Wednesday, April 18, 2012

1/2 Dozen for Wiley Cash

A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME is already receiving heaps of praise, praise of THIS variety:
“Cash’s debut novel explores Faulkner-O’Connor country . . . As lean and spare as a mountain ballad, Cash’s novel resonates perfectly, so much so that it could easily have been expanded to epic proportions. An evocative work about love, fate and redemption.” (Kirkus Reviews )
“A chilling descent into the world of religious frenzy in small town North Carolina . . . The languid atmosphere seduces, and Cash’s fine first effort pulls the reader into a shadowy, tormented world where wolves prowl in the guise of sheep.” (Publishers Weekly )
This just feels like a debut novelist we should be listening to -- closely.

And so it's my honor and privilege to introduce ... Wiley Cash. Here's a half dozen...

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

For me, writing is a little bit like going to the gym: I’m rarely excited about doing it beforehand, but, once I’ve done it, I know I’ve made the right decision and used my time in the most productive way possible. But, to be honest, I feel the same way about naps and watching basketball. The only difference is that I look forward to those.

My relationship with the page is pretty straightforward: I sit down and write in the same manner another person would go to work and drill holes in sheet metal or wait tables or fix cars. For me there’s no great mystery in writing, no divine inspiration, no mystical moment when some ghost or muse whispers in my ear; I sit down and I work until it’s time to quit.

I’d always written short stories until I wrote my novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, and the process, at least for me, was very different. I’ve written first drafts of short stories in one sitting, and while they’re always what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts,” at least there are words on the page. I can go back to them and rework them and reimagine them as my time and my interest permit. Because of their length, short stories are relatively easy to become reacquainted with after a little time away from them. But I feel differently about novels. I spent five years writing my first one, and there were pretty long stretches when I was away from the desk. At times, I had a little trouble re-immersing myself in the world of the novel and picking up the emotional thread of the narratives. I was always able to get it back, but oftentimes I found it only after rereading large sections and re-familiarizing myself with my characters and their voices.

What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

My advice to a writer who’s looking for a lifelong partner is pretty simple: clone my wife. I met her in the summer of 2005, and that was the summer I began mapping out the novel that became A Land More Kind Than Home. I clearly remember an August night on Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina when she and I climbed up into a lifeguard stand and sat up there and talked for hours. It was actually mostly me talking, and I told her all about this novel I wanted to write. That night, she told me that she was certain that this novel, which was only an idea at that time, would be published, and she never once wavered in that belief. She had more faith in my book than I did; I was never certain it would be published until five years later when my agent called to tell me he’d sold it. When someone has that kind of belief in your dream it really makes going after the dream a less silly proposition than it would be otherwise.

But I never knew how much my wife supported my writing until this past summer. In May 2011, she was offered a job as an attorney in Morgantown, WV, which is about an hour and a half south of the little village of Bethany, West Virginia, where we were living at the time. We scrambled to find a place to live in Morgantown, and we were very fortunate to find and purchase a home we both love. The only problem was that we couldn’t leave Bethany until her old job ended in late July, even though we closed on our new house in June. Complicating matters was the fact that I’d been accepted to two month-long writing residencies where I planned to write my second novel under my publisher’s deadline. We ended up closing on our house in Morgantown on June 22 and returning to Bethany that evening without moving a thing into our new place. That Sunday, two of our close friends helped us pack up all of our furniture and move it down to Morgantown, and we went back to Bethany and slept on an air mattress. The next morning I left for the first month-long residency.

During that month, while I was writing and being very well cared for, my wife was back home in Bethany, sleeping on an air mattress and finishing up her old job. After getting off work at 5 p.m., she’d swing by our old place and fill her car with a load of stuff that we weren’t able to get during the first move: closets full of clothes, tools, kitchen appliances, dishes and silverware, drawers full of odds and ends. Anyone who’s ever moved knows these things are the tough things to move, the kinds of things that require boxes and tape and bubble wrap. After loading her car, she’d drive the hour and a half south to Morgantown, unload her car, drive the hour and a half back, sleep on an air mattress, wake up for work, and then do it all again the next evening. We spoke on the phone every day, usually while she was en route back to Bethany, always well after dark. Never once did she complain about being tired, frustrated, or lonely. Never once did she ask me how much work I was getting done or pressure me to make my time away worth the struggle she was facing back home. At the end of the month, I came home and spent my first night in our new place. My wife had a little time off between her old job and the new one, and her parents came to visit for a few days to help us settle in to our new place. A week later I left again for another month, and while I was away she started her new job in a new city, and I wasn’t there to support her.

Even now, as I read this, I’m absolutely blown away by the love she’s given me and the support she’s shown me. As I mentioned earlier, if any writers out there are looking for the perfect partner, my advice still stands: clone my wife.

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

I’ll choose tip #2. That tip is simple: write a book. (Tip #1 is simple too: come up with something interesting to write a book about.) Writing a book is hard. It requires a lot of hours alone, and there will be many times when friends and family won’t understand why you can’t have another beer or watch the game or go out of town for the weekend. There will be a million reasons not to sit down and work, but you have to dedicate yourself to your vision in order to see it through.

I’m not encouraging you simply to write a book, I’m encouraging you to write the best book you can write. Once you’re certain you’ve written the best book you can write, only then should you be concerned with things like getting an agent and finding a publisher. Don’t put your book out there before you’re certain it’s ready. Don’t query agents with an unfinished manuscript; don’t pitch ideas about a book you haven’t yet written. I discourage you from even talking about a book you haven't started writing. Agents and editors are primarily concerned with complete manuscripts, and that’s what they’ll ask for if they like your idea. Make sure you’ve got a solid manuscript to send their way if you get that call.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

I was a big-time liar when I was a kid, and I’ve never been able to understand why. Perhaps I was into telling stories and experimenting with fiction before I realized that I wanted to be a writer. I’ll never forget the story I told my neighbor one summer evening while we shot basketball in my driveway. I was probably six years old at the time, and I was telling my friend about a recent trip my family had taken to Myrtle Beach. I told him that my sister had buried me up to my neck in the sand, but she had to dig me out when I felt a crab trying to pinch off my toes. I told the story as if a real emergency situation had descended upon Myrtle Beach. My sister, my parents, and even complete strangers were digging and clawing away at the sand to save my toes from that murderous crab.

Unfortunately, it was a cool summer night and the windows were open. My sister was waiting for me when I went inside the house once it got dark; she was probably fourteen years old at the time. She said, “I heard the story you just told out there. None of that happened. Why did you lie?” I didn’t know what to say. She asked me the same question several times, and I was never able to give her an answer. I still can’t.

What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

I think of myself as more of a professional reader than a professional writer. I studied literature in college and graduate school for what seems like forever, and I’ve been teaching American literature for the past several years, so I really feel like I’ve dedicated my life to reading, and to be honest, I can’t think of anything I’d rather spend my time doing. I probably spend twice as much time reading as I do writing.

Lately, I’ve been really drawn to short stories, probably because of the quality of the collections I’ve seen over the past few years. Two that stand out the most are Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff and Danielle Evans’ Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. These are two story collections that feel necessary, both to readers and writers, and there’s not a misplaced word or a bad line between them. I’ve gotten to know a lot of wonderfully knowledgeable indie booksellers, and I’ve found that I really trust the books they recommend, especially the books they recommend to writers. That’s how I picked up some of my favorite books over the past year: Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, and a couple others. As far as sleepers, I don’t know if you can consider it one at this point, but one forthcoming book that I think is going to be really huge is a debut novel called Shine, Shine, Shine by Lydia Netzer. It’s one of those books you read and continually find yourself asking, “How’d she do that?” and then you read it over to learn. All of the authors I mentioned do very different things in their work than what I attempt to do, and I learned a lot from them, but I don’t know that I would’ve picked them up if they hadn’t come so highly recommend by the indie booksellers I trust. I suppose the lesson is simple: trust the indie booksellers; they know what’s good for you.

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?

A sense of place is really important to me in general. I’m one of those readers who open new books in the same manner I enter my dreams at night: I immediately want to know where I am. So much about us – our motivations, reactions, fears, and hopes – emanate from the places we’re from. There’s no escaping the fact that home, as a physical locale and a remembered idea, is either restrictive or emboldening or sometimes both, and characters who bear the mark of their place are simply more believable to me.

That’s what I loved about living in Lafayette, Louisiana, for five years during graduate school. The language, food, and landscape were different from any other place I’d ever visited, and while I lived there I took every opportunity to immerse myself in it. I think it made me a better writer because it made me more curious about North Carolina, the place I call home. It made me truly investigate the aspects of my “place” that make it so distinct, and I tried to represent this distinctiveness when I portrayed western North Carolina in A Land More Kind Than Home.

Wiley Cash is from western North Carolina, a region that figures prominently in his fiction. His stories have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Roanoke Review and The Carolina Quarterly. A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME (William Morrow/ HarperCollins, April 2012) is his first novel.

Wiley holds a B.A. in Literature from the University of North Carolina-Asheville, an M.A. in English from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He has received grants and fellowships from the Asheville Area Arts Council, the Thomas Wolfe Society, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo.

He and his wife currently live in West Virginia where he teaches fiction writing and American literature at Bethany College. He also teaches in the Low-Residency MFA Program in Fiction and Nonfiction Writing at Southern New Hampshire University.

To read more 1/2 Dozens by novelists, essayists, poets,