Niceness is not often the top quality in consideration when it comes to lining up presenters for an educational program, but it ranked high for UNC Asheville’s Visiting Writer Series. Author Wiley Cash, the university’s current writer-in-residence, curated the roster, which includes Ben Fountain, who reads on Thursday, Sept. 22, at the Reuter Center.
“I chose writers who I know, writers I’ve taught with, writers I’ve met,” Cash says of his decision-making process. Fountain’s novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, won the National Book Critics Award and is being made into a movie directed by Ang Lee. He’s published by an imprint of HarperCollins; Cash’s novels are released by another imprint of the same publisher. Before his first novel — the award-winning A Land More Kind Than Home — came out, Cash was sent on a tour with experienced authors Fountain and Jess Walter (Beautiful Ruins).
At each city, they’d have dinner with representatives from independent bookstores and would pitch their books. “I was a nobody,” Cash says. “These guys were so kind and so gracious. I got to hang out with them and learn, ‘Here’s how you talk about your book. Here’s how you talk to booksellers. Here’s how you behave as a professional writer.’”
When Cash had the opportunity to invite writers to UNCA, he thought of those authors who had made an impression on him. Plus, he says, Fountain’s novel deals with a young person coming back from war — fitting for UNCA, whose student body includes veterans.
Leigh Ann Henion, who appears on Thursday, Nov. 10, is also a UNCA alumnus (she and Cash both graduated from the university in 2000) and is “interesting and kind and adventurous,” Cash says. “She’s totally cobbled together a career as a writer by hustling, being driven and being a self-starter. You have to do those things if you want to be an independent artist, and she’s killed it.” Henion’s memoir, Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Guide to the Natural World, is a New York Times best-seller.
Other writers taking part in the series include poet Camille Dungy, a finalist for the American Book Award and a two-time finalist for an NAACP Image Award, on March 2. Short story author and novelist Chinelo Okparanta, who won the Lambda Literary Ward for Lesbian Fiction, will appear on April 4. All readings are free and open to the public.
Cash, who completed his master’s degree in 2002, taught briefly at UNCA before pursing his Ph.D. at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. Returning to his alma mater at this point in his career seems like a smart step. “It’s more intimidating than weird,” he half-jokes. “Especially for a writer, you always want to be accepted by the the people you look up to. You look up to your professors because they’ve done it. You want to be part of that group [and] have them as colleagues and contemporaries.”
Both of Cash’s novels are bestsellers; his sophomore effort, This Dark Road to Mercy, was a finalist for the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award. His debut garnered the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award and the Appalachian Writers’ Association Book of the Year award. But, he says, “just because you’re a successful writer doesn’t mean people want to be around you. So to be welcomed back here the way I have been and be shown the grace and kindness and patience has been amazing.”
He wants to give back, both to the university that means so much to him and to local literary circles. “I want to bring the community onto campus and I want to bring the campus to the community,” Cash says. “Universities don’t just serve themselves. I think the goal of this university especially is to serve the local community and the region and the state.” His ideas include off-site events and a writer-in-residence from the Asheville area supported by UNCA.
Cash mentions a recent YA author panel at Malaprop’s where the audience was filled with fellow writers. Later, while out to dinner with his family, he looked around the restaurant and recognized a number of other local authors. “Asheville’s got such a vibrant arts community,” he says. “It’s become an amazing gathering spot.”
Cash continues, “I want the people in the community to feel there’s a place for them, because writing is such a solitary thing. It’s a desperate act.”
The visiting writer series is one way to create a sense of both connection and inspiration — though Cash points out that, considering how packed UNCA’s events calendar is, it was hard to pencil in four busy touring writers, all with their own full schedules. Ultimately, he says, “I’m just thrilled they all said yes.”
WHO: Ben Fountain reads as part of the UNCA Visiting Writers Series
WHERE: Reuter Center, 1 Campus View Road, unca.edu/visiting-writers-series
WHEN: Thursday, Sept. 22, 7 p.m. Free