Reading Matters

Wiley Cash brings writers to UNC-A to tell students they, too, can be famous

Wiley Cash
Wiley Cash Tiffany B. Davis

Wiley Cash must be kidding.

The author of two New York Times bestselling novels – “A Land More Kind than Home” and “This Dark Road to Mercy,” with a third novel about Ella May Wiggins and the Loray Mill strike of 1929 due next fall – is telling me that if I read his senior thesis from college that I would hope that a book of his never crossed my desk for review.

Come on.

“I’m not kidding,” he says. “I told the students in my fiction class last year: ‘All of you are already better writers than I was. You know your craft better. You’re better read. You have better ideas. The question is: How bad do you want it?’

“Are you willing to play one less video game to allow yourself one more hour of writing time?” he asks them. “Are you willing to wake up one hour earlier to allow yourself to work on your story? What are you willing to give up?”

And, perhaps, even more difficult: “Are you willing to endure years of rejection?”

That question – How bad do you want it? – is the inspiration for a program Cash has instituted at UNC-Asheville, his alma mater and where he serves as writer-in-residence.

The idea is to bring outstanding writers – internationally recognized, award-winning writers who also happen to be nice people (Cash emphasizes the nice) – to campus to interact with the writing students.

Cash, who is 39 and a Gastonia native, believes in the power of flesh-and-blood poets, novelists, essayists bellying up to students who are learning the craft. Not famous writers reading and lecturing in an airless auditorium. But famous writers talking to students over a meal, in small workshops, one-on-one.

Famous writers who will say what they gave up for their craft. Famous writers who will say how they stared down rejection. Famous writers who say, “You can be me!”

What any of us wouldn’t have given for that opportunity.

And look at his lineup:

This month, novelist Ben Fountain was on campus. He’s the author of the novel “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” which Simon Beaufoy is adapting for a screenplay. Cash says Fountain remembered the students’ names and even went to Malaprop’s to buy several copies of his novel to sign and give to them. The epitome of nice, I’d say.

Next month, it’s Leigh Ann Henion, who graduated in 2000 from UNC-A with Cash. Her 2015 essay collection is “Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World,” inspired by watching her young son experience “visceral awe.” To revive her own sense of awe, Hinion traveled the world in search of natural wonders. One reviewer called this book “a spiritual sabbatical.”

In March, it’s the poet Camille Dungy, whose debut essay collection is “Guidebook to Relative Strangers,” due in June, an exploration of race, motherhood and history.

And in April, it’s Nigerian writer Chinelo Okparanta, whose 2015 debut novel, “Under the Udala Trees,” explores the love between two young women, what it means to pursue your own truth and at what cost.

There’s more. Something almost too good to be true. Cash says if he’d had this opportunity, it would’ve changed his life.

Very soon, UNC-Asheville will bestow the Ramsey Library Community Author Award upon some lucky soul in the area, giving that writer access to his/her own locked carrel in the library, access to all library and gym privileges, a courtesy faculty appointment, a community reading and free parking on the campus.

And more to come: A UNC-A-sponsored cash prize for a debut book – poetry, fiction essays, novel – the subject of which, says Cash, “gets people talking.”

I’ll end on a personal note. To prepare for this interview, I went to Cash’s web site Front Porch ( and clicked on “Snow on Your Wedding.” It’s a stunning video, and I suggest having a handkerchief handy.