You may have noticed a certain word picking up steam in the book world over the last year: Timely. To some extent, new books are always timely. They, like all art, reflect the culture of the day. But as society collectively sits up and confronts difficult issues, we've enjoyed an unprecedented run of feminist books, diverse books, and books of social and cultural importance. One of the best? The Last Ballad, by staff-favorite author Wiley Cash.
You may already know Wiley from a pair of best-sellers that have long held a special place on the Blue Willow shelves. If you haven't read his work, we think it's high time you start. But don't take it from us—we caught up with Wiley for a Q&A to celebrate the publication of The Last Ballad, and he told us why he considers this book his most ambitious yet. Read on, then stop by the store to pick up your copy. You'll have just enough time to read it before Wiley visits us on the 25th.
When did you first learn of the story of Ella May Wiggins? Why did she disappear from history, and why did you choose to tell her story now?
I first learned the story of the life and struggle of Ella May Wiggins in graduate school in Lafayette, Louisiana, in 2003. I grew up in Gastonia, NC, where The Last Ballad is set, but I'd never heard a word about this union organizer who wrote protest ballads that were performed by Woody Guthrie and recorded by Pete Seeger, who traveled to Washington DC and confronted NC senators about southern mill conditions, who single-handedly integrated the local labor union, and who left this world fighting for equality. History swallowed her up, and her life was purposefully expunged from the collective memory of my hometown and the state of North Carolina. I chose to write this story now because I finally felt ready to tackle a story of this emotional, political, and historical complexity. I was standing and walking with my first two novels: I'm running with The Last Ballad.
Ella May feels compelled to help the people even less fortunate than she is. Can you elaborate on these acts of kindness?
Ella believed that poverty united the people she lived and worked among more than skin color divided them. Her living situation, like many lives in mill villages, was somewhat communal. People banded together and shared food, shelter, childcare. There were no social safety nets. No one was coming to help them. They had to help one another.
All of your novels are set in hardscrabble land. Tell us how you feel connected to these people and their stories.
My grandparents were of the generation that left the farms in Appalachia and the South Carolina upstate for the mills in the piedmont of North Carolina. They were fierce individuals who soon found themselves locked in a cycle of poverty they could not afford to break. They literally could not save enough money to pick up and leave the mills. My parents were born in mill villages and found a way out to the suburbs. Now I'm still in the suburbs, and I'm compelled to look back to figure out how I got here.
What does North Carolina mean to you and your writing?
North Carolina is the place I know best, and it's also an excellent lab for stories. All stories come from conflict, and North Carolina's political and cultural histories, as well as its three separate geographic zones, make it rife with conflict. I'm also personally committed to writing about people and traditions and locales I care deeply about.
Your work has been called "nouveau Southern gothic." Is that a label you embrace? How do you define your work?
I'm not sure how I would define my work, which feels silly to even say: "my work." I think I've written three novels that are relatively different from one another, so I may leave it to readers to decide how they want to define them.
Quick question – what's up with that adorable family of yours?
They are adorable, aren't they? Our oldest is three, and she just started pre-school. She actually has picture day today, and I'm sitting in an airport in Birmingham, dying because I'm not there. Our youngest is one and a half, and she's funny and smart and sweet. Both of our girls love to read more than anything, and they lug books from room to room, screaming, "Read, Daddy, read!"
Author photo by Mallory Brady Cash.