On Creativity with Wiley Cash

Today’s On Creativity interview is with writer, professor, activist and dad, Wiley Cash. Wiley’s been on my radar since I read about his first novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, and begged its audiobook publisher, Blackstone, to consider casting me. Unfortunately, none of the voices were a fit. I overrode my personal policies of only purchasing books written by women for both that book and his second novel, This Dark Road to Mercy, and was wowed by the complex characterizations and evocations of my home state, and his, North Carolina. I was humbled and honored to record his third novel and I’m so happy that he’s agreed to answer some of my questions about his process and life as a writer. Stick with us to the end where, thanks to Harper Audio, we have a giveaway of that third audiobook, AudioFile Magazine Earphone Award winner, The Last Ballad.

Wiley Cash, on Creativity

KW: How do you fill your well?

WC: Aside from simply being alive, which obviously helps me achieve some level of realism in my work, I think reading helps me with my writing more than anything. I read actively, meaning I read books with an eye to how they’re working. I have a Ph.D. in English, and my background is in literary study, but when I’m reading like a writer I’m less concerned with what the author is saying and focused more on what the book is doing and how it is doing it.

KW: What contributes to flow in your work?

WC: This may be surprising, but nothing helps me reach a flow in my work more than getting up from the desk. My favorite moment is the moment when something is revealed to me in the project I’m working on: a character suddenly makes sense; a scene finally clicks; a plot-point connects to another. When this happens, I always get up and do something. I go for a walk, run an errand, eat lunch, or pick my girls up from school. What I’m doing is basking in that success. When I sit down to work again, it’s easy for me to tap back in to that flow. It’s right there where I left it.

KW:  Do you have a “day job” and if so, do you enjoy using your mind/body in that different way? Or is it an obligation that weighs on your creative work?

WC: I have a lot of jobs! I’m the writer-in-residence at UNC-Asheville where I teach a fiction workshop each year. I teach in a low-residency MFA program at a place called Mountainview in New Hampshire. I write essays for magazines, and I lead workshops around the country. All the different jobs I have clearly inform one another, and there’s a lot of bleeding from one job to the next. It feels like I’m always at work.

KW: Something that Wiley didn’t mention, that I think is pretty darn awesome, is his virtual Open Canon Book Club. It’s goal “is to introduce readers to voices and portrayals of the American experience they may not have otherwise encountered in their day-to-day lives, their education, or their book club meetings.” You can find out more about it at

Back to our regularly scheduled program…

KW: If you collaborate in your work, how and when do others contribute?

WC: My wife Mallory is a photographer, and we collaborate a lot on different publishing projects. We’re hoping to collaborate on some workshops in the near future.

KW: Do you have a mentor? What gift did s/he pass to you that you use regularly?

WC: My mentor was and still is a writer named Ernest J. Gaines, who I believe is the South’s greatest and most important living writer. He passed the gift of reading like a writer on to me.

KW: What’s your relationship to storytelling?

WC: I grew up with storytellers, and my mom has always been a reader. We got library cards when we turned six, so I’ve been surrounded by both oral and written narrative for my entire life.

KW: What do you sacrifice to nurture your creative work?

WC: I’ve been pretty lucky in that I’ve had a lot of support from my family, colleagues, community, and some organizations, so I really feel like I have sacrificed very little aside from the time I’m away from my family while being at a residency or on a book tour. I would have to say that some of my greatest sacrifices came before I was publishing novels. I was trying to write my first novel in grad school and during my early years teaching college. I made a lot of sacrifices in terms of sleep, social life, vacation, etc. Nothing extreme.

KW: Do you read reviews? If so, how do they affect your process?

WC: Yes, I read reviews. I think we all do if we’re being honest. They don’t really affect my process, and I would say they don’t really affect me. I’ve received only a handful of negative or mixed reviews, so I’ve been very lucky. But I’ve also been careful not to let good reviews make me believe I can work any less hard.

KW: Do you feel that a creative life has value in our culture? If so or if not, how does that perception of value affect your process?

WC: My wife and I have adopted a new motto in this political moment: Make art. I think art is going to save us because I think it’s the only thing that can make us check in with how we feel and what we believe. We read histories to find out what happened. We turn to art to discover what it felt like.

KW: Although that answer is really enough inspiration for me, I have to ask: do you have words of wisdom for someone who has a desire to create but is held back by inner or outer judgment?

KW: I would advise people that the scariest thing should always be on your side of the desk. Criticism from your peers or media should not be the scariest. The scariest thing should be what you may uncover about yourself, your family, your community when you face the page. Write toward that fear. That will make your writing real.

Thank you, Wiley, and thanks again to Harper Audio for providing two digital downloads of The Last Ballad.

THIS GIVEAWAY IS NOW CLOSED.  Linda T. and Christine D. are the randomly selected winners and I’ll be emailing them shortly with details on claiming their digital copies.  Thanks to all for entering!  I give away lots of books – to find out about them in the future, please consider following this blog, or my Facebook page, or on Twitter.

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2 thoughts on “On Creativity with Wiley Cash”

  1. Anonymous says:

    That was a great interview I am Wiley’s mother and I can’t wait to buy this audio book.

    1. kwhite says:

      I bet you could get it at your local library – or even suggest that they get it!

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