Drinking with Writers

Pulling the Thread

In Asheville, learning the untold story with Denise Kiernan

By Wiley Cash   •   Photographs by Mallory Cash

My friendships with writers are unlike other friendships I have. Most solid, enduring relationships take years to build. This is true of my longest friendships, but it is not true of my friendships with writers; these relationships are intense and honest from the moment of inception. I have often wondered what sets writer friendships apart, and I have decided that it is a combination of our solitary work and our inclination toward inquiry. People who spend so much time alone have a lot to share when they get together. All of this is true of my friendship with New York Times best-selling author Denise Kiernan. 

I first met Denise in Asheville, North Carolina, at a literary festival in the summer of 2014. Her book The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win WWII had been released the previous year, and at the literary festival in Asheville she was easily the best known writer in the lineup. You could not mention her name without someone exclaiming, “Oh, she was on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart!” Denise’s fame and success appeared instantaneous, but like nearly every other writer I have befriended over the years, her journey has been long, circuitous and interesting.

On a chilly day in early December, Denise and I sat down at Little Jumbo, a cocktail bar on Lexington Avenue in Asheville’s Five Points district. The bar is housed in a building that has served a number of purposes since its construction in the 1920s: general store, office space and delivery service, among them. Regardless of what has come before Little Jumbo, co-owners Chall Gray and Jay Sanders have managed to marry the feel of the Prohibition speakeasy to a flair for Gilded Age indulgence. The ceiling is composed of original tin tiles, which reflect the soft light of sconces and chandeliers. The glass-paned front door is set between two huge display windows that house wood-topped tables and leather-wrapped benches. Past the imposing bar, where dozens of bottles hover above dark-stained wood countertops, elegantly appointed sitting areas featuring period appropriate armchairs and sofas await patrons. Little Jumbo has a sophisticated, mysterious feel that is also welcoming and warm. 

Chall Gray was behind the bar during our visit, and after Denise and I ordered and received our drinks — an old-fashioned martini for her and a whiskey for me — we found seats by one of the display windows. 

“Something just dawned on me,” I said. “I know you as the friend who published The Girls of Atomic City and The Last Castle (the story of the Biltmore House), but I don’t know much about your life and work before those books.”

Denise looked out the window as if she were opening and closing the drawers and cabinets of her memory while searching for a way to respond. The weather had turned dreary. It was raining. Cars rolled by, and people on foot passed our window with their collars upturned. Denise smiled and looked back at me, whatever she had been looking for apparently found.

“That’s a long story,” she said. “But it all started with me playing the flute right down the road in Brevard. I was a rising high school junior, and I was at a summer camp at the Brevard Music Center. Someone there suggested I attend the North Carolina School for the Arts. I did, and it changed my life.”

From there, a story I had never heard and never could have imagined unfolded over the course of the afternoon. After high school, Denise moved to New York City to pursue a pre-med degree from NYU. While there she fell in love with the city, especially its arts scene. 

“All of my friends were artists,” she said, “but something was telling me to pursue a practical career. I had decided to apply to medical school, but I wanted to spend the summer in Europe before studying for the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test).” That summer in Europe extended to more than a year abroad. 

“When I came back to the States I wasn’t interested in medical school anymore,” she said. “I was interested in environmental education, so I enrolled in graduate school at the University of Washington.” It was there that a flier for the university’s student newspaper caught her eye. “I had no journalism experience,” she said, “but I had always written, and I wanted to do something with my writing. That was enough for the editor to give me a chance.”

After graduate school, her love for journalism won out over her love for environmental education. “I pursued an internship with The Village Voice,” she said. “And I mean I really pursued it. I called and learned there were no internships available, so I traveled across the country and showed up at The Village Voice’s New York office and asked them in person.” What happened next changed her life.  

“I worked under a legendary investigative reporter named Wayne Barrett,” she said, her eyes growing misty. “He passed away a few years ago. He was one of the last great investigative journalists. He didn’t care who you were; if there was a story to be uncovered, he was coming after you.”

Denise, a doggedly determined young person with a nose for news, had met her match: a similarly dogged, seasoned journalist who, like her, did not take well to being told no. Over the next several years as an intern and then as a freelance reporter who regularly published investigative stories in The New York Times, The Village Voice and Ms. Magazine, Denise found herself covering the 1995 United Nations Women’s Conference in Beijing, shooting pool with The Cure, writing about the Beastie Boys, and organizing her own crew as a field producer covering European soccer for ESPN. 

“All of those experiences taught me how to chase down leads, to pull at the thread of a story, to organize and focus my work.” 

These skills clearly served her well in writing her two best-known books, the aforementioned The Girls of Atomic City and The Last Castle, both of which dig into the backstories of American history that most of us never learn. Girls explains the largely unknown role of the women in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who helped develop the atomic bomb. Castle plumbs the lives of George and Edith Vanderbilt in the years before and after they built America’s largest private home.

During our conversation, Chall had left the bar and delivered a setup known as the Jumbo Service. Ours was a special chilled Manhattan accompanied by elegant stemware and a side of maraschino cherries, all literally served on a silver platter. Denise and I poured another round of drinks and toasted to stories, both the stories we have written and the stories that have made us writers. PS

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.

Drinking with Writers

Poetry and Protest

The gravity of the written and spoken word

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

Khalisa Rae is a star, and like a star her presence bends the fabric of the universe in a way that draws creative people into her orbit: writers, activists, choreographers and artists. But it is not simply people who are drawn to Khalisa. Justice projects, writers’ workshops and femme empowerment movements have all found their way to her. Or maybe I have it wrong. Perhaps she is not the star but the explorer drawn to burning centers of mass where historical infernos rage hot and bright, where smoke burns the eyes, and where the good work of community building can begin once the fire is sated.

Khalisa Rae is a poet, feminist speaker, performance artist and educator who holds an MFA from Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her first collection of poems, Real Girls Have Real Problems, was published in 2012, and she has been a finalist for the Furious Flower Gwendolyn Brooks poetry prize. Her collection Outside the Canon: Poetry as Protest is forthcoming.

I first entered Khalisa’s orbit when my friend Lori Fisher told me the two of them had joined forces to start Athenian Press and Workshop in Wilmington. Along with a few others, the two women envisioned Athenian as an “anti-racist, feminist, creative organization” that would offer space for writers, artists and activists to work alone, together, and with their communities to effect change. According to their mission statement, the organization is based on core values that include social justice, feminism, accessibility, community building, sustainability and independence. Before long they had found a home they called Athenian House, where they regularly hosted open mics, readings, meetings and other community events.

When I met Khalisa at Drift Coffee in Wilmington’s Autumn Hall neighborhood in early November, I quickly learned that Athenian was only one of the many projects she had initiated, joined or planned to start, all of them centered on the writer’s role in social justice and community organizing.

Drift Coffee has done an exquisite job marrying the laid-back feel of Wilmington’s beach community with the city’s upscale tastes in fine coffee and food. The menu is focused and healthy, combining standard breakfast fare with surprises like the Acai Bowl that features house-made granola and the Za’atar Spiced Chicken Sandwich with apple and tomato chutney and a tahini spread on sourdough bread. Drift’s light-filled interior is bright and welcoming with white walls, slate-colored cement floors, and comfortable tables and chairs where people are just as likely to be holding business meetings as catching up with friends.

Khalisa and I ordered some coffee and found seats in a sun-drenched corner. I asked her what had brought her to Wilmington from her native Chicago.

“I wanted to write films,” she says. “And this was the place to do it, so I came to UNCW.”

But it was not long until Khalisa’s passion for writing turned toward poetry, and she found an opportunity to work with activist poets in Greensboro. She left the Port City for an undergraduate degree at North Carolina A&T. A few years after graduating, she found herself in Wilmington again, working in community outreach and programming for the YWCA, leading workshops in writing and diversity training around the city, and eventually discovering the literary and cultural home she had not found as an undergraduate.

The more time Khalisa spent in Wilmington, the more she uncovered painful remnants of the city’s racial strife, strife that is grounded in events like the wrongful convictions of the Wilmington 10 and the 1898 coup d’état, which is the only successful coup in American history and an event that would greatly affect Khalisa’s work as a poet and activist.

While working at the Cameron Art Museum as part of their Kids at Cam initiative, Khalisa met Brittany Patterson, an artist and social worker who had just seen the 1898 documentary Wilmington on Fire. Patterson and Khalisa began a discussion about how to use art to repair the racial rifts that had run through Wilmington for more than a century.

“We wanted to curate something that was a medley of poetry and dance to focus on how 1898 affects people today,” says Rae. But the goal was not simply a performance. “The first thing we did was to have the cast sit in a circle and talk about what it means to be a person of color, what it means to be a white person moving around in spaces with people of color who were all affected by 1898.”

The outcome was the Invisibility Project, a performance that reaches across racial lines and combines dance choreographed by Patterson and spoken word poetry written and performed by Khalisa. The group’s first performance was in 2017, and their work has continued since with a special production to commemorate the 120th anniversary of the 1898 coup.

“It’s been interesting,” she says. “I’ve learned so much about this community, about what certain public spaces mean to certain groups of people, about how the past can push down on you without you understanding why.”

Khalisa and I finished our coffee. Nearly two hours had passed, and our conversation had run from our early fascinations with the written word to our hopes for our city’s racial reconciliation. As we got up to leave I could not help but feel pulled toward her energy and passion. I could say it was gravitational, but perhaps my feelings were anchored by the gravity of this generation’s struggle to reach through Wilmington’s painful past in the hope that, once the fire is out, there will be a hand to grasp.  PS

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.

Drinking with Writers

After the Storm

Over cold ones at Flying Machine, writer Kevin Maurer remembers the impact of Hurricane Florence

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

When I moved to Wilmington in 2013, Kevin Maurer was one of the first friends I made. Over the years, I have gotten to know his family, and he has gotten to know mine. We have played on the same intramural basketball and football teams, and we have suffered losses and injuries, bonding over our bruised bodies and equally bruised egos. But what has informed our friendship more than anything else is the writing life. We regularly have dinner or drinks and talk about our decisions to become writers, and the effect our work has on our families and our friendships with people outside the publishing industry. A few months ago, I chronicled one of our conversations on Twitter, and it was retweeted over 1,200 times and responded to by writers as various as Neil Gaiman and Mary Alice Monroe, all of whom agreed that the writing life never gets easier, no matter who you are.

Kevin is one of the most successful writers I know — the New York Times best-selling co-author of No Easy Day: The First-Hand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden and American Radical: Inside the World of an Undercover Muslim FBI Agent; and a celebrated journalist who has written about the war in Afghanistan as an embedded reporter — but he is also one of the hardest working.

Our conversation once again turned toward the writing life when we met at the new Flying Machine Brewing Company in Wilmington a few days following my family’s return to town after evacuating in advance of Hurricane Florence. Kevin’s family had evacuated as well, but he had stayed behind to cover the storm and its aftermath for statewide and national news outlets.

Flying Machine Brewing Company, which is set to open in early November, is on Randall Parkway, where it sits along the cross-city trail and has views of the lake at Anne McCrary Park from its two-story patio. The interior of the taproom feels both enormous and inviting, with clean lines and industrial seating that mirrors the sheen of the brewing equipment that brews all the beer on-site. Borrowing from the name, flying machines and parts of flying machines inform everything from lighting fixtures to wall art to the pulls on the taps behind the bar.

Although they were not open for business before Hurricane Florence hit, Flying Machine jumped into the community effort after the storm had passed by offering free purified water to anyone in need of it. There were plenty of people in need, and there still are. Because of this, Flying Machine has pledged to donate a portion of their proceeds from their grand opening to local nonprofits.

As Kevin and I settle in at the bar, we are delivered a round of beers by co-founder David Sweigart. He offers us the “Passarola” Brut Pilsner and the “Electric Smoke” Alt Bier, and he lets us know we are being served the first beers poured and sampled in the brewery’s history. Kevin and I agree that the honor of sampling Flying Machine’s first pours is made even sweeter by the fact that both beers are delicious.

I ask Kevin about what it was like to write about Wilmington before, during and after Hurricane Florence. As he takes a sip of his lager, I mention something he wrote in an article about the aftermath of the storm: Wilmington has become a city of lines, he wrote. Lines to get food. Lines for gas. Lines to get supplies.

“That was the hardest part of covering the storm,” Kevin says. “The waiting and watching people wait.” He stares at the wall across from us where a huge mural of a globe featuring the words “Wilmington N. Carolina” hovers above us. “I watched people sit in their driveways and wait for the water to rise, and I watched it get higher and higher by the hour until they decided they couldn’t wait any longer before they left and took whatever they could carry.”

My family and I evacuated to Asheville, and we waited there, desperate for knowledge about what was happening on the coast, in Wilmington, in our neighborhood. I told Kevin I could not imagine being among those who were waiting here in town.

“It’s interesting,” he says. “My whole career has been spent covering crises around the world: war, famine, insurrection. It’s been hard to see some of the things I’ve seen, but I always get to come back home. Covering Florence was different. This is my home.”

After we finish our beers, Kevin and I are invited into the production area, where gleaming stainless-steel tanks tower above us. Taproom manager Marthe Park Jones, who has spent years working in the Wilmington craft brewing community, and retail manager Grant DeSantos, recently arrived from Asheville, where he managed retail for a major brewery, give us a tour and introduce us to a group of brewers who have spent years working and studying at breweries around the world. When the tour is over we stand around talking about the storm, and the long road the community and region have ahead. 

Later, on our way out to the parking lot, Kevin and I make plans to get our wives together for dinner that evening at a local restaurant that has recently reopened. The city is gathering itself and moving forward. Wilmington and its people — both the long residing and the recently arrived — are no longer waiting. PS

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.

Drinking with Writers

Well-Behaved Women

Zelda with a twist

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

For anyone who knows Therese Anne Fowler, it is no surprise that she writes about women like Zelda Fitzgerald and Alva Vanderbilt, women who were artistic, brilliant, and outspoken. Therese’s friends would describe her much the same way. I first met Therese at the South Carolina Book Festival, where we spoke on the same panel in the spring of 2012. We made fast friends, telling stories about book tours and life in North Carolina, where she and her husband, novelist John Kessel, live in Raleigh. I saw Therese several times over the next few months at various conferences and festivals. I knew she had a new book coming out, but she never said much about it. And then Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald was published in March 2013. It blew the doors off every preconceived notion readers had about the woman who had always been known simply as Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald. A few months after the novel came out, I saw Therese again at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville. By that time both Z and Therese had experienced incredible success: The novel had appeared on The New York Times best-seller list, and a television show based on the novel and starring Christina Ricci as Zelda Fitzgerald was in production at Amazon. I told Therese how thrilled I was for her, and I asked her how it felt. She smiled, turned her head, and revealed the tiny “Z” she had tattooed behind her left ear. She planned to keep Zelda with her forever, and people who have read the novel and have seen the series understand why.

With her new novel, A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts — which tells the story of Alva Vanderbilt, a woman who went from being a member of the fallen Southern aristocracy to a Gilded Age socialite and, eventually, a leader in the women’s suffrage movement — Therese has once again given life to a heroine that readers will not soon forget. It seems that critics feel the same way. Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews both gave the novel starred reviews, and People magazine named it a Best Book of the Fall. Sony Pictures believed in Therese’s take on Vanderbilt’s life so much that they optioned the novel for a television series before she had even finished writing it.

Over Labor Day weekend I met Therese at The Haymaker in downtown Raleigh to talk about writing about historical women, the thrill of seeing her work on the screen, and how she is feeling about her new book, which is scheduled for release on Oct. 16.

“I’m excited,” she says. “But I’m cautious. You can’t predict the book business.”

We are sitting at a small table by the huge windows where the late-day light barely reaches the high ceiling. On my right, a gorgeous flower mural spans an entire wall. The bar behind Therese features leather-covered stools and industrial lighting. To my left is a sitting area where a comfortable Victorian-styled sofa and leather armchairs invite patrons to sip cocktails and chat. The interior of The Haymaker is the perfect combination of clean lines and lush decadence. When our drinks are delivered, I offer a toast to well-behaved women. Therese laughs and lifts her cocktail, the cachaca/Campari-based Agua-Benta, which is infused with jalapeno and features hints of lime and pineapple, and clinks it against my pint of Peacemaker Pale Ale. She takes a sip and looks around.

“Alva would have been very comfortable in a place like this,” she says. “Zelda would have been, too.”

“What was it like to see Zelda come to life on the screen?” I ask.

“Wonderful,” Therese says. “I loved it, and I think Christina Ricci was perfect. My only regret is that Amazon didn’t renew it for a second season. Viewers learned all about the beginning of Zelda’s life and her relationship with Scott Fitzgerald, but we never saw them get to Paris, where the writers of the Lost Generation all come together. It would have been fascinating to see that.”

“Were you surprised when Hollywood came calling a second time when Sony optioned A Well-Behaved Woman?

“Very surprised,” she says. “I was in New York with my agent, pitching the novel to editors and sending the book to auction. We were standing on the subway platform when my agent got a call that Sony wanted to option it. The book was still at auction and hadn’t even been purchased yet.”

I have a feeling that many people will be hearing about Alva Vanderbilt when A Well-Behaved Woman is published, some perhaps for the first time. After a life that spanned the Civil War, World War I, the Gilded Age and the Great Depression, Alva Vanderbilt would die in Paris in 1933. Perhaps, if Therese and Sony have their way, both readers and viewers will make it to Paris even though Amazon did not get us there with Zelda. And who knows? The next time I see Therese she might show me a fresh “A” that has been tattooed behind her other ear. You never know what a well-behaved woman is going to do next.  PS

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.

Book Tour Blues

At Bespoke Coffee and Dry Goods

By Wiley Cash

Photographs By Mallory Cash

Bespoke Coffee and Dry Goods at the corner of Princess and 2nd streets in downtown Wilmington seemed like a good place to meet my friends and fellow writers Jason Mott and Taylor Brown for several reasons. First, the place is absolutely gorgeous. Huge windows pour light into a high-ceilinged space that is grounded by checkered tile, hardwood floors and countless succulent plants that lend soft pops of natural color to the industrial furnishings. Second, Bespoke’s coffee is just as outstanding as the curated list of local beers they have on tap. Finally, I knew Taylor would already be there, just as he is every afternoon.

I find Taylor at his spot near the register, sitting at the window that looks out on 2nd. When I say “his spot” I really mean it; a small gold plaque on the counter reads This space is reserved for Taylor “The Bodyguard” Brown.

“I spend hours writing here every afternoon,” he says when I ask him to tell me the story of the plaque. “When they first opened, I would stay until closing at 7:00 p.m., and then I would walk out with the staff.” He smiles, looks down at his open laptop where it sits just below the plaque. “They started calling me the bodyguard.”

I have known Taylor since an advanced reader’s copy of his debut novel, Fallen Land, found its way to me in the months leading up to its publication. The novel, which was released in 2016, was a huge success, and it was followed by the novels The River of Kings in 2017 and Gods of Howl Mountain in 2018. He has just recently returned from a long book tour that had him crisscrossing the country.

“How are you feeling after all that travel?” I ask.

“It gave me mono,” he says.

I laugh.

“No, seriously,” he says. “I went to the doctor last week.”

Jason walks in the door while we are talking. Like Taylor, he has just arrived home from a long book tour himself. We all shake hands, and Jason asks how we are doing.

“Book tour gave Taylor mono,” I say.

“I almost died on book tour, too,” Jason says.

I gesture toward the bar.

“Let’s get some drinks.”

We get our drinks — iced coffee for Taylor, water for Jason, and an IPA from Wilmington Brewing Company for me — and grab a table just inside the front door.

I have known Jason since my parents introduced me to him in 2013, when his first novel, The Returned, was released. The book was optioned and produced as a television show for ABC before it was even published, and my mom watched it and loved it, and then she and my dad went to one of Jason’s book signings. She fell for him because of his books, and my dad fell for him because of his cars. To say that Jason Mott is a car enthusiast is an understatement. He buys them, repairs them, modifies them, and races them. My dad had spent much of his young life doing the same. Finally, a writer both my mother and father could support.

Jason’s second novel, The Wonder of All Things, was released in 2014, and his novel The Crossing was released this spring. I ask him to expound upon his near-death experience on book tour.

“Hospitality driver,” he says. “He almost mowed down someone crossing the street in Seattle. He slammed on the brakes, and I thought I was going through the windshield. He told me he hadn’t seen the guy because he’d been about to pass out.”

“What did you do?” Taylor asks.

“Well, I was starving, and I figured if he was about to pass out, then he might need food. We stopped at Burger King and ate dinner before heading to the bookstore.”

“The glamour of book tour,” I say.

Our conversation quickly turns to surprising, horrifying and hilarious things that can happen when you are on book tour alone, staying in bad hotels, catching red-eye flights, and always feeling like you are supposed to be somewhere else.

“I’m actually working on a novel right now about a writer who goes on a book tour where insane things happen,” Jason says. “I wrote it as a screenplay, and the folks out in Hollywood said it may get more interest if it’s a book first.”

“I’ll read it,” I said.

“I’ll read it and blurb it,” Taylor said.

We tell more stories, finish our drinks, and then stand to leave. As someone who drives a toy-littered Subaru Outback with two car seats in the back, I watch Jason leave and try to imagine what kind of car he will be climbing into. Taylor heads back to his seat where his laptop still rests below his plaque.

“How late will you stay?” I ask.

“They close at 6:00 p.m. now,” Taylor says. “They felt bad for running me out of here an hour early, so they gave me a key to lock up.”

“Are you serious?” I ask.

He smiles and holds up a brass key on his key ring.

I say good-bye and step out into the heat. As I settle into my car and turn on the A/C, I imagine Taylor a few hours from now, closing down his laptop, turning off the lights at Bespoke Coffee and Dry Goods and locking the door behind him, glad to be home.  PS

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.