In 2003 — long before he became an award-winning author with books that made The New York Times best-seller list — Wiley Cash was earning his Ph.D. in American literature at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Early on in his studies, Cash brought up his childhood home in Gastonia. Much to his surprise, Cash’s professor knew of the area. “He said, ‘Oh that’s the site of the Loray Mill strike,’” the writer remembers. “I had no idea what he was talking about.”
Since that time, Cash has familiarized himself with the events that transpired in his hometown, as well as the aftermath and its impact on the community. His third novel, The Last Ballad, reimagines these happenings, which left two dead.
On Tuesday, Oct. 3, the writer will celebrate the book’s official release with a reading and signing session at UNC Asheville’s Lipinsky Hall. Cash, who completed his undergraduate degree at UNCA and is currently on faculty as its writer-in-residence, says Asheville remains a significant place for him, both personally and professionally. “It’s where I made the conscious decision to not talk about being a writer, but … to be a writer,” he says.
Following the reading, fellow award-winning author Charles Frazier will join Cash onstage to discuss the new work. Musician Shannon Whitworth will also participate in the event, performing ballads written by Ella May Wiggins — the real-life American Mill No. 2 worker, single mother, singer, striker, casualty and central character of The Last Ballad.
In life and in fiction, Wiggins joined the National Textile Workers Union. The organization’s demands included a 40-hour workweek, equal pay for men and women, and a minimum weekly wage of $20. While Wiggins’ story functions as the book’s nucleus, the novel is told from a number of perspectives — from strike organizers to the police chief, and from mill owners to reformed sinners. “I wanted to present things fairly and accurately,” says Cash. “I didn’t want to write a hierography of Ella May Wiggins, where she was this woman who had never done anything wrong; a woman who was always upstanding and moral and didn’t curse and didn’t drink and didn’t spit and didn’t dance.”
Part of what drove Cash to write this story, he says, was his own dismay in having grown up in Gastonia without ever reading about or hearing of the deadly strike. Both his parents, he adds, were raised in mill villages — his mother in Gaston County, his father in Cleveland County. Yet they, too, “never heard of this story of the Loray strike.”
At the same time, Cash notes, he wasn’t looking to write a history book. Early on in the writing process, he gave himself permission “to stretch the bounds of what a novel could do and say.” For example, many characters in The Last Ballad are named after actual community members involved in the 1929 strike. But outside of Wiggins, all other characters’ backgrounds and personalities are figments of Cash’s imagination. “I used my powers of fiction, more so than my skill as a researcher, in creating and writing about people,” he says.
Nevertheless, Cash did research American labor history. The writer also immersed himself in mill culture through popular music from that period. Throughout the writing process, Cash says, he noticed parallels between his emerging novel and present-day events. But in 2012, when he first began work on the project, Cash says, “I never could have imagined the country veering into the chaos of white supremacy, and people marching in Charlottesville with torches, and Nazis saluting in the street. I never could have imagined that a young woman would be murdered by a white supremacist for standing up for equality. That’s what happened to Ella May in 1929. It’s 2017. That’s not supposed to happen anymore.”
The story of Wiggins, says Cash, is a timeless tale of human struggle. It is also a reminder of the holes in our history: That certain storylines can and often do get left out of the country’s collective memory. “History is not a fixed thing because we choose what we tell about it. And we choose what we put in and we choose what we leave out,” he says. “The people who are on the losing end of these labor struggles or battles for racial or gender equality often don’t have their stories told.”
Remembering the forgotten is among the many goals of The Last Ballad. The writer also wants to challenge his readers’ assumptions, as well as their comfort levels. At the same time, Cash says he hopes readers feel a sense of pride in the struggle that people have gone through “to take part in the American dream that so many of us take for granted.”
WHAT: Wiley Cash in conversation with Charles Frazier, with music by Shannon Whitworth
WHERE: Lipinsky Hall at UNC Asheville, 1 University Heights, avl.mx/440
WHEN: Tuesday, Oct. 3, 7 p.m. Free