Wiley Cash on Hearing Voices

A few months back, I had the pleasure of meeting Wiley Cash at a luncheon his publisher, William Morrow, hosted to alert some folks to his debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home. As he was telling us about the book, he mentioned something about the multiple first-person perspectives he used to tell the story—like an early chapter written in the voice of the local sheriff— and how he’d actually explored a few other possibilities from among the other characters, which he’d had to abandon for various reasons. And I thought to myself, “That’s a really cool insight. I bet a lot of people would be interested in hearing about this.” And, luckily for me, he thought it was a great idea as well.

“I didn’t know Pastor Chambliss had killed my big brother until later that night.”

This is the first line I ever wrote for what would become my first novel. It’s also the first voice I heard when I sat down to write the story; it belongs to Jess Hall, the nine-year-old younger brother of an autistic boy who’s smothered during a healing service in a little church in the mountains of North Carolina. The original plan was to write a short story from the perspective of Jess, a young boy who witnesses something he never should’ve seen, something he can’t quite understand. But then a strange thing happened; other characters wanted to speak—they wanted to tell their stories, they wanted the opportunity to defend themselves or to blame others or to apologize for the mess they’d made of things.

In this chorus of voices, I heard Adelaide Lyle, the eighty-year-old church matriarch and the community’s moral conscience. She wanted to tell me that she’d taken the children out of the church a decade earlier when the worship services turned deadly after a woman died from a snake bite. Adelaide wanted me to know that she felt responsible for the spiritual and physical wellbeing of the children under her watch, and that she never imagined such a tragedy could befall one of them. She wanted me to know that she’d stood up to Carson Chambliss once before, and she wanted me to understand that she wouldn’t be afraid to do so again.

I heard the voice of Clem Barfield, a local sheriff with his own painful past who’s called upon to solve the mystery of the young boy’s death. He wanted to tell me that he wasn’t from Madison County, that he’d always been an outsider, that he’d always been suspicious of the little church down by the river with the papered-over windows. He wanted me to know that his own life had been touched by tragedy years earlier when he lost his adult son, and he wanted me to understand that it takes a lifetime to build equity in loss, that only parents—not a church or a community—can fathom the pain of losing a child.

I heard the voices of other characters too. The first was Ben Hall, the boys’ father, a man whose pragmatic approach to the world left no room for miracles or the hand of the divine, a man who’d grown suspicious of his wife’s passion for the church and its mysterious leader. I felt Ben—I felt his confusion and his anger and his loss—and I could see him, red-faced and furious with his eyes full of tears as he tried to explain himself through his rage, but I couldn’t quite hear him as well as I heard the other characters. Perhaps this is because he lacked Jess’s emotional distance and confusion, Adelaide’s world-weary perspective, or Clem’s rational melancholy. Or perhaps I just couldn’t understand Ben, a man roughly my own age, because I don’t have children of my own, and like Clem says, I can’t imagine what it is to lose one.

I also heard the voice of Jimmy Hall, Ben’s father and the boys’ grandfather, a man who’d only recently returned home after decades away, a man who carried the burden of being indirectly responsible for the death of Clem’s son, a man whose rage could only be quelled by the booze that fueled it. Jimmy was a man who made excuses, a man who blamed others for his own poor decisions or indecision, a man who would never take responsibility for the pain he’d caused. Because of this, he wouldn’t stop talking, no matter how desperately I wanted him to. If I allowed Jimmy Hall a piece of the narrative pie, I knew he’d crack open a beer, light a cigarette, wait for his turn to speak, and then spill the beans about every major plot point from the beginning of the novel to the end.

“But Jimmy,” I’d say, “readers read toward discovery; they don’t want to be told what happens at the end as soon as they begin reading a novel.”

“I don’t give a shit,” Jimmy’d say, and he’d take another drag from his cigarette and spit something into the gravel at his feet, eyeing me the entire time as if he couldn’t quite trust me. The feeling was mutual.

By the time I realized that I couldn’t truly hear Ben’s voice and that I definitely couldn’t trust Jimmy’s, I’d already written hundreds of pages from their perspectives; I’d built important parts of the story based on knowledge only they possessed. There were things about their voices I loved, and that’s what made the decision to cut their narratives so painful. But, because it was so painful, I knew it was the right thing to do. I’ve never once regretted that decision.

Cutting those two voices from the manuscript left Jess, Adelaide, and Clem to tell the story, and once the revision dust settled I realized they were the only ones who could tell it. These were the only voices the reader needed to hear in order to understand the tragedy and the effect it had on the community. Jess’s voice bears witness to both his wonder at the power of faith and his guilt for questioning its role in his brother’s death. Adelaide’s voice resonates with the purity of belief, and hers is the only voice that can speak for the community as it attempts to heal. Clem’s voice is the voice of the skeptical mind, the mind that grasps toward a certainty grounded in fact and evidence. Perhaps Clem’s is the mind of the reader as well, a reader who understands what it is to be an outsider, who arrives on the scene after catastrophe has struck, who wades through a chorus of voices to uncover the truth.

26 April 2012 | guest authors |