Wiley Cash: Always Home in the Mountains

by Marie Hefley

techer and author wiley cash

Wiley Cash teaches students at Christ School in Asheville about point of view.

Wiley Cash smiles as wide as a billboard, hand out to meet a fellow traveler, eager to talk about his book, any books, the craft and discipline of writing, his love of reading, influential authors, sports, and the outdoors. He carries a backpack and well-used running shoes, the marks of a man who, while serious about his work that takes place—by necessity—indoors, longs to be outdoors, out where limits disappear and he is free to be alone to think about his writing, about stories.

He settles into an overstuffed chair in a hotel lobby in Biltmore Village in Asheville, North Carolina, a city familiar to him from his undergraduate days as a creative writing student at UNC Asheville. He seems immediately comfortable despite the constant stream of workers and guests busying through the lobby. His courtly manners and southern gentlemanliness are evident right away. The smile, the pleasantries, all lead smoothly into thoughtful answers to questions both familiar and not.

When someone loves writing, loves words, loves books, it shows. That kind of enthusiasm radiates, bursts, can't and won't tolerate being contained. It's held together, however, by a cohesive power, a coherent philosophy, a deeply felt conviction that words are powerful, that stories reveal humanity in all of its frailty, that without literature we are lesser beings. Cash's path to success shows that he's that someone.

Cash got his first public library card at age six. He grew up near Gastonia, North Carolina “around books, reading, thinking about books, telling stories…[all of that] made me want to try my hand.” In the tenth grade, knowing “there wasn't a creative writing factory where you got a job and you clocked in and out at the end of the day,” he chose UNC Asheville as his training ground. He credits his years there as a “formative experience” on the road to his becoming a successful writer.

After graduation, Cash made an unusual decision about how best to prepare himself for a career telling compelling stories. Rather than pursuing an MFA, he entered a program at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette to earn a Ph.D. in literature. He noted, “MFAs focus so much on writing, and you need a lot in the tank to focus that much on writing. I needed more in my tank, and thought that a life devoted to reading would let me fill my tank up. If I had literature inside me and was surrounded by it I could respond to it in one way or another. That's what the Ph.D. did for me.”

While Cash undertook the training this Ph.D. required, he chose writing workshops as his electives. They helped him “understand how books work, how stories develop, how characters come to be.” He combined the best of two worlds—immersing himself in literature for five years while refining his skills in producing his own. He says this approach, which supplemented his strong craft training at UNC Asheville, “made a huge difference” in his development as a writer.

Another experience in Louisiana also had a significant impact on Cash's writing. Louisiana was so different from his beloved mountains that he became terribly homesick. He took a workshop with Ernest J. Gaines, one of several major influences that include Harper Lee, Cormac McCarthy, and Allan Gurganus. Gaines helped Cash realize that by writing about the North Carolina mountains, Cash could go back there regardless of where he lived.

When talking about this aspect of his writing, Cash seemed to look beyond the hotel lobby, to see his mountains in his reverie. He talked about how, as a young man, he lived in the mountains “passively.” He continued, “We live so much of our life passively. We don't realize the beauty of where we are, of the beauty of situations with friends or proximity to family.” Writing about North Carolina allowed him to “think about the mountains, snow, weather and recreate a place“ he loves, to overcome his homesickness.

By making the mountains and mountain life the foundation for his first novel, A Land More Kind than Home, Cash opened himself up to a strategic authorial choice that ties the characters in the novel together: the novel is the “story of the community, so I had the community tell it.” His three narrators represent different aspects of the community. Jess represents family; Adelaide represents the church; Clem represents the law. They each tell what they know about a tragedy, but—another authorial choice—the story is about not the tragedy, but what the characters do after it happens. Cash “realized…pretty early that the kernel of the novel wasn't the tension point but the kernel would be what characters do in the fallout of the tragedy.”

Cash achieved the three distinct voices of his characters by using “a trick, unconsciously pulled off,” of making them very different in “genders, races, ages, socio-economic backgrounds, different time periods. Their cultural and social contexts are different.” A technique Cash used is to have each narrator know things about the story that the other narrators don't. They “spoke from their gender, age position, spoke about what they know.” Individually, they reflect segments of the community; together, they tell the whole story.

To capture the essence of these voices, Cash relied on personal and professional inputs. For Adelaide, for example, he thought about his grandmother, and Adelaide became “very similar to her.” He reads constantly, and, as part of his preparation to develop a story and characters, studies other works that put him “in the mind of what I want to do.” His third novel, still in progress, has three strong female protagonists, so he read a “lot of female-driven literature.” He reviews other works to be sure he doesn't “reinvent the wheel.” He listens to music from the era of his books, looks at old photos: “I ground myself in that spiritual space.” He makes notes, sketches out scenes, and, he says, “Then I just start, hopefully at the beginning of the book and try to write it through.”

Land evolved over five years. Cash started the novel in the summer of 2005, but it wasn't until March 2010 that it came together for him. He had written “a lot” of drafts, gained and lost an agent, been rejected by a publishing house, and felt “it still needed something to come together.” He went back and focused on plot. He knew his characters “really well,” their impulses, everything about them, but needed the plot to carry their voices. The plot had to be the conduit that would move the characters.

The conversation shifts to Cash's second novel, This Dark Road to Mercy, scheduled for publication on January 28, 2014. One of the three narrators of that book is a twelve-year-old girl, which was “very challenging.” To get the voice right, Cash “read a lot of stuff narrated by young girls,” and he cites the works of Kay Gibbons, notably her novel Ellen Foster, as models. Although there are two other narrators, an echo of Land, the stories in his books are not connected.

In Dark Road, set predominately in Gastonia, North Carolina, a “washed-up minor league baseball player” kidnaps his daughters from a foster home. The oldest daughter, Easter, the 12-year-old, is one narrator. The second narrator is Brady Weller, an ex-police officer who searches for the girls. The third is a bounty hunter, Pruitt, who is hired to find the father, a suspected thief, who, years before had thrown a pitch at Pruitt and blinded him.

Cash says his two novels share a similar structure as well as one theme: “seeming, not being.” People in his first two novels seem one way, but “that's not how they are.” In Land, Chambliss, the evangelical preacher, “seems like a holy person to these people, but clearly he's not. Jimmy Hall seems like a totally irresponsible loser, but maybe he's not.”

In Dark Road, a major character, the father, also seems like “this washed-up loser, but maybe he's not.” There is an interesting backdrop to the story that reinforces this theme—the 1998 home-run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. They were thought at the time to be the saviors of baseball, but they later admitted they were, in Cash's words, “steroid freaks, so the novel plays on that.” Seeming, not being.

Although the two books have some similarities, they provided very different writing experiences for Cash. He says that Dark Road was “absolutely easier to write.” When writing Land, the first novel he ever attempted, Cash “didn't know how to write a book. There was a lot of stopping and starting and frustration.” The process taught him “how to do the work of writing a novel.” He knew how many hours it would take, how to focus it, “a lot about plot, pacing scenes, how long they should be, where they should start and end.”

The phrase “the work of writing a novel” is the centerpiece of how Cash views his profession. “I don't tell people on airplanes I'm a writer, because they say ‘I always wanted to write a book.’” He laughs at the recollection. “They say, 'I wanted to write about my grandmother.'” What he knows that they don't is that “writing is work and writing is a craft.” As he warms up to the subject, he leans forward, his elbows on his knees, radiating a quiet intensity. “Writing is a craft…something you can teach. You can't teach story ideas, but you can teach story execution. I can't teach you how to be a painter, but I can teach you how to sketch out a composition on canvas. I can teach you how to mix paint. I can teach you colors.”

He continues with a significant point he makes to his writing students. He can teach not “where stories come from,” but “how to construct a plot…how dialogue works.” The responsibility of the students is to “be able to talk about all crafts, whether it's pottery, or landscape, or architecture, honestly and openly, without getting your feelings hurt.” His analogy is that, as an architect must design a house well so it doesn't fall down and kill people, a writer can save his writing and his characters only by building “a sturdy, supportive story.” Those stakes require being “open to suggestion, open to critique.” Cash quotes his friend, writer Matt Bondurant, who says, “You can love your writing but you can't love your words.”

Having the right attitude and learning craft isn't enough to be a successful writer, however. Writing students also need to know that “writing is hard, and it takes a long time.” They have to have the fortitude and discipline to do the work. “Sure,” Cash says, “you can write a sentence and put it on Amazon Kindle,” but he makes clear that this is not the key to long-term success. Not giving up after rejection or even multiple rejections is “hard—but that's what writing is, it's an invitation to fail better than you failed the day before. You sit down every day at the desk and try to get it right, and sometimes you will and sometimes you won't. You have to keep going…you don't give up on your kids when they're five years old, so you don't give up on your manuscript when it's five years old.”

Cash sits back. He likens writing to meditation, to starting over every day “trying to be centered and present.” He smiles broadly. “I just do what works for me at that particular moment and I can tell you what trick I used here and it might not work the next time. Every day you try to fail better.”

Wiley Cash is The New York Times best-selling author of A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy, which are both available from William Morrow/Harper Collins Publishers.

Marie Hefley, a long-time member of the Great Smokies Program and Managing Editor of this publication, is a graduate of the Masters of Liberal Arts program at UNC Asheville. Also in this issue, see her Editor's Choice, Skewed Views.