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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.

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