Does Seeing Your Roommate Weep Help Dry Your Own Tears? A Conversation with Wiley Cash

Dear Reader,

This is a first novel?

That’s what the Discover selection committee readers and I said more than once when we were reading Wiley Cash’s debut, A Land More Kind Than Home, A Summer ’12 Discover Great New Writers selection and a New York Times Notable Book.  We were hardly alone: The Atlanta  Journal-Constitution called Land  “[a] clear-sighted, graceful debut.”

 Spend more than a couple of minutes talking with the talented, down-to-earth, and very funny Wiley Cash, and, well, it’s no surprise that his storytelling is mature and thoughtful. So here’s Wiley on learning how to tell stories and handle literary rejections,  what the characters he creates teach him about normal people, and answering an age-old question: Does seeing your roommate weep help dry your own tears?  Interview by Michael Jauchen for the Discover Blog.

Cheers, Miwa

Wiley Cash’s A Land More Kind Than Home revolves around the mysterious death of an autistic child during a church service in rural North Carolina. Multiple voices narrate the story with a signature Southern deliberateness, but they slyly cohere into a plot-driven novel with propulsive heat. Land has all the markings of Southern fiction–religion, death, the natural landscape, and mystery–and it’s garnered well-deserved praise from the likes of Fred Chappell, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Clyde Edgerton.

I perhaps come to Wiley’s work with a unique perspective because from 2003-2008, I was roommates with Wiley in Lafayette, Louisiana, where the novel first took shape. With the upcoming paperback release of Land, Wiley and I talked a bit about the book’s inception and development, the South’s literary and non-literary influences, and the things a writer can learn only through co-habitation. — Michael Jauchen

A lot has been written about the similarities between being a novelist and being a roommate, and I don’t want to retread old ground. So what would you say is the biggest difference between those two occupations?

The big difference between being a novelist and being a roommate is who you learn from and what you learn. When I’m writing I learn a lot about my characters because I live with them every day; I learn what they fear, how they react, how they heal. The characters you create teach you a lot about normal people.

On the other hand, I learned a lot about you during our four years as roommates: not to make eye contact or speak to you in the morning; that you enjoy orange juice with popcorn; and you’ve been known to muster a tear at midnight when Mardi Gras is over. All that to say this: you taught me absolutely nothing about normal people.

Speaking of graduate school, that’s where A Land More Kind Than Home first took shape. And on one level, can’t we think of the novellas a long homework assignment? You wrote it for class, you turned it in, you got a grade on it. But then, even after graduate school, when your homework assignment was done, you kept working on it.
            So a two part question:
            A) How’d the book change after graduate school?
            B) Why would anyone possibly want to do homework when they didn’t have to?

That was a long assignment, wasn’t it? I wrote the first draft of it as a story in a workshop in the spring of 2004, and I turned in a final draft to my editor in the spring of 2011. Seven years: I think I worked on it for so long because I’d given so much of myself over to it. I wanted all the sacrifices I’d made to be worth the time I’d invested. A lot of people have asked me, “What’s the hardest thing about publishing a book?” My answer is always the same: “Writing a book.”

When I first started writing the book I was really concerned with creating rich characters. As a graduate student you have no money for entertainment or real fun, so you and your friends are constantly reading, thinking about, and talking about great, big, important literary works. When we think about literary novels and short stories, we tend to think about works that are character-driven; basically, the authors create interesting, well-rounded characters, and then hopefully something interesting happens to them that will make the reader want to continue turning the pages. Most of the time plot is secondary in these kinds of novels. At first, plot was secondary to me.

After grad school I took a second look at my novel and realized that I’d written three character studies; there wasn’t really a plot that you could trace through the pages. I spent a couple of years after I finished my degree trying to figure out the arc of the story. The characters seemed real to me, and I heard their voices clearly, but I had to corral them into a narrative.

I’m glad you brought up the different voices in the novel. Obviously, A Land More Kind Than Home continues a tradition of voice-driven novels that you see in Southern writers like Faulkner and Ernest Gaines. But as you know, I also have a notorious habit of talking to myself–about the weather, about my imaginary girlfriends, about my dreams of one day playing Eponine in Les Mis. So you know I too am a man of many voices.

I’m wondering if you can talk about how these three influences (Faulkner, Gaines, your roommate’s speech through the wall) helped shaped your decision to make voice such a guiding force of the novel.

Both Faulkner and Gaines grew up around talkers, and they listened closely and captured the rhythm of the language of the people from the distinct places they called “home.” I tried to do that in A Land More Kind Than Home. Jess’s narrative voice is modeled on the conversations I remember having with my friends when I was nine; Adelaide’s is modeled after my grandmother’s, Lucille Adeline Cash; and Clem’s voice borrows heavily from my own father’s manner of speaking.

But I learned just as much about how to tell stories by listening to other storytellers tell them, and that definitely goes for my group of friends. You can learn a lot about how to capture voice and how to structure dialogue by listening to people in conversation, but in order to learn how to tell stories you have to listen to good storytellers. We were lucky to have a lot of friends who told incredible stories, and we’d sit outside on warm nights and tell them over and over so that your stories became my stories and my stories soon belonged to someone else. We learned how to build suspense, what aspects of a person’s appearance are important in having a listener “see” him, and how to deliver a well-timed punch line.

Do you have a favorite voice in the book? Does your favorite voice belong to your favorite character?

For me, picking a favorite character or a favorite voice is like picking a favorite child, which is weird because my wife and I don’t have children. So, I guess that means I view my characters as my children, which is even weirder, isn’t it?

The three voices in the novel are all different because each character possesses a very distinct knowledge of the novel’s central tension: a young autistic boy has been smothered during a healing service. Only Jess knows why his brother was inside that church, but he doesn’t quite understand all the implications and repercussions. I tried to instill his voice with both an adult sense of guilt and a child’s sense of mystery. Adelaide knows the full history of the church, and she understands the power of its pastor, Carson Chambliss, and how that power works on the boys’ mother; her voice is tough but benevolent, and she’s funny and intuitive as well. Clem, the local sheriff, is aware of Carson Chambliss’s past run-ins with the law, and now he’s stuck trying to figure out a way to get the truth from the incident.

But I think my favorite all-time voice is yours, especially when you delivered Eponine’s lines from Les Mis during your morning showers: much more impressive than Samantha Barks in the recent film version. I think you were totally robbed, especially after I saw the VHS tape of you playing the part in your high school’s 1994 production.

I really appreciate that. Tom Hooper never contacted me after I sent the tape to him (overnight FedEx no less, which costs a fortune). Ah, well, dreams shattered.

This brings me to another aspect of writing I’d like to talk about though: rejection. When we were roommates, you and I were regularly sending work out to magazines, which naturally meant we were both regularly receiving self-addressed stamped envelopes with rejection notes inside. What’s the best story of rejection about A Land More Kind Than Home that you’ve got? Likewise, do you think having a roommate who is also getting rejected constantly helps mitigate the Sisyphus-like pain that comes with writing? Put simply: Does seeing your roommate weep help dry your own tears?

I have clear memories of both of us standing around the front door every day around the time the mail was delivered, hoping we’d receive something—anything—from a magazine editor. Those early days of rejection could be pretty tough, and I think it made me feel better to know someone under the same roof was going through the same process. For each story I’ve had published, I probably averaged twenty rejections—probably more. It’s a tough business, and you develop a hard shell pretty quickly. After a while, rejection just becomes part of the process. My friend Matt Bondurant, who happens to be an amazing writer, always warns writers against loving their work. You need that healthy distance.

My best rejection story about A Land More Kind Than Home took place over a couple years. When I lived in Louisiana, I submitted excerpts of the novel to a famous literary magazine out of Louisiana State University, which was only an hour away. I’d submit a story on Monday, get a rejection on Friday, and start all over the next week. Each time the editor rejected a piece of mine, he’d always include an encouraging note, which really means a lot to writers who are used to getting form rejections on tiny slips of paper. He probably rejected three stories and four or five excerpts of my novel. Right after my novel sold to William Morrow, I actually saw that editor at a writing conference where he was working at a different magazine. I introduced myself and thanked him for all those handwritten notes, and I told him that my novel had just been purchased in a two-book deal. He was genuinely excited for me, and he encouraged me to submit something to the magazine he was now editing. I went home from the conference and submitted something immediately. It probably didn’t take two days for him to email me and write, “Wiley, I hate to say no again, but…”

Oh yeah, the two-book deal! You’re writing another novel now, right? Can you say anything about it? Most importantly, I’m interested in what it’s like writing this one with a new roommate (your wife)?

My second novel is scheduled to be released by William Morrow/HarperCollins in November 2013, and it’s about a washed-up minor league pitcher who kidnaps his two daughters from a foster home in my hometown of Gastonia, North Carolina. Like A Land More Kind Than Home, it’s narrated by three characters: the oldest daughter who’s twelve years old, a private investigator who’s hired to find the girls, and a violent bounty hunter who’s out for money and long-simmering revenge against the girls’ father.

My wife is my first reader, and she reads everything I write before anyone sees it. She was incredibly helpful and insightful when I was revising Land, and it’s been the same with this new novel. She’s also a great reader of other people’s fiction, and we’re constantly talking about what works and what doesn’t work in the novels we’re reading. I trust her literary taste more than anyone’s.

I’m pretty hard to live with when I’m writing, especially when I’m writing under a deadline. My wife is very good at intuiting when I need space to work and when I need someone to pull me away for a break. She’s also incredibly patient, and she’s the first one to support when I make the decision to attend a residency or spend all day locked away at the desk or take a break for dinner and a few drinks. Writers need someone who will inspire them, but they also need someone who knows when to be uninspiring and let life happen. Writing isn’t romantic; it’s lonely and self-defeating and challenging, and being with someone who understands that and the neuroses it gives rise to is integral to staying sane.

So you’re saying she’s a better roommate than me?

I wouldn’t say “better”: perhaps “cleaner,” “quieter,” and more “roommatier.” But “better” is too strong a word.

I’ll take it! Final question: What’s the best book–current or not–you’ve read recently?

In early December, my wife and I took a real vacation to Hawaii and the island of Oahu for two weeks. I stress real because we weren’t there for any events; I didn’t visit any bookstores, and neither of us even checked email. But I took Lonesome Dove with me, a book you suggested I read, and a book that was also suggested to me by Ben Fountain, your fellow Texan (by way of North Carolina). Holy moly was it good. I was sitting on the beach on the North Shore of Oahu, but in my mind I was on the trail to Montana with Gus and Call. I was a little depressed when the book was over because I missed the characters so much. That’s a strange sensation: being in Hawaii and missing two fictional characters and the hardscrabble west.

I told you Lonesome Dove was good.

Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.