Wiley Cash says discussing his first novel A Land More Kind Than Home in front of novelist Clyde Edgerton is like “playing basketball in front of Michael Jordan.” It’s a perfect analogy. Direct, local, populist but incisive. Like Clyde Edgerton, Michael Jordan is a Wilmington, NC hero – our town hero! They are both friendly, earnest, regular guys who’ve made it onto the national stage. Wiley Cash is like this too. Listening to him, one feels connected – to the places described in his novel, towns like ours, to the characters, to the author himself. The analogy works because it reveals as much about its creator and his plain-spoken, working-man smarts as it does about the business of writing novels or anything else.
Wilmington is the first stop on Wiley’s do-it-yourself, old school book tour. His comedian brother Clifton Cash lives here in town, and Wiley is hoping he can draw at least a small crowd, sell a few books, find a couch to sleep on and recharge for the next stop.
He’s done more than that. The event gallery of our public radio station where he is speaking is packed with new admirers who want their books signed, want to meet the man who’s written this light (in the sense of “full of light”, not “lite”) novel about a dark current of influence and deceit in the mountains of North Carolina and the tragic events it gives birth to. And this is the second of Wiley’s events this day, an evening “book club” with radio commentator Nan Graham (another local favorite), who is effusive in her praise.
Wiley himself is full of down-to-earth advice on craft, stories about his mentors and heroes, like Ernest Gaines, with whom he studied, like Thomas Wolfe, about whom he seems somewhat obsessive. He’s full of insight about the South, about story structure. Most of all he is full of collegial admiration for publishers, independent booksellers, organizations like SIBA (The Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance), book readers, other writers, towns like this one. He’s real. He seems so genuinely appreciative it makes the business of writing novels seem less mysterious, somehow, as good as his first novel is. Again, connected is what you feel.
It was earlier in the day across town at Pomegranate Books that Wiley met Clyde Edgerton for the first time, where he was then obliged to talk about his craft in front of the accomplished craftsman. That venue too was overflowing; the books sold out quickly, discussion went long. Wiley didn’t recognize one of his literary heroes at first – in fact it was Edgerton who approached, introduced himself. Wiley had never met the novelist when, a year before, he sent him an early section of A Land More Kind Than Home. Edgerton read it, admired it, corresponded with the author, wrote the book jacket blurb for the publisher, in fact. Like many things that Wiley Cash is doing as a novelist, this is a non-standard approach that seems to be working quite well: You don’t get to send your heroes your work and have them see something in it. You’re not supposed to have a book tour when you write a first novel like this. You don’t get to improvise the tour so it only stops where your in-laws and old college buddies live. You don’t getto have a publicist, typically. But Wiley asked for one and got one. He’s done all these things, and he’s just getting started. He says it’s only his ignorance of the book industry that has allowed him to take control of his first novel in this way.
There’s something fresh and homemade about this book tour. There’s a real buzz. Wiley Cash doesn’t seem to have been either abandoned to do his own marketing, as unknown writers tend to be these days, or to be handing everything over to a team at the publisher’s, as popular writers often do. Wiley has a well-written, regional, medium-sized novel on this hands, and Morrow seems to be letting him run with it. I wonder if the publisher isn’t having as much of an adventure as Wiley seems to be with his get-out-the-indies book tour of the Southeast —the setting for his novel. Cash’s talent for making direct connections with writers, readers, and booksellers may be just what publishers, who lately find themselves as endangered as authors and independent bookstores, need right now.
Bookstores are in trouble, to be sure, but that’s nothing new. They’re lean and they’re learning and they’ve never left their real constituency of readers and writers. For all the talk from big online retailers and publishers about “community,” the readers, writers, small publishers, and independent booksellers whose interests publishers often seem not to have at heart are already realcommunity, as they always have been.
Now publishers are in trouble too – giant publishers – and they’re beginning to realize it. When the shoe hadn’t fallen and they were doing what they could to update their business models and work with online retailers and ereaders and so forth, they weren’t always very nice to writers, or to bookstores, or even to readers. They would herd them like chattel, they would circumscribe their booksellers, chide their readers, elide their authors’ wishes. These practices are now being taken up by the even bigger, even more online retailers, and are converging into a giant mess for the book industry – and I’d like to put “book industry” in quotes to set aside the soulful, abiding, industriousness of independent booksellers and avid readers and book clubs and writers…the players who have been here all along, and that’s the point here. Publishers have been, in fact, keeping more than they should have in this profit chain. Colluding and making cynical choices about books and their potential market. And now publishers don’t know what to do as they lose this game to new, big players using their playbooks.
So now, perhaps, because the publishers are as scared as anyone, they see that the “old model” isn’t outdated, it’s classic: The model where a good writer like Wiley Cash writes a great first novel about a region such as ours, and then goes out into that very region to reach, directly, the readers who are touched by that novel, and uses the network of independent bookstores where books such as his have always gotten their start to connect to his readers, and to make book sales, and to sleep on couches, is something that should be celebrated, reinvested in, or at least allowed. When industrious authors like Wiley Cash take to the road, I think it augurs something good for publishing. If it doesn’t save bookselling it at least puts it where it really is, where it always has been – in the hands of the people who love good books.