When everyone involved in a murder investigation is a suspect — including the dead man — it’s more than likely you’ve wandered into one of Wiley Cash’s tautly plotted novels.
“When Ghosts Come Home” is that book. Set on the coast of North Carolina — Cash fans have no fear; the novel hearkens more than once to the author’s beloved mountains — the story is quintessential Cash. A small town setting, developer land grabs, drugs and bitter racism permeate a story that ably juggles the ghosts of three distinct and interconnected characters: an aging sheriff about to be bested by a young and corrupt political challenger, a 14-year-old Black boy who is essentially cast from his family for minor infractions and a young woman whose stillbirth pregnancy drives her home.
Cash not only has the talent to turn such seeming disparity into a cogent read, he manages to turn a literary novel into an engrossing thriller. The author recently agreed to take a few questions from Mountain Times about his new novel. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tom Mayer: Wiley, your three previous novels have largely centered on the mountains. In “When Ghosts Come Home” we move to the coast of North Carolina. The mountains have always permeated your works, why the migration?
Wiley Cash: My wife is from Wilmington; she was raised there. We had been living in West Virginia and we moved back to North Carolina in 2013, and moved down to Wilmington. It took me quite a while to figure out how to frame a story set on the coast of North Carolina.
It takes me a long time for me to feel like I know a place. For example, I never published anything about West Virginia or Louisiana fiction-wise in 10 years — which is a quarter of my life in those places. I’ve never really written about them. But since my wife is from Wilmington, and we have two little girls, both born in Wilmington, I thought if I’m ever going to know about this place it’s time I wrote about it. It just made sense for a fourth novel to tackle the history, the place, the geography, the culture and cultural memories of Eastern North Carolina.
TM: “When Ghosts Come Home” has several large themes working in it, with the largest being something the sense of home — of belonging. Being rooted to place, home and family influences much of your work, but in this novel I sense two distinct ideas. 1. Home as a place to be protected and defended. 2. Home as a place to back to when the world crashes around you. Would you elaborate?
WC: I think you’re exactly right. Colleen comes home to kind of lick her wounds and she feels anxious about that, as many of us do, when we return home in our 20s like many others have done. I know I certainly did; we gauge the world from the vantage point that we know best, and that’s what Colleen does. She comes home and she says, this place makes sense to me. With its memories, its hangups, at least I know what this place is.
Winston is defending home, and so is Ed Bellamy, who is more of a native than Winston is because this is a place — as he would say, whether it is the country that I went to war for in Vietnam or what is a little patch of sand on the eastern part of the state — this is where I’m from and I know what is right and wrong in terms of this place, my community and I’m going to defend both of these.
TM: Themes of racism inform the story in multiple ways. First, the title reminds me of Malcolm X’s 1963 speech after Kennedy’s assassination about “chickens coming home to roost.”
WC: I’m still kind of hung up in the mid 2000s, so I remember that phrase being as one Reverend Jeremiah Wright said about 9/11 which got (President Barack) Obama and all kinds of trouble. I did never attribute that to Malcolm X, but I wasn’t thinking about either one of those actually. I was thinking about these things in our life, these hauntings whether they be personal or cultural or historical that we put off dealing with. We don’t want to deal with our past. We don’t want to deal with our American history honestly and openly. We don’t want to you have honest conversations in our communities. When we don’t face these things, and exorcise them in someway, the ghost of them come back and they visit us and they never go away. That’s what I was thinking about.
TM: Is then the granular view of Oak Island presented in the novel seen as a metaphor for our national polarization?
WC: Sure. I’m trying to do what William Faulkner did, make the local, universal. I’m trying to write about my small corner of the world in ways that have broader themes that people can respond to and identify with and understand no matter where they are. This is a novel about our contemporary moment where we need to have tough conversations that, well you know we call them political, but they’re really cultural, they are historical. We have these signifying moments around vaccines, or a mask, or Black Lives Matter, defund the police. In this novel, people have tough conversations and they’re honest with each other and they’re forced to be honest with each other. I would like for us to get there again.
TM: And thirdly, the idea of home as viewed by different characters: home is one thing to a young, white girl, but the same place is something entirely different to a young, Black teen. Would you discuss the challenges of developing this dichotomy?
WC: The same things that are kind of haunting Colleen, in Colleen’s era — the legacy of school desegregation in the early 1980s and how that is being dealt in the communities — Jay is still dealing with a lot of that stuff in the form of Bradley Frye. These good old boys and these kind of long held racist sympathies they don’t go away, just because we don’t pay attention to them.
TM: Another theme in the novel is something that’s been important in much of your work: the over-development of natural land and resources for profit. By tying the racist attitudes and action of Bradley Frye with his desire to build indiscriminately for gain you exhibit more passion than ever about such motives and deeds.
WC: Yeah, yeah, you know now where we live on the coast, I mean it’s kind of a joke there in New Hanover County that, what good are trees if you can put up track homes? We are seeing this community over-built, and where is it from 20 years ago we never could’ve imagined. What is so interesting is that there are so many of these rural areas — as the sheriff kind of jokes in the novel, a lot of them are inhabited and developed by people from Ohio and New York and New Jersey and Pennsylvania and they come in and build gated communities and call them Brunswick or whatever plantation and it’s such an indirect call back to the kind of plantation legacy of slavery that is so obvious that we don’t talk about. That’s happening all around Brunswick and New Hanover counties.
TM: Something we also sometimes don’t discuss are individual traumas. The idea of personal tragedies — Coleen’s loss of a child, Branes’ loss of identity and self-worth, Jay’s essential loss as an orphan — in this novel are tied to notion of family. Can there be a family with out a home, and vice versa, a home without a family?
WC: I don’t know that they are tied together. I travel so much with work and reading and writing that we take the girls with us often times and I’m kind of coming to realize that home is wherever my family is. Whether we’re in a hotel room or a vacation rental, I feel the most connected when I’m with them. And I also think that it’s part kind of being a writer, you’re always assessing the world in which you find yourself. As much as I am anchored to North Carolina and certain parts of North Carolina, I’m not as anchored as anything as I am to my family.
TM: Barnes creates a new home, a new family after an incident in Gastonia forces him to move to Wilmington. Are such moves part of the human condition?
WC: It is , you know we find ourselves leaving places for all sorts of reasons whether they be tragedy or opportunity or a number of things. That’s what Barnes does as he tries to go and create a new home in the best way he can. Yet, in these close knit communities you sometimes find yourself as an outsider, as he does there in Brunswick County. But it also makes him a good person to kind of assess the county in other ways as well.
TM: Thank you for your time today, Wiley. Just one last one, will there be a book tour for this one?
WC: Yeah, people can go to my website, wileycash.com. It’ll be all over North and South Carolina. We’re not doing a lot of flying this time and at each stop we have Covid protocols. We’re going to keep everybody safe. I’m not going to compromise my values or my belief in science to make a buck. So. a lot of the event will be held outside, and a lot of the events will be held in large spaces. I’ll be on the road from Asheville to Wilmington to Spartanburg. … I’ll be all over the place.