog). Apocryphally, the composer W.C. Handy first heard the phrase “Southern cross the Dog” at a train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi, in 1903. According to Handy’s account, he heard a black itinerant musician playing slide guitar and singing “Goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog.” The phrase was later adopted in his song, "The Yellow Dog Rag."
That’s really it as far as fact-based accounts go. But for me “Goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog” calls to mind something mythical—a place of peace and rest and final judgment. A coming home. A Beulah land.
The title also evokes other parts of blues folklore. There are the crossroads where souls are bargained for; there is the idea of being crossed or jinxed through hoodoo magic; there is the notion of dogs, particularly black dogs, as agents of the devil. This imagery shows up a lot, for instance, in the songs of Robert Johnson. It’s exotic and sexy and while there are definitely elements of those things in the book, the way I really think about the title today is that it is simply the story of a boy trying to come home.
The novel focuses on several different characters, and the story is mostly told in third person. But in two chapters, those focused on Dora and Ellis, you switch to first person. Why did you decide to switch between characters throughout the story, and how did you establish whose tales you would tell from the first-person perspective?
There are portions of this book that could only be told from the point-of-view of those characters. If I’d done otherwise, I would’ve been shirking my responsibility to those characters. From the beginning, I knew that Dora’s character would be the hardest for me to write. To render her convincingly I’d have to cross the divides of gender, race, as well as a history of abuse of which I have no first-hand experience. It was a challenge that I think tests the very core of who I believe myself to be as a writer. These are not easy things to write about, but I didn’t come here to write an easy book.
If I told Dora’s or Ellis’ story from the distance of the third-person, the book would be safer, certainly but that’s not what I think fiction should be. My characters—especially Dora and Ellis—experience a tremendous amount of loss. I owe it to them and the reader to try to understand and communicate that loss.
As a first-time author, what writers inspire you?
Depending on what I’m working on and how I’m conceiving it at the time, I’ll draw on different sources for my inspiration. For Southern Cross the Dog, I know Peter Mathiessen’s Shadow Country was hugely influential to me. It has the kind of scope and breadth that I wanted for my own book. There’s also Illywhacker by Peter Carey, which reminded me that books should also be thrilling and joyful and provocative to the imagination.
But when I’m working I try not to limit myself to any one kind of writing. Every book provides its own unique insight on structure, or syntax, or plotting or character development. The more I read, the more tools I have to fix the problems that might arise down the road. You never know when you’ll need to summon up Raymond Chandler or William Shakespeare or Bruce Springsteen in the treacherous back swamps of the Delta.
I will say, however, that a lot of how I think about fiction is informed by the novelist Colum McCann. I had the luck to study with him for my MFA. He really instilled in me this idea that when you write, you have to be unafraid. Every word you set down should be part of an ambitious undertaking—otherwise what would be the point?
I've read that you haven't visited the South, but your book tour includes stops in several Southern cities, so that's about to change. Is there anything you're particularly looking forward to seeing or visiting in the region in which your novel is set?
I’m not sure I’ll have much time to take in the sights, but there are a few things I’d definitely like to do. For instance, I’d like to spend an evening at a functioning jukejoint and listen to some live blues. I got married last year and my friends took me out to this tiny blues club for my bachelor party. They said the whole night I was like a puppy, looking up at the stage. It was like Christmas morning for me.
If I can, I’d also like to make it out to the Panther Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Yazoo City—see how much of that I got right, how much I got wrong. My wife is also an avid bird-watcher so I think that’ll be something we’ll both enjoy.
What are you working on next?
A novel. At least I think it wants to be a novel. I can say that it’s not set in the American South and that it’s not about me—except in the way that every book is always about the author. With Southern Cross the Dog, the ambition was to make a book that was wide in scope. My inclination now is to go the other way. Something quieter and introspective, but no less ambitious.
Read our review of Southern Cross the Dog.