Sitting on the patio at Amelie’s in the Park Road Shopping Center on a recent Wednesday afternoon, Wiley Cash was thankful for the respite. The author, who released his fourth novel, When Ghosts Come Home, on Sept. 21, knows well enough by now that book tours don’t offer up much time for rest and relaxation.
“I tell myself, ‘It will be fun. I’m going to stay at a hotel, and if I’m in some city like St. Louis, I’m going to have the best fill-in-the-blank they have in St. Louis,’” he tells me. “But I always just end up grabbing some Sbarro at the airport and showing up at the bookstore five minutes before the event and hoping someone shows up to buy a book.”
It’s safe to say someone is going to show up. Since his debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, was released to much acclaim and myriad awards in 2012, Cash has consistently put out hard-hitting, gritty Southern Gothic novels, building a solid following of fans who await his next novel faithfully, myself included.
When I met with him the day after the book’s release, he had just come from his hometown of Gastonia, where he held a lunchtime book signing in the lead-up to a signing and virtual event at Park Road Books in south Charlotte.
I was still spiraling from a surprise twist at the end of When Ghosts Come Home, Cash’s first mystery novel, which takes place in the southeastern Brunswick County towns of Oak Island and Southport. Despite my shock, I kept it together enough to pick the author’s brain about some ongoing themes I’ve recognized in his work and that of his North Carolina contemporaries, time hopping through literature and plenty of other topics.
Queen City Nerve: You just came from Gastonia. How much of a connection do you still have to the town there?
Wiley Cash: I don’t have any family in Gastonia anymore. My parents moved out to Oak Island in 1998, and I went to college [at UNC Asheville, where he now teaches] in ’96. I have a cousin who lives in Belmont, but no siblings. My brother’s a comedian, he travels; my sister lives up near Asheville, so no connection. I’ve still got some friends’ parents who live there and when I do an event they’ll come, but it’s just a pass-through, and it’s always a noontime event, there’s not going to be a big enough turnout to tack on a night in a hotel.
What’s it like for you on those pass-throughs? Do you still recognize it?
Wiley Cash: I recognize some of the old things that I do when I go there. I always go to Tony’s Ice Cream and get a hot dog or something.
You mention how the main characters in When Ghosts Come Home grew up under Crowder’s Mountain before moving to Oak Island in the book. I assume that’s how you grew up?
Wiley Cash: Yeah, it’s funny, in January this past year, my wife had some work in Charlotte, she’s a photographer, and we rented a little AirBnB on the Catawba River right near the bridge and I took my kids to Crowders Mountain. My wife was like, ‘Your parents just dropped you off here when you were in elementary school?!’ And yeah, they did. They were just like, “See you at 5!” You could get really familiar with the area because the trail wasn’t guarded by any fences or anything. You could just walk all of it, just cut up through the woods or whatever, it was really fun.
You’ve been hopping across the state as far as the settings in your novels. It seems natural to have set this new one in the Cape Fear region where you now live. How long have you been there?
Wiley Cash: I was living in West Virginia, and we moved down to Wilmington in the fall of 2013. I also set it there because my wife was raised in Wilmington, and we have a 6-year-old and a 5-year-old and both of our kids were born there, and that area still feels in many ways so foreign to me. So I thought I could write about it and try to go in and experience it.
So that seems natural, but what made you decide to set it in 1984?
Wiley Cash: Well, 1984 was an interesting time. Culturally we had a lot going on; we had the War on Drugs, we had Reagan’s election. I was 7 or 8 years old, and I can remember, especially looking back on it now, how implied so many of my friends’, parents’, and community members’ political/religious/cultural affiliations were during that time. It was just assumed that if you were white you were Republican, if you were Republican you were Christian, if you were Christian you were Baptist.
I just grew up believing the whole world was that way because it was so hammered home. And we had the D.A.R.E. program, we had that suspicion of outsiders, a couple years later the myth of the Welfare Queen, and WIllie Horton and the law and order stuff, all this bullshit kind of stuff to cement this Republican grip of people like Jesse Helms and Ronald Reagan. And I never really questioned that, I just thought that’s what it meant to be an American.
Of course Reagan won 60% of the vote, 49 states, but underneath that veneer of conservative America we had the AIDS crisis, the dominoes are beginning to fall at [Jimmy and Tammy Faye Baker’s] PTL [Club], Jimmy Swaggart down in Louisiana, all of the underpinnings of this glossy America’s about to collapse. So looking back on that now as an adult, it was really interesting for me to go back there and sort of pick at some of that stuff and look at identity, look at gender, look at class, look at race, look at the legacy of these things and how a lot of the things that I believed in 1984 weren’t necessarily true, and some of the motivations of the people I thought were so just and so uniquely American were not true either.
And of course that was mirrored during the time that I was working on the book, which was 2017-2020 or so. We see a lot of those nationalist sympathies kind of rise to the top, fear of the outsider, we have all of that stuff kind of come back. And then of course Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, Armaud Arbery at the construction site, which played into the construction site in my novel, all of those things came back up.
While your other books take place earlier in the 20th century, this one was more contemporary in that you were alive during this time period and it’s still in many people’s memories. How do you approach hopping around in time in such a way, from historical fiction to contemporary fiction?
Wiley Cash: I just am always drawn to what feels urgent to me. I don’t think that the world’s waiting for another one of my books, I don’t mean urgent in that sense, but writing a novel takes a long time and it has to feel urgent and hot for me to spend that much time doing it. So I kind of just wait for that thing and I never really know what it’s going to be, but it kind of reveals itself as work is wrapping on the book at hand. In terms of historical fiction, I think of all fiction as historical, even something written about yesterday because you’re still going to have to find the tricks of craft to nail down era, culture, popular culture, those kinds of things.
So everything is situated in history. I think that contemporary fiction can’t rely on the glossy fuzziness of time to obscure things the way historical fiction might be able to. My next book is set in 2018, which is my most contemporary book, my only really contemporary book, which still might not be that contemporary, but it takes place in the days after Silent Sam was taken down and toppled in Chapel Hill, and it’s set in the eastern part of North Carolina again.
It feels like this time period puts us right on the verge of some of the technology we now know. There’s a telex involved and the need to use a payphone makes for a pretty important plot point. It’s clear that text messages or other more modern communications could have helped these characters. What was it like for you to travel back in time in that sense?
Wiley Cash: I love the technology stuff, both how it limits you as a writer but it also gives you opportunities as a writer. The telex that the FBI sends out, that’s something that I actually got from an FBI officer. He was like, “Oh yeah, the telex would have gone out to all the FBI offices that this plane crashed.” So a guy could have easily said that he had seen it and got called up, and if an FBI agent shows up, they don’t call to make sure, it’s just like “OK.” So that was kind of a delicious thing to think about, that they weren’t going to be texting their buddies at headquarters all the time.
When you were offsite, you were offsite, and this presents some other limitations and possibilities, because when things are so manual, it becomes a new challenge, like what does a sheriff do in his office all day? How do you investigate a case when you can’t Google? How do you follow leads when you can’t email? So you really have to go back and think and research and sniff around. It’s full of opportunities and limitations, but limitations are really what makes writing fun because you’re trying to solve certain shortcomings.
Your last book, The Last Ballad, focused on the true story of Ella May Wiggins, a union organizer in Gaston County. Were there any true-life characters in this book?
Wiley Cash: Kind of. I talked to the district attorney in Brunswick County about prosecuting a case. So just little things like that. But also, even though it doesn’t show up in the novel, knowing the legacy of the Cape Fear region, especially in terms of race, like the 1890 race massacre, the Wilmington Ten, school desegregation — how all of these things trickled down through time and manifested themselves in a lot of racial angst, fear, uncertainty. The characters know that so I needed to know that.
Your novels all deal with parenthood in some sense, but I felt a stronger focus on fatherhood specifically in this one. Is that something you were purposeful about or aware of as you wrote?
Wiley Cash: I wasn’t trying to do it but I was conscious of it when it was happening. I’ve got two little girls, 6 and 5 [years old], and I wrote this book as a way to connect with them; it’s my attempt to know the place they’re from. That’s why I have these young boys playing in the woods, doing the kinds of things I was doing in Gastonia but putting them on the coast.
Winston’s worry over his daughter is something that I worry over my own children, and their heartaches at this point in their lives are not the heartaches of a marriage gone awry or a pregnancy gone wrong or anything like that, but the heartaches and the fears are certainly the same, so I was definitely aware of myself doing that. I wasn’t trying to do it, though.
This was also the first book that I had begun after losing my dad. I lost my dad while writing The Last Ballad, and I had children while writing The Last Ballad, but this is the first book I had begun when I had these children and I had lost my dad, so that psychic energy is in the book.
I tend to put you into a group with fellow North Carolina authors David Joy and Ron Rash, and I notice running themes throughout your work. One that comes up a lot in their work and that I noticed in When Ghosts Come Home is a theme around development and displacement. Why do you think it has become such a prevailing theme among North Carolina writers?
Wiley Cash: That’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about that. I think it’s because we have watched the region that has been so historically maligned by outside voices be in many ways colonized by outside developers, to be honest. I’m thinking about Ron’s novel Above the Waterfall, in which a guy poisons the trout stream because of development, and David’s new book, When These Mountains Burn, which is about development, outsiders coming in, housing prices and all of that.
And being down in eastern North Carolina, I witness firsthand how fragile these wetlands are, these forests, and how rare they are, because we’re butted up against the water, and it’s not impossible to see a future where Wilmington or Brunswick County or whatever is built out right up to the water all across the coast. So that’s just what’s on my mind because it’s what I see all the time, just like David sees what he sees up in Gainesboro where he lives.
I actually relied on David for Bradley Frye [a character in When Ghosts Come Home]. I said, “I’ve got a character who is a first-class douchebag. What kind of gun would a guy like this carry in 1984?” And he said, “I’m gonna do some research and get back to you.” So that’s David’s gun that he recommended that Bradley carries.
Who were some of your inspirations coming up?
Wiley Cash: The main author that changed my life was Ernest J. Gaines. I was a sophomore at UNC Asheville when I read his collection of short stories called Bloodline, and for the first time I read a writer who wrote about landscape and old people and rural life the way my parents and my grandparents talked about those things. This is around 1998, Ron [Rash] was writing but he wasn’t well known. [Charles Frazier’s] Cold Mountain hadn’t come out yet. I didn’t know Lee Smith. I didn’t know a lot of the writers in the area that were doing that. [Ernest J. Gaines] was the first writer that I thought, “Oh my God, this guy’s from this little piece of land in southwest Louisiana and he’s making it worthy of great literature.” And so that’s what I tried to model myself after.
Then of course, later on, reading Ron’s short stories, they’re spare and so clean and so tightly woven, he’s been a huge influence. And not only a literary influence but just like an influence on how to be a decent person and how to deal with having books come out and people liking them. North Carolina is a great state to be from for a writer because it’s just so nurturing and welcoming and encouraging and Ron is definitely one of those writers, David [Joy] is as well. Ron’s a little bit older than me, David’s a little bit younger than me. Both of those guys have been really great, I just get excited when I see them.
Any other peers whose new work you really look forward to?
Wiley Cash: I love Tom Franklin; I think he’s a great writer and I feel a kinship with his work. Kevin Wilson from Tennessee, he had a book called Nothing to See Here that I absolutely loved. S.A. Cosby writing about rural Black life in eastern Virginia is fantastic. Jason Mott is a buddy of mine, I’m teaching his new book, Hell of a Book [at UNC Asheville]. I read it and now I’m teaching it. He’s a fantastic writer and just a good person. Mesha Maren, she was from West Virginia now she’s in North Carolina. She wrote a book called Sugar Run and teaches at Duke. Ashleigh Bryant Phillips, a short-story writer from eastern North Carolina. Those are people that I feel a real kinship with.
Wiley Cash: Sure, yeah, I’d love to see one of my books make it to the big screen or small screen, that would be incredible. I don’t know how much I’d want to be involved. I’d think I’d either want to write the screenplay or have no say at all.
Have you done any screenwriting?
Wiley Cash: I’ve tinkered with adapting some of my own stuff. I tinkered with turning The Last Ballad into a limited series, which it seems like that would be the best book to fit that format in a limited series.
Are you working on your new book as you tour?
Wiley Cash: Book tour is a time when I lean into the task at hand, which is trying to meet the booksellers, talking to readers, that kind of thing. I’ve been doing this long enough now with four books that I can see the end of promoting this book. With my first couple of books I tried to hang onto those comets’ tails as if they were never going to come around again. This being my fourth book, it’s OK, the market will decide, readers will decide, it doesn’t need me there pushing it all this time. And then my brain slows down, I’ll have a nice winter, a nice spring doing my teaching, and I’ll have some time to really settle in and get some real work done.