Sunday, October 1, 2017

Wiley Cash talks about his devastating, gorgeous, profound new novel, The Last Ballad, fame, memory, Appalachia, 1929, and so much more

Wiley Cash is a master. Who else writes such breathtaking prose and such stunners of stories? His newest, The Last Ballad, is set in Appalachia in 1929, about a single mother struggling in a textile mill--and it's nothing short of extraordinary. Plus, honestly, Wiley is one of the kindest, most generous souls around, which only makes it even more of an honor to host him here.

He's the New York Times best selling author of the novels The Last Ballad, A Land More Kind Than Home, and This Dark Road to Mercy. He currently serves as the writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina-Asheville and teaches in the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA.Thank you, thank you, Wiley.

Your sense of place, the hardscrabble existence some people eke out, is just  astonishing. There is so much desperation in this book, that it made it feel so timely  and so real. What was your research like? Was there ever a time when you got up from where you write feeling discombobulated?

My research was three-tiered: First, because I’m always teaching at one university or another, I always have access to databases and reference collections. While working on The Last Ballad I was teaching at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and their library had an extensive North Carolina special collection. I was able to find resources there – first person accounts from Ella May Wiggins’s family, a memoir by labor organizer Fred Beal – that I would not have been able to find anywhere else.

Second, I’m from Gastonia, North Carolina, where The Last Ballad is set, and I was familiar with the mills that were affected by the strike, and I was familiar with the areas and neighborhoods and parts of town that I wrote about in the novel. It was an amazing thing to be able to return home and walk the same ground my characters had walked. I even had the opportunity to visit the mill where Ella May worked a 72-hour workweek for only $9. The mill, while dilapidated and dangerous, is still in operation. A man who offered me a tour said the mill had employed around 200 people when he began working there in the late 1970s. On the day of my tour there were two women employed.

Finally, I was able to immerse myself in the cultural moment of the 1929 strike by listening to the music that came out of Gaston County in the year before the depression. Many of the mill workers were from Appalachia, and when they headed east after being lured by great promises of easy life in the mills they brought with them their songs and stories and instruments. Much of the music that came out of the strike, including the protest songs Ella May wrote and performed, was based on early ballads that had gained popularity in Appalachia. To listen to that music now is to hear the defiant spirit of a people who were lied to and double-dealt, but who refused to give up.  

Part of the beauty of this novel (and it is absolutely gorgeous) are the different voices threading together, unspooling the tale. How did you go about ensuring that each voice was different, that each arc carried all the way through? (Which you did exquisitely.)

I kept reminding myself that history and the events that comprise the history of an event or the collective memory of a town are not single, fixed things. Each of these characters has her or his experience of the events surrounding the strike. While Ella’s is the central perspective, especially because she’s the heart and moral center of the novel, the experiences of others are necessary in order to give the reader a true estimate of what the summer of 1929 felt like. I adhere to the facts and dates of the strike as they unfolded over that violent summer; those were automatic when writing, and I eventually internalized the facts to the point that I no longer thought of them. What I focused on was the experience of living through something like this and how I could best offer readers a glimpse of the many facets of that shared experience. This is a novel about an historical event, but it’s portrayed through several histories. Too many histories have been and are continuing to be erased in the United States. In this novel I tried to gather and hold together as many as I could.

Can we talk about fame? This novel deservedly has a huge initial printing (100,000) and so much buzz, you could start your own hive. How does that feel? Does it interfere with what you are writing now—or with your image of yourself as a writer?

Honestly, it doesn’t really mean anything to me because nothing matters until the book goes on sale, and even then you want know anything about the success of it for weeks. And what does success mean? For me, success means that my hobby has become my career, and I’ll feel successful as long as I can continue on while supporting my family.

Another thing that makes it all feel relevant and less overwhelming is the fact that my book no longer belongs to me once the manuscript is out of my hands. Publishing, even at the smallest publishing house, is a group effort. Many hands touch a book before it arrives on the shelf, and many hearts wrap themselves around it. There are a number of people who have worked very hard on this book, and I want it to succeed for them as badly as I want it to succeed for my family and me. I’ve learned to stop calling them my books once they leave my desk. It becomes our book, no matter whether I’m talking to my editor, agent, the sales department, or a bookseller somewhere in Middle America. Everyone is invested. Everyone has something at stake.

Ella, a civil rights activist, is murdered in 1929, but it falls to her daughter years later to tell the ramifications of the story. Do you think—especially now in this awful political climate—that we can finally learn from the past and set things right?

I don’ know. I hope so. I was wrapping up The Last Ballad during the 2016 presidential campaign. Here I was writing a novel about a strong, independent woman standing up to the forces of greed while watching a campaign that pitted a strong independent woman against the forces of greed. And then, in 2017, we see the rise of white supremacy and the invocation of the confederate relic as a way forward for racist white America. Readers will find this exact worldview perpetrated by violent white extremists in The Last Ballad. I thought I was writing a novel about 1929; it turns out that I was writing a novel about 2017. I gave a voice to Ella May Wiggins, a woman who was murdered for taking a stand against white supremacy in Gastonia, North Carolina, and years from now someone will give a voice to Heather Heyer, a woman who was murdered for taking a similar stand in Charlottesville, Virginia.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Lately I’ve been really obsessed with memory, both its layering over time and its slow sloughing off. I lost my father to a brain tumor last summer, and in his final months we watched his memories and his grasp of language peel away from his mind in a way that felt physical. At the same time I was watching our two-year-old daughter gather language about her and hold on to memories and find ways to use language to share with us what she remembered and what she wanted to hold on to. The two events were tragic and beautiful and magical. I can’t stop thinking about it.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Perhaps what I’m most excited about on the upcoming tour for The Last Ballad? At several tour stops I’ll be in-conversation with authors whose towering reputations and immense talent both inspire and overwhelm me. I’m so honored that they agreed to join me on the road. A few of them are Charles Frazier, Lee Smith, Randall Kenan, Jill McCorkle, Bronwyn Dickey, Daniel Wallace, and Kevin Maurer. These are people whose work ethic and worldview I admire very much, and I can’t wait to talk with them about The Last Ballad, the books they’re working on, and anything else audiences would like to know about. An in-conversation event that I’m really looking forward to will be with my wife Mallory in our hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, on October 6. I have no idea what we’ll talk about, but I know it will be funny, heartfelt, and real.

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