Q&A with Debut Author Wiley Cash, "A Land More Kind Than Home"
Cash's A Land More Kind Than Home was named one of our top 10 fiction picks for April. A literary thriller featuring snake handlers, an evil preacher, and an autistic boy who witnesses an act that will upend his life and others, Cash's impressive debut novel goes on sale Tuesday. (Scroll down for a link to an exclusive excerpt.)
Where did you grow up, and how is the land of your childhood important to your writing?
I grew up in Gastonia, North Carolina, just east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I went to college in Asheville and lived there for many years, and I really feel like western North Carolina is my home. Asheville is the last place I lived in North Carolina before I moved to Lafayette, Louisiana, for graduate school. Once I arrived in Cajun Country, I realized I was desperately homesick for the mountains. I started listening to bluegrass and reading and rereading all my favorite North Carolina authors. At the time, I was studying fiction writing under Ernest J. Gaines, a man who’s spent his life writing about the people and the landscape of southwest Louisiana, but I soon learned that he felt compelled to write about Louisiana only after leaving it as a young man. He said that in writing about home while living in California he was able to recreate the place he loved. That sounded good to me, and I gave it a shot. The result is A Land More Kind Than Home.
I got the idea to write A Land More Kind Than Home after one of my professors in Louisiana brought in a news story about an African American boy with autism who’d been smothered during a healing service on Chicago’s South Side. The story is incredibly tragic, and I was bothered that a group of people, including the boy’s mother, could stand by while something like that took place.
I was raised as a Southern Baptist in an evangelical church, so I was familiar with many aspects of charismatic Christianity, although I never witnessed anything nearly as shocking as what happened to the boy in Chicago. I couldn’t help but be intrigued by a group of believers who would take their faith to such extremes. I wanted to write a story about the event, but I’d never traveled to Chicago and I certainly couldn’t represent the African American experience of people living on the South Side. But I know western North Carolina – the people who live there, how they speak, what they believe. I took the story about the autistic boy from Chicago and moved it to Madison County, North Carolina. Once I did that, the story came alive; it became real.
Why do you think the South has historically produced more mythic “writers” (like Faulkner) and more timeless literature (like To Kill a Mockingbird) than seemingly anywhere else in the US?
In terms of specific regions in the South, it seems that Appalachia has always been portrayed as mythic. I’ve been told that the early myths about the region were created because the forests were so impenetrable and the terrain so unforgiving that early settlers would rather imagine what lay out there in the woods, instead of running the risk of dying to find out for certain. I imagine the settlers who arrived in Appalachia probably saw the mountains in those same terms; the mountains were mysterious and capable of taking your life, but they were also beautiful. In A Land More Kind Than Home, Pastor Carson Chambliss is a mythical, larger-than-life character; he too appears out of nowhere and seems to possess powers that inspire both mystery and hope. But Carson Chambliss believes the myths he’s created about himself, and this self-aggrandizement gets him into a lot of trouble when tragedy strikes.
But what to make of those mythic southern writers? I’m thinking of folks like William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, and Flannery O’Connor. Why do these writers live so large in our imaginations? Is it because they’re the keepers of these myths? These are writers who definitely influenced me, and I grew up believing they were part of a very exclusive club. I remember thinking that something set them apart from other American writers simply because they were Southern. I don’t believe the same mystery surrounds contemporary American writers, even those from the South. What happened to those myths?
Among certain southern writers (Harry Crews, Flannery O’Connor, Erskine Caldwell) why does there seem to be a deeper appreciation for evil and/or grotesquery, or at least darkness?
This is a sensitive question to answer because I think much of the darkness, grotesqueness, and evil associated with the South is directly linked to the region’s history of slavery. Once you’ve built a region and a civilization by trafficking in the bodies of humans, it’s difficult to see the world in the bright, beautiful tones of hope and possibility. I think Southerners are keenly aware of their shared past, and we all have to struggle with whether or not we want to acknowledge it as being a part of who we are as a people. It’s terrible. Perhaps in writing about evil and its power, Southern writers are attempting to exorcise some of those ghosts, which is a good thing. But we’ve got a long way to go; we’ll be exorcising those ghosts for years to come.
Favorite writer? Favorite book?
This is a difficult question to answer, but if I had to decide on just one writer and one book I’d probably choose Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, a big, beautiful novel about a young man who longs to leave the confines of his small mountain town. It’s well known that the book is largely autobiographical. Thomas Wolfe was born and raised in Asheville, North Carolina, which is my favorite place on this earth. Wolfe spent his early years wondering if he’d ever get to leave North Carolina; I’ve spent the past few years trying to figure out a way to get back in.
What’s next for you?
My next novel is set in my hometown of Gastonia, North Carolina. It’s about a washed up minor league pitcher who discovers a cache of stolen money and kidnaps his two daughters from a foster home. Of course it can’t be that easy, and he’s got all kinds of good guys and bad guys looking for him and his two little girls. I’m really enjoying writing it. I know I’ll write about North Carolina for the rest of my life; I’m just getting started.
>Download and read an exclusive excerpt of A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME.
*On a personal note: a shout-out to my friends at Asheville's phenomenal, author-friendly Malaprops Bookstore/Cafe, where Wiley will be reading on May 19.