Wiley Cash: Why his new novel will make readers think about life’s ghosts (“1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast)
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Best-selling author Wiley Cash’s new book, When Ghosts Come Home, is his third following his breakthrough 2012 debut A Land More Kind Than Home. But it represents several firsts in the North Carolina native’s writing career. It is the first murder-mystery, and the first of Cash’s books to be set along the coast, not far from where he and his family reside in Wilmington. But it is not a modern day story. Cash takes readers back to the 1980s, and examines thought-provoking issues such as white supremacy, race relations, the environment and campaign politics through the eyes of his main characters.
“I have my very sincerely held political, cultural and social beliefs that shouldn’t be too hard for people to find if they wanted to do any digging around on me,” Cash said. “But in my novels, I don’t want to write novels that have easy answers. My last novel (2017′s The Last Ballad) was about a mill strike in my hometown in 1929, and it is a labor novel. It’s not a pro-union novel. It’s not an anti-capitalism novel. Providing those easy answers in a 400-page novel, my new novel’s only 285 pages maybe, to think that I can answer successfully the legacy of racism in the deep South in that few pages is preposterous. But I would like to present it to you, and show how it perhaps affects people’s lives, and just ask you to think about it. I really enjoy introducing these issues and I feel a, burden is the wrong word, but I would feel like it be a lost opportunity given my small megaphone that I’ve got and my native allegiance to the American south to not introduce these issues.”
Cash sets the new novel in October 1984, in the Brunswick County coastal community of Oak Island, a town where Cash spent many days and nights after his parents moved there from Gastonia in 1998. He says the book’s Oak Island is much like the one he remembers, described in the opening pages as ‘the ideal place for someone to hide’. Cash himself experienced many of the sights and sounds he fashions as the backdrop for When Ghosts Come Home. As for picking the mid-80s timeframe, Cash explained that it presented a complicated time which would challenge Winston, Colleen and Jay as they fought the ghosts of their lives.
“Each of these three characters, Winston, Colleen and Jay are haunted by things in their past,” Cash said. “They are either decisions they made or decisions they did not make, cultural implications, historical implications. But they may or may not understand their role in those things. So, all of these characters are moving through the novel with pressure bearing down upon them. They have to exorcise those ghosts in one way or another in order to get through to the end of this book.”
Whether it is a White sheriff in his mid-60s trying to solve a crime that he hopes will help him win reelection against a well-funded opponent, his mid-20s daughter who returns to the comforts of home to deal with the loss of a child, or the Black teenager who experiences racism and white supremacy after being sent from the big city to live with his older sister’s family in the small town, Cash says he wants his characters to be mysterious and unpredictable, so readers will go along to see how they handle challenge. Cash does not pre-plan how his books will end. Instead, he lets the character development drive the story to an inevitable conclusion.
“I don’t really have an idea where I want the plot to go,” Cash says. “But I hand wrote this novel and it really allowed me to slow down. I can type just fast enough where I can get ahead of my thoughts and when you’re a writer and you’re looking at that blank page or that blinking cursor, that’s death. You think, ‘Oh my gosh! I don’t have the words to fill that in!’ But when I’m handwriting, I can think faster than I can hand write, so my hand is constantly trying to catch up with my head. That’s a wonderful place for a writer to be because you feel panicked. ‘How am I going to get all the stuff down?’ That’s a great way to work and spend your days working. So, with this book I never ran out of words. I never ran out of characterization. I never ran out of scenarios to put on the page and so it was easier for me to kind of feel my way through the book in a way that felt very organic to me.”
Writing is just part of Wiley Cash’s life. He is the Alumni Author-in-Residence at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina-Asheville, where he also teaches fiction writing a literature. He has a Ph.D. in American Literature and a Master of Arts in English. He and his wife Mallory moved to her hometown of Wilmington in 2013, where she works as a successful photographer, and they have two young daughters. Cash is teaching a pair of courses at UNCA this fall, which take him to Asheville two days a week. A busy lifestyle to be sure.
“I do a lot of things to keep writing,” he says. “I’m not John Grisham or J.K. Rowling or Stephen King in terms of sales, so I have to do a lot of hustling to keep the books coming. I teach, I do speaking engagements, I travel a lot to universities, libraries, community groups. My writing is almost a biproduct of the success I’ve had as a writer. Granted, I teach fulltime because I’ve been a successful writer. I’ve been invited to speak a lot because I’m a successful writer. But in order to be a successful writer, I have to do all of those things. Would I like to write more and write more books? Absolutely. But it’s also come to me in a way that these are the ideas I’ve had. The four ideas I’ve had for novels, I’ve written all of them and they’ve published. Not everyone can say that, so I feel really fortunate in those terms. But also, I really enjoy teaching. I teach one or two classes a year. My students are incredible. They’re brilliant, they’re hungry, their curious. My colleagues are fantastic. I feel really fortunate to be doing that as well. I get to be home for the most part, with my girls. I feel really lucky. I feel almost too lucky.”
Cash is busy working on his next book, which he says will be set in 2018, in the days following the toppling of the Silent Sam confederate monument on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill. I hope you enjoy the conversation with this talented author as much as I did.
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