John Cosgrove won the Grand Prize of the Outsider category in the 2020 Book Pipeline Unpublished season with his novel, The Black Space Behind Our Eyes.
It sounds like a cliché, but in this case, it’s 1000% true: The Black Space Behind Our Eyes is unlike anything we’ve ever read. Its plot is delightfully bizarre, the prose filled with somber, poignant meditations on grief and loneliness, and it is unexpectedly hilarious at certain points. And when we learned that the book is loosely based on events from your actual life, our heads nearly exploded. Can you give us a bit of insight into what exactly shaped the direction of this ambitious novel, and how you decided what to include, what to exclude, what to fictionalize, etc.?
Firstly, massive gratitude to Book Pipeline for believing in this story. It’s a privilege to be part of such an awesome network of people, and I’m excited to see where the next phase takes us.
This story started when I was 23 years old. I’d just lost a close friend in a drowning accident in New Zealand, and his passing shattered my young, naïve, rose-tinted perception of death. To make matters worse, in the same year, three other friends in their early to mid-twenties were diagnosed with various forms of cancer, one of which I was living with at the time.
Before that year, I’d truly believed death was something that only happened to old people. I figured I wouldn’t need to address it for decades to come and became convinced of that entitlement. Growing up in an atheist household, death was never a dinner table conversation, and I had no compass to guide me through the fear, grief, and helplessness that came with it.
As a last-ditch attempt to overcome my newfound fear of mortality, I left my business in New Zealand and flew alone to the Americas, giving myself three months to investigate the mystery of death through various cultures, ancient rituals, and the perspectives of like-minded travelers on an ad hoc road trip from California to the Amazon Rainforest.
I’ve found that the contemplation of death can be one of the most therapeutic exercises we undertake in our lifetime, but that’s not to say it’s easy. Reflecting on our mortality is a process of personal grief that comes with all the psychological pitfalls of grieving for another.
In that sense, I considered humor critical to the book. Because, ultimately, the journey of life and death is as hilarious as it is tragic, and it’s as much a privilege to share in someone’s sadness as it is to share in their joy. Moments of laughter gave reprise from the heaviness of grief and mortality, and in hindsight, I think humor was as much a form of self-care for me in the writing as it was a life-ring thrown to the reader.
The process of writing The Black Space Behind Our Eyes has been an exercise in realizing that truth is undoubtedly stranger than fiction. As I recorded my experiences over those three months, I became well versed in watering down the truth because the truth simply wouldn’t wash.
Before refining The Black Space for an audience, I wrote the entire story as it happened, and it clocked in at around 250,000 words. By the time I’d fictionalized the entire thing and cut the truth to make it believable, I was conveniently down to a publishable 87,000 words.
My ultimate goal was not to preach to the choir—those who had already dedicated time to contemplating death—but to speak to those, like myself, who were caught up in the hustle of everyday life and never considered the fact that, one day, this must all come to an end. So, it was with those readers in mind that I decided what to include and exclude from this story.
Black Space is a novel that probes overarching spiritual questions and themes that cut to the core of what it means to be human—and the far-reaching psychological effects of death. In that sense, did you find writing this book kind of an exercise in self-actualization? Did it cause you to have any epiphanies that stick with you to this day?
I have a habit of diving straight into any fear that rears its head in my life until it no longer causes a flutter in my chest. I once had a fear of heights, so I went bungee jumping. I had a fear of public speaking, so I joined Toastmasters. I feared spiders, so I studied every spider in New Zealand until my terror turned to curiosity. I believe education followed by immersion is the cure to all fear, and when my fear of death arose, I approached it in much the same way.
When you stare long enough at your mortality, you realize that death is the mother of all fear. But death is so colossal that our brains inconspicuously push it to the background and shroud it with smaller, menial fears until we barely recognize the source from which they are born.
As corny and “Hallmark” as it sounds, I came to realize that the antidote to my fear of death was to shift my focus to the present moment because that’s all I’ll ever have. I now recognize life and death as equals, simultaneously arising and dissipating in each moment, and it seems unfair to pedestalize one while demonizing the other.
By contemplating death, I can honestly say I no longer fear it, which has given me the capacity to live fully. Instead of spending each moment attempting to quash deep, underlying fears, I now spend my time attempting (for the most part, miserably) to exhibit some form of unconditional love for myself, the world, and those around me, and I hope I’ll be flailing away at this endeavor for the rest of my life.
You are a sterling example of how one doesn’t need to be based in New York City—or even the United States at all—in order to find success as an author. Coming from New Zealand, what different perspectives do you think you’re able to infuse into your writing that might not exist if you hailed from elsewhere?
Being an “outsider” is often perceived as a weakness, but I prefer to see it as a superpower. When I confided in my creative writing tutor in private about my dream to publish my first manuscript in New York, he called me out in front of the entire class, who proceeded to laugh at me while he explained that a kiwi making it as a writer in New York is the equivalent of winning an Olympic gold medal as an athlete.
His ridicule was the best motivational speech of my life, and I let him know that he’d be my first email when I signed a New York publishing contract. But to be fair, his doubt wasn’t unfounded. New Zealand is dramatically geographically isolated from the rest of the world, and many kiwis see this as a form of liability. But our outsider status can also be an asset, especially in times of such deep division throughout the rest of the world.
Our isolation gives us fresh eyes to view the rest of the planet’s mechanics and quirks from a third-party perspective. It gives us a chance to commentate on other nations in a way that doesn’t succumb to the polarity and emotion that inevitably comes with being born and raised in them.
The world is big enough to give the illusion of distance, but ultimately, we share the same space, and perhaps the perspective of an unsuspecting hobbit from the farthest reaches of the planet can give clarity on this.
In addition to working on rewrites of the novel with one of our industry contacts (which we hope we can announce the details of soon!) you’re currently working on adapting Black Space into a screenplay. How have you found that transition, and what are the biggest challenges you’ve encountered in writing in a different medium?
It was incredibly exciting to be asked to adapt Black Space into screenplay format, and I am truly loving the process.
While writing Black Space, I saw scenes, characters, and dialogue in vivid color in my head, often playing out as if they were a movie. So, the process of learning about screenplay writing and adapting the manuscript into this format has been an exercise in bringing those visions onto paper.
After being asked for the adaptation, I immediately contacted a friend who is heavily involved in screenplay writing, and he was kind enough to volunteer as my mentor throughout the process. I then spent weeks reading screenplays of my favorite movies and taking notes from YouTube tutorials and online Masterclasses.
Technology certainly made the process easier. I also love the colloquialism used in screenplays, and it’s a breath of fresh air after the formality of novel writing.
I’d say the biggest challenge has been the omission of internal monologue, emotion, and insight into a protagonist’s mindset, which a reader would usually become familiar with in a novel. Film is much more visual, and there are times when I must exclude the deeper emotional turmoil happening within the protagonist’s skull. Although, I’ve had fun imagining how an actor would portray and express these emotions physically and verbally once they have the script in their hands.
If there’s one thing that you want readers to take away from Black Space, what would it be?
My hope is that each reader can come to understand there’s a surprising amount of joy and clarity to be found in the exploration and acceptance of death. In fact, this endeavor has ironically given me a deeper appreciation for life itself.
For me, this journey has cast a light on the collective mental health issues that stem from the avoidance and fear of age, sickness, and death. In our yearning for aesthetic survival, we’ve come to view age and death as nihilistic and depressive episodes that should be avoided at all costs. We’ve forgotten that death is natural and age is a privilege denied to many. I hope Black Space can inspire each reader to stand tall in the face of those conditioned misconceptions and taboos and have the courage to embark on their own investigation into death as an exercise in self-love, truth, and acceptance.
I certainly wouldn’t recommend my approach to everyone—traveling thousands of miles from home to sip visionary brews with indigenous curanderos in the Amazon isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. But I am confident that each person can find their own unique way to seek clarity on their mortality; it all begins with asking what death means to you.
Albert Einstein said: ‘The most beautiful thing we can experience in life is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” And, what could be more mysterious than death? Suppose we have an average of eighty years on this planet; in that case, I hope we can learn to take just one of those years and dedicate it to bringing ourselves to a place of acceptance around our fate. There’s a well of personal growth, self-acceptance, and compassion for others that lies on the other side of this practice.
I can honestly say I’ve found true happiness through this journey, and I hope this book can bring the same joy and clarity to others, especially in a time of such debilitating global grief.
John Cosgrove was born and raised in Auckland, New Zealand. Following his close friend’s death, John sold his physiotherapy practice in New Zealand and embarked on a journey through the Americas, researching his debut manuscript, The Black Space Behind Our Eyes.
John put the finishing touches to his manuscript while working with charity organizations throughout Central and South America, including sea turtle conservation in Costa Rica, reforestation projects in the Amazon Rainforest, and schooling projects in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, John’s planned 2020 travels from Southeast Asia to Africa were put on hold. After purchasing a property on 25-acres of native forest in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, he and his wife, Nicole, are now focusing their attention on the reforestation, protection and development of this land, which they plan to turn into an eco-retreat designed to bring guests back to nature and themselves.
When John is not writing, travelling, or working, he spends his time surfing, meditating, and practicing yoga.