Monday, April 23, 2012

My First Time: Wiley Cash

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today's guest is Wiley Cash, author of the just-published novel A Land More Kind Than Home.  Set in Cash's native North Carolina, the story revolves around two brothers (one a mute), a snake-handling preacher, and a horrible secret one of the boys witnesses.  In its review, the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote: "You might have to go back to Robert Mitchum's performance as a murderous preacher in the 1955 film The Night of the Hunter to find a preacher as flat-out evil as Carson Chambliss....A Land More Kind Than Home is a powerfully moving debut that reads a little as if Cormac McCarthy decided to rewrite Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird."  Cash's stories have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Roanoke Review and The Carolina Quarterly.  He holds a B.A. in Literature from the University of North Carolina-Asheville, an M.A. in English from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.  Cash and his wife currently live in West Virginia where he teaches fiction writing and American literature at Bethany College.  Visit his website here.

My First Acceptance, Which Was Immediately Followed By My First Rejection

The first story I ever submitted was accepted for publication, which is quite possibly the best thing that can happen to a young writer.

The first story I ever submitted was accepted for publication, which is quite possibly the worst thing that can happen to a young writer.

At the time, I was a nineteen-year-old college sophomore, so it shouldn’t come as any real surprise that I was relatively unaware of the exact differences between the best and the worst.  The story, which was titled “Ellie’s Porch,” was easily the worst story I’ve ever written, but because it was the first story I’d ever written, I thought it was the best story anyone had ever written.  The story is about an elderly African American woman who’s sitting on her porch and remembering several important events from her life.  Pretty hum-drum, right?  Not so fast.  At the end of the story, the reader actually discovers that Ellie is in fact a young white woman who’s been locked away in a mental institution!  Are you surprised by the twist?  No?  Well, you would’ve been more surprised had you read the whole thing.  Still a no?

Like I said, it was the worst story I’ve ever written.

Not only was the idea cliché, the writing itself was pretty brutal.  There was one character who wore braces on her legs as a result of polio; I described her legs as “a twisted menagerie of skin and metal.”  I have an old college friend who is herself a truly wonderful writer, and just about every time we speak she asks me if I remember writing that story where I described a girl’s legs as “a twisted menagerie of skin and metal.”  Unfortunately, you can’t unwrite a line like that, and there’s a good chance you’ll never live it down.

I submitted “Ellie’s Porch” to a contest in Greensboro, North Carolina, that was part of the city’s annual O’Henry Festival.  Weeks later, I received a letter in the mail informing me that, although I hadn’t won the contest, my story was going to be published in the festival’s anthology.  Cool, I thought.  That was easy.

The day after I received the letter informing me of my impending publication in the 1998 O’Henry Festival Anthology, I went to class and told my literature and creative writing professors that I’d just had a story accepted for publication in the 1998 O’Henry Prize Stories.  They all looked at me with their mouths hanging open; I thought it was because they were impressed by my early success, but in reality they were probably thinking, But you’re an idiot. How is this possible?  Of course it turns out that it wasn’t possible.  The O’Henry Festival Anthology and The O’Henry Prize Stories are two very different publications.  It must be noted that the 1998 edition of Prize Stories featured work by Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Rick Bass, Louise Erdrich, and other amazing writers.  I was noticeably absent from the list of said writers in Prize Stories when my professors, with sweaty brows and shaking hands, eventually opened the table of contents and found, to their relief, that they couldn’t locate my name.  However, when my anthology was published, I found myself in the table of contents surrounded by names that were just as impressive as those in Prize Stories: Michael Parker, Jill McCorkle, Fred Chappell – all North Carolina writers whose work meant the world to someone who very much wanted to be a North Carolina writer and who, with his first submission resulting in his first publication, felt that he was very much on his way.

I immediately fired off a second story submission, this time to The Greensboro Review because a) I’d had pretty good luck in that city so far and b) the magazine was edited by the same guy who’d edited the anthology that had accepted my first story only a few weeks earlier.  Imagine my surprise when I received a rejection printed on The Greensboro Review stationery.  It was like someone had sent me a cruel gag gift in the mail.  I thought publishing was easier than this; after all, I was a published author, and of course the editor knew this.  I couldn’t understand how he could love my work on one day and then reject it on another.  I was incredulous: angry, prideful, but more than anything, I was deeply and embarrassingly wounded.

Unfortunately, rejection was something with which I would grow very familiar; I didn’t receive another acceptance letter until 2007.  Can you believe that?  1998-2007: my publication drought spans the introduction and proliferation of cellular phone technology; before I had a second story published cell phones went from phones with antennas to phones you flip open to phones that can access the internet.  And what was I doing during those years of rapid advances in telecommunication?  I was writing stories, submitting stories, and having those stories summarily rejected.

I’d say that for each story I wrote I averaged at least twenty-five rejections before I received an acceptance.  And I can say that each of those rejections improved the story because I was forced to revisit it and reimagine it every time an editor said “no.”  If the editor had included comments as part of the rejection, I’d read them over and over and try to see my story through the editor’s eyes, trying to imagine how I would respond to my work if the editor’s aesthetic was my own.  If I didn’t receive comments, I’d go back to the journals and magazines themselves and read more of their stories, searching for what I could learn from those stories that had made it through to the other side.  Over time, the rejections became less and less hurtful and more and more helpful.  They didn’t make me pessimistic about my work; they made me optimistic that my work could be improved.

Of course there are those rejections that stand out in my memory.  I once received a form rejection from a well-known independent magazine.  On the stationary, the editor had written, “You’ve obviously never read (title of magazine).”  He was wrong: I had read his magazine; I’d actually purchased many issues and paid full cover price, but I stopped reading it that day and I haven’t read it since.  My roommate at the time, who was also submitting stories with the same near-religious fervor, once received a hand-written rejection that simply read, “Not this batch.  Pax.”  My roommate and I were a pretty creepy pair; at 12:30 each afternoon we’d migrate from our desks to the living room where we’d pretend that we weren’t waiting on the mail carrier to fill our box with a fistful of self-addressed, stamped envelopes that inevitably held rejections of our stories.  We were like Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon, except that we knew what it was we waited for, and as a result we probably suffered even more existential angst than literature’s two most famous waiters.

During these years, I started submitting excerpts of a novel-in-progress to one of the country’s best known and oldest literary journals.  I was elated when each submission garnered a hand-written rejection from the journal’s well known editor, who also happened to be a well known writer.  Even though he rejected my work, his words were kind and encouraging and he made insightful suggestions about how to improve my novel.  We probably corresponded nine or ten times before I ran out of things to send him.  Years later, and right after that same novel-in-progress was accepted for publication, I actually met the editor in person at a writing conference where he stood behind a table showcasing a different literary magazine than the one to which I’d submitted years earlier.  I approached him and introduced myself and asked if he remembered our correspondence and all the kind rejections he’d sent me.  I wasn’t thinking that he and other editors probably have all kinds of weirdos approach them and confront them about their rejected manuscripts, and if he thought I was one of these weirdos he certainly didn’t show it.  He was kind and gracious, and I thanked him for taking the time to send me hand-written notes with his rejections, and I tried to explain how much those notes mean to struggling writers.  I also told him that the novel I’d sent him in pieces was actually scheduled for publication.  He seemed genuinely happy for me, and he encouraged me to submit something to the journal he was now editing.  He even gave me his personal email.  When I got home from the conference, I immediately sent him a story, and two days later there was an email from him in my inbox.  I opened it and read, “Wiley, I hate to say no again.”  I know he hated to say “no” just as much as I hated to read it, but that rejection made a few things very clear to me: most editors don’t accept manuscripts based on who they know or who they’ve recently met; they don’t accept manuscripts based on who’s got a novel coming out and who doesn’t; and they don’t accept manuscripts simply to do favors or to hurt feelings.  Most editors accept the best work they receive during a submission period; sometimes your work will be included but, if you’re like me, most of the time it won’t.

My first novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, was released by William Morrow on April 17.  I’m thrilled to be working with Morrow, and I’m so thankful that my editor wasn’t the first editor to see my novel over the years.  If he would’ve been the first editor to lay eyes on it he probably would’ve said “no,” just like several agents said “no” when I queried them.  If any one of those agents had said “yes,” I wouldn’t now be represented by such an outstanding agent who knew exactly where and how to pitch my novel.

This brings me back to “Ellie’s Porch,” my first published story, which also happens to be my worst. It’s not the worst simply because it’s the first. It’s the worst because no one ever rejected it; no one ever pointed out its weaknesses: its reliance on cliché or the clunky awkwardness of a white, nineteen-year-old male writing from the perspective of an elderly African American woman who wasn’t exactly elderly or African American.  Although this isn’t a graduation speech or a bar mitzvah speech or a eulogy, I want to evoke Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken” and add a third road to those already well known paths in the wood.  If I’d been the persona in that poem, I would say I’ve taken the road less published and it, in fact, has made all the difference.


  1. I'm glad Wiley's persistence paid off - I've heard A Land More Kind Than Home is wonderful.

  2. It's a fabulous read--one of those rare novels that you want to consume, because the plot sucks you in and never lets go, but you have to read slowly to enjoy the writing. Man, I love this book!

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  4. Sounds like it's to revise "Ellie's Porch." There's redemption in them there pages.