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Interview: Thomas Cobb, Author of Crazy Heart

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It’s often difficult to know what to expect from an interview. When the subject of the interview is a former-country-music-covering-journalist-from-Arizona turned writing-professor/author-living-in-Rhode Island, and when the topic at hand is a doctoral dissertation turned novel, originally published 23 years ago and now adapted into an Oscar-nominated film, expectations go out the window. So, after exchanging the customary pleasantries with Crazy Heart author Thomas Cobb, it seemed best to plunge straight in.

I’d like to start with the first question that came to mind when I saw your area code. How does a man from the Southwest do in New England? Did the shift in culture seem alien at first?

It was a little hard at first. I had never seen seasons before. I arrived in late summer, and then fall came and it was beautiful! Then I saw winter; that was tough. I couldn’t believe how long it lasted. It took me a few years to get used to winter. Then I started to enjoy it. Now, I’m over it again.

I like New England. It’s beautiful. I’m accustomed to it now.

This sort of follows the first question. How does geography impact your writing?

It’s an odd thing. I almost never write about where I am; I write about where I’ve been. Shavetail is set in Southern Arizona. My current novel is set in Southern Arizona. The novel I’m working on next is set in Southern Arizona. I seem to be stuck in Southern Arizona right now.

I think the reality of the place doesn’t give the imagination enough room to work. I visit Arizona…but it helps not being there. It frees the imagination.

Bad Blake felt immediately familiar; I suspect we’ve all known him in one form or another. It’s been reported in other interviews that the inspiration for Bad was country singer Hank Thompson. Was his personality derived from Thompson as well, or is he a composite of people you have known?

He’s more of a composite. I never actually talked to Hank Thompson. It [the decline in status of a musician of Thompson’s caliber] seemed so unconscionably sad.

Bad was a combination of a number of people. Crazy Heart was my doctoral dissertation. Donald Barthelme [Cobb’s doctoral adviser at the time] was exactly 56 at the time; he was struggling to resurrect his career; he was an alcoholic…but he was still writing. There is a lot of Donald Barthelme in Bad Blake; I didn’t realize it at the time, but Don did. I think back about the things he was asking me. He was asking me to validate him. Sometimes I have an inability to grasp the obvious.

[I suggested that this is true for all of us.]

Probably. Especially if you spend so much time looking for the subtext; you miss the text.

There is an almost pragmatic acceptance of the darker aspects of life inherent in country music. Divorce, drinking, affairs, bankruptcy, death – all tend to be laid out on the table as they are. There’s not a lot of melodrama or intensive navel gazing. I find this attitude prevalent in what I guess one would call the western lifestyle – ranchers, cowboys, etc. Bad Blake seems to take this approach to his demons throughout much of the book, almost saying “it is what it is.” Can you speak to this attitude at all – it’s so much the antithesis of our modern, more urban, “self-help” culture.

Country music grows out of a hardscrabble existence. It has its roots in the hills of Appalachia, where people had tough lives. They’re used to the idea that life doesn’t work the way you want it to; it works the way it’s going to… Country music chronicles that sort of life…There’s the understanding that you must face those things in life. If you have too much cockeyed optimism, you’re not prepared for the things that are going to happen to you.

Bad Blake is rather an anti-hero, if such a thing exists. I found myself liking him, almost against my will. How do you feel about Bad Blake, and do you view him differently now than when Crazy Heart was originally published?

I’m more grateful to him. In 1987 he bought me a house, and then last year he remodeled it. He’s been good to me.

I like Bad. There’s a chunk of me in there. Maybe not the best chunk, but I can’t turn my back on it.

I think Bad is a good man. He’s trying to find his way; to live in a way that makes sense. We’re all doing that.

He has a charm that comes out of that sort of hardscrabble existence…I have relatives in Indiana; they’re Southern Baptists. When I visit them .. . I may not agree with their politics or their religion, but they have that charm. They’re good and kindhearted people who want to do the right thing. That’s Bad as well.

I’m glad that you brought up religion; that ties into my next question. I read in a book review (not mine) that Bad’s demons, or the reasons behind them, are never really addressed. I think at the time, I took that lack of explanation to simply be consistent with the character. Looking back on the book, I realized that one thing he reacts to rather severely is religion: his response to depictions of the Crucifixion, the memory of coming into church late as a teenager, and it seemed that things began to fall apart at the end about the time his AA sponsor suggested he needed to look to a higher power. Is there something in this, or am I over-reading it?

No, it’s not over-reading. I think it comes more from me. There is certainly a chunk of me in Bad Blake. I grew up, not in a terribly religious house, but I went through a time where I was very religious. It was a way to find structure.

When that didn’t work, I turned pretty hard on it. I felt betrayed. That’s what happened to Bad. When you look too hard at it, it falls apart. It fell apart on him.

It’s possible to play with the metaphor of “heart” for a long time, and Bad Blake’s heart certainly figures prominently both physically and emotionally throughout the book. Looking at the lyrics to the Hank Williams song “Crazy Heart,” it seems like the narrator is lecturing his own heart on the faithlessness of the woman, but the “promises you knew would fall apart” apply just as well to Bad. Can you discuss how the novel’s title came into play for you?

The title actually came after I wrote the book. The working title was Bad Dreams; that was the title for it as my dissertation. When we started talking about looking at publishing, Don [Barthelme] said, “You’re going to need a better title.”

I was looking at references and found “Crazy Heart” – the song is referenced in the book. I grabbed it and said “that’s the one!”

But, all of that is true. He does know he’s screwed up everything in his life. He does know that there’s a real risk that Jean could become ex-wife number five. But he’s giving it a try. I think he is lecturing himself. There’s an awareness…looking for redemption…

The music is such an important component of Crazy Heart; it seems to be the only thing Bad manages not to betray. You have covered country music as a journalist, and I think I read that you are a musician, yourself?

Musician is a gross exaggeration. There’s an old joke: what do you call a guy who likes to hang around musicians? A drummer. I’m not a drummer, but I’m the guy who hangs around musicians. Music is very important to me; maybe because I’m not a musician. Whenever I buy a car, the biggest consideration is the sound system.

Do you listen to music as you write?

I don’t anymore. I listened as I was writing Crazy Heart, and I listened during the first draft of Shavetail, but somewhere it stopped. I don’t know why. It wasn’t conscious. Now I write in relative silence. I built an office over the garage…I built myself a perfect writing space. Now I inhabit that place in my imagination…

Crazy Heart is so confidently written, that it was hard to believe that it was a debut novel for you. As it is receiving so much scrutiny now, when you look at it, is there anything you would change?

I’m sure there is. I don’t really look at it that way. What’s done is done. I am reading it for the audiobooks, and sometimes I’ll think ‘I write better than this now.’

It doesn’t have a great plot. I didn’t have a strong idea about plot at the time; I did have that strong character; that character pulls the plot along.

I’m happy to have it back in my life again. Though sometimes it’s like trying to live in 1987 again…But I’m glad that the movie happened now. I’m smarter than I was in 1987, I think I would not have handled it [the success] as well then.

I confess, I haven’t seen the movie yet. What has this process of having your book adapted to film, so many years after initial publication, been like?

It was a kind of remote mystery.

The novel had been optioned a number of times…I was not really aware of how close Scott Cooper was to getting it done until I saw the article in Variety.

I had nothing to do with the production; I heard a couple of things from T-Bone Burnett…It’s like Santa’s workshop. You know they’re up there doing something good for you, but you don’t know what it is. And then Christmas morning comes.

How well does the film mesh with your visualization of Bad Blake and his world?

It meshes pretty well. Jeff [Bridges] nailed the character pretty well. When I first heard, I was a little skeptical; I thought of him as more suave and sophisticated than Bad. But the first time I saw him – it was on a YouTube clip that T Bone sent me the link to – I thought ‘Oh, my God, that is Bad Blake.’

I was reading the novel on the plane to LA for the premiere. And whenever I pictured Bad, I only saw Jeff. That part was dead-on.

There’s a scene not in the movie that I wish were. [The scene in which Bad flies to LA to visit his son.] They shot the scene; the actor who played Steven was incredible. I thought it was an important part of the story.

The ending changed; I knew it would. I have no problem with the ending that was chosen.

It’s a different form. I don’t think it affects me. The novel’s never going to change; the novel’s there. The movie is theirs to do with as they please.

I love the soundtrack. It’s been a pleasant experience…great fun. I’m enormously pleased to see my character on screen. Jeff said he’d go back to the trailer at night and read Crazy Heart. I’ve been treated very well by Scott and Jeff and the crew.

This may be a bit of a spoiler, but since both the book and the movie have been out for a while now, I’m not too worried about it. At the end of the novel, things appear to have sunk to the lowest possible level. Yet, you leave the ending somewhat open. How deliberate was that, or should we just assume that this is the end of the road for Bad Blake?

Yeah. When I wrote it I assumed that was it. The assumption was that he would not get out of the ditch. I never saw it as ambiguous…My best friend called me and said “I loved that last line,” and he read it to me in a completely different way than I heard it as I wrote it.

I tend to write ambiguous endings that I don’t see as ambiguous.

So much of a book depends on how the reader is reading it. You can’t control that. It’s part of the dynamic of writing.

Between the movie hype, and the reviews (original and more recent) of Crazy Heart, is there anything you feel has been missed or overlooked?

The only thing that has been overlooked is that I have done things since. [Said with a laugh.] I have a novel out that I desperately want people to read…

Crazy Heart — I don’t really want to make the cliché, but it is what it is. It doesn’t need a lot of explanation.

No, Crazy Heart doesn’t need a lot of explanation. After speaking with its generous, thoughtful creator, it is clear where the novel gets its heart. Now, I, for one, need to go buy Shavetail…

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