Since February, three friends of mine have been diagnosed with…
Wiley Cash and I sit in the Rhododendron Lodge dining room at Virginia’s Breaks Interstate Park, where he is the guest author for the Appalachian Writing Project’s annual Writing Retreat. A wall of glass gives us a panorama of peaks and cliffs that are known as the “Grand Canyon of the South” and are shrouded by lush, July trees. The eye falls to the Russell Fork River gorge that divides these mountains, flanked by a railroad mostly hidden in the spring and summer months.
At just thirty-six, Cash is already the author of two bestselling novels, A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy, of which the latter has been optioned for film. The novels’ dark plots are infused by two southern staples, religion and baseball, and both take an unflinching look these traditions from a child’s point of view. A summer storm is rolling in as we sit down. Thunder echoes through the valley and the building shudders. It seems a fitting backdrop as we begin by talking about A Land More Kind Than Home.
Amy Clark: I read that this novel was based on a true story.
Wiley Cash: I was living in Louisiana, and I really missed the North Carolina mountains where I’d been living most of the time. I was taking a class in African-American literature, and we had just read James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. We were talking about coming through narratives—how a character will have a religious conversion and come through and the theatrics of that—and our professor brought in a story out of Milwaukee about a young boy with autism in an African-American storefront church. They had tried to heal, by exorcising the “spirit” of autism from him, by laying hands on him and laying [their bodies] on him. They ended up crushing him. Obviously, it’s tragic, but also interesting. I was interested in a group of believers who would take their convictions to that extent. I didn’t know anything about Milwaukee. I didn’t know Louisiana well enough to set a story there, either, but I knew 66 I could put this in North Carolina. I figured it would be somewhere evangelical, somewhere charismatic. Probably a Holiness church that believed in laying of hands, speaking in tongues. I thought, well, if I’m going to write about it I need to find a place that would want to keep it secret, and Madison County, North Carolina, felt like that kind of place. I knew Madison pretty well. I’d lived around there for a long time. I knew that place is…kind of insular. If I could put this novel in the 1980s, this would have happened then.
[My] second book, which is about two little girls who were kidnapped by their father, a washed-up baseball player, was inspired by two stories. My wife told me a story about being a little girl and her dad teaching her how to slide into base on a softball field near her house. I just had a vision of a dad and his little girl on a baseball field. But it wasn’t really a story…it’s not complicated.
I remembered these two little girls who I grew up with in Gastonia. They were foster children being raised by an elderly couple in my church. When they went back to their birth mother, they ended up being murdered by these two guys they were dating. Those stories came together: baseball backdrop, fathers and daughters, two young girls in peril. That just started spinning out the potential in my mind.
I set A Land More Kind Than Home in the mountains of North Carolina because I missed the mountains, and I set the second novel in Gastonia because I grew up there. I knew that town and I knew those landmarks, what kind of family this would happen to.
AC: We see so much detail through the child’s point of view in both these novels that adults would miss. Is that why you give them narrative authority?
WC: I’m fascinated with the “liminal state,” which I learned about in a graduate class on feminist theory. It’s defined as being between two definable states, and childhood is a lot like that. In the first novel, the boy narrator isn’t quite in the realm of adulthood, yet. He perceives things but doesn’t grasp the full import of them, and that idea of experience and understanding. He’s caught somewhere in between.
In my second novel, Easter (who is twelve) knows her dad is a loser, and knows her mom was a drug addict. What I like about coming of age stories is that once you know, you can never “not know.” Easter knows these things about her dad, and the novel is about, in some ways, her trying to “unknow” them.
Their powers of rationalization aren’t like those of adults. A child can’t rationalize violence, cruelty, or addiction. They just know it’s there.
AC: The titles of your books have these dark, rhythmic traits.
WC: The first title, A Land More Kind Than Home, came from a Thomas Wolfe quote from the closing lines of You Can’t Go Home Again. I’m a big Thomas Wolfe fan and that quote kind of hints at deliverance, hope for deliverance or a better place beyond the place you are right now. For This Dark Road to Mercy, I got the idea in the title from Carson McCullers’s The Ballad of the Sad Café. There’s a quote in that story about two little boys who were orphans and were left to the mercy of the town. So, I thought, this is sort of a travel towards mercy and kind of a road trip novel in a lot of ways. I felt This Dark Road to Mercy kind of had a gospel feel to it.
AC: I’m curious about your process of writing your first book.
WC: I started it in 2005 as a short story and I could never get it to work. So, I expanded it and got my first agent by looking at books that I felt were similar to mine. She and I worked on it from 2008 to 2010 roughly. She was never able to sell it so we ended up going separate ways. Around that time, my current agent read an excerpt of the novel in Crab Orchard Review and he emailed me and said, “Just give me a call if you ever need an agent.” In 2010 I reached out to him and said, “My agent has dropped me. This book is going nowhere. People have rejected it. Will you take a look at it?” and he said, “Yeah.” So, he and I kind of went back and forth for a couple of months and then he sold it for a book deal.
AC: And now there’s a film option on your second novel?
WC: I’m fortunate that my agent has a close connection and relationship with a film agent in LA. Million Dollar Baby, LA Confidential—those were his writers. My literary agent is kind of old school, New York publishing and he doesn’t get excited until it is time to get excited. When The Dark Road to Mercy came out, that was what they always felt like was the most film-ready. We got serious interest in the option by a German director named Matthias Emcke. And the producer backing it is named David Giler, who wrote and produced Alien, Predator, Prometheus, and all these huge science fiction blockbusters and I thought, “What in the world does he want with my book?” But I soon learned that Matthias was the one who really wanted to adapt and direct it. He just needed the financial backing to do it. I’ve been in touch with Matthias constantly, talking about location and casting. The script is now out for studio backing. I think it’s a great script. He made good choices about how to compress a lot of the book into a script. I’m excited, you know, but I’m just cautiously excited.
WC: That this is going to happen. There’s no illusions about any of that. But it would be great. If this had happened five years ago, that would be all I was thinking about. I have been doing this for a little while now, and I have enough friends whose books have been optioned every year for forty years. I just sort of look at it as a tiny bit of income.
AC: I read that you gave up a full-time teaching position to write. How have you looked back on that decision?
WC: I was teaching at a little college in West Virginia. I love my colleagues, and I am still so close to a lot of them and I miss them deeply. It was a small little village; mostly faculty lived there. So, you were just constantly around your friends. There was always somebody around to do something with and I miss that a lot. But people don’t realize how much teaching four classes a semester takes out of you. Two of them were composition so I had fifty essays—four to five page essays— to grade and respond to every week. I would have a creative writing class and a literature class with as many as forty students in it. So, I was constantly grading and constantly preparing teaching notes, and then you have the committee work, you have the service to the university, your college, and then you have your own publication schedule you’re trying to maintain. Those kinds of things. And I found that my summers were literally eaten up with writing. It’s great to have summers off, but it’s like a true, double-edged sword when you have summers off and you don’t really do anything except write and wait for your wife to come home from work.
AC: And you don’t want that to be the only time you can write, because as a writer, you want to do it all year.
WC: Exactly. I just felt really smothered and really pressured. My wife got a job in Morgantown, so my last year at the college I was living about an hour-and-a-half south and that commute made it easier to say, “I can’t do this.” We had to make that income up somehow. I just put everything I had into it. I resigned before my book came out.
AC: So you didn’t resign because of this book; you resigned because of the writing?
WC: Well, my book had sold. But that wasn’t enough money to live on indefinitely if I never sold another book. So, I just thought I’d give it a shot, just to see. And maybe, if it doesn’t work out I can get another job teaching. My wife said, “Do it. You at least need to take a year and do it.” So, my book came out in April 2012, and I was about to leave on this two-month-long book tour. Once I saw the travel that I had gotten myself into I thought, “I came at this at the right time. I can’t deal with carrying around papers and stuff.” I do miss that ebb and flow of the semester. I do miss the feeling of the first day of summer, the last week of school in May and how everybody is so happy. There are cookouts and parties. I was treated incredibly well and given a lot of space to do what I needed to do. And when I resigned everybody was super supportive and understanding.
AC: Let’s talk about your writing routine. It seems like there was very little time between the release of the first novel and the second. Are you a fast writer?
WC: Since the [second] book came out I’ve been on the road 71 so much and I’m glad that I’ve had all the time before A Land More Kind Than Home was released to write a lot of my second novel. I would have been in trouble otherwise. For me, it seems that there was a long time between them. After the first novel came out I was on the road for half of May, all of June, and half of July. And then the paperback came out in January and I was on the road for half of January, all of February, all of March, and some of April. I had the summer in West Virginia and then we moved to North Carolina around September. We moved into our new house in November. We were living with my wife’s parents. So, I didn’t have a dedicated writing space, a dedicated time. I had a really hard time getting into a schedule.
I had a local woodworker make me this huge desk out of black walnut that kind of curves around me and I am so in love with it. I have my own office. It is my space and that was the first time that I had that. My normal schedule is: I get up, maybe around 6:30, make coffee, feed the cat, sit on the back deck, read headlines, read sports, read a little bit. My wife leaves for work around eight. I eat breakfast, water the plants, because I’ve gotten obsessed with gardening now—we have a bigger yard—and then I’m sitting down at the desk about nine and I’ll work till noon. I’ll try to get a thousand good words that I’m not embarrassed of in those three hours. Then, I’ll have lunch, come back, spend the afternoon doing the administrative things. Then I will look back over what I wrote that day and try to find a place to start the next day. I try to be done by the time my wife gets home from work about 5:30. I try to stay away after that. Around the time that the first novel was coming out, I was working…I didn’t ever turn it off. If I was at home I was either writing or doing interviews through email, or writing blog posts, writing essays…trying to find ways to get people to buy books. And that is really whatI dedicated a whole year to. I’m getting better now at working only when I have to work.
AC: I just finished Amy Greene’s Long Man and I can’t stop thinking about it. What is the last book that you’ve read that affected you that way?
WC: Gail Godwin’s novel Flora. I think she is maybe eightyfour- years old and still is at the height of her power. That novel was exceptional. A book by a writer named Smith Henderson called Fourth of July Creek is exceptional. I read a lot of stuff for blurbs. I’m kind of overwhelmed with those right now. You know, one of the craziest, most out-of-sight reading experiences I’ve had in years was Lonesome Dove while in Hawaii for a couple of weeks and I loved it.
AC: Writers hate this question but I’ll ask it anyway: what are you working on now?
WC: I’ve kind of been going around and around about it, but it is about a true mill strike that happened back in 1929 that nobody talks about. It’s very scandalous. One of the leaders of the strike—maybe the face of the strike—was named Ella May Wiggins, who came down from Sevierville [Tennessee]. She was born in 1900 and found her way to Gastonia and worked in a mill, and from the time she was twenty-eight-years old in 1929 she had nine children. Four of them had died from rickets or the whooping cough or starvation. Her husband had left her and she was living in a predominantly African-American community in a little town called Bessemer City right outside of Gastonia. When this mill strike happened she joined it, because she needed more money, regular working hours, and better conditions at the 73 mill. She ended up trying to integrate the labor union with a communist labor union from New York. She testified in D.C. in front of Congress about the conditions in the South and the plight of working mothers. She wrote these mill ballads that were recorded by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
She ended up being murdered leaving a protest rally. Some people hired by the mill to turn this caravan of strikers around shot into the caravan. She was shot and killed. She disappeared from history after that.
AC: What writers inspire you? Who just makes you want to write?
WC: I’ve been inspired by writers on the page and off the page. On the page—Thomas Wolfe, Faulkner to a certain degree. I think it’s easy to fall under the sway of Faulkner. Toni Morrison. Most of the writers I’ve met have just been so overwhelmingly kind to me, especially as a new writer when they didn’t have to be. Like Ron Rash, Lee Smith, Gail Godwin, Fred Chappell, Ben Fountain, and Jess Walter. These are people who have gone out of their way to make me feel included. And, it means so much. It makes me feel really welcomed, like I can really do this. I’ve never felt like, “Oh, here comes the new guy trying to join the club.” I’ve never felt like that.
My wife never felt like that. If you look around, there are many Southern writers who are about my age who are trying to make a go at this. So, I feel like we’re all together at a good time. It’s a good time to be a new Southern writer between thirty and fifty.