Q&A with author Wiley Cash
In his new novel, “The Last Ballad,” Wiley Cash talks about poverty, misogyny and race through the unsung heroine Ella May Wiggins of the Loray Mill strike. Cash is a New York Times bestselling author for his novel “A Land More Kind Than Home.”
Staff writer Beni Mathieu spoke with Cash about his new book before his discussion of the novel Wednesday, Oct. 11 at Flyleaf Books.
The Daily Tar Heel: Where did you get the idea for "The Last Ballad"?
Wiley Cash: I got the idea based on a true story. It’s based on a textile mill strike that happened in my hometown of Gastonia in North Carolina in 1929. It was a really violent, divisive strike and I grew up never hearing about it. My parents, who were both from mill families, never heard about it either. When I went to graduate school in Louisiana in 2003, (one of my professors) mentioned it. I started researching it and discovered that it was one of the most significant labor struggles in American history. I was really curious about why this secret had been kept from me and so many people in Gastonia.
DTH: In what ways, if any, does "The Last Ballad" differ from your previous works?
WC: It’s a much more expansive novel. It’s a political novel, it’s a cultural novel, it’s a historical novel and it covers a much larger span of time. My first two novels had these tightly compressed stories and a relatively limited cast of characters. “The Last Ballad” is a much bigger book; it’s a much more ambitious book.
DTH: How did living in North Carolina influence your sense of place writing the novel, which is set in the foothills of the state?
WC: This is the first book I’ve written while I was living again in North Carolina. My first book was in Louisiana and my second book was written in West Virginia. So I think I had a much closer connection to North Carolina, and plus, it was much easier for me to travel to the places I was writing about. I think that made the story and the characters and the situation in the novel feel that much more real.
DTH: You're the writer in residence at UNC-Asheville. What do you do as a writer in residence?
WC: I am in some ways the literary ambassador for the university, for the community and the state. I teach creative writing classes there, I teach fiction writing and I teach a literature course. I sometimes teach Southern lit or maybe another American lit class. I mentor students and help students choose graduate programs, and writing if they choose to, and read student work. I build literary relationships with students on campus there.
DTH: What do enjoy most about teaching literature and creative writing?
WC: What I enjoy most about it is how refreshing it is to be around people who care about writing and not publishing. Undergraduates at UNC-Asheville really care about becoming better writers. People at this point in their career, where I am, care about being better published, but when you’re working with undergraduates they want to be better writers.
DTH: Were you surprised by the success of your novel, "A Land More Kind Than Home"? Do you expect "The Last Ballad" to achieve the same kind of success?
WC: I don’t know that I was surprised, but I’d never published a book before, so I thought anything was possible. The most impossible thing seemed to be getting a book out in the world and once that happened, I thought, ‘oh my gosh’, you know, 'what can’t happen?' And I don’t know whether “The Last Ballad” will be as successful as that book was. You just hope that when you write a book that it can find a home with readers. With “The Last Ballad,” it seems that the sales have been higher than they might have been, but I don't know. You kind of just do the work and try not to even think about what comes next.
Thanks for reading.
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