Thanks to the Honors College, nine fellow students and I just had the privilege of attending an intimate literary discussion with the extraordinarily fascinating author, Wiley Cash. Mr. Cash covered everything from his Western North Carolinian childhood to his inspiration for his New York Times Bestseller A Land More Kind Than Home. Not only was Mr. Cash personable and approachable- he was outgoing, funny and an all-around genuine character. His proclivity to turn subjects that are tough to handle such as race and religion into lighthearted discussion was really something special. Most importantly, Mr. Cash presented himself as a genuine, kindhearted writer who simply got a big break.
Wiley Cash told us at the beginning of our discussion that he was born and raised in Gastonia, North Carolina (just outside of Charlotte). Growing up in Gastonia, he frequently took trips westward toward the mountains and streams of beautiful Western North Carolina. The mountains grew on Cash and left a monumental influence on his definition of home. Upon completing his undergraduate studies, Cash traveled to Lafayette, Louisiana. I, being born in New Orleans, was immediately engulfed in his story and his inspiration for moving South. Cash said the primary reason he chose Louisiana was because it truly embodied the essence of Southern America. He said that although Florida may be the southernmost state, it does not embody the true South. Claiming that Texas was “not to be messed with”, he had no other choice than Louisiana. The secondary reason Cash chose the University of Louisiana-Lafayette was to study fiction writing under Ernest J. Gaines. Gaines’ most famous work is The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman- a novel told from the perspective of a slave woman in the civil war. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was eventually adapted into a miniseries and aired on CBS in 1974. Having worked under such a distinguished mentor, Cash developed a rich, full writing style which is simply a joy to read.
About halfway through the discussion, Mr. Cash performed an eye opening exercise with us on the way to set up a story. He started by reading the first two pages of his book; this is an excerpt told from the perspective of Adelaide Lyle, a middle to old aged woman who grew up in Marshall, NC. Marshall is in Madison County; growing up in Asheville we referred to Madison County as “redneck territory” and believe me, Madison County is about the closest thing to West Virginia you’ll find in North Carolina. What I mean by this is that the archaic confederate flags are strewn about the town, the mindset of the people is set almost by default to only respect white people, and lastly the inbred references/jokes come in abundance. That being said, Madison County is a perfect setting for this story of struggle in a Southern region. Cash’s exercise focused exclusively on setting. The point of this exercise was to show us how easily readers are told a story through context clues. With this excerpt, Mr. Cash walked us through the entire setup of the narrative which we subconsciously pulled from these mere two pages. The gender, age, race, nationality, region of the country, era, season of the year, social class of the character, the education level, political bias AND religious faith were all made clear in the first two pages! Cash believes that a great writer must fill the reader in with an abundance of details as soon as possible within the story. Through this exercise, it was made apparent to all of us that Mr. Cash has the potential to go down in history as one of the most renowned Southern fiction authors of the twenty first century.
This discussion with Mr. Cash was intellectually stimulating, all the while being casual and fun. I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet Mr. Cash and to get to know him on a personal level. This is just another one of the amazing opportunities the Honors College has provided me with and a reminder of how lucky we all are to be in such an awesome program.