North Caroline Writer Wiley Cash is 2017 Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence and Recipient of Appalachian Heritage Writer’s Award, presented by the West Virginia Center for the book and Shepherd University. Cash is author of A Land More Kind Than Home (2012), which will be the Center for the Book’s One Book, One West Virginia’s Common Read for the State. Cash is also author of This Dark Road to Mercy (2014) and soon to be released novel, The Last Ballad, about union leader Ella May Wiggins, who died in the Carolina mill wars in the early 20th Century.
Wiley Cash was born September 7, 1977, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Cash holds a BA degree from the University of NC, Asheville, an MA from the University of NC, Greensboro, and a Ph.D. from the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. He has received grants and fellowships from the Asheville Arts Council, the Thomas Wolfe Society, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. His stories and essays have appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, Story South, Appalachian Heritage (from whom he received a Pushcart nomination for fiction), Roanoke Review, and the Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Volume I, among others. Cash comes from a long line of Appalachian storytellers, which means, as he has said, "I come from a long line of liars."
Cash’s grandfather Harry Eugene Wiggins, from a South Caroline mill town called Enoree, was one of the earliest storytellers or "liars" to make an impression on a young writer-in-waiting. Cash shares the story of his grandfather’s telling his older sister that elves lived in a bush at the side of their house and if she were quiet and patient she might get a glimpse some cool summer evening. Cash recalls his sister "sitting for hours by that bush, waiting for those elves to come out. She’s still regarded as the best-behaved of the three of us." His own father wasn’t above a tall-tale or two, once sharing with his son his version of how RC Cola got its name—that is, after his own name, Roger Cash. When the eager boy went to school the next day and attempted to repeat the tale during sharing time, his teacher reported to his mom that Wiley "had a shaky relationship with the truth." Cash confesses, "She was right, and it wouldn’t get much steadier."
Cash left the mountains in 2003 to get a Ph.D. in English and creative writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He was determined to study under Ernest J. Gaines, the university’s writer-in-residence, and to make himself into a writer. What working with Gaines taught him was that his stories were "completely ‘placeless’"; they could have been written about anywhere in the country, in the world for that matter, but they achieved no evocation of place. Cash found that living in Cajun Country, "where the accents, music, and food struck [him] as strange and foreign," he was suddenly able to "see and hear all the things" he’d left behind. So he re-read Look Homeward , Angel and just about everything else he could get his hands on that featured home and mountains, and the words allowed him to visualize place: "I couldn’t go to the top of Beaucatcher Mountain and look down through October leaves to see the city of Asheville at sunset. But, when I opened the pages of Look Homeward , Angel, I could." He shared his quest for place and home with his teacher Gaines, who told him about leaving the plantation west of Baton Rouge, where his parents were sharecroppers, and moving to California to go to school and grow up away from Jim Crow—always with the rural South present in his mind, however. Gaines too found that when he read about home, it became suddenly real, visible, audible, and a place to write about and let his characters live and experience as he remembered.
While studying at the University of Louisiana, in Dr. Reggie Young’s African American literature class, the idea for his first novel came to Cash. The class was reading Baldwin’s Go Tell It to the Mountain when Dr. Young shared a news clipping about an autistic African American boy who was smothered at a church service on Chicago’s South Side during a healing service. This story began to settle into Cash’s imagination. Then Gaines, who had been suggesting to Cash that "place" in his stories be a familiar landscape, invited a group of students to spend the weekend at his own family home, a home built on the land next to where the farm had stood that his parents had worked on and where he had spent his childhood. Driving back to the University, across that endless flat land in the fading light of dusk, Cash found that when he squinted his eyes and stared at the cloud bank on the horizon, he could imagine the mountains near Asheville. Thinking of that child smothered in the healing service, he conjured a story unfolding back home, with a local sheriff and a troubling past, a mother who would be torn between following a charismatic preacher and protecting her developmentally impaired son, and a protective little brother who would be one of the narrators of the tale—a tale that explores the dangers of following a leader whose charisma exceeds his moral fiber. Cash found that he could, indeed, "go home again," when words and storytelling took him there; but his first novel was written in a land of flat fields and bayous, a world far away from Asheville.
Cash’s first novel met with uncommon critical success. It appeared on The NY Times bestsellers list in hardcover, paperback, and e-book format. The Times also named A Land More Kind Than Home its Editor’s Choice and Notable Book for 2012. The book was included on the Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, and Books-a-Million List of Best Books for 2012, as well as receiving the American Booksellers’ Association’ Debut Fiction Prize. However, the singular honor of its being a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize and receiving a nomination for the Weatherford Fiction Award convinced Cash, who was called a liar when he told stories as a child, that "if you can keep telling stories and wait . . . people will eventually call you a writer."
In addition to the influence of Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Gaines on Cash’s work, Cash has credited 2010 Appalachian Heritage WIR Bobbie Ann Mason, Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor, and Modernist William Faulkner with helping to shape his work. Cash attended one of the early series of Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence programs, almost a decade ago, and participated in a reading at Shepherd in 2009 after being published in the first volume of the Anthology of Appalachian Writers. By the time Cash was working on his second novel, he had married and returned to North Carolina. The donné for his second book evolved from several sources that blended in his imagination to create This Dark Road to Mercy.
Cash writes in his notes "On Writing This Dark Road to Mercy" that his wife was a very talented softball player as a child but didn’t know how to slide into base; so accompanied by an encouraging and devoted father, she would practice on the field behind her school. The image of the two, father and daughter, taking "turns sliding into third base" was "emotionally touching," and he determined he wanted to write about that relationship. He nursed an image in his mind of a little girl "out there playing ball with her friends one day after school, and when she slides into third base she stands up, dusts herself off, and spies her father sitting up in the stands, watching her." Yet that was not enough to sustain a page-turning best seller. He also remembered two young girls he knew growing up in North Carolina who were foster children raised by an elderly, church-going couple. At age 15 and 13, both were in the local news after being murdered by their boyfriends. Cash writes: "Before I knew it, the story of the two sisters merged with the story my wife had told me, and I began to add my own fictive elements: two sisters are languishing in foster care; their missing father returns and kidnaps them, desperately hoping for another chance at raising his family. . . . Hot on the father’s trail are two very different men: a violent bounty hunter with a years-old vendetta and an ex-cop who’s the girls’ court-appointed guardian." The story seeds, emanating from both stories, inspired in him what Cash calls "beauty and tragedy . . . innocence and evil, and these conflicting elements drive the novel." At its core, Cash says, the book is about "mercy, and that’s what the two sisters in my novel are shown." In reality, the book gave him not only the opportunity to rewrite the facts and to "lie" as only a talented novelist can, but to tell a gripping story that captures the reader from start to finish.
Today, Cash is a teacher in the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Southern New Hampshire University, and he currently serves as writer-in-residence at University of North Carolina, Asheville. This Dark Road to Mercy was also a national best-seller, an Indie Next Pick, and an O Magazine Top Ten, as well as an Amazon Book of the Month. This Dark Road to Mercy has also been optioned for a film. Wiley Cash’s latest book, The Last Ballad, scheduled to come out in fall 2017, tells the story of Ella May Wiggins, who led the union struggle for mill workers in North Carolina. Cash, his wife, and their two daughters currently live in Wilmington, North Carolina.