The act of words to paper
For Wiley Cash, being a writer is not about milestones in his career that define his passion. Rather, it’s the simple idea of a person sitting down with a blank page, one ready to be filled with the unlimited possibility of creative prose.
“For a longtime, I thought if I’m a writer it will mean ‘this’ or if I write a New York Times bestseller it will mean ‘this,’” he said. “But, I realized that it’s all the same work. It’s still the act of putting words on a page, and trying to do it in a manner that’s more believable and true than what you did the day before.”
And it’s that attitude and discipline that has brought Cash to prominence, as a writer and professor. In 2012, he penned the New York Times bestseller A Land More Kind Than Home, only to follow it up with the acclaimed This Dark Road to Mercy (2014). A graduate of UNC-Asheville, with a Ph.D. from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, Cash currently teaches creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Though Cash has always known he was a writer, or meant to be one, it is the daily action of literary creation that throws fuel on his internal fire, a spark that was lit years before, when he was a teenager typing away in his dorm room.
The Smoky Mountain News recently caught up with Cash at his home in Wilmington. He spoke of his writing process, why pop culture is fascinated with the South, and how his next book — about a labor strike in 1929 — perfectly showcases the idea of “nothing’s the same, everything’s the same,” especially when it comes to literary themes amid an ever-changing society.
Smoky Mountain News: What can readers expect from your latest book, which you’re still working on?
Wiley Cash: It’s historical fiction, about the 1929 Loray Mill Strike in Gastonia. It’s about the forces that led up to the strike and the repercussions around the state after. I grew up in Gastonia, my family came from the mills, and it has always been something I’ve been interested in — how it came to be, how it came to be covered up.
SMN: A lot of times the themes within historical fiction are meant to mirror similar themes in modern times. Do you see that?
WC: You know, my wife is downstairs right now watching the documentary “Inequality for All,” which shows this graph where two times in American history that the gap between the have and the have nots has been the greatest. And they were 1928 and 2007. The mill strike was in 1929 when things came to head, and, of course, we know what happened in 2008 — history has a strange way of repeating itself.
SMN: What’s your writing process like? Sit down and write or wait for inspiration?
WC: I try to be as disciplined as possible. I try to write a good three hours a day — butt in the chair and at my desk. I always work in the morning.
SMN: What do you like about teaching creative writing?
WC: I like teaching creative writing because it makes me think about my conception on what stories are and how they work, how they don’t work, how to improve what I’m working on.
SMN: Do you think there’s a formula to writing? Or to each their own?
WC: I’m not so interested in formula stuff, which is the more commercial side of fiction, where you have a protagonist and you have a ticking time bomb to diffuse by the end of the book. I always encourage students to create interesting characters who have to be specific people in order for something interesting to happen to them, where the arc of story is going to be more in line with the arc of these people’s lives. As far as teaching goes, you can teach someone how to be a carpenter, a potter, to practice these different types of crafts, but I think the hardest thing is to teach that original spark of creativity. It’s something you can’t necessarily teach, but you can show models of creativity, you can teach the craft, teach story structure, scene structure and how things unfold.
SMN: Why is there such a fascination, in modern literature and pop culture, with the South?
WC: Well, I think the South is still the “great undiscovered country” for most Americans, and I think Southern Appalachia is the most mysterious of this area. You have a film like “Interview with a Vampire” or TV shows like “True Blood” and “The Walking Dead” — there’s mystery there, the unknowns, the danger. And that goes back to the books of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. That fascination will always be there because the South is the most thriving cultural mixture of people and traditions, values and practices. Novels like Winter’s Bone (Daniel Woodrell), Serena (Ron Rash) and Cold Mountain (Charles Frazier), those things were highly successful and brought a lot of attention to Appalachia. You go to a city like Asheville and can get a taste of that part of Appalachian culture, and yet, you can go five minutes outside the city, in rural Buncombe County, and see another completely different part of the culture — you just never know what you’re going to get here.
Want to go?
An evening with Appalachian writer Wiley Cash will be at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 7, at the First United Methodist Church in Waynesville.
Cash is known for his first novel, New York Times Bestseller A Land More Kind Than Home. His book received positive comments in such publications as The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Entertainment Weekly, The Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Vanity Fair. A Land More Kind Than Home won the Southern Independent Bookseller Ailliances' Book Award for Fiction of the Year and the John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award from the UK's Crime Writers' Association.
The gathering will feature a Q&A session with Cash, a reading from the book he’s currently writing, and a dessert buffet catered by Kanini’s. Tickets are $10, which are available at any Haywood County library branch and Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville.