Upon the debut of his second novel, the North Carolina author talks about his sense of place, love of baseball and responsibility to his community.
Some say lightning never strikes in the same place twice, but for Wiley Cash, fresh off the completion of his second novel, it’s hard to deny the electricity and energy of This Dark Road to Mercy. On the heels of his wildly successful debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, Wiley Cash continues to explore the themes of family and survival in a grimly-painted backdrop of the American South.
Two sisters, Easter and Ruby Quillby, are faced with life in an orphanage when their mother passes away. But before they know it, their prodigal father, Wade, returns through their bedroom window, whisking them away to Myrtle Beach and a seemingly fresh start. But Wade is a wanted man, not only by the police but a mysterious man in dark sunglasses who has a score to settle with the ex-minor league baseball pitcher. Also on the trail is Brady Weller, the girls’ legal guardian who seeks to not only find them, but quiet his own demons as well. This Dark Road to Mercy has all the aspects of a classic Faulkner novel: multiple narrators, a troubled family brimming with secrets and the heart of a thrilling mystery.
Cash received his BA in Literature from the University of North Carolina-Asheville, his MA in English from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and, finally, his PhD in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His first novel is a New York Times bestseller and multiple award winner, including recipient of the Southern Independent Bookseller Alliances’ Book Award and Crook’s Corner Book Prize for Debut Southern Novel. Currently, Cash teaches in the MFA Program at Southern New Hampshire University.
Zachary Lundgren interviewed him by phone earlier this month in advance of our Twitter chat with Cash on Friday. Join in the discussion from 1-2 CST using the hashtag #southernlit. We also have a copy of This Dark Road to Mercy to give away. Comment here about your own sense of place through Monday to win.
How did your writing process change from your first novel to your second? What had you learned from your first book?
That [Land More Kind] was my first novel that I ever tried to write and I was kinda trying to feel my way through it. And, you know, it was a very organic process writing this book. And then it was somewhat inorganic when I looked back at the mess I’d made and I had to arrange it into a narrative. So with Dark Road to Mercy, I’d had the benefit of already writing a novel, and I knew how novels worked and I knew how they moved. In many ways, writing This Dark Road to Mercy was a much more organic process where I kind of sat down and wrote a draft all the way through. I also knew when to keep scenes short and when to lengthen scenes in order to communicate the evolution of characterization or the elements of plot.
Do you identify as a Southern writer? If so, what traits do you believe create a Southern author?
Do I identify as a Southern writer? Absolutely. And I’m not certain what makes you a Southern writer. The Supreme Court definition of pornography is you know it when you see it. And that may be what Southern writing is like too. And I think you can definitely know something’s not Southern when you see it as well. You know a writer who is not from the region coming in and trying to write a novel about the South. It’s the same thing as watching a movie and hearing an accent. I think there is maybe a certain nostalgia or longing for place here, especially when I was living outside the South or living outside North Carolina in Louisiana or West Virginia. There’s a certain longing for North Carolina, for the local color, for the landscape, for the culture.
Both the O’Connor epigraph in this novel and your first novel are heavily invested in the theme of place. How does place influence or inform your writing?
I’m a product of the South. I’m a product of North Carolina. I think that most of us are products of the places we come from or the places we’re raised, and so I like that the theme of place influences me. This novel is marked by in some ways by poverty and in some ways desperation and in some ways loss, and those are all strong elements of the place these girls come from. They grew up without a father, they grew up with a mother who oftentimes wasn’t there, in neighborhoods that were not as safe as the neighborhoods most of us are familiar and comfortable with. And so these children are definitely informed by place.
Why were you compelled to use three, distinct narrators as opposed to keeping the book, let’s say, entirely in the narrative perspective of Easter Quillby?
Easter doesn’t know the full story. Easter doesn’t know the struggles of Brady’s past. And so I think that bringing these other perspectives into the novel hopefully not only gives a roundness to the story, but I hope it also gives some complexity to the story when you see how many lives are being affected by Wade’s decisions, both past and present. And I wanted the reader to feel some real uncertainty about the decisions Wade had made. And you understand that uncertainty by realizing how he has affected Pruitt’s life and why Pruitt is so furious at him. You understand the uncertainty of the decisions Brady has to make at the end of the book, and you understand why those decisions are so complicated based on Brady’s own past.
After reading the novel, it feels safe to assume you’re a baseball fan. How do you see the sport playing a role in This Dark Road to Mercy?
I am a baseball fan, and baseball is a big part of my life growing up in Gastonia, in North Carolina, ’cause baseball was so big there. I grew up going to Gastonia Rangers games, which is the team that Wade played for. A lot of people don’t know this, but Sammy Sosa also played for the Gastonia Rangers. And at a time around when my fictional character, Wade, would have played for them, Sosa was on the team. He had just started. He had been drafted by the Texas Rangers and the Gastonia Rangers were the farm team for the Texas Rangers. And when all of this would have been happening during the 1998 homerun race between Sosa and McGwire, Wade would have certainly had a rooting interest for Sammy Sosa, having once been his teammate.
I also liked that that homerun race is what kinda saved baseball. It’s also what saved America in many ways, because in 1998 we were a very cynical nation after the scandals in the White House with Clinton and Lewinsky. And baseball is what brought everybody together. It was a reason to sit down with your family at night and turn on the TV and watch these two incredible athletes pursue this — what was thought to be an unbreakable record. And a decade later, we find out that we were all being misled. And we have to look again at what we once thought. And that’s what this novel is asking people to do as well.
In many ways, this is a story about fathers and their responsibilities. In your opinion, what is the greatest responsibility of a father?
Gosh, that’s a tough question because I don’t have children. But if I did have children, I would want my greatest responsibility to be to always love them, to let them know that they are always loved, that they are always accepted. And this is something that Easter and Ruby struggle with because Wade is gone for so much of their early lives. Easter is suspicious of his love for them, she’s suspicious of his duty to them and his responsibility to them. But the minute she feels loved by him is the minute her alliances shift toward him.
I found This Dark Road to Mercy to be a more plot-driven novel, while your first book focused more on the conflict between character and community. Was this a conscious decision during the writing process, or am I off-base?
I don’t know if this was a conscious decision to make this novel more plot driven. I think that there are more elements of danger, immediate danger, in this novel than there were in the first one. And so I think that probably lends itself more to plot. And timing is much more important in this novel. This is also set against an event which we know to be real, which is the homerun race between McGwire and Sosa. So, you know, I think that realistic timeline adds a sense of urgency to the plot, so the reader is aware that a clock is ticking.
Both of your novels feature child narrators. What is it about a young perspective that you find compelling?
I love using children because their emotional powers or emotional capabilities are so inconsistent. They show sadness and joy in such extremes, and I like the honesty in that, whereas sadness in adults is always somewhat measured and joy is always measured. Adults are afraid of divulging too much of their personalities or too much of their past or too many of their secrets. Children just put it all out on the table. And so I think when you have a child narrator, you’re really getting an honest sense of who that person is.
The character of Brady Weller intrigued me in this novel. On a basic level, it seemed as if the plot could have existed without him, yet he adds an important dimension and perspective to the novel. What role do you see Brady playing in the novel? And why was he chosen as one of the three narrators?
The role that Brady played is that he is a person who is, from the moment he meets them, invested in these girls’ wellbeing. He, in many ways, is kind of the guardian angel. He is the community responsibility who is trying his best to make sure these girls make it through their young lives safely. I wanted Brady to represent the community’s conscience in trying to ensure the survival of these two girls.
Who are some of your favorite authors and books? Who has inspired your writing?
Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe, Cane by Jean Toomer and Of Love and Dust by Ernest Gaines. I think that if you want to be a fiction writer, just about everything you need to learn is in those three novels. But the writers I’ve been influenced by most directly are Ernest Gaines, Ron Rash, Kaye Gibbons, Bobbie Ann Mason, Clyde Edgerton, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner — kind of the usual suspects, but writers who are anchored to place and to time and era and feel a deep responsibility for the community and the people they are representing.