Owning the Past

For any writer — budding or in full bloom — a great story often begins someplace that’s intimately known

By Wiley Cash

When I teach creative writing, whether to undergraduates or master’s students or community workshop participants, I always tell my class three things. First, I say that the knowledge I will share with them has been accumulated over my years of sitting at the desk and working very hard to get what is in my mind onto the page. This is my way of going about the task of writing, but it is by no means the only way of going about it. Other writers and teachers may give different or altogether conflicting advice. It is the student’s job to wade through that advice to discover what works. Second, writing is difficult, and there are no guarantees that what you are working on will ever see print. I tell them that my first publication came when I was a 20-year-old college sophomore. My second publication came when I was a 30-year-old graduate student, which means that for 10 years I was writing and submitting stories for publication without any success. Third, I tell them that their own lives are worth writing about.

This semester I am teaching creative writing at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, which is my alma mater and the campus on which I was living when I wrote and published that first short story 20 years ago. On the first day of class, I told my students the above-mentioned three things that I always tell my classes. When I talked about their lives being worth literature, a student raised his hand and said that he was “just a hick from Mount Airy,” and that we could tell by his thick accent. I told him that he did not sound like a hick. He sounded like someone who was from somewhere and that he should rely on his knowledge of the place he is from when writing because you never know what you will come to understand about yourself when you scour your past and investigate the places you call home and the people you knew there.

With this in mind, our first assignment was to write a personal essay that portrays the places students called home and to consider the ways in which their views of these places and the people they knew there have changed over time. Part of the assignment required them to draw a map of their neighborhood and label the places that meant something to them: Where did their friends live? Where did they play? Where were the places that scared them? Where were the places where they were injured or did something brave or had their hearts broken?

Early in the semester I made a promise to my students that I would write with them, which means I would keep an up-to-date writing journal that responds to the same prompts I gave them. It also meant that I would do things like draw a map of the neighborhood from my childhood and write an essay in response to it. Because I have given this assignment before and spent time drawing maps of my old neighborhood in my hometown of Gastonia, North Carolina, I decided to draw a map of my paternal grandparents’ neighborhood in Shelby, North Carolina, where we spent just about every Sunday afternoon of my childhood.

When I began sketching my map I drew my grandparents’ house, and then I drew the houses around it. An elderly man named Roscoe lived on one side of my grandparents. In my memory he wore spectacles and a cowboy hat and looked a little like Grandpa Jones from Hee Haw. Surely I am filling in someone I cannot remember with someone I can, but if I were to write about Roscoe, then I would have to rely on the image in my mind to do it. On the other side of my grandparents’ house a couple named Narse and Linda lived with their daughter Suzie, who was about eight years older than me. I say that Narse’s name was Narse, but it was probably Norris and my grandparents and my father pronounced it with only one syllable. I cannot remember what Narse or Linda did for a living, but I remember that Narse had a garage behind his house where he worked on cars, and sometimes he would invite my father and me over to check out his work.

I drew the garage behind Narse’s house on my map, and seeing it reminded me of something that I had not thought of in years. Behind my grandparents’ house was a huge, dusty patch of garden where they would grow vegetables in long rows. Behind the garden was a stand of trees of some kind. I have a very foggy memory of my father taking my younger brother and me on a walk behind this stand of trees to a shaded area where goats munched on grass. In this memory I am about 4 years old, and my brother, who is in my father’s arms, is about 2. I can remember picking up some kind of fruit off the ground, perhaps apples, and feeding it to the goats. I can remember the feel of them eating the fruit from my hand, the roughness of their horns against my palms, the clangs of the bells around their necks as they moved around us.

Where had this memory been for so many years? Would I have recalled it had I not done this exercise, had the image of Narse’s garage not led to my grandparents’ patch of garden?

I talked about my memory of the goats during our next class. I asked the students to consider how they would use voice to tell their stories. For example, would they limit their perspectives to the moment of their experience when they were 4 or 10 or 15 years old, or would they move beyond it and tell their stories from the contemporary moment of being college freshmen and sophomores? I asked them to ponder this because a 4-year-old’s powers of observation are not as sharp as a 10-year-old’s, and as authors they have to think about what their characters perceive and how these perceptions will be shared with the reader.

I used an exercise to illustrate my point. On the chalkboard I wrote “memory of feeding the goats.” I drew a line on the left and wrote “four years old” above the line. I explained to the class that if I were going to recall this memory from the perspective of my 4-year-old self, then I would only be able to draw on the information I possessed at that time. On the other side of the memory I drew a longer line, and I marked it at several points. If I were to narrate this memory from the perspective of my 15-year-old self, then my voice would probably have an edge of boredom to it: What were we doing out in the backyard feeding goats when I could have been playing video games or shooting basketball or talking on the phone to girls? How would I narrate this memory at 19 after I had lost both my grandparents? Would my recollection of this place that had recently been sold contain an air of nostalgia? Continuing down the line headed away from the memory, I stopped and wrote “thirty-eight,” which is how old I was when I lost my father. If I were to narrate this memory from this vantage point, how would I portray the man I had lost as he held my brother in his arms and told me not to be afraid of the small black goats that milled around us?

The line continued a little farther, stopping at 40, the age I am now. There, my back turned to my class, chalk held to the board, I remembered something else that I had forgotten. My grandfather died just before I turned 5. I have memories of knowing he was dying in the bedroom at my grandparents’ house, and I have memories of adults — my parents and aunts and uncles — shushing my brother and me while we played. We were too young to play outside alone, so my father took a break from sitting by his own father’s bedside and carried my brother and me outside to the backyard. Wanting us away from the house, he decided to show us the goats on the other side of the trees, where our voices could not be heard inside my grandparents’ bedroom.

In that moment, standing in front of my students, I realized that my memory of feeding the goats was not the story I would write based on the map of my grandparents’ neighborhood and the memories it conjured. No, I would write about another memory, a memory much more recent, but a memory that involved my father just the same.

I am not 4, but 38. It is not my grandfather who is dying, but my father. We are not at my grandparents’ house in Shelby, but at my parents’ house in Oak Island, and it is not my brother and me whose voices are being shushed by the adults tending my grandfather, but the voices of my two daughters in the hallway outside my parents’ bedroom door. In this memory I pick up my youngest, who is barely 2 months old and having trouble settling down for a nap, and I take the hand of my oldest, who is almost 2. We walk out into my parents’ backyard so that my oldest can play and the baby can cry and settle without anyone worrying about her disturbing my father, who we all know is long past being able to hear us.

I look up at the windows of my parents’ bedroom, knowing that my father may be gone when I go back inside. Now, as I write this, I wonder if my own father thought the same thing on that day long ago as he held my brother and watched a small black goat eat an apple from my hand. What else could he have been thinking? How good it feels to have the warm spring sun on your face, to feel the heft of a baby in your arms, to hear the sounds of a child laughing outside in the light.

These memories have been locked inside me from anywhere from two to 36 years, and they are layered and resonant and difficult to describe. I would struggle to explain how to get them on the page, and doing so would not guarantee anything at all aside from the work it would take. But I do believe these memories are worth writing about, and I do believe that I will stay in that moment, a goat nibbling at an apple in my hand, my newborn daughter asleep in my arms, my father and my grandfather on the cusp of leaving this world, for as long as I can.

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

How to Survive a Book Tour

Patience, planning and a sense of serenity

By Wiley Cash

I have been fortunate to publish three novels in the past five years, and I have been even more fortunate that my publisher has sponsored national book tours for each of my books. After the years it takes to write and publish a novel — much of that time spent in solitude and self-doubt — it is very rewarding to visit a bookstore, library or college campus and meet people who have read your work. I love hitting the road to answer questions, sign books and learn what readers are reading when they are not reading my books. When I first sat down to write my debut novel, I never imagined I would be so fortunate.

For my most recent tour in support of The Last Ballad, I spent almost two full months on the road, most of it alone. The wonderful time spent with readers is only a fraction of what you do when you are on book tour. The vast majority of your time is spent running through airports, eating fast food late at night, lying awake in hotel rooms, missing your family and wondering if — in the end — the grind of the road helps book sales. This essay is about how to survive those many long, lonely moments.

Here are a few steps you can take to overcome the perils of the book tour. I ask you to keep in mind that this is what has worked for me. Because of many factors, a book tour is not the same experience for everyone; this is based only on mine.

Gear: If you will be taking any flights longer than an hour, consider getting a neck pillow. Yes, they are awkward to pack and you will look silly carrying it through the airport, but nothing is more awkward or silly than your head lolling against your seatmate’s shoulder or your chin bouncing against your chest while you fight sleep in midair. A vacuum-sealed, stainless-steel thermos also comes in handy: It will keep water cool and coffee hot for hours while you travel. You may also want to invest in an extra phone charger with a long cord. Outlets in hotels are often located behind the headboard or bedside table, and a long cord makes it easy to charge your phone and use it as an alarm clock without moving furniture in your room. Finally, take a book, and make sure to take a book you actually want to read instead of a book you think you should be reading.

Airport: Always check your bag if your host or publisher is paying for your travel because book tours can be long, and a day off from lugging your luggage is a gift. Otherwise, find a carry-on bag that holds a lot of stuff and is easy to transport. After checking your bag, empty your pockets before security and put everything except your ID and boarding pass into one of the small, zippered compartments on your carry-on luggage. There is nothing more annoying than standing at security while people empty their pockets before going through the metal detector. The same people will hold up the line on the other side of security while spending even longer putting everything back into their pockets. Do not be that person. For the same reason, wear shoes that are easy to slip off and on, and go ahead and take your laptop out of your bag. If you find yourself holding up the security line for any reason, do not be cute about it. The security line is not an open mic. There is nothing cute or funny about wasting people’s time when they are rushing to catch a flight.

Food: Except for in a few cities, the food is irredeemably bad at most airports. There is no way around this. I have no suggestions to make about airport food except to avoid it if you can. Once you arrive at your destination, spend a few minutes scouting around online for good food that is nearby. When eating on the road, I walk a fine line between finding something convenient and fast while also wanting to have a distinct culinary experience. If I am in Austin I want to have the best barbecue. If I am in New Orleans I want to have the best gumbo. If I am in New England I want to have the best clam chowder. Keep in mind that “the best” does not always mean the “most famous.” Trust the people at the bookstore and hotel when it comes to food. They are locals. They know. There is also no judgment, at least not from me, for eating cheap pizza or a quick sandwich. You will often find yourself short on time, and settling on something simple is an easy way to make quick decisions. A book tour is not a vacation, and you cannot plan to eat like you are on vacation.

Hotel: I have a particular routine when I check into hotels. I like to feel settled, so if I am staying for more than one night I unpack the necessary clothes and place them in drawers, and then I put my shaving kit on the bathroom counter before stashing my luggage in the closet. Then I turn on the television (CNN or ESPN) and iron the shirts and pants I plan to wear. I always iron during leisure time because there is nothing more hectic than ironing as you are preparing to rush out to a bookstore or catch a taxi to the airport. Clothes unpacked and ironed, I unplug the alarm clock by the bed. If you do not do this you can plan on it going off at 5:00 a.m. and being unable to figure out how to stop it. Go ahead and unplug it and set the alarm on your cellphone. No outlets close to the bedside table? Thank goodness you have your extra-long cord for the charger. Are you a coffee drinker? Most hotels have in-room coffee makers with coffee available. Some hotels have free coffee in the lobby. No matter what the setup, avoid Styrofoam cups because coffee served in Styrofoam cups is an offense to humanity that cannot be forgiven. I know of a few writers who pack their favorite mugs along with fresh coffee and French presses. This is not a bad idea.

Family: I have traveled with my family, and I have traveled without my family. It is easier to travel without my family, especially if we are staying in one hotel room, but it is also very lonely. To offset said loneliness I will often FaceTime with my wife and our girls. This inevitably ends with one child or another wanting to hold the phone while the other child gets upset, which inevitably ends with the phone being dropped or hung up or repossessed by my wife. Everyone gets off the phone feeling a little sadder and more frustrated than before the call. Sometimes I find it better to have my wife text me photos of herself with our daughters, and she posts many of these on Instagram so I can flip through them before bed. But I always go to bed feeling a little sad. I often wonder if it would be easier and less frustrating just to hear their voices instead of seeing their faces.

For me, the easiest part of book tour is standing in front of a group of readers and discussing my book. The hardest parts are being away from my family and the constant feeling that I am running late for the next thing, whether that thing is a flight, a reservation, an interview or ride.

But a book tour can also feature pleasant surprises that masquerade as disappointments. At the end of the most recent tour I was on the way home from out west when I missed a flight in Salt Lake City due to fog. It was noon, and the next flight that could get me home to Wilmington would not leave until midnight, and I would have to connect in Atlanta and would not arrive home until late the following morning. After getting my new tickets I had two options: sulk in the airport all day or go out and see something of Salt Lake City, a place I had never visited before.

I caught a cab into the city and had an incredible day. I visited the King’s English, one of the most iconic bookstores in the country. I had lunch and a beer at a local brewery. I visited the Mormon Temple downtown, and I ended the day with an impromptu decision to catch a Utah Jazz game before catching the train back to the airport.

It was an exhausting day that had begun with great disappointment, but it ended in joy and the certainty that despite how long I had been away and how far I was from North Carolina, I was headed back to my wife and children. I unzipped my backpack, removed my neck pillow, and settled in for the long flight(s) home.  PS

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

Have Yourselfie a Merry Little Christmas

In search of a family tradition

By Wiley Cash

Our oldest daughter was only 2 months old the first time we made her cry while showing her the importance of family traditions. It was a chilly late afternoon on the day after Thanksgiving in 2014, and my wife and I had already unloaded all the Christmas decorations from the attic while our daughter napped. Now we sat on the living room sofa in nervous silence, watching the daylight slip away and wondering if we should dare commit the cardinal sin of waking a sleeping baby. After all, we were going to get our first Christmas tree as a family, and we needed high-quality photos to prove that a tradition had been forged.

I cannot quite remember what my wife or I were wearing, but in my memory it seems that we were decked out in our winter, Christmas tree-searching finery. I picture myself in a red flannel shirt with one of those leather hats with the flaps folded down over my ears, and I imagine my wife was wearing a cream-colored sweater with a beret that matched, but these are just bits of speculation. I do, however, remember our daughter’s outfit, can still picture it where it was laid out on the coffee table: a white onesie with a Cubist-inspired Christmas tree on it and, of course, a tiny red Santa hat that we planned to perch perfectly atop her bald baby head.

At the first sound of her stirring, we flew upstairs. We slipped her out of her non-holiday clothes and into the Christmas tree onesie with ease, but we hit a serious speed bump once the Santa hat was installed on her head. She shook it loose, and when we put it back on she actually reached for it and removed it. My wife did her best to distract our daughter while I fumbled with the tripod so we could snap a few casual photos in front of our garlanded, lit fireplace before setting out in search of a tree. By the time the camera was ready, our daughter was in tears. The photos show our strained faces, her tear-stained cheeks and a tiny Santa hat that is alternately atop her head, in midair as it falls toward the floor, then absent altogether. 

With dusk coming on and our normally relaxed newborn newly fitful, we made a dash for the closest Christmas tree lot we could find, which, unfortunately, sat on a narrow strip of grass between the fire department and a busy road.

The sun had sunk below the tree line and an icy chill had settled over the late afternoon by the time we arrived at the lot. We immediately set about the task of having and photographing our tree-hunting experience instead of actually hunting for a tree. Our daughter showed no more interest in wearing her Santa hat than she had shown at home, and the cars and trucks that sped past us only a few feet away did not assist us in our attempts to keep the hat on her head. However, what the speeding automobiles did do well was force the cold air deep into our eyes so that tears streamed down all our faces.

After we had taken all the pictures the three of us could stand — none of which actually featured the three of us together — we realized that we had not yet spent a moment considering any trees on the lot. We made a hasty selection, tied a tree to the top of the car and headed home.

We got the tree inside and set it up in its stand, but we did not decorate it that evening. We did not decorate it the next day either. Perhaps we were not yet in the Christmas spirit. Perhaps we were busy decorating other parts of the house. But what is most likely is that we were silently pouting due to the fact that the experience of getting the tree had not been captured in a way that felt sufficient to memorialize it as a family tradition.

A few nights later, after an early dinner, I found my wife going through a box of ornaments. Many of them had been given to us while we were dating or during the first year of our marriage. We considered each ornament, talked about the people who had given it to us, recalled the first Christmas tree we decorated as a couple when we were living in the northern panhandle of West Virginia in 2009.

That year, my wife had come home late from work, and snow had begun to fall. It was early December, and there was already a thin layer of snow on the ground. Both of us being Southerners, we were excited by the idea of getting a Christmas tree in the falling snow. Although we had not yet unpacked ornaments or even considered decorating our tiny apartment, we set out on the dark, snow-covered roads that wound through our mountain village and headed for the small town of Wellsburg, on the banks of the Ohio River.

The only Christmas trees we could find were in the parking lot of a Rite-Aid, and there were only a few trees available. But we took our time, imagining each one crammed inside our living room in front of the window that looked out on the main street of the village. We talked about how high our ceiling was, what kind of tree topper we would buy, which ornaments would hang where. The snow kept falling, and I have vivid memories of seeing flakes caught in my wife’s dark hair. I can remember reaching out and touching the pine boughs on the various trees where the soft snow had settled.

We finally agreed on a short, fat tree, and as we paid for it and loaded it onto the roof of our car we discovered that the owner of the tree lot knew some friends of ours. We had only recently moved to West Virginia, and we were thrilled by the knowledge that we had just met someone who was friends with our friends. We felt like we belonged in this distant place that was so far from our lives back home in North Carolina. We were forging a life together.

Five years later we stood in a new house with a new baby and looked through old ornaments. I opened a few boxes of lights and began snaking them through the tree. We made a fire and hung our old ornaments one by one. We were so caught up in our decorating that we did not notice that our daughter had fallen asleep on the little pillow where she often rested, the light from the fire and the light from the tree causing her soft baby face to glow. I looked at my wife. She reached for her cellphone, and I reached for our daughter’s tiny Santa hat and, as carefully as I could, placed it on her head. We knelt behind her, gazed down upon her with all the love one could ever feel for such a sweet, innocent thing. And then we looked up at my wife’s cellphone and snapped a selfie.

That night, I knew that we were a family with a Christmas tradition. But I also knew something else: We always had been.  PS

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

Writer’s Life

The Next Frontier

Listening for voices of characters I have not yet created

By Wiley Cash

Jill McCorkle, my friend and fellow writer, has said on more than one occasion that she knows it is time to let go of one novel when the next one reveals itself. I imagine this is like swinging through the jungle on vines: It’s not wise to let go of one vine until you’re certain that another is in reach. I feel the same way; even if my eyes are closed as I reach for the vine, I’m certain it’s there, waiting for me if I’m brave enough to grasp it and keep swinging along.

But I cannot help but pause and hover in mid-air. I need to give my hands a rest before they grasp another project, before my body can agree to be carried through the jungle of novel-writing with only the most tenuous connections to the trees above me to keep me from tumbling to the forest floor.

For me, writing a novel is hard, and it takes a long time, and over the course of writing three novels I have adjusted my approach to letting one go before taking up another.

I began writing my first novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, which is about the fallout in the community after a young boy is smothered during a healing service in the mountains of North Carolina, in the spring of 2004, and I thought I had finished it in the fall of 2008 when a New York agent agreed to represent it, but I was wrong. Although she and I worked on revisions of the novel over the next year and a half, she was never able to sell it to a publisher, and we ended up parting ways in early 2010. I had a failed novel on my hands, and I had lost an agent. The chance to publish had slipped through my fingers.

Although I felt defeated, I had already begun thinking about writing a second novel, although I had no idea how to begin. I had lived with the story of my first novel for five years, and I knew the characters intimately  — their history, landscape and emotional terrain  — and I could not imagine forgoing these people for a new cast of individuals that would be born in my mind and live on my screen for some indeterminate time.

Slowly, characters for a new novel and the circumstances that would animate them began to come to me: two young sisters in foster care; a wayward father who is also a washed-up baseball player; stolen money; a bounty hunter with a years’ old vendetta. Although the characters and plot were revealing themselves, I was hesitant to put pen to paper until I knew for certain that my first novel had failed. I’m glad I waited.

In the spring of 2010 I began working with a new agent. Over the course of the next few months, he and I worked on revisions of A Land More Kind Than Home. In late October, he called me and told me that the book was ready to go out to editors in the hope one of them would want to publish it. He asked if I had another novel in mind. He wanted us to go for a two-book deal. I told him the story of a washed-up minor league baseball player who kidnaps his two daughters from a foster home and goes on the run with a bag of stolen money. I had not written a word of the novel yet, but I had lived with it for the better part of a year.

My agent sold the manuscript of A Land More Kind Than Home, as well as a synopsis of what would become This Dark Road to Mercy, to the first editor who read it. I suddenly found myself with a two-book deal.

Over the next few months, my new editor and I went back to A Land More Kind Than Home, and I wrote a new draft of the novel, and I also spent a lot of time on pre-publication tasks: writing essays that would appear online and in magazines; giving interviews; attending trade shows; and traveling to New York to meet the publishing team. Although the synopsis of This Dark Road to Mercy sold in late 2010, I did not write a word of the novel until the summer of 2011.

I was very fortunate to be accepted to artists’ retreats at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York, and, later that summer, at MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. The first time I sat down to write at Yaddo in June 2011, I wrote the entire first chapter of This Dark Road to Mercy. It literally poured itself onto the page because I had been living with it in my mind for so long. By the end of the summer I almost had a complete draft.

My first novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, was published in April 2012, and I submitted the final manuscript of This Dark Road to Mercy to my editor a year later. One day, he and I were on the phone talking about the novel and the ways in which it would be promoted and sold.

He said, “I know you just turned in the manuscript, but I’m wondering if you’ve got any ideas about a new novel.”

I did. For a few years I’d been considering writing about the Loray Mill and the violent textile strike that engulfed my hometown of Gastonia, North Carolina, in the summer of 1929. I told my editor that, in secret, I had begun working on a novel based on the life and tragic murder of Ella May Wiggins, a young single mother who joined the union only to be killed after becoming the face of the strike. He said the story sounded interesting. We got off the phone, and I did not think anything more about our conversation until later that afternoon, when my agent called. My editor had just offered us another two-book deal.

For the past five years I have been clinging to the vine that is now titled The Last Ballad, living in a 1929 world of cotton mill shacks, country clubs, segregated railroad cars, and labor organizers with communist sympathies. Everything I know about the craft of writing and the history, culture and politics of America, especially the American South, has gone into this novel. I literally feel as if I have been wrung dry, and I cannot imagine writing another book, even though I know I will sooner than later.

But even in this state of exhaustion, there is a story percolating in my brain where the voices of characters I have not yet created are speaking in whispers. I feel the hot breath of a novel on my neck even as I sit here. There is a vine somewhere out there in the jungle, if only I’ll reach out, open my hand, and grasp it.

It’s not going anywhere. I’m not either.

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His forthcoming novel The Last Ballad is available for pre-order wherever books are sold.

Revenge of the Lawn

Covet not thy neighbor’s grass. Just go hire the right organic lawn care specialist

By Wiley Cash

I’m standing on my lawn in Wilmington, North Carolina, recalling the time I heard a mindfulness teacher condense the many years of the Buddha’s teachings into one sentence: Cling to nothing as I, me, or mine. That’s good advice, life-making or life-changing advice depending on when you receive it, but it’s hard advice to follow in my neighborhood, especially as my gaze drifts from the weed-choked, shriveled brown grass at my feet to the lush, pampered golf course-green of my neighbors’ lawns. All around me are weeds I don’t understand, things I’ve never seen before, things I never could have imagined: monstrous tendrils that snake into the air in search of something to strangle; vines covered in thorns and bits of fluff that cling to the skin like the pink fiberglass insulation your dad always warned you not to touch in the attic; scrubby pines no taller than 6 inches with root systems as long as my legs and twice as strong.

Roughly 250 miles west sits the city of Gastonia, where I was raised in a wooded suburb that always felt to me as if the houses in the neighborhood of my youth had been forged from the landscape. In my memory, dense forests loom in our backyard, the smell of wood smoke curls through the air, grass looks like grass: thick blades that grow up toward the sun instead of clumping and crawling like desperate snakes wriggling toward prey.

Another 100 miles west, nestled in the cradle of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is the city of Asheville, where I grew into adulthood and made the decision to become a writer. This meant I worked odd jobs and lived in relative — if not romantic — poverty throughout my 20s. I inhabited a slew of rental houses with friends of similar ages and similar interests, each house having one thing in common: a wild expanse of unkempt lawn where nature grew in a heady, beautiful containment — variegated hostas, blue and pink and purple hydrangeas, English lavender and flame azalea. We didn’t water anything or spread fertilizer. The only people who ever cut the grass were the landlords, and that was done sporadically with the weather and season. Yet, it seemed that we could have dug our heels into the black earth and something beautiful would have sprung forth.

Down here on the coast my lawn is nothing but sand with a thin skin of sod draped over it. I live in a region where if you buy plants at the garden store, you’d better buy the soil to plant them in. Nothing but the most tenacious, native weeds can survive in this boggy, sandy soil. Some days I have doubts about my own survival. It too often feels like I don’t belong here, but then again, my lawn doesn’t belong here either. Just a few months before we moved in, this landscape was marked by piney swamps dotted with ferns, maples and the occasional live oak. Not long ago, bulldozers plowed through and pushed over all but a few of the pines. Then dump trucks flooded the wet spots with tons upon tons of fill dirt. The developer carved out streets, piled the dirt into 1/4 acre squares, and called them lots. The builder began constructing houses. Finally, landscapers rolled out strips of St. Augustine, punched holes in the ground and dropped cheap shrubs into the earth.

My wife and I bought one of the first lots, and there were only a handful of houses in the development when we built ours. We moved in just in time to watch nature attempt to reclaim its domain. We’ve been here almost four years. Now, the streets bubble where swamp water pulses through cracks in the asphalt. The drainage ponds are full of alligators that behave more like residents than those of us who have built homes. At dusk, tiny bloodthirsty flies, what the locals call “no-see-ums,” dance in the night like specters, biting your ears, eyeballs and neck.

And then there are the weeds. The canopy of trees is gone now, and the weeds have ample sunlight and plenty of room to spread.

I lie in bed at night pondering the use of industrial-strength fertilizers and weed killers, and I weigh their environmental destruction and the health risks they pose my children with the possibility of having a lawn of which I can be proud. I begin to empathize with companies responsible for accidental coal-ash spills (Everyone wants electricity!) and incidental pesticide contamination (Everyone wants bananas in January!).

Deciding to forgo potential carcinogens, at least for now, I appeal to someone who seems expert in all things related to lawns and manhood. Tim lives three houses down and has the most perfect yard in the neighborhood. He’s tan and tall and lean. He could be 40 or 65, the kind of guy who rides his road bike to the beach each day at dawn with his surfboard strapped to his back, the kind of guy who looks like Lance Armstrong or Laird Hamilton, depending on whether he’s wearing spandex or board shorts.

I find Tim watering his lawn with a garden hose. The rest of us turn on our irrigation systems and hope for the best. Not Tim; he waters like a surgeon. He’s barefoot, and I wonder what it feels like to be able to walk shoeless in one’s yard without feeling the sharp crinkling of dead grass blades beneath your feet. I explain my lawn problems to him, at least insofar as I understand them. He listens with patience, perhaps even sympathy.

“Fertilize,” he finally says. “Organic. Commercial. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. And then wait until it rains.” He turns off his garden hose and finds the one weed in his yard that’s apparent to the naked eye: a dandelion that looks more like a flower than any flowers I’ve planted in the past year. Tim reaches down and plucks the dandelion from the earth with the ease of lifting it from a vase. “They come up easier when the ground’s wet,” he said. “Roots and all.”

So, early in the spring, I fertilize the yard with liquid corn gluten meal. The air smells like a combination of popcorn and barnyard, but it seems to have enough nitrogen in it to green up the grass. And, after the next rain, I pull weeds. For hours. It works. By early summer my lawn is green and nearly weed-free, but I never get too comfortable.

I’m out of town one morning when I text my wife and ask for an update on our lawn. I receive a photo reply within a few minutes. I hesitate to open it the way young people hesitate to open report cards, the way old people hesitate to open medical tests: There’s nothing I can do about it now, I think. To my surprise the photo my wife sent shows a vibrant green lawn dappled with early morning dew. I can’t help but wonder if she’s walked up the street and snapped a picture of Tim’s grass. Regardless, I allow relief to wash over me: The C- I’d been expecting has become a B, the heart disease diagnosis I knew awaited me has ended up being indigestion. Life can go on as long as it rains — but not too much — and the sun keeps shining, but not on the west side of the lawn because there is no shade there, and if we don’t get enough rain the grass will crisp up pretty quick.

Late in the summer the grass begins to turn brown in strange semicircles, and when I look closely I can see the individual blades stirring. I kneel down and spot a tiny worm at work. I look closer, spot hundreds, no, thousands more. Our neighborhood has been invaded by armyworms. Instead of spending my time on the novel that’s months overdue, I spend a small fortune coating the grass in organic neem oil. To make myself feel better about not writing I listen to podcasts about writing, but my attempt to stave off writer’s guilt is just as futile as my attempt to fight the armyworms. Our green grass is eaten away within a matter of days; my soul follows suit, and I can only hope both will re-emerge come spring.

But that spring, something else happens instead. In May, my father is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, and the lawn and its calendar of fertilizing and hydrating slips from my mind. He passes two short weeks later, and as I ease into grief the summer spins away from me, and I don’t even look around until August, when my yard comprises more weeds than grass. I’ve missed the opportunity to fertilize, and there’s no amount of safe weed killer that’s going to make a dent.

I wait for it to rain. Then I fall to my knees, and I pick weeds.

My 2-year-old daughter joins me. Sometimes she’ll yank up fistfuls of grass because it comes up easier than the weeds. I don’t have the heart to correct her, and I can’t help but wonder if she’s on to something. How long would it take us to tear out all this grass and start over? I look at my neighbors’ thriving lawns, and I assume that the pain of death or responsibilities for children or work-related obligations have not touched their lives in the ways they’ve touched mine. If only my life could be as clear and clean and healthy as their lawns appear to be. 

This year, I decide that I don’t have the patience, the faith, the head space, or the heart space to battle my lawn, and I call a local company that specializes in organic lawn care. I’m surveying the yard when the technician arrives. His name is Steve, and he’s actually the owner, which puts me at ease. He’s middle-aged, clean-shaven with glasses and silvery hair. He speaks quietly, confidently. I can’t help but think that he senses something about me. Perhaps he knows that I’m embarrassed to admit that I can’t do something as simple as grow grass, that I’ve put too much pressure on myself, that things have gone too far, that I’m clinging to something that does not deserve my clinging.

In my recollection, he puts a hand on my shoulder. Maybe he even takes my hand. He leads me around the yard, whispering the names of the weeds he finds, the ways in which he can stop them. He tells me it’s not my fault. It’s hard to grow grass in this environment, especially in new neighborhoods like mine where the sod hasn’t had time to take root or an existing organic structure to give it life. And my ground is too hard, he says. It needs to be aerated. It needs to be softened.

We agree on a treatment regimen. They’ll start next week, provided it doesn’t rain.

“You’re going to have a beautiful lawn,” he says. “You’ll be happy.”

“I appreciate that,” I say. “But it’s all yours now.”.  PS

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, with his wife and their two daughters. His forthcoming novel The Last Ballad is available for pre-order wherever books are sold.

Trespassing on Fertile Ground

Writing a book requires a curious spirit, a rental car and potential bail money

By Wiley Cash

On two separate occasions, my career as a novelist has nearly resulted in my being charged with breaking and entering. The first instance occurred at my elementary school. When I was 35 years old.

In June 2013, I was invited back to my high school in Gastonia, North Carolina, to receive an alumni award that was to be given during the school’s graduation ceremony. After flying down on Friday and settling in at the hotel, I woke up early on Saturday morning with a little time to kill, and I thought I’d drive my rental car over to Robinson Elementary, where I had gone to school as a child. The baseball field behind the school serves as the model for the ball field in the opening scene of This Dark Road to Mercy, a novel whose final edits I was then in the middle of completing. I wanted to see the ball field again and make certain that I had gotten it “right” on the page. I wanted to know that my memory had done it justice.

I followed the sidewalk to the back of the building, where a playground sat, the old baseball field resting at the bottom of the hill. I stood there, picturing my characters, two young sisters, playing on the ball field. Once I was certain that I had imprinted the scene upon my mind, I made my way back to the front of the school. That is when I passed the gymnasium. At that moment, the exact smell of the gymnasium came back to me, a scent I had not smelled in almost 25 years: fresh carpet, new paint, well-used basketballs, and something else that I wasn’t able to place. I couldn’t resist my curiosity in wondering whether or not the gym still smelled the same. I checked the door. It was unlocked. I opened it and stepped inside.

I have two bits of news to report: First, the gymnasium at Robinson Elementary has smelled the exact same for almost 25 years. Second, Robinson Elementary’s security alarm is really loud.

I slammed the door and stood there for a moment, and I’m not going to lie: I considered fleeing. Before I continue, let me tell you a little about my rental car. It was a souped-up, turquoise Camaro. The guy at the rental place had been excited when he told me about the car, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it wasn’t quite my style. Now, I pictured myself in my suit and tie, burning rubber in a turquoise Camaro as I peeled out of my old elementary school’s parking lot. I did the only thing I could think to do: I pulled out my cellphone and called 911 on myself. The conversation went something like this: No, I don’t work for Robinson Elementary. No, I don’t have a child who goes here. No, I’m from out of town. But I’m a writer, and I wrote about Robinson in a novel that will be out next year. I have to let you go. The police are here.

A similar line of questioning occurred during my parking lot police interrogation. As soon as I was released my wife called. “Is that a siren?” she asked. I gave the only answer I could give. “I set off the alarm at my elementary school.” Apparently, my wife is used to this type of behavior because all she said was, “I’ll talk to you later.”

The second time my career as a novelist nearly resulted in a rap sheet for breaking and entering occurred last spring, just west of Gastonia in the small town of Bessemer City, where much of my forthcoming novel The Last Ballad is set. The novel, which is based on true events, tells the story of a young woman who is swept up in a violent mill strike during the summer of 1929. Her name was Ella May Wiggins, and she worked at a mill in Bessemer City called American Mill No. 2. After a little research, I was able to locate the crumbling mill: It had been sold several times over the intervening decades, and, from where I sat parked along the road in front of the old mill, it appeared abandoned.

I got out of the car, a Subaru Forester — more inconspicuous and better suited for exploration than the Camaro — and approached the gate, assuming it would be locked, but there was no lock, and when I tried to open the gate it opened easily. I climbed back into my car, drove through the open gate, and parked in front of the mill.

For the next half hour I took pictures outside the mill, wondering where Ella had entered it, wondering how I would capture it on the page. It was painted a fading white, but I knew from old photographs that the red brick beneath had once been exposed. I also knew that Ella had worked as a spinner, but from outside the mill, I couldn’t imagine where the spinning room would have been located. I considered trying the doors to see if any of them were unlocked. I even considered climbing up the ramp and trying to gain entry to the doors in the loading area. But the place was so quiet and felt so undisturbed that something gave me pause. The mill felt haunted, whether by Ella’s presence or my own imagining, I could not tell. I decided to snap one more photo of the mill before getting back into my car and heading for Asheville, where I was scheduled to give a reading that evening.

And that’s when I saw him: a scarecrow of a man standing on the loading dock about 100 yards from me. I lowered my camera, feeling as if I’d just been caught stealing secrets. The man wore blue jeans and a button-down shirt, a baseball hat pulled low over his eyes. His face was obscured by shadow, but he appeared to have a mustache and to be wearing thick glasses. I lowered my camera, and I stared at him. He stared back at me.

My car was parked between us, and I considered sprinting to it and getting behind the wheel and stepping on the gas for Asheville. But instead I approached the man where he stood. I didn’t say a word until I was within 10 feet or so of where he loomed above me from his perch on the loading dock.

“Hello,” I said. “My name’s Wiley Cash, and I’m a writer, and I’m writing about a woman who worked at this mill in 1929. I was just taking a few pictures for research.”


“Her name was Ella May Wiggins,” I said. “She was shot and killed during the Loray Mill strike.”

More silence.

“Have you ever heard of her?”

He raised his eyes, looked out toward the road where the gate remained open from my illegal entry. He stared at my Subaru, and I suddenly wished I’d been driving the Camaro. Finally, he looked at me. I wondered if he would go inside and call the police, or if he’d disappear and return with some kind of weapon and take the law into his own hands.

“Well,” he said, “I reckon you’d better come inside and have a look around.”

His name was Walter, and he was 67 years old. He’d grown up in Gastonia not too far from the place where I’d grown up, and he’d been working at the mill — under one owner or another — since the late 1970s.

“There were almost 200 employees back then,” he said. “Today, we’ve got two on the floor.”

Inside, two middle-aged women were busy packaging cloth rope and preparing it to be shipped. Neither of them looked up when Walter and I passed.

The mill appeared even older once I was inside it. It was dark and musty, the hardwood floor worn smooth from decades of foot traffic and pocked from years of heavy machinery being moved across it, the ceiling low and riddled with what appeared to be hand-hewn beams and crossbeams where single bulbs cast soft yellow light defined by deep shadows.

“This is probably exactly what this place looked like when she worked here back in ’29,” Walter said. He stopped, looked at me. “What did she do?”

“She was a spinner,” I said.

“Come on,” he said.

I followed him up a rickety staircase to the second story. It ran almost the length of the mill, but it was virtually empty. The roof pitched above us at a sharp angle. Sunlight streamed through dirty glass windows and chinks in the walls. Gaps in the flooring made it so I could see through to the story below.

“This is where the spinners would’ve worked,” he said. “The machines would’ve been up here.”

“Would it have been loud?” I asked.


“And hot?”

“You can’t imagine,” he said.

“She worked 70 hours a week for $9,” I said. “And she had five children. Four had already passed away. She joined the strike because she thought the rest of them might die if something didn’t change.”

He drew his lips into a straight line, shook his head in what seemed like either disbelief or disappointment. I thought of the two silent women at work downstairs, and I wondered if Walter saw anything of Ella’s story in theirs.

When I left, I told Walter that I’d make sure he got a copy of my novel when it came out. I told him I’d drop by the mill and see him. He smiled.

“If we’re still here,” he said. “If so, I hope you’ll stop by.”

I’ve learned that sometimes, as a writer, you have to get out of the (rental) car and open doors. Other times, it’s best to wait for doors to be opened to you. PS

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, with his wife and their two daughters. His forthcoming novel The Last Ballad is available for pre-order wherever books are sold.