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Wiley Cash Mines the Lost History Around Him for New Novel

Wiley Cash grew up in a solid, supportive family, attended great schools and is quick to say he is the product of a sheltered, all-American privilege.


So even though he sets his stories in his native North Carolina, Cash is writing as an outsider.


“I had to go to graduate school in Louisiana, however many decades removed from the event itself, to learn about the defining moment in my hometown’s history,” Cash said.


That defining event, as Cash put it, is a labor strike in 1929 at the Loray Mill in Gastonia and the staging ground for the new Cash novel, “The Last Ballad.”


It’s Cash’s third book. All focus on troubled, challenged people in small-town North Carolina, but Cash doesn’t see himself as a literary interloper. Instead, he says it’s his responsibility to tell these stories. Cash, the writer-in-residence at UNC-Asheville, is in Waynesville Thursday for a noon reading and signing at The Classic Wineseller.


“While this novel is about the Loray Mill strike, it’s also about buried history, selective memory, disjoined narratives,” he said. “Because of my privilege and the luck of my birth, I share a certain responsibility in trying to share this story.”


“The Last Ballad” reveals the factual murder of a police chief and the ascendance of the very real union organizer named Ella May Wiggins. Throughout his upbringing in Gastonia, Cash hadn’t known about any of it.


“I didn’t learn about the strike in Gastonia because people didn’t want to talk about it. They didn’t want me to learn about it,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you talk about a story like that? What are the powers at play that keep this story from being taught in schools? I was interested in getting at that and uncovering some sort of understanding.”


There was exhaustive research, but these events happened nearly 90 years ago. There are no reliable living witnesses. So like any novelist, Cash took creative license. He invented characters from composites of people he learned about, and he made peace with the potential murkiness over what is fact and what is fiction.


And that’s where Cash leaned on his strengths as a writer -- the minute details, the gestures and expressions, the breaths and rhythms of speech and movement. They slow time and lift the written work into an imagined visual clarity.


“I kind of know what I want the emotion of the scene to be, and I want everything on the page to contribute to that emotion,” he said. “But as far as the plotting or progression of a scene, I never really know what to expect from these people. I want to create characters I believe in, and people who are real are often unpredictable.”


Cash says perhaps the largest question facing him was whether people would care about these forgotten people and events of a time long passed.


“I thought I was writing a novel about 1929, this exacting historical novel about a particular moment in history, but I wasn’t -- I was writing a novel about 2017,” he said. “I was in Asheville after the (2016 presidential) election, and I thought “Oh, America’s telling me it doesn’t want to read a novel about a tough-minded, independent woman standing up to the forces of greed. But it reminded me that a book can be written about a time, but often, books are to be read for a time.”


NOTE: An earlier version of this story mistakenly described Ella May Wiggins as African-American. Wiggins was white.

Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.
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