Southern Cross the Dog

Southern Cross the Dog

by Bill Cheng


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780594730293
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 02/04/2014
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 195,236
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Bill Cheng received a BA in creative writing from Baruch College and is a graduate of Hunter College's MFA program. Born and raised in Queens, New York, he currently lives in Brooklyn with his wife. Southern Cross the Dog is his first novel.


A Conversation with Bill Cheng, author of Southern Cross the Dog

You were born and raised in New York City, living over a thousand miles and nearly a hundred years from the characters and events in your novel. What compelled you to tell this particular story about a young man in 1920s Mississippi?

Blues music was extremely important to me growing up, especially when I was a teenager. I was a sensitive kid—nerdy, overweight, socially awkward—and blues had a way of vocalizing those bruised and desperate feelings we get from time to time. The music is so simple; but in those lines was everything. Pain and joy and rage and love. The injustice of the world. I listened to that music almost obsessively, particularly country blues players like Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Johnson, Skip James, Blind Willie McTell. So when it came time to write my first novel, I knew I wanted it to be an homage to the music that has given me so much.

For some readers, the title of your novel resonates immediately. Others are left wondering until the end. Did you have other titles in mind for Southern Cross the Dog as you were writing?

Yes, I did! But it was a different book then. (And no, I won't say what it was.)

Titles are strange things. We tend to think of them as something tacked onto the front of a book—purely decorative like a maidenhead. But for me, this title became a kind of mission statement. It reminded me what I wanted the book to be about—destiny and choice, the yoke of bad fortune, and those mythic touchstones of blues culture. From that point on, the narrative just clicked into place.

The title comes from an account made by composer W.C. Handy. He was at a train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi when he overheard an itinerant blues musician singing about "going where the Southern cross the Dog." Handy later adapted it for his song "Yellow Dog Blues." Geographically, the title refers to the crossing of two railroad lines, the U.S. Southern and the Y.D. (or Yellow Dog) railroads. But spiritually, I think it's come to mean something else for me—a place of rest, hope, salvation.

Dora's character and story line are particularly compelling. Was it a challenge to inhabit a young girl's heart and frame of mind?

Inhabiting any character that isn't just an extension of oneself is always difficult. But then again, every character must by nature reflect something in its author. All of my characters' fears, their desires had to have bubbled up from someplace in my subconscious.

With Dora, the challenges I encountered were less technical problems and more issues of conscience. In creating Dora, I was forced to write across barriers of both sex and race and there's always been a part of me that worries if that's OK—me being who I am and where I'm from, what right do I have in trying to write from the perspective of a young Southern black girl? In a lot of ways, Dora embodies every anxiety I have about this book. It's easy enough to say, "This is fiction! I made it up!" But that attitude wrongly dismisses a long history this country has of marginalizing the minority voice, be it along the lines of sex or gender or race or region.

In the end, I have to believe that in writing, nothing can be forbidden. That if fiction is to have any meaning at all, that meaning must come in trying to understand each other.

The L'Etangs are unlike any characters we've encountered on the page. At what point in your writing did you decide to have Robert's fate intertwine with this fierce family of trappers?

I think some novels have a way of becoming stale if they're bottled up for too long. It's as if the world has been constructed in a way that is so hermetically complete that the narrative action, at least in part, becomes anticipated. I didn't want that for this book. Some of my favorite novels are those that have these strange forces breaking into the ordered universe.

For me, the L'Etangs provided a way of doing that. Most of the novel takes place in the towns and the countryside where the rules and social mores are pretty well-established. When Robert comes upon the L'Etangs in the swamplands, suddenly those rules are out the window. It was my hope that they let air into the book and remind the reader that the world can be bizarre and unexpected and is growing as they're reading.

Your writing about the natural world is particularly strong yet you live in a concrete jungle. What is your relation to nature? Do you draw from your imagination or are you a secret naturalist?

My wife loves to hike and commune with nature. I'm more of a homebody. Most of the nature I get is the occasional tree and the mildew in my bathroom.

But great nature writes itself. It's like God is showing off and all I have to do is pay attention.

Who have you discovered lately?

Terrence Holt's collection, In the Valley of the Kings. I came to this book when I was pretty much exhausted with both reading and writing short stories. It seemed like a lot of short fiction today hammers on the same kinds of themes, with the same kinds of characters, told through the same kinds of structures. Finding Holt's collection was like finding something wholly new.

These stories have a fierce intellectual streak and a quiet melancholia but they are at their heart adventure stories. There are stories about Egyptologists, and sentient space satellites, and the last days on Earth. Holt handles his subjects with care and gravitas, but underneath is an uncontainable zeal for the material. They're the kind of stories that beg to be read under the covers with the flashlight on.

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Southern Cross the Dog 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"Southern Cross the Dog" by Bill Cheng will sing the blues to those who feel and understand them. It defines all the evil in this world, the human suffering, and life itself. It transcends stereotypes. The writing is mesmerizing. The scenes are haunting and vivid. You feel like you are watching an epic movie; all the voices, all the colors coming alive. They will get under your skin. They will be sealed in you forever. This novel is going to become a classic one day.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I picked this up because EW gave it a great grade and I see why. This novel is brilliant. It deals with a lonesome part of Louisana and a way of life, trapping, that is long gone. A beautiful historical novel set in the deep south during the early 1900's. Highly recommended.
NickyCaffey More than 1 year ago
This is a great coming of age story. The writing is crisp and quick. A truly remarkable book.
Jennifer Gray More than 1 year ago
Bought this as a present solely based on the description and it was perfect! He loves it!
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im tired of people trying to break us up some people are jerks
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