by Kate on Mar 29, 2012 at 9:10 am
The haunting new debut from American writer Wiley Cash is now available in hardback.
A Land More Kind Than Home is a spellbinding, heartbreaking story about cruelty and innocence, and the failure of religion and family to protect a child. The Financial Times recently said that ‘With a couple of scenes so unnerving that they’ll make you yelp, and the most villainous preacher since Robert Mitchum in The Night Hunters, it’s an electrifying debut’ .
Even though Wiley is currently on tour calling into bookshops across America, he took some time out to tell What Shall I Read about the journey he went through writing A Land More Kind Than Home and why he loves to write about North Carolina.
In the late summer of 2003, I left the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, for the bayous of southwest Louisiana. I’d enrolled in a Ph.D. program in English and creative writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette because I was determined to become a writer; exactly how this would happen I wasn’t quite certain. I’d already spent four years as an undergraduate in a similar program, followed by two years as a master’s student. Even after all that time in school, I still didn’t know what it meant to be a writer, but UL-Lafayette had offered me a teaching assistantship and a stipend that would keep me from starving, so I packed up my car and headed south. I’d applied to this particular program for two reasons: I wanted to go as deep into the American South as possible, but more than that I wanted to study fiction writing under Ernest J. Gaines, the university’s writer-in-residence and a man I believed then, as I do now, to be the South’s greatest living writer.
But, after just a few days in Cajun Country, I realized that I was desperately homesick. Suddenly, the things I’d taken for granted while living in western North Carolina became important fixtures in my life. I found myself ordering photo collections by North Carolina photographers, albums by North Carolina musicians, and I began reading and rereading books by North Carolina authors: Kaye Gibbons’s Ellen Foster, Fred Chappell’s I Am One of You Forever, Wilma Dykeman’s A Tall Woman, and Clyde Edgerton’s Walking Across Egypt.
But, most importantly, I reread Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. I don’t know that I’ve ever been so deeply affected by a book.
It should be no surprise that the novel resonated so deeply with me. Aside from being set in a fictionalized Asheville, Look Homeward, Angel is about a young man struggling with the idea of leaving home. Wolfe’s autobiographical protagonist Eugene Gant longs to discover the destiny that awaits him beyond the confines of the towns square. Because of this, I believe the novel’s final line is perhaps the most beautiful line in all of American literature.
Yet, as he stood for the last time by the angels of his father’s porch, it seemed as if the square
already was far and lost; or I should say he was like a man who stands upon a hill above the town
he has left, yet does not say “The town is near,” but turns his eyes upon the distant soaring
Thomas Wolfe’s four major novels are about young men who leave home and later struggle with the idea of whether or not they want to return. But it’s the title of his last novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, that sounds the final, resounding note on the issue: once you’re gone, you’re gone. This was true of Wolfe’s characters, and it was certainly true of Wolfe, who, after leaving Asheville in 1920, returned home only once for a brief visit in the summer of 1938. He died just a few months later. Thomas Wolfe spent his life longing to get out of western North Carolina; I wondered if I’d spend my life longing to get back in.
Aside from my fiction writing workshop with Gaines, I was also taking a course in African American literature, and one day my professor brought in a news story about a young African American boy with autism who was smothered during a church healing service in a storefront church on Chicago’s South Side. Although I was raised in an evangelical Southern Baptist church, I was familiar enough with charismatic belief to understand its power, and I was particularly drawn to the Pentescostal tradition, especially the Holiness movement that takes the Bible as the literal word of God, particularly Mark 16: 17-18.
And these signs will follow those who believe: In my name they will cast out demons, they will
speak in new tongues, they will pick up snakes with their hands, and when they drink deadly
poison, it will not hurt them; they will place their hands on the sick, and they will get well.
The story of the young boy’s smothering was clearly tragic, but given my interest in the Holiness movement, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by it, and given my own memories of growing up in the church, I couldn’t help but feel compelled to write about it.
But when I thought about sitting down at my desk to begin the story, I knew I’d face several insurmountable problems: as interested as I was in the Holiness movement, I’d never been to Chicago’s South Side, and I knew nothing about the experience of growing up in the city’s African American neighborhoods. It was impossible for me to attempt to speak for a cultural experience that existed so far outside my own. So, I put the story idea out of my mind, and I continued to flip through my books of North Carolina photography, listen to my collection of North Carolina musicians, and fall asleep each night after reading the words of North Carolina writers.
I got to know Ernest J. Gaines pretty well over the next few months, and I learned his own story of leaving home. He was born and raised in the quarters on a plantation just west of Baton Rouge where his ancestors had spent generations working as slaves and later as sharecroppers. In 1948, at the age of fifteen, he’d had to leave Louisiana and join family in California because of the lack of education available to African American children living in Pointe Coupee Parish. But, once he arrived in Vallejo, he realized that he ached for the sugarcane fields and the twisted oak trees he’d left behind. Because he couldn’t afford to return home, he decided to read about it, but after realizing that he couldn’t find any books about the lives of rural, African Americans in the South, he decided to write about them.
Gaines’s act of recreating home was never clearer to me than the first time I visited him and his wife Dianne where they’d built a new home next door to the land where he was born and raised. It was All Saints’ Day, and a group of us were working to beautify the old slave cemetery that sits about a half-mile behind the still-standing master’s house. Gaines and I had paused in our work, and we were talking about his memories of growing up on the land and the stories of the people buried in the cemetery. At one point, he looked at me and then gestured toward a grave. “Do you know Snookum from A Gathering of Old Men?” he asked. “He’s buried right over there.”
In our workshop back at the university, Ernest J. Gaines had helped me learn to write better stories, but that day, standing in the cemetery with the master’s house barely visible through the trees and the ghostly sound of the wind rustling the sugarcane, he showed me what those stories would be about. Later that evening, while driving home in the fading daylight through the flat farmland of Louisiana, I saw the clouds sitting low on the horizon, and I realized that if I squinted my eyes I could make them look like mountains.
A few weeks later, I went back to the story of the young autistic boy who’d died in Chicago, and I imagined the same tragedy unfolding in western North Carolina. In my mind, I saw a church sitting on the riverbank in Marshall, a small town in Madison County only a short drive from Asheville where I’d spent countless days and nights driving back roads, taking photographs, camping, and swimming in the French Broad River. I gave the autistic boy a younger brother named Jess whose doubts about the church only intensify once he loses his brother inside its walls. The more I wrote, the more the community around Jess flourished in my mind: a church matriarch who struggles to protect the children; a local sheriff who must deal with his own tragic past to solve the mystery of the boy’s death; a mother who’s torn between her faith and her loss; and a father whose pain portends only tragedy. In creating these people and the place they live I got to watch the sun split the mist on the ridges above the French Broad River. From my home in Louisiana, I pondered the silence of snow covered fields. While living in a place that experiences only summer and fall, I watched the green buds sprout on the red maples, and I was there when their leaves began to shrivel before giving way to the wind. I lived in two places at once, and it was wonderful.
When it came time to give the novel a title, I went back to Thomas Wolfe and took the phrase “a land more kind than home” from the closing lines of You Can’t Go Home Again. I love the resonance of those words, the hope that perhaps something greater awaits us when we leave our old lives behind. The characters in my novel, especially young Jess, hope for that as well. But even as our circumstances often call upon us to leave home, to cast our eyes to the distant, soaring ranges, to find a land more kind than home, I believe that you can go home again, even if you have to listen to a song, open a book, or write your own to get there.
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