'Darkness the Color of Snow,' a Conversation With Thomas Cobb

2015-09-14-1442247496-2391905-ThomasCobbcreditEugeneSt.Pierre.JPGPhoto: Eugene St. Pierre

Thomas Cobb is the author of Crazy Heart which was made into a 2008 Academy-Award winning movie starring Jeff Bridges. He's also the author of Shavetail, winner of the Western Writers Spur Award, and has had short stories and poetry published in various magazines. He taught at Eastern Arizona College and at the Arizona State Prison in Florence. He also taught creative writing and literature at Rhode Island College.

Darkness The Color of Snow begins one icy cold night, when rookie police officer Ronald Forbert pulls over an old high school chum for speeding. The car is filled with drunken friends, and when Forbert attempts to arrest the driver for DUI, a freakish accident leads to the driver's death.

The novel takes an ominous turn when certain political and criminal agendas prevail; dark secrets and longstanding grievances come to the fore, leading ultimately, to devastating consequences.

How does the book's title Darkness the Color of Snow relate to the novel's story?
The title comes from the poem, Banishment in Winter, by W.S. Merwin. I was looking for a winter title, and found that poem. I'm a huge Merwin fan.

Since snow is white and the title refers to darkness, I thought you were talking about the two sides of existence.
Yes, I think the novel does that. There is a concealed darkness permeating the book with various characters. There are competing agendas going back for years.

Darkness The Color of Snow deals with a small incident leading to enormous consequences. This is a powerful device. Will you talk about that?
The novel is loosely based on a true story that happened in my small town. A very minor incident developed into something much larger. Additionally, I spent many years teaching in prisons, and was always fascinated by the stories convicts told about a day staring out innocently, and then one thing led to another to the point where they felt they were being driven by events, rather than driving events. I wanted to see if I could figure out what it's like to be a good cop who wants to do the right thing and is suddenly cast in the middle of a mess from which he can't escape.

Darkness the Color of Snow also reveals how the past powerfully impacts and shapes the present. Is that a theme you enjoy writing about?
Yes. A lot of my work has been historical fiction. I like Westerns because they're not just about the nineteenth century, they're about the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as well. Take for instance, America's romance with the gun: it's an ideal held over from the nineteenth century. This notion lives on two hundred years later, and has a massive impact on us all.

And the past rears its head in this novel with prior relationships affecting the present, doesn't it?
Yes. There are scenes in the novel where these relationships from the past are discussed and they certainly affect what's going on at the present time. As Faulkner said: 'The past is never dead. It's not even past.'

In the novel, Gordy, the Chief of Police, is an exceptionally moral man who stands for certain principles. Yet, corrupt, cynical forces are at work. Is the novel a commentary not only on politics, but on life in general?
I hope so. Gordy must react to the situations mushrooming as a result of the incident at the beginning of the novel. Gordy has a simple morality: he wants to do the best he can for people. He doesn't want to send kids to jail knowing they'll come out worse than they went in. So, he's guided by these principles and wants to be kind to people. The consequences are great, but he holds up his end of the bargain. Yet, people's cynicism and negativity drive the novel to drastic consequences he couldn't have imagined.

What made you choose to write the novel using the present tense?
I started writing in the past tense, and while working on it, everything seemed wrong to me. It dawned on me that it would be more powerfully written using the present tense. I rewrote it and it became a very visual book through use of the present tense. That tense makes the reader see what's going on. I tell my students that writing a novel is like watching a movie in your head. The present tense can lead to writing stage directions--'He moves to his right, picks up a glass and takes a drink.' If you do it correctly, it's very dynamic and visual. It beckons the reader into the story more than does the past tense.

Without providing any spoilers, what about the novel's ending?
I've gotten some mixed fan mail and reviews about the ending. Some people didn't understand the logic behind what happens at the end. I thought about it and realized when it comes to certain acts of violence, there's no logic: sometimes acts of violence simply erupt.

I agree. The ending made perfect sense to me.

You have a remarkably varied background. Will you discuss it and how it's influenced your writing?
I've dealt with so many kinds of situations and people. I spent much of my life as an academic teacher, yet I have wonderful memories of being a furniture mover. I've been a ditch digger and I've taught in prisons. These experiences have led me to understand what drives people. This is especially true concerning my background teaching in prisons. It's very hard to work with prison inmates without realizing their plight and feeling sympathy, even though some of them have done horrible things.

What has surprised you about the writing life?
I began writing full-time about four years ago. What surprises me is I thought it would be easier if I wasn't teaching. It remains hard, but I can do it.

What do you love about the writing life?
William Stafford, the poet, said, 'The great thrill of writing is the movement from zero to zero plus a fraction.' It's simply that something now exists that never existed before. This novel is here now, and I made it. That pleases me enormously. It's the creativity I love.

You're hosting a dinner and can invite any five people, living or dead, from any walk of life. Who would they be?
The first one I'd invite would be Mark Twain because he was so funny and insightful. And he would bring cigars. Most of my heroes are from the writing life or music. I'd invite Duke Ellington, his output was amazing. The Smithsonian has one-hundred thousand sheets of his music. How does someone produce that much? With some trepidation, I'd invite Nabokov. I say with trepidation because despite his mind and wit, I understand in his private life he was kind of grumpy. I'd also invite Doc Holliday because I love Westerns and researched him. I would love to have met Kennedy, so JFK would join us, too.

What would you all be talking about?
Kennedy and Twain would be talking about cigars. Nabokov would want to talk about butterflies, which might interest Doc Holliday. Duke Ellington is suave and urbane, and I imagine he could talk about anything with anybody.

Congratulations on writing Darkness the Color of Snow, a taut, beautifully crafted novel, exploring the competing forces of greed and corruption versus honor and principle, resulting in devastating consequences.

Mark Rubinstein's latest novel is The Lovers' Tango