Interview by Dennis Ray
New York Times bestselling author Wiley Cash returns with a new novel, set in the Appalachian foothills of NC in 1929 and inspired by actual events. A chronicle of a single mother’s struggle for her rights in a textile mill, The Last Ballad is a moving tale of courage in the face of oppression. Lyrical, heartbreaking, and haunting, this eloquent novel confirms Cash’s place among our nation’s finest writers.
While Cash was between stops on his 39+ city book tour, he took a few minutes of his time to answer a few questions about his latest book The Last Ballad
Rapid River Magazine: Why is the South such a looming presence in so much of your work?
Wiley Cash: I think because it is where I am from. It’s what I know. Like the old saying ‘Write what you know,’ and the south is the place that I know the best. I think it is also that all stories come from tension. And the South is ripe with tension — historically, culturally, and from tension comes story. There are so many stories in the South that fall along, you know, racial lines and cultural lines and regional lines. Especially in a place like North Carolina which has such distinct separate parts of the state, you know.
RRM: Do you consider yourself a southern writer or a writer who happens to come from the South?
WC: I see myself as a writer from the South. I’ve heard Ron (Rash) talk about this too, and he says “You feel like you’re a great writer … but you’re a Southern writer; you’re a great American writer, but you’re an Appalachian writer.” People don’t call Alice McDermott a New York writer. People don’t call Toni Morison an Ohio writer. But when you are from the South people call you a “Southern writer.” They don’t call you a mid-west writer or a New England writer. The South has just always felt separate from the rest of the country and so definable. I think there is that temptation to refer to writers by that idea of them being southern or simply southern. I want to write about stories set in the South. Places I know. But we don’t live in the South any different than anybody else lives in the world. And I’m not comparing myself to (William) Faulkner and never will. He talked about making the local universal, and that’s what I want to do with my work.
RRM: Your novels take place at different times. Your first book, A Land More Kind Than Home, is set in the 1980s. Your second book This Dark Road to Mercy is set in the late 1990s, and now The Last Ballad is set in 1929. What draws you to set the books you write in the past vs. writing about today?
WC: My first novel was set in the 1980s because that’s what felt right about what I wanted to talk about. That novel is about fundamentalism going awry. In the 1980s we had the rise and fall of the Southern evangelical movement. And I was witness to that. I was interested in why people gave those men so much power. And I wrote a book about a community that gave an evangelical leader an incredible amount of power and paid the price for it. Just like when my relatives did when they gave power to Jim Bakker by giving their life’s savings over to the PTL Club.
My second novel was set in 1998 because one of the specific moments surrounding it is the home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa which of course occurred in 1998. And then in The Last Ballad, I’m writing about a real-life mill strike that occurred in 1929. So it kinda feels like I’m not choosing these times rather they are choosing me.
RRM: Your debut novel A Land More Kind than Home seems to be your reader’s favorite as well as being a critically acclaimed bestseller. How do you think you’ve evolved creatively in your writing since then?
WC: I think I am a better writer now then I was then. I think I am a more expansive writer. I think I am a more socially and historically aware writer. A Land More Kind than Home was the best novel I could have written at that time, and I will love that novel for the rest of my life, and I was fortunate for it to receive as much attention and acceptance as it did by critics and readers alike. But that novel was a tight novel considering it takes place over a short period and has a limited number of characters, whereas The Last Ballad is a portrait of a community in crisis, a snapshot of this incredibly violent summer of 1929. And is my best work to date.
RRM: Tell us a little about The Last Ballad, about the main characters.
WC: The main character is Ella May Wiggins, age 28, who makes nine dollars a week for a 72 hour work week at a textile mill in NC. She already lost one child. She has four surviving children. Her husband has run off and left her. And she knows if her life keeps going on this way she could die, her children could die because one of them already has died. She learns of a strike nearby in Gastonia where the union is demanding $20 minimum pay per week with a 40 hour work week, equal pay for equal work across gender and racial lines and she thinks “If I join this and these demands come true, my children can live.” She doesn’t think she’ll be rich or live the easy life. So she decides to cross the line and join the union.
RRM: How long did it take you to write The Last Ballad as well as your other novels?
WC: I worked on it for about five years. I first heard of the story around 2003, but I didn’t start sketching ideas for it until 2012. The other books took less time from start to finish.
RRM: How much time did you spend researching The Last Ballad or with your other books?
WC: The Last Ballad is a novel set in a fixed moment in history, so the research demands were more extensive than my other two books. I spent quite a lot of time researching it and was able to go to the places in the book, and I know Gastonia, and a lot of theses sites are still there. And I was able to learn a lot about the strike from letters written by people involved in the strike. So it was a lot of research.
Cash will be signing books:
Thursday, October 12, 2017
The Classic Wineseller (map)
Join Wiley for a reading and book signing. Contact Blue Ridge Books at (828) 456-6000 for tickets.