Author Interviews
2:43 pm
Sun May 5, 2013

A Tale From The Delta, Born Of The Blues

Originally published on Sun May 5, 2013 6:20 pm

Bill Cheng's new novel, Southern Cross the Dog, is deeply rooted in the Mississippi Delta. It follows the story of one boy after he survives the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and spends the next few decades as a refugee, an abandoned orphan and then an itinerant laborer.

The book is full of mythical characters who feel like they rose right out of the Mississippi swamp. So it is surprising that Cheng has never actually set foot in Mississippi. He grew up in New York City, where he still lives. His connection to the world he writes about is the blues music he started listening to as a teenager.

Cheng told Kelly McEvers, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that Southern Cross the Dog is "a love note to those old blues players."


Interview Highlights

On the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927

"It's a huge thing in blues music. You know, Charley Patton has the song 'High Water Everywhere.' John Lee Hooker has the song 'Tupelo.' It was a devastating flood, and it affected a lot of the local musicians and it went into their storytelling, went into their songs. And if you're going to write a book that comes from the blues, you can't start anywhere else, really."

On the main character's "jinx"

"It was important to me to have — just communicate this feeling of what it's like to feel like you have no choice, to feel like the things that happen to you happen because of how the universe wants to use you. There is a way of thinking about and viewing free choice and destiny in blues music that's very much built into the genre."

On the book's title

"The Southern Railroad line crosses with the Yazoo Delta Railroad line. Now when the Yazoo Delta Railroad line crosses, the train cars say Y.D. for Yazoo Delta. And it's colloquially known as the Yellow Dog. ... It's a fragment of a phrase that's in this sort of old Mississippi grammar. It sounded so right. It sounded like something that sticks in my ear. And that's what I settled on."

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Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Bill Cheng's new novel, "Southern Cross the Dog," is deeply rooted in the Mississippi Delta. It follows the story of a young boy, Robert Lee Chatham, who survives the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. He spends the next few decades as a refugee, an abandoned orphan and an itinerant laborer.

The book is full of these mythical characters that feel like they rose up out of the Mississippi swamp, but Bill Cheng has never actually set foot in Mississippi. He grew up in New York City where he still lives. Cheng says the book was inspired by the blues music he fell in love with as a teenager.

BILL CHENG: It is definitely a love note to those old blues players. When it came time to write my first book, I knew I had to write about something that was both personal and important to me. And I couldn't think of anything better than this music and the things that it invokes in me.

MCEVERS: So why choose the 1927 flood?

CHENG: Well, it's a huge thing in blues music. You know, Charley Patton has the song "High Water Everywhere." John Lee Hooker has the song "Tupelo."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TUPELO")

JOHN LEE HOOKER: (Singing) Did you read about the flood? Happened long time ago in Tupelo, Mississippi.

CHENG: It was a devastating flood, and it affected a lot of the local musicians and went into their storytelling, went into their songs. And if you're going to write a book that comes from the blues, you can't start anywhere else, really.

MCEVERS: You know, there are all these myths surrounding blues men like Robert Johnson, you know, this notion that he went down to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical gift. The main character in your book believes that he has been jinxed. Why don't you read us the opening passage of the book?

CHENG: (Reading) When I was a baby child, they put the jinx on me. It was in my drink and food and milk. And when I ran, it heavied in my bones, and when I sang, it stopped up my throat, and when I loved, it let for me hot and poisonous.

MCEVERS: Yeah, this character goes on, you know, he survives a flood, a leap from a roof, a fire. I mean, it's almost biblical all the things that he goes through. In some ways, it's almost hard to believe. You know, can you tell us about Robert Lee Chatham and why you gave him this jinx?

CHENG: It was important to me to have - just communicate this feeling of what it's like to feel like you have no choice, to feel like the things that happen to you happen because of how the universe wants to use you. There is a way of thinking about and viewing free choice and destiny in blues music that's very much built into the genre.

MCEVERS: Tell us about the title of the book, "Southern Cross the Dog." It sounds like, to me, like a crossroads. Explain to us what that's all about.

CHENG: The Southern Railroad line crosses with the Yazoo-Delta Railroad line. Now, when the Yazoo-Delta Railroad line crosses, the train cars say YD for Yazoo Delta, and it's colloquially known as the Yellow Dog. And W.C. Handy, the composer and musician, he was traveling through Mississippi, and at a train station, he heard this black itinerant musician singing about how he's going to go where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREEN RIVER BLUES")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) I'm going where the Southern cross the dog. I'm going where the Southern cross the dog.

CHENG: It's a fragment of a phrase that's in this sort of old Mississippi grammar. It sounded so right. It sounded like something that sticks in my ear. And that's what I settled on.

MCEVERS: I have a question about process. I'm so curious about how you went about researching the book.

CHENG: I did spend a lot of time in the library. There were a lot of old books I took out. And all that stuff doesn't necessarily make it into the book. What it does is it makes it into the writer, in terms of facts and things and textures, or it lends a certain confidence to the writing. That allows the writer to imagine, which is really what fiction's about.

MCEVERS: One of the things that is so striking is the way you're able to, you know, you took all this information in and then conjured a voice. I mean, you're describing what it's like to be a black man at a - I think at a work camp and to be whipped by your white boss. What, in your imagination, allows you to conjure that voice?

CHENG: Oh, I don't know, kind of spooky, sometimes, because I don't know what that's like. What I can do is that I can extrapolate, you know, details and memories of pain. I can extrapolate details and memories of fear, and then it now has to sit against what the world is actually like and how we perceive the world today.

And it's both exciting and thrilling and fun but also a little bit scary because how do I justify this, you know, secret thing in my mind against an experience that I've never actually had. And I don't really have an answer for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: That's Bill Cheng. His debut novel is "Southern Cross the Dog." Bill, thanks so much for talking with us.

CHENG: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.