Conversations with Wiley Cash
WV LIVING takes a peek inside the mind of author Wiley Cash.
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In his debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, Wiley Cash takes us inside the haunting world of snake-handling in the Holiness movement in western North Carolina that Publisher’s Weekly says is “...a chilling descent into the world of religious frenzy.” The book’s title comes from the last poetic lines of Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again. Cash exposes a corrupt ex-con-turned-preacher through the eyes of the local sheriff, an elderly midwife, and a daring young boy named Jess who is protective of his older, autistic brother. Jess is an innocent outsider looking in who questions the actions of those closest to him and a secretive culture that remains loyal, not only to its own, but to a new and insidious evil. Cash slowly peels away the faded newspaper stuck to the front windows of the River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following and reveals the blinding faith of those who believe and practice the literal words of the Bible: And these signs will follow those who believe: In my name they will cast out demons, they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will place their hands on the sick, and they will get well (Mark 16: 17–18).
A native of North Carolina, Wiley Cash is an assistant professor of English at Bethany College. He also teaches in the Low-Residency MFA Program at Southern New Hampshire University. Cash currently lives in Morgantown with his wife, Mallory. A Land More Kind Than Home was published in April 2012 by William Morrow/HarperCollins.
WV LIVING – Your name is so distinctive and memorable. Is it a family name?
Wiley Cash – Wiley is a family name. It’s the middle name of my grandfather and my father, so my parents decided to call me Wiley. As far as my last name goes, I’ve always heard that we’re distantly related to Johnny Cash’s people, but I never received a Christmas present or a birthday card from him or June, so I can’t really vouch for it.
WVL – Tell me about your transition from North Carolina to West Virginia.
WC – I’ve lived in West Virginia since the fall of 2008, first in Bethany for three years, now in Morgantown. I applied for jobs after graduate school and realized Bethany College stood out because of its location. I call western North Carolina home, but I knew that the little village of Bethany would feel the most like home.
WVL – Do you have a favorite West Virginia author who has influenced your work?
WC – Breece D’J Pancake. I began writing A Land More Kind Than Home in graduate school at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. One day, my advisor, who’d just finished reading some of my novel-in-progress, dropped a copy of The Collected Stories of Breece D’J Pancake on my desk. He said, “This guy writes about West Virginia in the same way you’re trying to write about North Carolina.” He was right. I learned a lot.
WVL – How important is a sense of place in your writing?
WC – As a writer, place is very important to me, but, as a Southerner, it’s even more important. I may have moved to Louisiana and then West Virginia, but I never really left home.
WVL – Why did you want to study fiction with Louisiana novelist Ernest Gaines?
WC – I learned how to be a writer from Ernest Gaines. He demythologizes the process. Whenever people ask him for advice about how to become a writer, he tells them they need to read before they write. He also makes it clear that you have to treat writing like a job—he sat down and wrote for eight hours a day as a young, struggling writer. People have the misconception that writers hammer out a 300-page manuscript over the weekend and then mail it off to their publisher on Monday. I wish it worked like that. Writing a novel is a long, lonely process. There’s nothing romantic about it.
WVL – What was the inspiration for your novel?
WC – In the fall of 2003, I took a course in African-American literature, and one day my professor, Reggie Scott Young, brought in a news story about a young African-American boy with autism who was smothered during a church healing service in a storefront church on Chicago’s South Side. Although I was raised in an evangelical Southern Baptist church, I was familiar enough with charismatic belief to understand its power, and I was particularly drawn to the Pentecostal tradition, especially the Holiness movement that takes the Bible as the literal word of God. But when I thought about sitting down at my desk to begin the story, I knew I’d immediately face several insurmountable problems: as interested as I was in the Holiness movement, I’d never been to Chicago’s South Side, and I knew nothing about the experience of growing up in the city’s African-American neighborhoods. It was impossible for me to attempt to speak for a cultural experience that existed so far outside my own.
A few weeks later, I went back to the story of the young autistic boy who’d died in Chicago, and I imagined the same tragedy unfolding in western North Carolina. In my mind, I saw a church sitting on the riverbank in Marshall, a small town in Madison County only a short drive from Asheville.