Wiley Cash credits the writing of his novel A Land More Kind Than Home to Louisiana influences.
“Ernest Gaines has influenced me more than anybody else, both in my writing life and in my personal life. I think he’s the South’s greatest living writer,” Cash said in a phone interview May 4. Cash studied under Gaines at The University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
“I think he’s kind of the keeper of the tradition right now. It’s kind of funny, I learned to write in his workshop and by reading him — how to write realistic dialog, how to move a character from a pickup truck to a front porch, how to have them move through space through the yard and have them walk while they talk. I learned so many things from him, but also just learned the habit of writing, how to read like a writer, how to talk about writing, how to diagnose weaknesses and strengths in your writing. And then I got the idea for the novel from another one of my professors, Reggie Young. It’s funny. I tell people that I am a white guy who learned to write about the North Carolina mountains from two black guys in Louisiana,” Cash said.
“I got down to Louisiana, down to Lafayette in the heart of Cajun country, and realized how desperately I missed North Carolina. I began listening to musicians from North Carolina and reading the work of North Carolina writers and when I was taking a workshop with Ernest Gaines in the fall of 2003, I realized what compelled him to write about Louisiana. It was because he’d left it when he was 16 to go to California. He couldn’t get Louisiana out of his system, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get North Carolina out of mine, and I realized that if I wrote about it, I could kind of recreate it and go back there and could kind of live in two places at once,” Cash said. “It was magical, because I loved Louisiana so much but I also had a longing for North Carolina at the same time. I got to do both, and it was amazing.”
Young, the professor who provided the inspiration for the book’s plot, taught Cash in an African-American literature class. “He brought in a story about a young African-American boy in Chicago who was autistic and he was smothered during a healing service. I just thought that was such an interesting story, and I wanted to write about it but I’d never been to Chicago at that time and I couldn’t speak for the African-American community. But I knew that I could take that story and set in western North Carolina because I know that place. I know those people. I know what their customs are. I know what their dialect is. I know what the land looks like. And that’s kinda what the story is,” Cash said.
The book is Cash’s first novel, and while the plot and his writing influences are Louisiana-bred, the book born of them is pure North Carolina.
“I grew up in a Southern Baptist church, so I’m familiar with evangelical language and charismatic language. I’ve heard people speak in tongues. I’ve seen faith healing, but I’ve never seen a snake handling service. My minor in college was in history, and I took a class in Appalachian history in college, and we did some studies of snake handling, read some books on it, watched some documentaries on it. And it was the kind of thing up in western North Carolina and even in West Virginia where I live now, you know it’s there. You can find it, and it’s not like they hide it. I just never ventured out to discover it, because I didn’t really feel I needed to. I wasn’t so much interested in representing a snake handling service as much as I was in getting the people right,” Cash said.
He has done that. The book has already received strong reviews and is a selection of Barnes & Noble’s Summer 2012 Discover Great New Writers Program. Cash will be signing books in Lafayette on Wednesday, May 30, and plans to come to the Louisiana Book Festival this fall.