Writing about home
In his lyrical debut, A Land More Kind Than Home, North Carolina author Wiley Cash uses multiple perspectives to tell the story of an event that divides a community. Here, he talks about the importance of place in fiction, the power of faith and what he’s working on next.
You were raised in the evangelical church. How did that factor into your writing A Land More Kind Than Home? Did your church share any characteristics with the church in your book?
I was raised in a Southern Baptist church in Gastonia, North Carolina, and although I’ve never picked up a snake or taken sips of strychnine, I can say that I’ve witnessed things and felt both a peace and a turmoil that I can’t explain. I think once you’ve experienced that, regardless of how skeptical a believer you are or how jaded you become, there’s always power in the purity of original experience. A few years ago, my wife and I were watching The Apostle. My wife was raised Catholic, and she didn’t know what to make of the scene where Robert Duvall, who plays a fallen preacher who’s running from a murder charge, is baptizing people in a roadside creek. “What in the world are they doing?” she asked, her eyebrows lifted in disbelief. I had a hard time explaining it to her, mostly because I was fighting back tears at the beauty of the scene.
This is probably going to irritate people on both the right and the left side of this issue, but I’m interested in and respectful of any religious group that adheres to a system of belief with real conviction. If that conviction compels you to pick up a serpent and speak in tongues, I say go for it. I feel the same way about the person who’s compelled to pray toward Mecca five times a day. That Holy Ghost Christian and that devout Muslim might find each other strange and perhaps even threatening, but they probably have more in common than is apparent to either one of them.
You were raised in North Carolina, which is also the setting for the book. Your characters clearly represent the area without ever teetering into a caricature of rural folks. I’ve certainly read books that didn’t succeed in that regard. Was it challenging to capture those voices?
I feel the same away about caricatures in literature as I do about stereotypes in life: they’re for lazy people who don’t want to invest time or energy in discovering the truth about people who are different from them. When I teach creative writing, I tell my students that caricature, stereotype, and cliché exist because they elicit an automatic response that is always based on something the reader has seen before in the form of image, character, or plot. That’s why these things are so pervasive, but that’s also why they’re so useless during the creative process. When writers give a reader a caricature, what they’re saying is, “All right, I got lazy with this one, so feel free to insert a stock image here.”
I want readers to care about the characters I’ve spent time and energy and blood creating. I want them to feel they have a stake in the characters’ lives because they see something of themselves in them, especially the worst characters. It’s hard to be invested in the lives of caricatures; it’s almost impossible to care about what happens to stereotypes. I tried to create characters who seem real, and I gave each of them a stake in what happens in the story and how the story unfolds in the community’s life. If I would’ve relied on stereotypes then it would have been impossible to give any of these characters the necessary agency to respond to this kind of tragedy.
You switch between character perspectives with ease, but it seems as though it would be difficult to do so while also providing insight from the characters’ pasts. Did you write the chapters in the order they appear? How did you keep the chronology straight?
I relied on a multi-voice narrative for two reasons. One, I’ve found that when something happens that involves a number of my family members or several of my friends, everyone narrates their version of it based on their individual perspective. I suspect this is the same with other people’s family and friends, but hearing that chorus of voices narrate separate stories that coalesce around a single event always stuck with me. Two, this is a pretty popular model with Southern novels and stories; I’m thinking of Gaines’s A Gathering of Old Men, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury, and Thomas Wolfe’s novella The Lost Boy. Each of these works is focused around a single event, but the authors rely on the community or the family to fully communicate that event’s importance.
I felt that the story of A Land More Kind Than Home, especially the tragedy behind it, belonged to the community. It wouldn’t have felt right to assign the narration of the story or the point of view to any one particular character. I believe this is the community’s story; this is why the community has to tell it.
Keeping the chronology straight was pretty difficult sometimes. The biggest challenge was staying clear on what each narrator knows at each point in the story, a problem amplified by the fact that the novel takes place over six days. Aside from the opening scene, the novel is pretty linear, so that made it a little easier to keep the narrators’ stories and their knowledge of events chronological. Toward the end of the revision process, I made calendars to track the development of the story over those six days. I really wish I’d done that earlier. Structuring a novel is a lot like solving an equation, and it helped me to see all the values and integers in the visual equation instead of trying to keep them straight in my head.
How long did it take you to write the novel? Will you tell me more about the process?
In the spring of 2004, I wrote a short story from the perspective of a grandfather whose autistic grandson is smothered during a healing service one Sunday morning. The grandfather and the autistic boy’s father find out the terrible news after the local sheriff comes out to the farm to tell them. The story was about 25 pages, but it wasn’t really a story; it was more of an event. I sat on it for about a year before I went back to it and tried to reimagine the scene. I realized that the story was much larger than one person’s perspective. I decided to attempt to write a novel with the autistic boy’s death at the center. I experimented with several different narrators, and, as a result, the grandfather’s narration was cut even though he remained a very important character.
By the fall of 2008 I’d landed a great agent who represents several authors whose style and regional focus are very similar to mine. This agent submitted the manuscript to a few houses, but it was rejected by all of them. We worked on the manuscript for about a year and a half, and, eventually, it seemed like there was nowhere else to go in terms of revising it. We agreed to go our separate ways in January of 2010.
I turned to Nat Sobel of Sobel Weber. He’d contacted me after reading an excerpt of the novel that had been published in Crab Orchard Review in the fall of 2008, right after I’d agreed to work with my former agent. I called Nat’s office late on a Friday afternoon, and I was very surprised that he remembered my story. He agreed to consider the manuscript, but he made clear that I’d follow the same process everyone else followed, from submitting the query letter, to submitting the first 50 pages, to finally submitting the full manuscript. I was ready to give up on the novel at this point, and I probably would have if my wife hadn’t encouraged me to give it one more shot with Nat.
I submitted the full manuscript to him in February 2010. He read it and offered some comments toward revision. At this point, I had to decide whether or not I wanted to go back and revisit a manuscript that I’d thought was complete months and months earlier. Maybe it was hope, or maybe it was desperation, but I sat down at my desk and considered Nat’s comments. I worked on the novel the entire summer of 2010. Nat started submitting the novel in the fall, and the first editor who saw it purchased it in a two-book deal.
Did writing while away from the region you wrote about affect you in any way? How?
When I moved to Louisiana in 2003, I suddenly found myself in a region that was very foreign to me. People’s accents were different, the music was different, the food was different and the weather was very different. After just a couple of months, I realized that I was desperately homesick. Because of this I began reading North Carolina authors like Clyde Edgerton, Kaye Gibbons and Charles Chesnutt. I found that in reading about North Carolina I had the chance to return home, and it wasn’t long before I realized that writing about home would make that place even more real to me. The result of that compulsion to recreate North Carolina is A Land More Kind Than Home.
Aside from reading fiction set in North Carolina, I poured through the collected, published photographs of people like Rob Amberg and Tim Barnwell, both of whom are photographers from western North Carolina. Their photos were important to me while I was living in the swamplands of Louisiana. I also studied a few books on the flora and fauna of western North Carolina just to make sure I got the names of trees and flowers correct. I never realized how important that was until I read authors like Fred Chappell and Ron Rash. Recently, I picked up Ron’s new book, The Cove, and saw that his heroine makes fence posts from black locust trunks, and I thought, Hey, I got that right in my book!
Music was also really important to me during while I was writing the novel, especially the songs of North Carolina musicians like Malcolm Holcombe (the best singer/songwriter in America, in my opinion), the Biscuit Burners, David Holt, and many others. Even now I can flip through the pages of the novel and remember exactly what I was listening to when I wrote particular scenes.
On your website, you mention your next novel, which you indicate is also set in western North Carolina. Have you completed this book? Are there any common threads between it and A Land More Kind Than Home?
I’m currently working on a second novel that is set in my hometown of Gastonia, North Carolina. At the novel’s center is a washed-up minor league pitcher named Wade Chesterfield who stumbles upon a cache of stolen money and then kidnaps his daughters from a foster home. Like A Land More Kind Than Home, my next novel has three narrators: 12-year-old Easter, Wade’s world-weary oldest daughter; Brady Weller, a private investigator who’s hired by the girls’ grandparents; and Bobby “Baby Boy” Pruitt, a steroid-pumping ex-slugger turned bounty hunter whose promising career was cut short by an errant pitch to the head by Wade Chesterfield.
How has the experience of publishing your first novel influenced your teaching?
I don’t know that having a novel published has influenced my teaching in any perceivable way. I’ve always been fairly pragmatic when it comes to teaching creative writing. I’ve always encouraged my students to understand that writing is not the overly-romantic process that is portrayed in movies and on television. You’re not supposed to take your leather-bound journal and a pack of clove cigarettes to a local coffee shop and make a public display of being a writer. I tell them that writing is a job; the only difference is that, unlike many jobs, writing is lonely, frustrating, and marked by failure. But failure makes you a better writer. Each rejection slip is an invitation to improve.
Read a review of A Land More Kind Than Home.