If you meet Nathan Waymaker, you probably don’t want it to be in a back alley. And you definitely don’t want to have wronged someone that’s in his good graces. And if you’re ever in trouble in Queen County, Virginia, his number beats 911.
In Shawn A. Cosby’s debut novel, My Darkest Prayer, we are brought into the world of fraudsters hosting Sunday service, Sheriff’s Deputies hosting grudges and the people on the margins who are anything but marginal.
When a scoundrel-come-minister is found dead of an apparent suicide, Nathan Waymaker is approached by his congregants to dig something other than the grave, and he stabs his shovel into a world that begins with money-laundering and ends with murder.
We sit down for a chat with author Shawn A. Cosby.
LMS: Nathan Waymaker is pretty much a certified badass. A former Marine, former Sheriff’s Deputy, he’s got a lot in the toolkit. You’ve done a great job of building up his character in My Darkest Prayer, but you only do so much without straying off the path. So here, now, what are some “Nate trivia” we can feast on?
SAC: It’s funny that you asked that because when I create characters I like to give them as much of a backstory as possible. Most of that doesn’t make it into the book but it helps me visualize them as a real person. So as far a trivia goes Nathan served in Iraq and also in Afghanistan. He is left handed. His favorite drink is rum and soda. He played football in high school but wasn’t good enough to get a scholarship so that was why he joined the Marines. And he loves animals. If I ever get the opportunity to write about him again, he will have a dog in his future adventures.
LMS: I know that you’re from Gloucester, Virginia, and Gloucester is mentioned, and is a minor scene in, the story. And the Virginia setting isn’t really saturated in the universe of mystery/crime fiction. What does Virginia, or can we call it the Mid-Atlantic, have to offer that’s unique from places like New York or L.A., or say, Texas, or the mountains of you-name-the-state?
SAC I think the Mid-Atlantic is a rich setting for stories of all kinds. Virginia has a long and complicated history with race, politics, religion and crime. During Prohibition, many citizens of the Mid-Atlantic used their skill in the art of making moonshine to supplement their income. Richmond Virginia was the capital of the Confederacy and also the birth place of first black governor in America. It’s home to evangelical tent revivals and the opioid crisis. There is so much to explore here thematically from the Blue Ridge mountains to the Chesapeake Bay.
LMS: Nathan works for his cousin’s funeral home. Were there any personal reasons for that setting? Where were you drawing it from? And, as I haven’t seen it myself before, what do you think that perspective offers crime/mystery?
SAC: Well my in my day job I am a funeral home attendant. I think working in the mortuary industry, I get a unique perspective on the human condition. I see people everyday who are going through the worst time in their life. The dignity and poise and strength they show during this time is awe inspiring. I also get to see people deal with long held family secrets and simmering tensions. It’s an incredible opportunity as a writer to observe these real-life mysteries unfold. So my experiences have served as powerful inspiration for my work. I think narratively Nathan’s ability to put people at ease is a direct result of his time working at the funeral home. He’s able to get past his suspects initial psychological barriers. They open up to home in a way they might not with a police officer or a traditional PI.
LMS: There’s a lot of great dialog in this book. What can you say to people starting out writing a book about creating good, snappy dialog? And in terms of dialect, slang, etc., where are the good mixes? Like, if you were throwing bits of speech in a cocktail, how are you writing out the recipe?
SAC: The best advice I can give anyone about writing dialog is spend a lot of time listening to how people actually talk. Sit in a bar and eavesdrop on the two guys complaining about the game. Stand in line for tickets to a movie and pay attention to the couple having a whisper argument. It might seem like you’re being nosy. And you are. But if you take those rhythms that you hear in actual everyday speech and combine them with your own unique verbiage you can create a pretty good sense of what your characters are saying and how they say it. Personally, I like to sprinkle in some slang and dialect among my work but not too much. Usually I’ll have my villains or side characters use a lot of slang. My main character is my mouthpiece, so I try to keep his or her dialog clean and crisp.
LMS: I feel like Nathan can be a series character, without spoiling the ending. He just has room to develop as a character. Can you give your readers your own little spoiler on where you see Nathan Waymaker going? And in that grain, what else is in the pipes for you?
SAC: Well I’d love to see Nathan come back and take on another case. I’ve actually written an outline that details a possible sequel. I guess it all depends on how his first book does. Currently I’m working with Josh Getzler and HSG Literary Agents on my 2nd book. It’s a standalone crime novel that is currently being shopped around. But I’d love to bring Nathan back. I think he’s an interesting character. He has some archetypal attributes of a standard noir detective but also some significant differences and I’d like to explore those in the future.
The Frontera is a land of monsters, cringeworthy creatures that sail the rivers and creep upon the desert, terrorize the villagers. They are born of human nature and of super-nature. And in Coyote Songs, author Gabino Iglesias brings the ghosts of the Frontera to life in the most spellbinding way.
Coyote Songs follows the groove of Gabino’s previous book, Zero Saints, but really evolves the landscape in every way. In fact, for Iglesias, evolution is really the best way to put Coyote Songs. A story about the many faces and experiences of Otherness on the border, it jumps from the imaginative and fanciful folklore personified, to the raw, emotionally stunning realities of the fate of children eaten up for the chance for something better.
I sit down with Gabino and have a few burning questions to ask.
LMS: Hey Gabino. As somebody who’s read your previous book, I of course was looking for similarities, and while maybe they’re in the same universe literarily, there are a lot of differences. Can you talk about what you see as the key differences you were aiming for when you started Coyote Songs? And did you find unintended differences when you’d finished?
GI: I knew I didn’t want to write Zero Saints again, but the universe of barrio noir contains some cohesive elements: pain, violence, multiculturalism, bilingualism, violence, crossing of all types of physical and imagined borders, etc. I knew from page one that those things would be in there, but the rest was entirely new. I wanted women at the core of the narrative. I wanted more magic and weirdness and horror than the first time around. I’ll always walk that line between horror and crime, and now that I knew readers would dig in despite the strangeness and gore, I went all in. The book I’m working on now is also barrio noir, but has nothing to do with Zero Saints or Coyote Songs.
LMS: There’s such a great synthesis between the fantastical and the raw visceral in this book. The Bruja is a perfect example of this. Without giving anything away, it really hit me in the feels, and when the more ephemeral part of it came into play, I was hooked. Did you have any underlying schema for mixing the natural and the supernatural, or was it an organic flow?
GI: Organic flow. Writing is not easy for me, but that part is relatively easy. I grew up immersed in Caribbean syncretism. My abuelita had an entire bathroom for the spirits that you weren’t supposed to use. It was full of candles and religious iconography. It was Catholicism and Santeria and a bunch of other stuff thrown together. She had milagritos sewn to the inside of her clothes. She wore saints on medals. I would find slaughtered chickens in my neighborhood. I had a good friend who acquired exotic birds that were illegal on the island and sold them to paleros and voodoo priestesses. In the immortal words of poet and visionary Issac Kirkman: “If you haven’t seen weird shit in the streets, you haven’t been in the streets long enough.” For me, supernatural and normal are the same thing.
LMS: Coyote Songs is many different parts and perspectives. Did you start this as separate works, or did you start out a single work, and plot it out intending to shift perspectives? And if you can talk specifically about influences for any of the perspectives, like Alma or Pedrito, the Coyote or even the Mother?
GI: I always wanted to write a mosaic novel, but never thought I had the skills. I also hadn’t seen it done much in the extremely pulpy way I wanted but with some decent writing thrown in as well. I think Brian Allen Carr’s The Last Horror Novel in the History of the World opened my eyes. I read that and thought “Fuck yeah! This is it!” That book gave me confidence. I don’t have Brian Allen Carr-level chops, but this was my book, so I only needed my own chops. The perspectives just made sense. I thought about Pedrito first. I love revenge narratives. Then The Mother came to me as the reason and the glue to everything. The rest were born out of specific stories I’d hear or embodied points I wanted to get across.
LMS: Like Zero Saints, Coyote Songs has more than just passing phrases in Spanish. It is used very powerfully, and while it doesn’t detract from the book for non-Spanish speakers, it is indelibly a part of the story. Again, I love talking about methods, so did you set rules for when to use Spanish, or did you just feel for it?
GI: I published two novellas before Zero Saints, but Zero Saints was me finding my voice. I decided to write what I wanted to write and use Spanish and Spanglish to make it authentic. A lot of people hated it. You can go read the 1-star Amazon reviews to see how much the Spanish/Spanglish bothered them. I don’t care. This is my voice. These are my stories. Escribo como me da la gana. I start writing and the part that come to me in Spanish or Spanglish stay that way. J David Osborne, head honcho of Broken River Books, has never had a problem with it. If you buy a barrio noir packed with frontera people written by a dude named Gabino Iglesias and are surprised at the Spanish in its pages…
LMS: Somewhat related to the previous question, I know, as a writer myself, that the right word can have twelve dimensions, even when you have it in your head. I always assumed that if I knew another language, getting that idea-to-paper lightning strike would be so much easier. But, in having English and Spanish to choose from, is putting that powerful idea down easier… or harder?
GI: It’s easier…until you start the editing process. There’s a new theory out there that says young bilingual kids don’t have two language, that they don’t code switch. Instead, they have one gigantic language in their heads where everything has two or three words to describe it. I’m convinced reading and writing have shaped my brain in the same way. I’ve spent so many years talking to Spanglish speakers that I kinda know just fall into that discourse very easily.
LMS: This book wouldn’t be as good if it didn’t take into account our political realities. And how you did it, hitting it head on, while at the same time making it background to the main action, like horse-kicking racism and bigotry in the face. Do you think, in all the political noise and circuses, that the very real crisis affecting children on the border is forgotten?
GI: Society has a very short memory and equally short attention span. Things fade away very quickly. I dislike that. We need to stay angry. We can’t let border politics, inhumane immigration policies and attitudes, and things like the #MeToo movement fall by the wayside. I try to contribute to that with my fiction. Fuck racism. I see it everywhere. Hell, I get called a beaner and a spic regularly by guys who wouldn’t say it to my face, so I’m not worried about forgetting about it any time soon. And women are the core of Coyote Songs. There are many reasons for that. Hopefully readers can identify them without me having to spell it out.
LMS: The poetry in the book is fantastic. The visuals, and the flow of those visuals, I think, make this book an upper-echelon book. Take us through the time you were writing it. What was the music playlist? And were there any other writers, directors or cinematographers through whom you were putting yourself?
GI: Oh, man, I was submerged in darkness for this one. I do this thing where I listen to nothing but blues or flamenco or jazz for a month. For this book, I always went with heave, dark stuff. I listened to a lot of black atmospheric metal. And things like Loscil and Robert Rich. Weird mix, but it worked. Here’s a taste of albums that come to mind that were on repeat:
Eldamar – A Dark
Caladan Brood – Echoes of Battle
Loscil – Stases and Endless Falls
Robert Rich – Vestiges and Nest
Musk Ox – Woodfall
I also had Takuya Kuroda’s Rising Son and Ryo Fukui’s Scenery and A Letter From a Small Boat…and some other stiff because music is life. Then, when not writing, I would switch back to my everything schedule. Those are the few I remember, but there were more. Lots more.
Pick up Coyote Songs from Amazon in Kindle or paperback here.
ICYMI, November, along with being the moustachio’d “Movember” for prostate cancer, is also the month designated as National Novel Writing Month, cleverly acronyzed to NaNoWriMo. In this creative writing contest, writers (and most especially non-writers) are encouraged to write a fifty-thousand-word novel between November 1st and November 31st.
It’s a big ole thing, with a logo and a hashtag or two, even a whole cottage industry that grows up around the many writers who strike gold and need professional editing and cover design and social media platform building and business cards, custom bookmarks and coffee mugs. The amateur graphic designer in me should salivate all through NaNoWriMo. But, I have hated it ever since I first heard of it. Well, I used to.
Why I hated. It’s tough to really hone your craft as a writer. There are big things like story arc, character development, the interplay between text and subtext, on and on… and then a bunch of people who post shots of their step tracker screen after every jog decide that it would be fun to write a bunch of words each day and post word counts. I really felt like it cheapened what we do.
And the cottage industry I was talking about, the editors, good and bad, the artisinal marketplace of all things “author” – I used to feel that this scene swung on a pendulum between indulgent and predatory.
But, as much shade as I’ve just thrown on NaNoWriMo, I have to come clean in the fact that I no longer hate it. Yes, there is a predatory nature to some of the “services” offered to newbie writers, but, to be fair, there’s just as many parasites latching on to writers from December through October. So, you know, welcome to the jungle, baby.
And oh my holy God, people aren’t taking High Literature seriously! Shit, I got a story coming out about a guy eating folks. Maybe I‘m not taking high literature seriously. And I get that a lot of NaNoWriMo people are going to self publish, and fill the limited World Attention Span with white noise and crap prose. They’re going to make it worse than it is now? Really? I can still find hot reads, can’t you?
So no, I’m not a hater of NaNoWriMo. Most people will not succeed. That’s true any time you pick up a pen (or keyboard) to write. Having a logo and a word count goal doesn’t make the mojo, but if it gives you a reason to dig that mojo out of the bag, all the more power to you. Some people find their voice, and go on to really kick ass.
I won’t be doing it, in case you wanted to know (for the one of you that wants to know.) Not a protest, I’m not better than it, I just know that I do novels in the spring, and short stories around the holidays. I will, I think, try to write something every day – a story, blog post, interview, ransom note, drunk text, whatever.
And to those of you doing NaNoWriMo, veteran writer or dabbler, just know that literature, in all of its forms, speaks through the ages in a way that a lot of artistic expression can’t. It is timeless in that it can transmit an idea even as the world that idea is wrapped in warps and twists.
And have fun.
In my continuing bid to document my writing life for you, and not let all the big news go by, I am happy to present to you a short, flash story that’s been published by the preeminent journal of twisted taste Shotgun Honey. The story, “Storm Debris” draws from my years of experience in disaster work, and my love of a good vengeance tale.
This is admittedly a short post. The bulk of this post are in the link below:
Keep tuned for a lengthier post. More to come.
I have to admit, friends and neighbors, that I have been snoozing. So let’s catch up. Since I last posted, I had an interview come up in ‘The Big Thrill’ for my book, Presiding Over the Damned, which was officially released in August. In other news, my volunteer work in the Red Cross has kicked into high gear with the devastation of hurricane’s Florence and now Michael. I have also recently taken on the position of Blog Editor at RadioRadioX.com. In fact, my work on their blog is what prompted me to come over and add this to my own blog.
I wish that I could say that I’ve simply been too busy to post on my own site, but that wouldn’t be true. I am a savant when it comes to slacking off and, conversely, giving myself busy work. Truth is, I don’t really know what to tell you all. I mean, I could tell you all about the writing conferences, book readings and events that I don’t go to because they’d be longer than two hours and my tolerance for other people is just shorter than two hours. That’s probably the truest statement ever to grace this space, and if I keep it in here, you’ll know me.
But things do happen. So let me just rattle off some life events, unencumbered by the expectation I have of myself that I have to write about things you actually care about. Cause frankly, that ship is about two hours off shore.
I’ve been deploying volunteers from the Eastern New York region of the Red Cross to disasters. This has been the noticeable ones, like Hurricane Florence and Michael, but we’ve deployed people locally, specialized volunteers to help a local community cope with a tragic vehicle accident that left twenty dead in Schoharie. Bear in mind, I’m not a ground troop. I have a souped-up computer and a phone that gets hot daily. I make calls and swing a mouse and my typing speed varies like the winds in one of those hurricanes. But I’ve learned a lot, some of which is not open to the general public, but if it was, I’d share.
I have accepted a job as the Blog Editor of RadioRadioX.com. I’ll be interviewing musicians and performers, and I hope to use my experience and talent as a writer to come up with some dynamite questions. Interviewing is new for me, and while I’d love to bring it here, I’ll have to see how it turns out. Interviewing writers means reading books, which takes longer than doing research on a local or regional band.
So I’ve explained what’s been happening in my life. I wish it was more fantastic, more spellbinding than deadlines and disaster deployments. Writers rarely have lives as exciting as the ones we write about. And I’m not a master of the mundane. I wish I was. Some writers can stub their toe and write a thousand words with an epilogue. I can’t, and that’s not a superior statement. I want to write that thousand-word story about how grandma cut me off this morning. Because that’s what I do. And if you pop on here and find my diatribe about how the people in my local convenience store can’t make two lines, you’ll know I’m hitting my A-Game.
But hey, carry on. And stop back for new stuff. I may surprise you.
The Leslie speaker surged and recessed, pushing out the sounds of the Hammond B3 like a rip current in a hurricane. Swan walked a funk-line with his left hand and peppered Jackson’s guitar riffs with the acrobatics of his right. He was surprised to hear DeeDee’s brushes on the drums, what with the firepower coming out of the rest of the gear. They fought about her bringing a mic, but only because he didn’t want to sing over her drums in the only PA at the gig. The crowd was telling him he didn’t have to worry. A glance at DeeDee was telling him she couldn’t hear herself and was playing by wire. She’d have to get a bigger slice of the night’s tips if he wanted to keep her next week.
The Bleecker Café was a political hangout in Albany. It was a quiet spot, where the music was no more than live background to deals struck in the shadows of the Capital building. Swan sometimes wondered, on a big tip night, what he was being paid to forget he’d heard. But that night was the night that the legislature took summer recess. It was the last night out in the city before they went home to their districts. Their mouths were open for drinks and gossip and off-season Auld Lang Syne, and they were on the floor, dancing like they knew how to, and throwing smiles, requests, and most importantly, tips around.
Swan turned over and aimed his voice low, “C sharp.” MacAvoy was a new pick up. He came in to a biker bar down by the river during one of the open mics Swan subbed for. He liked the cat’s blues lead, but maybe more the fact that, at the open mic, they seemed to be the only two musicians that gave a fuck. Going by MacAvoy’s inability to follow a chord progression or key change, he had quite a few fucks left to give. But at least he turned down when he was off in the weeds. Jackson had a spoon on his strings, improvising a slide. The crowd dug it, marveling at the ingenuity. They didn’t know Jackson couldn’t keep his hands on a real slide to save his life.
They played out the set and took a break around eight. Swan knew the waves of the gig, no matter what was happening down the road. The nine-to-twelve crowd was going to be crazier, but their requests were going to be closer to the songs a player has to put in their starter kit. Early crowds around there had a “let’s stump the band” feel. Swan wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Swan, MacAvoy and DeeDee were outside on the open patio. A penetrating rain was infusing the night air with the smell of ozone and the rejuvenation of an arriving cold-front. Swan even wondered if he had a sweater in the van.
“I’m trying to catch you, Swan, I really am,” MacAvoy said. “Can you play a few more blues tunes? Give me something I can go off on?”
“I could, but you can’t just go around being Stevie Ray Vaughan all day. You need to know the changes.”
“I know. I just don’t want to let anyone down.”
“Don’t worry. No one’s listening to you.”
“Oh, Swan, that’s rough,” DeeDee turned to MacAvoy. “Don’t listen to him. You’re doing good.”
Swan took out a cherry cigar. “When you get good, when you know the progressions and you know those songs, those deep cuts, you’ll play louder, and people will hear you. I’m not trashing you, it’s good that you play low. You don’t know a song and you step back. That’s what you’re supposed to do. But learn the songs.”
MacAvoy pulled the cellophane off a fresh pack of cigarettes. “I’m not used to these crazy chord-change songs,” he said. “Everyone I know rocks the one-four-five.”
“And that’s good when your set-list is five songs long, like those shows you guys set up. But doing a set like tonight, we’re going to go through sixty-, seventy songs. You can’t just sit there and jive out a one-four-five sixty-times, you know?”
Swan reached in his pocket for his black, plastic film canister and flipped aside the lid with his thumb. He pulled out a bowl made from threaded pipe, washers and the only piece he had to buy, the piece that right then was packed with sticky skunk bud. Even the screen came from the bathroom faucet of his boarding house.
“Mac’, go get Jackson. He’ll be a motherfucker if he don’t get any of this.” MacAvoy flicked his embers to the road and tucked the butt into his pocket before he dipped back in to pull Jackson off the two-for-ones.
“I’m gonna make him eat those cigarette butts.”
“Why does he do it?” DeeDee held her own smoke up to the glow from the streetlamp. “Put ‘em in his pocket?”
“He said he’s trying not to litter.” Swan leaned in and nudged DeeDee with his shoulder. “After the next set we’ll take him to the landfill and leave him there.”
They laughed. “You’re terrible,” DeeDee said.
“He’s a good cat,” Swan said. “He’s young. “When I was his age, I was in L.A., playing at a club that Pablo Escobar owned. I ever tell you that one?”
“I’ve heard it,” she said. “Not from you, though.”
“Oh yeah, Jackson showed up back—” Swan turned as the door opened and Jackson came out, trailed by MacAvoy. “Jackson, when did you show up in Escobar’s place?”
“I think it was around what, ’90? ’91? I just got divorced from Sandy, so, about then.”
“The place had iron bars on every window and cameras everywhere,” Swan said. “And you couldn’t take pictures.” He took a hit and paused his remembrance. “They paid us to
play Colombian music. I remember I had to go out and learn it. The owner gave me five hundred bucks when I showed up and told me to give it to a guy down the street. I spent a couple days with that cat learning folk rhythms. There were a thousand and twenty-four, and they wanted them all. But then they paid me good, man, real good. They were getting me whatever I wanted—drinks, drugs, girls—I just asked. And you showed up.”
“That owner was going to shoot me, I thought,” Jackson said.
“He told me he was going to shoot us both,” Swan said. “Me for bringing you. Fuckin’ Pablo Escobar’s joint.”
They stood out and watched the rain, and the voices that assumed themselves to be whispers were revealing themselves to be voices and gregarious shouts inside. The cabs were stopping more frequently, letting out new patrons in pairs. The nine o’clock crowd shook the rain off their umbrellas as Swan and the crew passed the plumber’s pipe, blowing the smoke toward the outside kitchen vent to let it mix with the smell of fried onion rings and chicken tenders.
Swan glanced down the street, exhaled, and passed the pipe to MacAvoy.
“That’s why ya gotta know all the songs.”