Intertwining myriad voices, The Last Ballad by celebrated Southern writer Wiley Cash brings to life the heartbreak and bravery of the now forgotten struggle of the labor movement in early twentieth-century America—and pays tribute to the thousands of heroic women and men who risked their lives to win basic rights for all workers.
Wiley took a break from the day-to-day mayhem of teaching in the Mountainview MFA program, raising two daughters, and penning award-winning novels to answer a few nosy questions from Main Street Books.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: Very few characters in The Last Ballad are truly despicable. Indeed, their actions might be deplorable and their outlook convoluted, but the reader inevitably sympathizes with all but two or three characters, no matter whether they are the owner of a neighboring mill or a policeman who tips a peaceful protest into violence. The reader finds as much, if not more, impoverishment in their lives (though of a less material nature) as in the lives of protagonist Ella May and other mill workers. Tell us about your decision to give these characters a narrative voice and permit readers to sympathize with or, at the very least, pity them?
WILEY CASH: Early on, I decided that I would privilege the experience of living through the strike over the facts of the strike itself. I’d studied it and its major events and its major actors for so long that I’d internalized the facts of the strike in a way that they became part of the story without me having to consciously think about them. Once that happened I was able to give myself fully to the characters, and dedicated myself to understanding at least something of what compelled them to action or inaction. I knew I wouldn’t necessarily agree with their rationales or conclusions, but I needed to find the path that led them to arrive at the decisions they made. It was important for me to portray the experience of the strike from these various, conflicting perspectives in order to give the reader a sense of what the historical moment felt like. When I teach, I tell students that you can always doubt the facts of an event, but you can never doubt someone’s experience of it. I wanted readers to have a rich experience, and I felt that in bringing a breadth of experiences to the page I might be able to achieve it.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: Very early in the book, a narrator reveals that Ella May does not survive the struggle in Bessemer City. Did you struggle with whether to share this information with the reader in the beginning of the book? Why did you ultimately decide not to progress chronologically?
WILEY CASH: I didn’t struggle with whether or not to share the facts of Ella May’s death because this novel is based on true events and I knew that readers, if they so chose, could quickly learn the realities of her life. I was more interested in the events that led to her death than I was in her death itself. She was a single mother who worked 72 hours a week for $9 in a cotton mill. After she was murdered she would leave behind several young children who would grow up in an orphanage. I wanted the reader to know from the very beginning that people aligned with the Loray Mill set out to take her life, and I wanted readers to carry the emotional weight of that knowledge during the entire time they read the novel.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: Born in the South but raised in the North, the young train porter named Hampton who narrates a few chapters of the novel offers an interesting perspective of racism across the Mason-Dixon line, as he endures different iterations of racism in the North, in a south-bound train, and in the Jim Crow South. To what extent or in what ways do you think racism continues to differ in the North and South?
WILEY CASH: I don’t think racism differs. It’s the same wherever you go. The causes of it are the same wherever you go. The evidence of it may be different. For example, in contemporary America we don’t have “white” and “colored” drinking fountains anymore, but based on skin color people are treated differently when they go into a bank to apply for a home loan or when they move into a certain neighborhood or enter into romantic relationships. The racism Hampton faces in the North may be less confrontational than what he faces in the South, but it’s no less real.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: In what ways, if any, did the 2016 presidential campaign season influence The Last Ballad?
WILEY CASH: In ways I never could have imagined. In the waning days of the election, I was writing a novel about a tough, independent woman taking on the forces of greed while watching a presidential election in which a tough, independent woman was taking on the forces of greed. The day after the election I felt like America was telling me that it didn’t want to read a novel about a woman like Ella May Wiggins, but the day after the election, and every day since, I feel like America is telling me that it very much wants to read a novel about a woman like Ella May.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: You’re not shy about voicing your political viewpoints on social media, even when doing so might alienate some of your readers and raise the blood pressure of your publicist. Have you been this vocal since you published your first book, A Land More Kind Than Home, or is this a recent trend? Do you ever have reservations before posting something that is politically charged? Why or why not?
WILEY CASH: I’ve always been political. The only difference is that now I’ve published a few books and people who may not know me are now paying attention. I really believe that my work as a writer who cares deeply about my country and my duties as a citizen who cares deeply about my country are inseparable. I don’t really worry about my book sales when thinking about politics. I worry more that in 20 or 30 or 40 years my daughters are going to look back on my life and not know what I stood for. By being open about my political and ethical beliefs, they will never have to wonder.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: This is your third novel set in North Carolina. What about the state do you think lends it so well to your writing? Can you see yourself setting forthcoming fiction in more distant states?
WILEY CASH: I think I’ll always write about North Carolina. For one, it’s the place that I know best and it’s also a terribly conflicted state both in its geography (it spans the mountains, piedmont, and coast) and in its political ideology. In writing, tension comes from conflict, and that is the basis of character-driven fiction. North Carolina is the perfect place to set the kind of books that I want to write.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: What book have you recently recommended to a friend or family member?
WILEY CASH: The Sarah Book by Scott McClanahan
MAIN STREET BOOKS: This is not your first literary rodeo. Tell us about the most memorable event at an indie bookstore while on tour.
WILEY CASH: My first event at an indie bookstore was on book tour in support of A Land More Kind than Home. I was waiting nervously in the parking lot of Pomegranate Books in Wilmington, NC. I didn’t want to arrive too early, so I waited until the last minute to go inside. As I approached the steps a pickup truck roared into the parking lot. Clyde Edgerton climbed out and said, “I’m not late, am I?” It was like shooting free throws in an empty gym with Michael Jordan watching from the stands.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: Speaking of the potential to alienate readers…Taylor Swift or Katy Perry?
WILEY CASH: You’d have to ask my three-year-old daughter. She loves Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” which she calls the “Tutu Song.” But she’s also a big fan of Katy Perry’s “Roar.”