Wiley Cash learned to write by writing

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 10, 2012

By Deirdre Parker Smith
SALISBURY — Because author Wiley Cash was homesick for Asheville and couldn’t seem to write about it very well, the novel, “A Land More Kind Than Home” was born.
Speaking via Skype Thursday night at Trinity Oaks Retirement Community, Cash told about 50 people there how he came to write his book and how he learned from repeated rejections.
He’s reaping rewards now, from critical acclaim to hitting bestseller lists.
“I love Salisbury,” he said. “It’s the only place where my book outsold ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’.”
The book has been selling well at Literary Bookpost.
“A Land More Kind Than Home” is the second of three books that make up the Summer Reading Challenge. The first, “The Cove,” by Ron Rash, was discussed on June 28. The third, “Paper Covers Rock,” by Salisbury’s Jenny Hubbard, will be the focus of an on-stage interview with the author on Sept. 27, the final event of the challenge.
Dr. Forrest Anderson, assistant professor of English at Catawba College, guided the talk with questions that revealed Cash is no overnight sensation.
He started writing the book in 2005 and sold it in 2010. “It took that long to get it out of me,” he said. He first tried it as a short story, but it was rejected over and over. Then he decided it would be his first novel.
The novel, set in North Carolina’s Madison County, has three first-person narrators: Miss Addie, 9-year-old Jess and Sheriff Clem Barefield. Together, they tell of the death of Jess’ autistic brother during a “healing” at a snake-handling, poison-drinking church. Cash wrote the original short story from Jess’ perspective. It wasn’t enough. Then he tried using Jess’ father, Ben, but Cash couldn’t capture a parent’s grief, since he has no children. Then he tried Jess’ grandfather, “but he was giving things away that I didn’t want him to give away, so I had to get rid of him.
“I decided no single character would know the whole story, so I chose Jess and Clem and Addie. … I wanted a rounder telling.”
Cash kept it all straight by telling the story over six days. “I drew out a calendar and filled out the days with what each character knew when. The novel is pretty linear … then I could decide where I wanted things to go.”
He settled on his beginning when his wife read part of the story that has the church’s pastor putting Miss Addie’s hand into a box of snakes. It was so vivid to Cash’s wife she had a nightmare that she was in a box that was being filled with snakes. Cash’s agent used the scene to sell the book.
Cash said readers might notice that the scenes get shorter as the book nears the end, with the action moving faster and faster. “I wanted a sense of spiraling to the end,” he said. And he wanted his readers to know what was going on.
“Really, I learned how to write a novel by writing a novel,” Cash said.
Cash’s wife is an attorney. She called the stories each narrator tells testimonies. “I said it sounds like church, she meant in trial” so it all tied in. “I thought it was important that the characters speak to readers in terms of fact and emotions. I wanted readers to invest in the characters.”
Anderson pointed out that more than one novel this summer has been set in Madison County (Rash’s “The Cove”). Cash said there’s just something about it. He grew up in Gastonia hearing people making fun of the town. He went to the University of North Carolina at Asheville, where he heard negative comments about Madison County.
“I found it beautiful … quiet, tied to its own history, undeveloped. People there don’t leave and they know everyone. I realized there was a whole universe in this wild, untouched county.”
Anderson asked if Cash felt Southern writers sort of pulled for each other.
“Yes. There is a camaraderie in the South” among many people. “I think so much is tied to loss or battling against something — hurricanes, stereotypes — it’s a fellowship that’s really strong.”
As audience members asked questions, Cash responded that the most frequent question he’d heard (SPOILER ALERT) was “Why did you have to kill Ben?”
“In that moment it was natural,” Cash said. “There had to be a sacrifice at that point, for the universe, for the universe of Madison County. It gave the grandfather a chance to finally be a father.”
The title comes from Thomas Wolfe’s book, “You Can’t Go Home Again,” quoted in the first few pages of the book: Death is “to lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth.”
Cash revealed his next book takes place in 1998 Gastonia, involving a washed-up baseball pitcher who finds some money and kidnaps his daughters from a foster home, a private eye hired by the girls’ grandparents, and a bounty hunter looking for the money. “It all wraps up at the game where Mark McGwire breaks the home run record.”
For more on Cash, his writing process and his favorite writers, see Deirdre’s Denouement blog at http://www.salisburypost.com/blogs/bookreview/ early next week.