Unlocking Character: A Conversation with Wiley Cash

In 2012, Wiley’s Cash’s novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, wowed readers and critics and booksellers, including those who sit on the selection committee for our Discover Great New Writers program. A Land More Kind Than Home is a classic Southern Gothic that uses a trio of voices to tell the story of a young man’s coming of age in the wake of tragedy; it’s a novel that so assured, it’s hard to remember that it’s actually Wiley’s debut.

This Dark Road to Mercy, Wiley’s second novel, takes a less gothic, more noir, turn with the story of a man whose well-intentioned, but ultimately poor, choices endanger his family—and himself. This isn’t a story of black hats vs. white hats; it’s a layered story of living in the grey area, of meaning well and behaving badly, consequences be damned.

Wiley’s still on the road talking to readers about The Last Ballad, and was gracious enough to give us a few minutes to talk shop via email.

Where did The Last Ballad start for you?
I grew up in Gastonia, North Carolina, completely unaware of the history of the mill. Firestone purchased the mill not long after the 1929 strike, which was one of the only communist-led strikes in American history. It turned the city upside down, people died, and families were run out of town. But by the time I was born in 1977, Gastonia had completely buried the story of the Loray Mill strike.

It wasn’t until I went to grad school in 2003 that one of my professors learned that I was from Gastonia and mentioned the Loray Mill strike. I researched the name Loray Mill and was shocked to learn that the place I’d always known as the Firestone Plant was the epicenter of one of the most important labor movements in American history. It had all occurred in my hometown, and I had grown up knowing nothing about it. My mother and father were born and raised in mill villages close to Loray in 1945 and 1943 respectively, and they never heard about the Loray Mill or Ella May Wiggins, the woman who would become the face of the strike. This is not surprising, especially because they came of age during the Red Scare, when any mention of communism or anyone with supposed communist ties were reason enough to keep quiet.

I was raised in Gastonia during the Cold War, and many of those restrictions still applied. This is to say that the silence surrounding the history of the strike was a confluence of things: in 1929, society was turned upside down when the poor organized to make demands of the rich; the strikers were led by avowed communists; people were shot and killed. Gastonia wanted to forget that story. The city is just now beginning to come to terms with its own legacy. It made me realize that history is not a fixed thing, and it made me understand that politics and public sentiment can dictate what is retained and what is lost.

Why did you decide to switch to Historical-Capital-H fiction? (The obvious answer being why not, you’re a writer…)
Something about this story pulled me back. My previous novels were historical in a sense that they were grounded in their historical moments. A Land More Kind Than Home was set in the 1980s, which was the era that showcased the rise and fall of the southern televangelist, and This Dark Road to Mercy was set in the summer of 1998 against the backdrop of the McGwire/Sosa homerun race, which, I would argue, was the last time Americans were united by something positive.

But The Last Ballad was set in the distant past in the summer of 1929, a very different era than the 80s or 90s. Because the novel is based on a real event that unfolded over the course of that summer, I was shackled to that period. But there was also great freedom and joy in writing this novel because of its reliance on history. It was fascinating and disheartening to find so many connections between now and then: gender inequality, especially in terms of pay; racial violence fueled by white supremacy; the growing divide between rich and poor that presaged the even greater divides to come during the Depression.

The historical moment also gave me some real direction in creating characters and considering what their daily lives would have been like. Obviously, the greatest challenge was getting it right, whether it was mill technology, period dress, automobile culture, or language. I did an incredible amount of research, but it was a joy, and it took me away from the page, which is right where writers need to be sometimes.

What do you mean when you say the research “took you away from the page?” Don’t you need to be grounded in the details before you get to the heavy lifting: characters, narrative structure…?
It took me away from the page in that it gave me a break from grinding out words, and it was a break that did not feel like a distraction or an indulgence. As you mentioned, it also gave me a way to be grounded in the story and the events, but research is an intellectual exercise, whereas writing is a surprisingly physical and emotional exercise. Sometimes it’s nice to get a break from that, and it’s great when that break contributes to the larger work of your book.

Did you start with the story idea or Ella Mae’s voice?
Both, kind of, I started with Ella May and I questioned why I had never learned the true story of a woman who was a feminist and civil rights leader before those terms were staples of the progressive movement. She was the face and later the martyr of one of the most significant labor struggles in American history, which happened to take place in my hometown, but I didn’t hear her name until I was in graduate school in Louisiana when I was twenty-five years old. I was horrified. Once I decided to write about her I struggled with how to tell her story.

When I was on book tour for A Land More Kind Than Home, my friend and fellow writer Ben Fountain (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) and I drove from Austin to Houston for some overlapping events. Ben’s a North Carolina native and, unlike me, he’d heard of the strike and knew some things about it. He suggested, and suggested strongly, that I tell Ella’s story against the backdrop of the strike.

I didn’t tell him at the time, and I don’t think I’ve told him since, but I fought that advice. The challenge seemed too big. How would I set Ella’s journey from the Tennessee mountains to the mill towns of the North Carolina piedmont, along with the many tragedies she faced, against the story of the strike, which unfolded relatively quickly in only a few months? To be honest, I had a difficult time “finding” Ella in the story of the strike, although there is no doubt that she was its central character and leader. As a way to find Ella on the page I created other characters—an African American labor organizer from New York City, a progressive mill owner who is forced to act against convictions, Ella’s oldest daughter decades after her mother’s death—and I watched Ella as she passed through their lives.

It was fascinating. I had never realized a character by fixing her in the perception of other characters. It unlocked Ella and showed me connections between her and other important people that I may have never discovered had I forced her to take center stage too early.

It’s a terrific device, developing Ella through the POV of the other characters. Is that what made you switch to the third person POV for The Last Ballad?
I made the switch because I wanted there to be some historical distance between the events of the strike and the narration of those events. First person offers such immediacy, such heat. Third person is a little cooler, and a little more distant, a little more sweeping in terms of perspective. That’s how I wanted the novel to feel. I wanted to be able to zero in on those deeply emotional moments between characters, but I wanted the reader to feel part of it instead of feeling the heat from someone else’s first person relation of events.

Although they’re not stories, A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy were both in first person. I’ve written a few short stories, most of them unpublished, in first person. It felt like a very natural way to write those initial novels, but The Last Ballad felt more sprawling, less narrow. It was my first real attempt at sustained third person, especially with so many characters, but I feel like it worked. The only first person in the novel is in the voice of Ella’s daughter Lilly, decades a later when she’s a much older woman.

I modeled Lilly’s voice after Gail Godwin’s narrator in her brilliant novel Flora. I love that book so much. Gail was one of the first people to offer me a blurb for A Land More Kind than Home, and she’s gone out of her way to be kind to me in the years since. She’s a wonderful person and a foundational writer for those of us who are writing about contemporary Appalachia without the rosy glasses.

Lilly’s voice is fantastic.
Lilly’s voice was a lot of fun, and writing is felt transcendental. When I sat down I was able to channel her and hear her so clearly, and I was able to see her in the young girl who is portrayed in the earlier chapters that are set in 1929. She’s the same smart, tough woman whether she’s thirteen or eighty-nine. The challenge was tracing her knowledge of events and evolution of self over those many decades.

Characters in realistic fiction, at least the kind I’m trying to write, are not static. They are dynamic, and they have to be shown evolving as people while still hewing to some basic characterizations that will allow readers to take that journey with them, confident that the character, at various stages of her life, is still the same person. Lilly is also a person who learns a lot about herself and her family’s struggle over the course of the novel. Each time she was on the page she was burdened by a different set of facts, and I had to be keenly aware of what she knew and what may be on her mind each time I put her on the page.

Who doesn’t love fierce Ladies-of-a-Certain-Age? Lilly’s such a product of the place and the time and her family’s circumstances. The poverty is brutal in The Last Ballad, and yet your characters are all matter-of-fact about it—they certainly don’t like it, but there’s very much a feeling of this is just how things are. What surprised you the most as you were writing The Last Ballad?
That may have been what surprised me. We have to keep in mind that this was a time in which there were no safety nets for impoverished families. There were no workplace protections. Racial and gender discrimination was legislated. There were roadblocks to humanity, to realizing one’s agency, and potential. Self-actualization for women and African Americans was warned against, even violently punished. These threats gave rise to incredible power, the kind of power that comes from righteous indignation, anger, and desperation. This is what fueled Ella May. It’s what made her get on a stage and tell the story of her struggle before mill owners who wanted her dead. It’s what made her demand integration in a union that was violently opposed to it. She was brave, but it was more than that: she was angry and desperate and convicted. And she was right.

She still is.

No one expected anything from Ella Mae, ever, did they? And even Ella Mae is surprised by the way events shake out, isn’t she?
No, no one expected much from her. I think she even surprised herself as she slowly became aware of how dynamic and talented she was. Here is a woman earning $9 for a 72-hour workweek and living in utter poverty taking on corporate bosses in a state that is dominated by mill interests. She’s the ultimate underdog, and she’s the ultimate hero.

That’s part of what’s so shocking about so much of what happens in TLB: the hardscrabble day-to-day, the callousness. Ella Mae really just wants to make things better for her family. She’s not thinking about making history, is she?
No, that would’ve been far from her mind, especially because her concerns were so immediate and so dire. This phrase is thrown around a lot, but she was ahead of her time in every conceivable way.

Watching how women move through The Last Ballad – not just Ella Mae, but also her friend and neighbor, Violet; or Miss Myra, or Claire and Katherine McAdam—their lives are so prescribed (in some cases, the women themselves are putting limits on what they can or will do), is sometimes shocking for a modern reader, though the emotional truths behind their stories is timeless. What did you learn from these women while you were writing?
In terms of female characters, the three most important are Ella, her old friend Violet, and her new friend Katherine. As we’ve discussed, Ella is a poor white single mother who is swept in a violent mill strike and becomes the somewhat unwitting face of it. She quickly comes to terms with her new celebrity and the agency her bravery has earned her. Her friend Violet is a poor African American neighbor, but she’s also very self-possessed and bold. She may face the most discrimination due to her race and gender, but she’s also more outspoken about it and aware of it and engaged with it on a day to day basis because she has to be to survive.

On the other hand, Katherine, the wife of a wealthy mill owner, sees Ella and Violet’s poverty as a type of freedom. They’re unmarried, they don’t face the trappings of wealth and social status. She feels more trapped inside her gilded cage than she believes they are trapped inside their poverty. She completely romanticizes their struggle, and their plight becomes her pet project. What I learned from them is the same thing that I’ve learned from the strong women in my life: there’s a connection that is forged between them because of the circumstances they often find themselves rallying against.

Bessemer City and Stumptown (the part of town that Ella Mae and Violet live in) are almost characters in their own right in TLB. Like Ella Mae, Jess/Adelaide/Clem from A Land More Kind Than Home are all seriously connected to their community; Wade, Brady and Pruitt of This Dark Road to Mercy have no real sense of place behind them—is place the key to your characters’ development?
Place is always central to my writing because it’s been central to my development as a writer and person. I had never thought of the dichotomy of my characters that are anchored to place as opposed to those who seem unmoored, but your reading of them makes perfect sense. I do feel that my characters who know the place they’re from and cling to it in some way are more interesting and more steady. There’s something about being of a place that makes a character feel real to me, and I only want to write about and spend time with characters who feel real.

You’ve written three novels in less than a decade. Is there something you’ve learned while writing each one that you’ve applied to the next? (Presuming you’re already working on whatever comes after The Last Ballad…)
While writing A Land More Kind Than Home I learned how to take three strong characters with distinct voices who all imparted separate sets of knowledge and forge them into what I hope feels like a cohesive narrative. I really struggled with the evolution of plot in that novel, but by the end of it I feel like I came out knowing how to carry tension from one scene to the next.

That really influenced my writing of Dark Road, which is a more plot-centric novel. In that book I featured a first-person narrator who is deeply troubled and capable of incredible violence. I learned to let go of my fear and allow characters like him to take the lead.

With Last Ballad I learned how to construct a “scene” around a character at rest. You may notice that nearly each time you meet a new character she or he is seated or otherwise not moving. I wanted their intellect, emotional range, sense of history, etc. to be the way that readers conceptualized them. Each character is introduced by the thoughts or memories she or he is having when they first appear in the novel. That’s where they’re all grounded.

Gail Godwin isn’t the only writer who’s influenced you. Can we talk about Ernest Gaines for a minute? A Lesson Before Dying is a modern classic, the story of a young teacher and the bond he forms with an inmate on death row; set in the 1940s, published in 1983, Gaines’s masterpiece reads like it was written last year. (Much like the story Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin, first published in 1957, and collected in Going to Meet the Man. A Lesson Before Dying reads like it was written very recently.)
Ernest Gaines and his work has meant everything to my development as a writer and literary citizen. I first read his fiction when I was an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. Although he was writing about the African American experience in southwest Louisiana in between the wars, I saw a similarity in the way his characters worked and revered land and the ways my grandparents talked about working and revering land. I felt a connection to his fiction and evocation of place that I didn’t feel to other writers. This is the reason I decided to attend graduate school at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette where he served as writer-in-residence for decades. I studied under him, and we became friends. I visited him and his wife over the summer. His work exemplifies the dignity of the human spirit in the midst of struggle: the struggle to survive, to maintain cultural traditions, to cling to land that runs the risk of being taken. Him putting words on the page is an act of reclamation.

I’m always reading one of his books. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I can say that I learned a lot from his novel Of Love and Dust and the stories in Bloodline. From his fiction I learned how to use dialogue to impart information to both a character and the reader. Nothing is wasted in Gaines’s work. Characters do not only talk to one another, and scenes are never designed simply for the reader’s benefit. In his work there is an incredible sense of shared experience between the characters and the reader.

You’re just finishing a massive tour; what have you learned from your readers?
This book tour has been looooong. I’m in Atlanta right now, and I’ll be in Ohio in a few days. But it’s been a blast. We hosted 600 people at the release event in Asheville NC where musician Shannon Whitworth sang and played some of Ella’s music and Charles Frazier and I talked about historical fiction and strong female characters. After that, book tour took me all over the country for something like 35 events. I’ve got a few left in me. It’s been a blast. I published a very political novel at a very tumultuous political moment in American history, and conversations about where we are and where we were have dominated the Q&A at my events. My readers are politically and culturally engaged, and I’ve learned a lot from them.

What’s next?
Next? Next is a nap. And then another event tonight.

The Last Ballad is available now.

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