The Purity of Belief: An Interview with Wiley Cash
The following interview appears in Volume 45 (2013) of Pembroke Magazine and was conducted by Forrest Anderson.
Called a “mesmerizing first novel” and an “intensely felt and beautifully told story” by The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Wiley Cash’s debut novel A Land More Kind Than Home has landed on the New York Times Bestseller List and has been selected as a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection and a Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Okra Pick. In October, the Crime Writers’ Association awarded the novel the John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Award.
Cash holds a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He has received grants and fellowships from the Asheville Area Arts Council, the Thomas Wolfe Society, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. His stories have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Roanoke Review, and Carolina Quarterly. He teaches in the Low-Residency MFA Program in Fiction and Nonfiction Writing at Southern New Hampshire University.
We met in true twenty-first century fashion (over Skype) for an onstage interview during the Summer Reading Challenge in Salisbury, North Carolina.
Forrest Anderson: Would you mind talking a little bit about your inspiration for A Land More Kind Than Home?
Wiley Cash: The idea really found me; I was in graduate school at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, and one day during a course in African American literature my professor told us about a news story out of Chicago about a young African American boy with autism who was smothered during a healing service. The story was incredibly tragic, but I couldn’t help but be intrigued by a group of believers that would literally believe something “to death.” I wanted to tell the boy’s story and the story of the community, but I’d never visited Chicago and I certainly couldn’t speak for the African American community on the city’s South Side. But I realized that I could take that same story and set it in North Carolina and understand everything about it: the community, the people and their beliefs, the landscape. I don’t know that I was a regional writer before that revelation; now I don’t think I can go back to being a regionless writer.
FA: When did you know that you had a novel?
WC: I knew I had a novel when I realized that I couldn’t tell of this community’s tragedy in a short story. I also knew I had a novel when I realized I needed more than one narrator to cover the full scale of the event.
FA: I’m wary about asking this next question, but I feel compelled since your novel features religion. The short story writer and novelist Michael Knight has said, “I’m not sure there exists a writer who is nonreligious even if they claim to be an atheist. There’s an element of faith and hopefulness in most writers.” Do you consider yourself a writer of faith? Is religion part of your aesthetic?
WC: Religion isn’t part of my aesthetic, but I think I am the kind of writer who wants to get at the truth of things. By this “truth” I don’t mean “religious truth”—what I mean is that I want to get to the truth of belief and experience. I didn’t set out to write a pro-religion novel (although some folks have accused me of doing that) and I didn’t set out to write an anti-religion novel (although just as many of folks have accused me of doing that). I tried to write a novel that represents the truth of what can happen when the purity of belief is corrupted.
FA: A Land More Kind Than Home is told from the perspective of three different characters: nine-year old Jess Hall, Sheriff Clem Barefield, and the town’s matriarch Adelaide Lyle. Why did you choose to tell the story with multiple first-person narrators?
WC: I first tried writing this as a short story from the father’s perspective; he’s out in his fields working on Sunday morning when he sees the sheriff’s car coming up the driveway, his wife and his youngest son inside. But something about that narration never rang true to me. I couldn’t give it the heat and the intensity and the heartbreak that Ben’s narrative voice would require. I started experimenting with other voices until I found the ones that worked best. This is the community’s story, and I thought it fitting that the community should tell it.
FA: Was it a challenge to structure the novel this way?
WC: Not really—I had some pretty good models. Southern literature is full of these multi-voiced narratives, from William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying to Ernest Gaines’s A Gathering of Old Men to Lee Smith’s Oral History. I learned from those novels about how to structure the voices in a way that moved the plot while still allowing the characters to develop; I wasn’t breaking any new ground.
FA: I read that your wife, an attorney, helped you keep track of the story’s narrators and that she framed the book in terms of “testimony.” I’ve never thought about a novel or a story in this way, and I was hoping you could talk about what that meant to you.
WC: As I started to revise the novel, toward the end I found that I had a lot of pages and a lot of scenes, and it was sometimes difficult to trace the evolution of the story and match it with the knowledge of events that the characters possessed. She helped me trace the characters’ knowledge and figure out who knew what and when. I ended up making a succession of calendars, and I filled them in with the events and the individual characters’ knowledge of those events over the six days during which the novel takes place. My wife is my first reader, and she’s really good at detecting the shortcomings in pacing and tone over the entirety of a manuscript.
FA: You and I are both natives of North Carolina (Gastonia and Rocky Mount). And we both lived outside of the state while doing graduate work in creative writing (Louisiana and Florida). I’ve read that you were desperately homesick while writing, A Land More Kind Than Home. I don’t blame you. I felt that desperation in Florida. Did that feeling make it more difficult or easier to write your novel?
WC: I set this book in North Carolina for two reasons. First, once I moved it from Chicago to North Carolina I was able to tell the story because I knew the area in which it took place. Second, I was able to go home. When I first moved to Lafayette I found that I was incredibly homesick, and reading and writing about North Carolina gave me the opportunity to go home—if not physically then at least spiritually.
FA: You grew up about two hours east of Madison County, where your novel is set. For me, the mountains of North Carolina have always held mystery. How did you come to know the region and feel capable to write about it?
WC: I went to college at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, and then I taught there for two years after receiving my MA in 2001. I love western North Carolina, and I really consider it home. As much as I enjoyed living in Asheville, I found that it could get a little busy and hectic, and every chance I could I took a trip up to Madison County to hike, camp, and have some quiet time alone. My sister lives in Burnsville, North Carolina, just up the road from Asheville and just east of Madison. Whenever I visit her I try to soak up as much of the area as possible.
FA: Do you ever consciously think about being a Southern writer?
WC: Not really, but it doesn’t surprise me that I’ve been classified that way; I’d probably classify myself that way too. I grew up reading Southern writers like Thomas Wolfe, Flannery O’Connor, Clyde Edgerton, and others, so I learned how to write from those Southern luminaries. But I also grew up surrounded by Southern storytellers, and I learned how to tell stories from those folks. It was a pretty good education.
FA: Ethan Canin said that a writer has to learn four things: the prose style, how to get up after you’ve been knocked down, how to keep inventing things, and how to deal with envy. How have you gone about learning these things?
WC: My prose style was pretty hard earned, and I developed it only after experimenting with writers whose work I’d always admired: Toni Morrison, Thomas Wolfe, Jean Toomer, and others. My style is nothing like theirs, but I had to emulate them in order to find out that I couldn’t do their style nearly as well as they could. As I grew older I began to read work by Raymond Carver, Anton Chekhov, and Ernest Gaines, and I found that the leaner style suited me a little better; it was closer to how I told oral stories, and it was closer to how the people spoke who I grew up around.
As far as being knocked down, I’ve been knocked down a lot. I’ve been submitting stories since I was nineteen years old, and I’ve probably received close to a thousand rejections. I also developed a tough skin after spending years in creative writing workshops. I always hope my writing will improve, and the only way to improve is to be challenged. I stopped getting my feelings hurt a long time ago.
I’ve only written one novel and I’m working on a second, so I’m probably not the best person to ask about the consistency of inventing things. I’m still holding my breath that I’ll have an idea for a third novel.
Envy is healthy I think. I read other debut novels, especially by folks I know, and sometimes I can get a little envious, but it’s more like admiration. I’ve never been angry because someone is a better or more decorated writer than me. There’s no room for that in this business; those folks get reputations pretty quickly. I’d rather be the writer who’s always encouraging and congratulating his peers instead of spreading nasty rumors about who doesn’t deserve acclaim or awards or whatever the case may be. This business is hard enough without using all your energy being negative.
FA: I ask this question of almost every writer I interview because I’m always curious. What is your teaching schedule like? How do you find time to write, respond to interview requests, etc.?
WC: While writing the novel I was working as a graduate assistant, taking three courses and teaching two. In the three years I worked at revising the novel I was teaching four courses per semester. I was really busy during those years, and I got most of my writing done during the early mornings and during the summer. That meant I had to make a lot of tough decisions about when to go to bed, when to have another beer, when to go home for the night, when to travel, and when to spend time with friends and family.
I haven’t taught a full load since the spring semester of 2012, and I’ve spent the fall semester teaching in the low residency MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University. This leaves me a lot more time to travel and promote A Land More Kind Than Home while working on my second novel. I still get up early, but I no longer write with one eye on that stack of fifty composition essays that still need to be graded.
FA: Name a writer whose work is currently making you jealous.
WC: Carter Sickels.
FA: What kind of child were you?
FA: What’s your relationship with rejection like?
WC: Consistent, unfortunately.
FA: Do you have a writerly habit you’d like to break?
WC: Reading too much to put off having to write.
FA: What’s the greatest surprise in your writing, to this point?
WC: How much I enjoy writing dialogue.
FA: What can we expect from you next?
WC: My novel-in-progress is set in my hometown of Gastonia, North Carolina, and it’s about a washed-up minor league baseball player who kidnaps his two daughters from a foster home.