I came across Wiley’s debut after following Book Pregnant, a blog that describes itself as “a group of debut authors who met via the internet and have been commiserating, cheering, consoling, cackling, and congratulating each other through this strange and unusual process of bringing a book from contract to publication and beyond.”
Reading the blog prompted me to read Wiley’s debut and that prompted me (and my whole book club) to fall in love with the writing and storytelling of Wiley Cash. Compared to Harper Lee and Cormac McCarthy, Wiley’s work has been called “mesmerizing” by The New York Times. National Public Radio said, “The book is a thriller, but it’s so beautifully written that you’ll be torn about how fast to read it.”
Read on to learn about Wiley’s writerly Achilles heel, the most important trait of a literary agent, and which member of Wiley’s support team garners MVP status.
SC: Some writers are a bit reclusive, but most of us rely on a team of supporters. Who beyond the usual suspects—agent, editor, etc.—comprise Team Cash? What various roles do they play in your growth, stability and success?
WC: My wife is the most important member of my “team.” She reads everything before it goes out, and I’m always bouncing ideas off her: anything from premises for a novel to video footage for trailers to community charities we’re considering partnering with when I’m on the road. I also have a great group of friends, many of whom are writers and artists, who’ve supported me every step of the way. When I speak to student writers, especially college students, I always tell them to surround themselves with people who take them seriously as writers. Pick the friends who will support you, not the ones who will guilt you into having another drink or staying up late to play video games.
SC: You have had two agents representing your work. What do you personally need in an agent, and what makes your current agent-author relationship thrive?
WC: What I need most from an agent is honesty, and not just about my work. I need the agent to be honest with me about his or her impression of the publishers we’re considering working with, and I need him or her to be honest about expectations. It’s not always about who’s going to offer the most money; that kind of thing is clear on the front-end of the offer. The agent needs to be honest with the writer about which editors and publishing houses are going to offer the most support in terms of publicity and marketing, which editor is going to have the most writer-friendly policy, and which house has had the most success publishing a book similar to yours. I also need an agent to be honest about work, especially its weaknesses both on the page and in the marketplace.
SC: Your love for and interest in small-town North Carolina is evident in your fiction. If you had been born and raised in Seattle or Denver or LA, do you suspect you’d be as passionate about setting? In other words, do you think you are passionate about the south (specifically North Carolina), or are you simply passionate about the way setting informs your characters’ lives and stories?
WC: That’s a good question. I’m always drawn to books and films and music that are most clearly informed by a sense of place, so I assume that I’d be drawn to reflect my “place” no matter where I was born and raised. It just so happens I was born and raised in the South, in North Carolina in particular. I’m passionate about representing this place as I know it to be through my own experiences, and I try to imbue the characters I create with something I know to be true. But, as Langston Hughes wrote in “Theme for English B”: what is true for you may not be true for me. But that’s why we read: to see the world through someone else’s eyes, to understand this world in a way that we didn’t before opening the book and stepping into the characters’ lives.
SC: What are the occupational hazards of being a writer? What have you had to sacrifice? What are the secret or surprising benefits of the writer’s life?
WC: I spend a lot of time alone, and I have a difficult time drawing boundaries. Unlike a lot of professions that require a certain setting or a certain accumulation of tools, writers can theoretically work anywhere at any time. With that in mind, there’s always a voice somewhere inside you that spurs you on to keep working, even though you know the day is over and the responsibilities of life – marriage, children, family – need your attention. This kind of conflict can make for some moody late afternoons and early evenings. You can ask my wife about that.
SC: Which quality is most crucial for fiction writers: being a good eavesdropper, being a good liar or being obsessed with people’s choices and motives? (Or something else entirely?)
WC: I don’t think eavesdropping is as important as being observant. It’s more important to notice how people communicate than it is to overhear what they say. How do they gesture when they’re angry? What do they do with their hands when they’re sad? I also think it’s interesting to observe the pulse of a conversation. When writing dialogue, there’s an inclination to allow characters to deliver long monologues, especially at moments of heightened tension or emotion. This rarely happens in real life. We’re always interrupting one another, especially in moments of heightened tension or emotion. I think it’s fun to reflect these kinds of interruptions when writing dialogue. It’s fun to watch your characters get frustrated with one another when they can’t get their points across or make someone understand an issue in the way they understand it.
SC: How do you stay sane? During what part of your writer life (anything from starting a new writing project to touring with a book) do you feel most nutters?
WC: I try to be mindful of the moments that make up this whole experience instead of struggling to see the “big picture.” People always talk about the “big picture” as if it can be observed from some vantage point. It can’t, believe me, especially in this business. You can’t worry about your third novel when you’re writing your second. You have to live in the moment, and then this moment, and then this moment, and so on. Don’t get caught up thinking about the end when you’re at the beginning or in the middle; that goes for writing books, and it goes for living your life as well.
As far as feeling “nutters,” being on book tour can make you feel pretty crazy. Staying in a hotel is exciting when you’re a kid, but it’s not that great when you’re an adult, especially when you’re lugging around a giant suitcase that’s half-full of dirty clothes. When I’m traveling, I usually get settled in around 9 pm after the event and dinner are over, and I go to bed already thinking about where I’ve got to be the morning: taxi, airport, train, etc. It’s a relief to spend two nights in the same hotel. It starts to feel like home because you know you don’t have to leave the next day. It’s times like these when I try to slow down and take the experience moment by moment.
Traveling can also be frustrating because there’s still the pressure to get some good writing done, although it can be an unrealistic goal. I try to give myself permission not be angry or frustrated when I don’t get to write, and I try to make use of my time in other ways: reading, hitting the hotel gym, or getting out to explore the city I’m visiting. Sometimes not trying to work is the answer to the angst of not working.
SC: What is your Achilles heel as a writer (with regard to craft or the business of being an author)? Have you overcome it or merely accepted it and carried on?
WC: My Achilles heel is writing about any kind of process. I always have to remind myself that readers are much less interested in the causes than they are in the effects. This is especially true when writing about process: the process of a character walking from the car into the store; the process of someone getting ready for bed; the process of a fistfight. We rarely care about the journey. We care more about the end-point. But you can’t really skip the journey or the process altogether. So, what can we learn contextually during these processes? Perhaps the character has a limp that keeps her in the rain a little longer when she leaves her car and walks into the store. Maybe, while she’s walking, she recalls the cause of her limp. We’ve just learned something very valuable about her. Perhaps the character is gentle when putting on eye cream because she’s paranoid about wrinkling her skin and looking older. Where did this insecurity come from? Is there a particular conversation with a boyfriend or another person that spurred it? Perhaps the character has never been in a fistfight before, and he folds his fingers over his thumbs when he throws a punch. Perhaps, in the moment before he’s punched in the nose, he recalls the first time he confronted a bully on the playground when he was eight. All that to say this: Never write process for process’s sake alone. We have to learn something contextually about the characters or their circumstances. Sometimes I forget this and get bogged down in the minutiae of process.
Many thanks, Wiley. What a treat to learn about your writing journey as well as bits of your fiction-writing wisdom. Can’t wait to read This Dark Road to Mercy at the end of the month!