The Next Frontier

Listening for voices of characters I have not yet created

By Wiley Cash

Jill McCorkle, my friend and fellow writer, has said on more than one occasion that she knows it is time to let go of one novel when the next one reveals itself. I imagine this is like swinging through the jungle on vines: It’s not wise to let go of one vine until you’re certain that another is in reach. I feel the same way; even if my eyes are closed as I reach for the vine, I’m certain it’s there, waiting for me if I’m brave enough to grasp it and keep swinging along.

But I cannot help but pause and hover in mid-air. I need to give my hands a rest before they grasp another project, before my body can agree to be carried through the jungle of novel-writing with only the most tenuous connections to the trees above me to keep me from tumbling to the forest floor.

For me, writing a novel is hard, and it takes a long time, and over the course of writing three novels I have adjusted my approach to letting one go before taking up another.

I began writing my first novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, which is about the fallout in the community after a young boy is smothered during a healing service in the mountains of North Carolina, in the spring of 2004, and I thought I had finished it in the fall of 2008 when a New York agent agreed to represent it, but I was wrong. Although she and I worked on revisions of the novel over the next year and a half, she was never able to sell it to a publisher, and we ended up parting ways in early 2010. I had a failed novel on my hands, and I had lost an agent. The chance to publish had slipped through my fingers.

Although I felt defeated, I had already begun thinking about writing a second novel, although I had no idea how to begin. I had lived with the story of my first novel for five years, and I knew the characters intimately  — their history, landscape and emotional terrain  — and I could not imagine forgoing these people for a new cast of individuals that would be born in my mind and live on my screen for some indeterminate time.

Slowly, characters for a new novel and the circumstances that would animate them began to come to me: two young sisters in foster care; a wayward father who is also a washed-up baseball player; stolen money; a bounty hunter with a years’ old vendetta. Although the characters and plot were revealing themselves, I was hesitant to put pen to paper until I knew for certain that my first novel had failed. I’m glad I waited.

In the spring of 2010 I began working with a new agent. Over the course of the next few months, he and I worked on revisions of A Land More Kind Than Home. In late October, he called me and told me that the book was ready to go out to editors in the hope one of them would want to publish it. He asked if I had another novel in mind. He wanted us to go for a two-book deal. I told him the story of a washed-up minor league baseball player who kidnaps his two daughters from a foster home and goes on the run with a bag of stolen money. I had not written a word of the novel yet, but I had lived with it for the better part of a year.

My agent sold the manuscript of A Land More Kind Than Home, as well as a synopsis of what would become This Dark Road to Mercy, to the first editor who read it. I suddenly found myself with a two-book deal.

Over the next few months, my new editor and I went back to A Land More Kind Than Home, and I wrote a new draft of the novel, and I also spent a lot of time on pre-publication tasks: writing essays that would appear online and in magazines; giving interviews; attending trade shows; and traveling to New York to meet the publishing team. Although the synopsis of This Dark Road to Mercy sold in late 2010, I did not write a word of the novel until the summer of 2011.

I was very fortunate to be accepted to artists’ retreats at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York, and, later that summer, at MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. The first time I sat down to write at Yaddo in June 2011, I wrote the entire first chapter of This Dark Road to Mercy. It literally poured itself onto the page because I had been living with it in my mind for so long. By the end of the summer I almost had a complete draft.

My first novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, was published in April 2012, and I submitted the final manuscript of This Dark Road to Mercy to my editor a year later. One day, he and I were on the phone talking about the novel and the ways in which it would be promoted and sold.

He said, “I know you just turned in the manuscript, but I’m wondering if you’ve got any ideas about a new novel.”

I did. For a few years I’d been considering writing about the Loray Mill and the violent textile strike that engulfed my hometown of Gastonia, North Carolina, in the summer of 1929. I told my editor that, in secret, I had begun working on a novel based on the life and tragic murder of Ella May Wiggins, a young single mother who joined the union only to be killed after becoming the face of the strike. He said the story sounded interesting. We got off the phone, and I did not think anything more about our conversation until later that afternoon, when my agent called. My editor had just offered us another two-book deal.

For the past five years I have been clinging to the vine that is now titled The Last Ballad, living in a 1929 world of cotton mill shacks, country clubs, segregated railroad cars, and labor organizers with communist sympathies. Everything I know about the craft of writing and the history, culture and politics of America, especially the American South, has gone into this novel. I literally feel as if I have been wrung dry, and I cannot imagine writing another book, even though I know I will sooner than later.

But even in this state of exhaustion, there is a story percolating in my brain where the voices of characters I have not yet created are speaking in whispers. I feel the hot breath of a novel on my neck even as I sit here. There is a vine somewhere out there in the jungle, if only I’ll reach out, open my hand, and grasp it.

It’s not going anywhere. I’m not either.

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His forthcoming novel The Last Ballad is available for pre-order wherever books are sold.

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