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Communique: Wiley Cash Brings Labor Clash From 1920s To Life | The Last Ballad

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash

Wilmington New York Times bestselling author Wiley Cash just published his third book: The Last Ballad. He's traveling around the region to talk about this tale based on historical incidents in Gastonia, North Carolina. Cash and his wife, Mallory, hold a reception at WHQR on Friday, 10/6 at 7:00pm. 

Listen to Wiley Cash talk about this book above and read our extended interview below.

Gina: Wiley, this is not your first book.

Credit Wiley Cash
Wiley Cash

Wiley: No, I have two novels previous to this one. My first novel was called A Land More Kind than Home and it came out in 2012. And my second novel is titled This Dark Road to Mercy and it came out in 2014. So it's been a little while since I've had a book come out.

Gina: Tell me about your path of going from writing the first book to the second to the third.

Wiley: The first book I wrote when I was in graduate school. I wrote it like authors write all first novels- with a certainty that no one was ever going to read it. And so I had great freedom and great privacy and great safety writing that first book. Then after it sold, I was writing a second novel, but it was before the first novel had really come out. And so both of my first two books were written in relative isolation. Then this third novel I wrote it while the first two books were available for purchase, after the first two books had been reviewed by newspapers and magazines and different online sites and readers had come to book clubs and signings and so I wrote this third novel with some awareness that people had read my books before and that there may be a certain assumption in terms of what I write about or what my style may be or what my interests are or what kind of issues I want to reflect. It was definitely a different experience.

Maybe readers do have certain expectations. But I think as a writer you're always- at least speaking for myself- I feel like I'm always trying to write a different book. Not tell the same story over and over. I think there's a place for writers who want to do that and who are good at finding patterns that work for them in terms of narrative, and those writers write 30 books a year. Often times other people write them for them and, you know, they put their name on them. But a writer like the one I'm trying to be, I'm trying to really recreate my ideas and my concept of what a novel can do every time. Or otherwise I just think, why do it again? It's not necessarily fun. I'd spend a lot of time alone. You don't make that much money. So it's like, this is not a good use of my time if I'm not going to challenge myself and try to do something different.

Gina: Do you have to fight against self-consciousness of yourself as a writer?

Wiley: Well I know that when I first started really trying to be a writer it was when I was an undergraduate at UNC Asheville. I really felt like a writer my sophomore year sitting in my dorm room regurgitating stories by Raymond Carver and Flannery O'Connor and Ernest Gaines and thinking that I was reinventing the wheel when I'm actually just creating and spinning the same wheels that they were spinning more successfully and more interestingly dozens of years earlier. But eventually, if you're successful at writing- whatever that means- successful financially perhaps, then your hobby becomes your job. And once a hobby, which is something private and deeply personal and spiritually, emotionally, psychologically fulfilling- once your hobby becomes your job there's a different approach you take to it. It doesn't mean it's any less magical or any less mysterious. It's just different.

You're just, you're aware that there is an outstretched hand waiting for the book that you're trying to write and you're under contract and you may get emails from your editor like, Hey books are way overdue, what do you think is going on, what is going to happen next? Or there may be somebody e-mailing you like, I thought the book is supposed to be out by now. Or your mom's asking you, How far behind are you, are they going to cancel your contract? You're like, Well, I hope not because we don't have any money. So when your hobby becomes your job, there's definitely a different thing.

Gina: So this book- your third book- what is it about?

Wiley: The Last Ballad tells the story of a young single mother who was swept up in a violent textile mill strike in Gastonia, North Carolina in the summer of 1929.

Gina: And this is a real event?

Wiley: Yes, it's based on the true story of the Loray Mills strike which was one of the seminal labor movements in not only the history of the South, but the history of the country. It took place at the Loray Mill in Gastonia, North Carolina, where I was raised, in the summer of 1929. And Loray, at that time, was one of the biggest mills in the state, if not the country. The practices at that mill- the labor practices- were pretty grueling. People were working 12 hour days, oftentimes 72 hours a week. People were making nine or ten dollars a week. Children were working inside the mill. The stretch out had been instituted which made fewer people responsible for greater output. Unemployment was very high and when unemployment is high, wages can fall. People were literally dying. They were working themselves to death and it wasn't a matter of people not working hard enough and not having enough food. It was people physically working as hard as they could and not having enough food. And so a communist affiliated labor organization from New York came down on New Year's Day in 1929 and on April 1st the workers at Loray voted to strike and they walked out of the plant and that began the strike.

They were in big trouble very quickly. The mill actually never shut down. But a secret committee called the Committee of One Hundred gathered- this is in my novel as well- they gathered together and began to violently undermine the strike. They destroyed the union’s headquarters. They attacked their food supplies and destroyed the food supplies. They would raid the strikers' tent city. They would kidnap strikers and drive them out to the country and beat them. They would use threats of racial violence, intimidation, and all these different things. They paid for advertisements that were run in the local newspaper, just really violent, violent anti racial integration. Advertisements that really instigated a lot of violence. It was a dangerous time to be a striker. It was a dangerous time to be someone from out of town. It was a dangerous time to be a woman and a person of color. And it was a dangerous time to ask for a living wage.

Gina: This Committee of One Hundred- that was a real committee?

Wiley: It was a real committee and it was put together in large part by Loray Mill. It was paid for by wealthy mill owners in the area. And it included a lot of well-known citizens- all male- a lot of well-known citizens in town who could move in the shadows. Move in the public shadows. They didn't change their clothes when they left work before they went out and did this intimidation and this violence in the community because they were protected by their wealth and by their privilege and by their standing in the community. People were willing to support them over these poor mill workers, many of whom were from out of town. This is at a time- the 1920s- when we reach this moment, this breaking point in Southern labor history. These people had left the mountains of Appalachia, they'd left the lumber camps, they'd left the farms in the upstate because the mills had promised them easy living. You know, come to the mill, we'll feed you, we'll clothe you, we'll educate you, we'll send you to church, we'll give you a place to live. All you have to do is work. And so people left the mountains in droves because they needed cash money. In the mountains you're growing your own food, you're trading, you're bartering, but as the cash based economy began in the 20th century, people needed cash money. And the mills were one of the only places they could get it- the mills and the lumber camps.

Well, the lumber camps began to close because the Great Smoky Mountain National Park was coming in and closing lumber camps. So people had nowhere to go. And so they left the mountains and came down to the Piedmont and places like Gastonia and Ranlo and the South Carolina upstate and Lowell, North Carolina, Charlotte. And they got locked into this system of poverty where they literally could not afford to leave. They didn't have the money to gather enough food to move to the next mill town or to move back to the mountains to look for their homes again. So they were stuck in this grueling system of poverty. And again, it wasn't an issue of not working hard enough. The issue was that they were worked too hard.

Gina: You've mentioned the race issue. Are all of these workers African American or are they a mix?

Wiley: I think Loray at the time was about 2 percent African-American. So at Loray, the vast majority of the employees at Loray were white. The woman in my novel, which is based on a real woman named Ella May Wiggins, she lived in a predominantly African-American community in nearby Bessemer City, North Carolina. She was white and she worked at one of the only integrated mills. And so basically everyone she knew and trusted was black. They watched her children, she watched their children. They helped her when she needed help, she helped her friends when they needed help. When she heard about a strike at the Loray Mill and found out that the union was demanding a 40 hour work week, a $20 minimum week for pay, equal pay for equal work- this woman, Ella May Wiggins, was working 72 hours in a cotton mill for $9. She'd given birth to nine children and four of them had died from whooping cough and pellagra. Her husband had left her and she realized, if I keep going this way, I'm probably going to die or one or more of my children are going to die.

So she went to Gastonia and she attended these union rallies and she decided to join the union and she walked off her job. She immediately became the face of the strike because she was brilliant, she was literate, she was outspoken, she was tough, and she could sing. So she began performing protest songs based on these mountain ballads that she had learned in Tennessee where she was from. She wrote and performed songs that went on to be performed by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. She traveled to D.C. and confronted North Carolina senators about labor conditions in the south. And then when the time came, she single-handedly integrated the labor union in Gaston County- the local labor union- against the will of local officials because they knew, we can't integrate this labor union and expect these mountaineers and these farmers to walk the picket line with black Americans. They're not going to stand for that. But Ella said, Look, we're all poor. Our poverty unites us more than race divides us. If you all want to shut down mills and you want to swell the ranks of the Union, it needs to integrate. So she really agitated for integration. She became the face of the strike, which made her dangerous to mill owners. In some ways it made her dangerous to the union because of the integration. And the evening of June 6 there was a raid on the strikers’ headquarters and the police chief was shot and killed.

A number of union members were rounded up and arrested that fall. I believe nine of them eventually stood trial. And on September 14th, Ella was in a caravan of workers she'd organized traveling to Gastonia from Bessemer City to protest in support of these jailed strikers when they met a roadblock at a bridge going into Gastonia and demanded they turn around or violence was going to happen to them. It was the Committee of One Hundred. It was people put together by Loray Mill. Ella's caravan turned around and then minutes later a truck ran into her vehicle and turned it over in a field and Ella was shot on sight and she died. And legend says that her last words were, Lordy they have shot me dead.

She died at the scene and her children were whisked away to an orphanage. Her story and the story of the strike were just completely buried by history. I grew up in Gastonia never having heard a word about it. My parents- my mom was born in the mill village in Gastonia, my dad in a mill village next door in Shelby- never heard a word about it. Because the people who write history wrote her out of it. They wrote out the struggle of the Loray Mill and that time that poor mill workers in Gastonia stood up and demanded a living wage and equal work for equal pay and a 40 hour work week. They got rid of that history.

Gina: Is this character presented in your story as herself or is she wrapped by a character?

Wiley: No, my novel is about the real Ella May. But the real Ella May Wiggins, very little is known about her. We know the major events of her life. We know when she was born, we know when she died, we know when her children were born and died. We know pretty much where she lived and where she worked- give and take several years. She moved around to different mill villages- most people did. She began when she left the mountains of North Carolina. She grew up in Tennessee. Her family worked in a logging camp in Bryson City. She came down to Cowpens, South Carolina with the man she met up in the mountains- a no good guy. He ran off on her off and on throughout her life. So those are basically the only events we really know of her life. We know she went to D.C. and confronted Congressman, we know she wrote these songs, we know she integrated the Union.

But the day to day stuff of her life we do not know. And so I had great freedom in creating her as a “fictional” character. But the freedom almost paralyzed me because there was so much of it. I wanted to honor her toughness and I wanted to honor her spirit and I wanted to portray the tragedies in her life, but the high moments and the low moments of our lives are not what define us. It's the small moments with our children, it's our time with our friends, it's times of stress or times of joy that aren't chronicled in the history books. And so I really, really had to work very hard to get to know the soul of Ella and who I thought she was when she wasn't singing a protest song or when she wasn't leading a group of strikers in D.C. That was the challenge of the book, but I think that I was able to do that. While there are other perspectives, Ella is undoubtedly the heart of this book and the soul of the book.

Gina: So she is one of the perspectives...and then who else do we hear from?

Wiley: The novel is told through several different characters. They're third person. There's only one first person narrative and that's Ella's oldest daughter. Her name is Lily and it's 2005 and Lily is writing a letter to her nephew telling him, I've never talked about my past because my mother was Ella May Wiggins. And when you grew up the daughter of Ella May Wiggins, you grew up with a certain amount of shame heaped upon you because of who she was and what she stood for, where we lived and how we lived. But I'm tired of the shame and I'm old now and I want you to know who your grandmother was and something about who you are and who we are. And so Lily's is the only first person narrative and she's writing a letter. But the other narrator perspectives are all third person.

So we have Ella May. We also have the perspective of a local mill owner who believes himself to be very progressive and very fair minded until he's called upon to deliver upon those ideals. And then he finds himself being conflicted about what he thinks is right and then what he's willing to do in the face of what is wrong with the pressure of the local mill owners. We also have the perspective of his wife, who feels as if she's locked inside of this gilded cage and she actually seeks out Ella May and the two form an unlikely friendship. These two women from vastly different social classes have experienced similar tragedies in their lives that bring them together. There's also the perspective of an African-American labor organizer from New York who was sent down to Gastonia to help recruit black members. He escaped Mississippi as a child after his father shot and killed a white man who'd shown up at their house to harm the family. And so he has ghosts of the South haunting him and he's come back South looking for some kind of foothold in his own story, but also to help the people he cares about and the communities he cares about move forward.

I wasn't so interested in having a fair and balanced story- whatever that means. I was interested in giving the reader a fullness of the experience of what that summer felt like. I wanted it to be a richly textured novel that felt like life. And the way that I knew to do that best was to bring in these oftentimes conflicting perspectives to give an idea of what it felt like to be in Gastonia, North Carolina that summer. That incredibly violent, hot summer in 1929.

Gina: You say that there are some contemporary ramifications. 

Wiley: There are definitely some contemporary ramifications that I wasn't aware of. I began writing this novel- I began thinking about this novel a long, long time ago- but I began writing it five years ago. America five years ago is very different from America now. Regardless of your politics, I think we can all agree that five years ago America was a very different place. I was coming to the end of writing the novel during the campaign season in 2016. The presidential campaign. And I'm writing a novel about a strong independent woman standing up to the forces of greed. And I'm watching a campaign unfold which is featuring a strong independent woman standing up to the forces of greed and I don't think it's a smear against our president to identify him with greed because I think that would make him happy. He's built his career and his brand off that idea that he represents greed like Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, Greed is good.

So the day after the election, I thought, Oh wow, America is telling me with the results of this election that they don't want to read a novel about a woman like this. But the day after the day after the election and then every day since the day after the day after the election, I feel like America is saying, No, we do want to read a novel about a woman like this.

And so many of the events in my novel have been mirrored in contemporary events. The day of the raid on the police headquarters there is a huge Confederate rally in Charlotte. And then later Ella May is killed. We had a huge Confederate rally in Charlottesville. It wasn't just Confederate, there were also Nazis there. Then we have Heather Heyer killed in much the same way that Ella May was killed through the use of an automobile. I thought I was writing a novel about 1929, but I actually wrote a novel about 2017.

Gina: I think that these past events feel so far to us, but in the grand perspective, it's like yesterday.

Wiley: A lot of people want to say, Well, that doesn't touch my sphere of experience so it shouldn't touch yours either. My grandfather, whose last name was Wiggins just like Ella May Wiggins, was 22 years old when a woman who shared his last name was murdered just a few miles from where he worked at a mill in South Carolina. He never talked about it because it was a shameful thing to talk about. I was in Bessemer City a few weeks ago in Stumptown looking for where I thought Ella May's cabin may have been and I knew it was near a freshwater spring and that community is still predominately African-American. 

So I found an older couple sitting on their porch and I went up and said, Hey I've, got some questions, sorry to bother y'all. But I began asking about, Do you hear any stories about a white woman, white family living in Stumptown? Ella May Wiggins. And they'd never heard of that story. The woman said, Well that doesn't surprise me, of course they don't want to hear a story about poor black people and poor white people working together. Of course that story's never been told. She said, Well which mill did she work at? I said, She worked in American Mill Number Two. She said, My dad worked at American Mill Number Two and he was over 100 years old when he died just a few years ago. I said, What years did he work there? She said, He worked there in the 20s and 30s. He would have worked with Ella May, and I'd missed him by a couple of years. And so as Faulkner says, The past is not past.

Gina: Do we know who any of her children are? I know they were orphans.

Wiley: You can find her children's names. Her great granddaughter Christina Horton wrote a great book about the strike and about Ella May, a nonfiction book, an academic book that came out, I believe a year and a half ago called the Martyr of Loray Mill. Some of Ella’s descendants have reached out to me, they've seen her mentioned in interviews and have emailed me. She still has some family in Gaston County. One of her daughters moved up to New York and the grandson of that daughter contacted me. He'd been a labor man, a union man his entire life in steel. But yes, she still has family. None of her children are alive and I don't believe that any of her grandchildren are alive.But she still has descendants in the area.

Gina: How old was she when she died?

Wiley: She was 28.

Gina: Unionizing was a dangerous thing to do then. Do you think that that's an important issue now?

Wiley: I do think unions are important now and I think people should have a say about whether or not they want to join a union. I think that we don't need to have restrictive laws to keep unions out. I think the more you can have people representing themselves in groups against powerful forces that are oftentimes in control of their financial and economic futures, the better off we'll be. And I think that we want deals, so let's bargain. But oftentimes the people in power don't really want deals. They don't want to make deals. They want to forge ahead. And that's what the bosses at Loray and other places are trying to keep out.

But if you enjoy your 40 hour work week in your overtime pay, thank a union. If you enjoy your child labor laws where your child's not going to be conscripted to go into a factory on your sick day, thank a union. If you enjoy having Labor Day Off to eat hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill, thank a union. There's a lot of things we can thank unions for. Just because we've reached a point where we've maybe plateaued in terms of some workers’ rights, it doesn't mean the things that fomented that cause for workers’ rights needs to go.

Gina: Tell us about your upcoming events.

Wiley: I've got several events here in Wilmington. Saturday, September 30th I'll be at the Barnes and Noble here at Mayfair from 3 to 4:30 talking about the Last Ballad. That will be the only store in the country selling the book. The book doesn't come out until October 3rd, but I'll be here in Wilmington selling it that day at Barnes and Noble. They'll have it on sale beginning September 30th. And then Friday, October 6 I will be here at WHQR studios at the MC Erny Gallery talking about the Last Ballad at 7 p.m. that Friday evening. I'll be in conversation with my wife, Mallory. We'll be talking about what it's like to be married to a writer and what it's like to deal with me when I'm writing and begging her to be honest with me while also not hurting my feelings and trying to navigate my oftentimes Mecurial life. And then I've got events across the state and across the country beginning September 30th and going through December. I'll be in conversation with a lot of really well-known authors- Wilmington's Kevin Maurer in Southern Pines, Charles Frazier in Asheville, Lee Smith in Durham, Joe McCorkell in Raleigh, Randall Kenan and Daniel Wallace in Chapel Hill. It's going to be a fun tour. 

Transcription assistance from PopUpArchive and Production Assistant Lindsay Wright