By Johnny Caputo, for The Fourth River
Wiley Cash, New York Times Bestselling Author and fiction faculty member at Chatham’s 2015 Summer Community of Writers, once wrote, “As a six-year-old you’re called a liar when you tell a story you know isn’t true. But if you can keep telling stories and wait just a few more years, people will eventually call you a writer. Even when they know your stories aren’t true.” For Mr. Cash storytelling may not be grounded in steadfast facts, but instead has everything to do with capturing and distilling truth.
I had a chance to have a conversation with Mr. Cash about the storytelling tradition he comes from and how he pulls from this tradition to create fiction filled with vivid characters and authentic voices.
The Fourth River: In an article I read about you, you mentioned that you come from a line of North Carolina storytellers. Can you talk about how you fit in that tradition and how that has influenced your writing?
Wiley Cash: When I say storyteller I mean people who told stories about their day or told stories about their parents or stories about growing up. And so when I was little I was around people who told anecdotes more than stories. I was also a part of a culture that told lies or tall tales to kids about how this particular thing came to be or how things were named. I think in the South there’s also more of an inclination to tell oral stories because you’re outside more, you’re sitting on the porch. People are together a lot, working outside. You’re not in a factory where it’s loud and you can’t hear each other. I think oral storytelling is something that is particular about the south. So much of our culture comes from the orality of African culture and the orality of Irish culture. You have Jack Tales and you have folk tales, and those things merge in the South. I feel like I’m part of that tradition.
FR: So how do you try and capture the essence of oral speech in your writing?
WC: If I’m writing first person, I try to think of how people I know, and who are from the place that I’m from, tell stories. And the stories are never linear. They never start at A and end at Z. They start in the middle, then they go back to A to set the context. Then they bounce around for a little bit and eventually they end at Z, but Z is never the most important thing. It’s always something beyond that that is the most important thing.
When I think about how people speak I think about how they use words. I try not to change the way words look, like dropping g’s and things like that. I never write phonetically but I do write in a vernacular way. For example, people from the South string together prepositions. Our daughter’s name is Early and so my mom will say, “Oh, Early’s gonna tear that toy up,” meaning she’s going to destroy that toy. My wife, who is from Long Island, always remarks “What does tear it up mean? Like tear paper and throw it in the air?” So it’s things like that that. I try to pay attention to specific hallmarks of a particular cultural language type.
FR: You can read the first page or two of either of your novels and see immediately that they are set in a very specific place within North Carolina. I think that comes a lot from the strength of the character’s voices. How do you accomplish this in your writing?
WC: Just by nature of where they come from and what they know, characters are going to dispense different information in different ways. I try to think about the character’s limitations and possibilities and draw from that. I want the reader to be able to open either of my books and know within a matter of two, three, four pages that they’re in North Carolina, it’s 1986, this is an eighty-one-year-old woman speaking, this is a specific day, a specific season. I try to ground them as soon as possible.
FR: What is the craft of grounding a reader immediately? How do you make that come across naturally and stay in the character’s voice?
WC: In my second novel, Easter, who’s a narrator says, “My mother died when I was twelve years old,” and we know the mother has just died, therefore Easter is twelve years old. You contextualize things using time as a marker. We know she’s light-skinned because her sister is dark-skinned and she says, “I’m just the opposite. I’m freckly.” It’s hot and sticky outside, so it’s summer. School just started so we know it’s August or September. Little things like that help the reader.
FR: Your first two books were written in three main strands. Can you pinpoint a reason why you’re drawn to the braided narrative?
WC: I think it’s because I’m trying to make these novels feel as real and as complete as possible. In A Land More Kind than Home, if I only had the perspective of one of those characters then you wouldn’t have known all these other important aspects of information. And if I had done it third person limited, then you wouldn’t have heard those characters tell their own stories, and so the heat of that would have been missing.
FR: Could you talk about the process of going from the first seed of an idea and getting to a completed first draft?
WC: Gosh, I don’t know. That’s kind of the mystery of writing. How do you reap this very abstract idea in your head into the concrete form of letters and words? With A Land More Kind than Home I heard a story in Milwaukee about a boy who was smothered during a healing service, and I thought, “That’s an interesting story. I’d like to write a story about that.” So I had to create characters and find a place to put it because I couldn’t put it in Milwaukee. Then that story ended up not being the story of the novel, but it ended up being the reason the novel was written. The smothering happens offstage and early on in the novel, and then the story is the fallout of that smothering. The thing that inspires you to write the book may not necessarily end up in the book, but it’s such a process of discovering what the story and its repercussions are.
The novel I’m writing right now is about a mill strike in my hometown 1929. There wasn’t really any one thing that spurred me to write about it because I’ve known about it for a long time. So I’m kind of playing with time and I’m jumping back and forth and trying to find a way in to this very big story.
FR: Going back to the idea of sense of place, Could you talk about the importance of writing about North Carolina. Is there any kind of pressure or joys or challenges that come with writing about the place you’re from?
WC: I don’t know if there’s necessarily any of that. I don’t know if there’s any of that in writing no matter where you write about. I think you write about the places you write about because you either know them or want to find out about them. I know North Carolina pretty well, so I’m writing toward distilling the truth of what I know to be there from what is there. So I’m pulling things out that I know to be true and arranging them in a way that seems plausible to the reader.
Now when I lived in Louisiana and I was writing A Land More Kind than Home there was joy in re-creating a place I could not be. I was living primarily in West Virginia when I wrote my second novel, so there was joy in re-creating North Carolina. But now that I’m living back in North Carolina, there’s not necessarily joy or pressure or even satisfaction. It’s just kind of doing the work. There is responsibility. I think there is responsibility in trying to get the place as close to your understanding of it as you can, because your truth is the only truth you can really write of. So I think there’s responsibility in trying to get your truth right.