by Rachael Levitt
When bestselling author Wiley Cash passed through Pittsburgh on the promotional tour for his award-winning novel A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME, he sat down with THE FOURTH RIVER to talk plot tricks and book deals. Cash also gave creative writing students at Chatham University a craft lecture before a public reading of his work, including excerpts from A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME, recently released THIS DARK ROAD TO MERCY and a currently untitled novel-in-process. I talked with him about how to figure out the right book title, being star struck by Jeannette Winterson, and why he can’t wait to get back to North Carolina.
FR: It’s obvious that place plays a huge role in your books. A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road To Mercy are both set in North Carolina, and the new book you’re working on is historical fiction about North Carolina. You seem to really love the state. What was it like growing up there?
Wiley Cash: I absolutely love North Carolina. I did my undergraduate at UNC Asheville, my Masters at UNC Greensboro, and actually left to get my PhD at University of Louisiana-Lafayette. I spent five years in Louisiana. I’ve been teaching in West Virginia, but we’ll move back to N.C. this year. My wife took a job in Wilmington. I can’t wait. I grew up going to a Southern Baptist church in Gastonia. It was very conservative. There was pressure, imagined or whatever, to feel and talk about holy, biblical things. That anxiety transfers to A Land More Kind Than Home’s protagonist Jess, that guilt that young people have about “How do I know when I’m saved?” “Do I believe things correctly?” The rise and fall of Southern Evangelicals had a real impact on me.
FR: So what has the reception of your books been like in North Carolina? Did A Land More Kind Than Home get backlash from religious institutes or community members?
WC: I’ve read reviews that say, “This book is too pro-church” and I think, really? Other reviews say, “I hate how it tarnished the church.” But I don’t think it did. I think I just present the world as it is. I think as a writer, especially as a realist, you have to present the world as it is, not the world you want. Warts and all. So no, there hasn’t been any real backlash. My mom is still a fundamental Christian and has probably sold more books for me than anyone.
FR: Do you think about social commentary during your drafting?
WC: I’m more just addressing issues I see around me. This Dark Road To Mercy is about seeming and not being. The North Carolina motto is “To seem rather than to be.” It’s on the state flag! So in 1998, during the steroid era in baseball, these players seemed like heroes, but really they were using drugs. I’m playing with that idea. In the book, I’m questioning, how do you seem like a father versus actually be a father? How does it seem like you are doing the wrong thing but in reality you are doing what’s right?
FR: In both A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road To Mercy, you write from the point of view of a child. Are you interested in children’s writing or literature?
WC: I don’t know how that happened. Children are in some ways easier to write from because they are honest and their narrative is truer, less guarded. I find them interesting. I love Foster by Kate Gibbons and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. I just like children’s worldview. As a writer, you have to do a lot of recollection and plum your own experience. You don’t have to write about it, but from it. I especially remember kids I grew up around when I’m creating characters. When you write children’s voices, you have to have a line of demarcation between their powers of observation and their powers of narration. So they are going to observe things that they don’t have the vocabulary to talk about, and you as the writer have to figure out how to get it on the page.
FR: Your novels have gripping openings meant to hook a reader, often reminiscent of a crime thriller. How much time do you spend on the first line?
WC: Not a lot. The first paragraph doesn’t always end up as the first paragraph – it didn’t in either of my books. But I think especially for fiction what is important is frontloading context. You set the stage for the reader going in, so before the scene starts you give context, structure, and vantage points. I find writers will start with a scene and try to sprinkle in context but when you have a scene it’s like a lit fuse. Opening scenes with frontloaded context helps the reader to understand what is to follow.
FR: But then how do you avoid doing an information dump?
WC: It depends on how you open. I’ve been thinking a lot about information dumps lately. I think you can have short blasts of context. And I think they should come at the beginning.
FR: Do you think that only applies to novels because you have the space to do it or do you think it can work for short stories too?
WC: I don’t know – short stories are really their own thing. It’s so difficult to have exposition in short stories. But for novels, I’m never a fan of opening mid-scene, especially with dialogue. I already don’t care. It’s like walking in on a conversation and asking, “What are you guys talking about?” You don’t want your reader to work. You want to ease your reader into the pool of your world where the air is the same temperature as the water, so they don’t even realize they’re immersed.
FR: Your titles have a distinct style – they aren’t directly related to the story, and they are always a phrase. Where did that come from?
WC: Titles are really hard for me. “A Land More Kind Than Home”is a quote by Thomas Wolfe, who is probably my favorite writer. When that novel started as a short story, the title was “The Rain Barrel.” My agent said no, that’s just a prop. I wanted to have a title where the reader is going to think about it and try to read toward understanding. I use working titles until I figure it out. I looked at a ton of quotes from Southern writers to find it. This one sounds like a hymnal.
FR: In your craft talk, you said you had to buy a “cookbook” to teach yourself about plot because during your MFA you devoted your stories to character. What do you think are the keys to scene or plot?
WC: Character is the most important thing, especially to make one round. But in terms of plotting, little tricks – it’s all tricks – like ending a chapter with something unresolved, or the traditional arc of introduction, rising action, climax, resolution. It’s a trick that we’re accustomed to reading.
Another thing I’ve been hung up on lately is process. Play-by-play action – how do you have that process do something besides show action, how do you give context within that process? Readers are rarely concerned with that process, they are more interested in the outcome. Nobody cares about the process of the fight. Just tell me who won. For example, all this post-apocalyptic stuff, we fetishize it. In stories we don’t even care how it happened, we just care that the zombies are here. A reader needs process, but how do you get them from skipping it? By sprinkling in context.
FR: What authors have you been star-struck by?
WC: Jeanette Winterson for sure – she’s been the coolest so far. It’s amazing getting to meet people I really admire or be friends with them. I went on a Harper dinner on a pre-book tour dinner with Ben Fountain and Jess Walter. None of us knew each other and they were the coolest guys, and now we’re friends! It’s been fantastic to have relationships with people doing the same thing you are. I met Richard Ford. And I saw Sherman Alexie in an airport and said, “I’m teaching your book in my class right now!”
FR: Finally, is “Wiley Cash” your real name?
WC: My first name is Roger. Roger Wiley Cash. My brother is Clifton Freeman and my sister is Jayden Yvette. We all have weird names. Real Southern!
Rachael Levitt holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from Chatham University. Her work has appeared in The Red Clay Review, Weave Magazine, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports From Travelers Under 35.