Robert Chatham has a rough childhood: his brother is hanged for seducing a white girl, a flood wipes out his home, and his parents abandon him. Unfortunately, his troubles are just beginning. Many disasters befall Robert over the course of Bill Cheng’s debut novel, Southern Cross the Dog, but the strangest is the titular animal, which follows Robert on his adventures across the interwar South—perhaps persecuting him or perhaps protecting him. The true nature of the dog is never entirely clear, and Cheng is reluctant to clarify. “Is it a physical thing that’s there, or is it a mental thing that’s there? Or is it kind of a celestial or divine thing that’s there?” he muses.
It’s to Cheng’s credit that the book makes all three of the options feel plausible. Inspired by the blues, he effortlessly incorporates aspects of hoodoo culture like the mojo hand and laying tricks. The supernatural aspects feel natural because the novel is animated by a sense of destiny. Cheng explains that a lot of blues music deals with how unpredictable life can be. The novel addresses these same themes of inevitability—as one character puts it, “This is one thing I’ve learned…the past keeps happening to us. No matter who we are or how far we get away, it keeps happening to us.”
Cheng has no personal experience with the constraints of life as black man in that era and has never been to the Mississippi Delta. So he did a lot of research in order to better understand that world: reading enthnographies of blues culture, poring over period maps, digging up municipal plans, and learning how to build a bear trap. But most of that didn’t go into the book directly, it just helped him understand where the story was going. Research, he says, “informs the writer more than it informs the book.”
It was more important for him to create a convincing story than to adhere strictly to reality. Cheng used real place names but didn’t generally worry about whether they existed in just the way he describes them. (“I hope the residents don’t mind,” he quips.) But he doesn’t believe that you need to experience something to write about it. Instead, he suggests, writers create fictional accounts out of amalgamations of other things that have happened to them—you may not have had your hand cut off, but if you’ve ever cut yourself or burned your hand on the stove, you can imagine what the more severe experience would be like.
Writing the book during his time at Hunter College’s MFA program, Cheng aimed to be as ambitious as possible. He recalls working with Colum McCann, who, according to Cheng, rejected the old adage “write what you know” and suggested instead, “write what you want to know.” Cheng took the advice to heart and endeavored to write about things that frightened him—a goal that inspired one of the book’s best sections, a first person account of a young black girl’s sale to an opportunistic criminal and her subsequent mental unraveling.
Cheng finds this kind of fiction, which departs from lived experiences, exciting. “There’s a kind of daring in saying, ‘I’ve created an entirely new world and I’m going to make you believe in it,’” he says. Southern Cross the Dog certainly succeeds on that front—it’s an absorbing read that presents a moving, brutal portrayal of the South in the early twentieth century.
Cheng does worry a little about how people will respond to his fictional alternate reality. “I’ve never been in a position before where the thing I write has been matched up against the thing that’s there,” he says. “That’s going to be an interesting phenomenon for me.”
Alex Heimbach is a freelance writer in New York. You can find her on Twitter @lexeh.