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Thomas Cobb lived in Arizona and Texas, moved to the East Coast, and then started writing stories about the Southwest.
“I’ve never really written about the place I’m living,” he said. “I always write about the place I left. After I left Texas and moved up to Rhode Island, I started writing about Texas, and before that, I was writing about Arizona.
Cobb has found that he can’t write a story that’s too close to home.
“A couple of years ago, I started working on a novel called ‘Darkness the Color of Snow,'” he said. “It’s based on an incident that happened in Rhode Island, in the little, tiny town where I live. I started writing about the town and I just kept getting more and more uncomfortable. I felt claustrophobic, like I was boxed in, so I had to take a little trip. I drove to upstate New York and I found this other little town and I thought, ‘I can write about this town because I don’t live here.’ I think it has to do with functions of imagination. It provides a blank slate.”
Cobb’s approach, while providing a certain level of objectivity, sacrifices some accuracy.
“It turns out I’m always wrong about my geography,” he said. “When I’m writing about Arizona, I get distances wrong but it doesn’t really matter because it’s not going to alter the story.”
Though he fudges the occasional measurement, Cobb is impressed by authors who are more exacting.
“When I was an undergraduate, I read ‘Ulysses,'” he said, “I remember being so impressed by Joyce. He was in Paris, working on the book, and he wrote a letter to his friend in Dublin and asked him to count the number of steps that went down to a basement apartment, because it had to be exactly right! I would never do that. I don’t care if there are seven steps or fourteen. I’ll just make it up.”
Though he now calls Rhode Island home, the Southwest resides deeply in Cobb’s blood.
“I grew up in Southern Arizona and it is my primary landscape but I live in a really different environment now,” he said. “I live out in the woods. I have a quarter-acre pond in my back yard but there’s something I feel about Southern Arizona that I don’t feel anywhere else. When I fly into Tucson from the east, my heart quickens. This is my country. I know the feel of it and I know the smell of it and I love those things.”
Cobb writes about the desert environment he knew as a child, which allows his story settings to remain idyllic and disconnected from the present state of rampant growth in the area.
“Setting is crucial to my work,” he said. “The landscape in my novels is a character. When I was working on the novel I mentioned earlier, I couldn’t just make up a little town in New England. I had to drive up and find this small town. I had to actually see it. Usually the setting is part of the story. My book, ‘With Blood in Their Eyes,’ takes place in the Galiuro Mountains, because that’s where the shootout actually happened. And for my story, ‘Shavetail,’ I actually found the setting first. A friend and I were hiking when we stumbled across the remains of Camp Rucker in Cochise County, Arizona, and immediately I found the story that went with that, and that became the novel.
Cobb has written a number of stories but his most well-known book was turned into a movie starring Jeff Bridges.
“I was really pleased with the movie adaptation of my book, ‘Crazy Heart,’” he said, “because I had no expectations. When you sell the rights to your novel, you sell them, and you can’t cry about what they do with them, but they screened the film in New York about a month before it came out and I was just sort of overwhelmed by how close the director, Scott Cooper, had followed the story. The first half of the movie is basically chapter one of the book and it’s almost word-for-word.”
The story is about a musician and Cobb pulled from his musical experiences to create it.
“In the 1970s, I was a music critic for a little tabloid in Southern Arizona called ‘Newsreel,’” he said. “I was the Country Music editor. I wrote a column called ‘Grits.’ The triggering event for ‘Crazy Heart’ was when I saw Hank Thompson open up for Conway Twitty at the Tucson Community Center. Hank Thompson was pretty talented. Conway Twitty was Conway Twitty. I just couldn’t believe that Hank Thompson was opening for him and with a backup band that was composed of my friends.”
Though not an accomplished musician, Cobb knows enough about music and musicians to write about them.
“When I was in Houston, I bought a cassette tape and booklet called ‘Star Licks: Albert Lee Teaches Country Guitar,'” he said. “I knew Albert Lee was the best studio guitarist in America, maybe in the world. I could never do what was on that cassette but I could describe it.”
Write What You Know
Cobb believes a writer must learn what it is they want to write about.
“I knew a lot of country musicians. I spent a lot of time with them,” he said. “I have a very rudimentary knowledge of the guitar but it’s enough so I could write about it in ‘Crazy Heart.’ I studied country lead guitar. I couldn’t play it but I could talk it. People always say ‘write what you know,’ but I believe that’s wrong. It’s reversed. I say, ‘Know what you write.’ José Donoso, the Chilean novelist, said, ‘I don’t write to tell you what I know. I write to find out what I don’t know.’ I’ve always believed that was a perfect description. You’ve got to find your way through something. You have to understand something.”
Cobb recently completed “Darkness the Color of Snow,” a novel that will be published in August 2015 by William Morrow. The book is loosely based on a horrific crime committed by a police officer in the little town in Rhode Island where he lives.
The Current State of the Publishing Industry
Cobb has felt the changes in the publishing industry in the last few years.
“I think there are more opportunities these days but there’s less money,” he said. “On another front, I don’t like this game of ‘chicken’ that Hachette Book Group and Amazon.com are playing right now. I can relate to how the book store owners are feeling because I used to be an independent book seller. I owned 6th Street Books in Tucson. Amazon is succeeding at what they do because they do it so much better than anybody else. I live out in the woods now, about 30 miles from Providence, Rhode Island. If I see something in the New York Times in the morning, Amazon can get it to me the next day. On one hand, they are a giant corporation, and they’re a big threat, but on the other hand, they’re the ones who figured out how to do this kind of delivery.”
Though Cobb recognizes the technological changes occurring in the publishing industry, he thinks books and bookstores will be around for a while.
“I don’t think independent bookstores will disappear and I don’t think books will disappear,” he said. “Ebooks have a real place in the market. I think they should be released simultaneously with print books.”