Wiley Cash first came to UNC Asheville in 1996—that year the first flip phone became available for purchase and Bill Clinton was in the second term of his presidency. Now, nearly two decades later, Cash has returned to UNC Asheville as writer-in-residence, teaching courses, mentoring students and bringing high-profile authors to campus.
“So many things have stayed the same, but a lot of things have been improved,” Cash said, recalling his time at UNC Asheville.
“When I was here, down in Highsmith was this little food area called Dante’s Inferno. It had nothing in it,” Cash said. “I can’t even explain how bizarre it was.”
Though the food and facilities have changed, many aspects of the university are just as he remembers. Cash said the English Department, where he began his evolution from what he describes as a doomy, navel-gazing novice to one of America’s most acclaimed young novelists, is as rigorous, academic, creative, vibrant, kind and nurturing as ever.
As a student, Cash first was drawn to UNC Asheville’s creative writing program.
“Initially, I thought I was going to be a poet,” Cash said. “Like so many people who are interested in writing, I discovered The Doors, the band, in the eighth grade and thought Jim Morrison was the greatest poet of all time.”
But all that changed when he began classes at UNC Asheville.
“I came to UNC Asheville and found that, not only was I a terrible poet, Jim Morrison was also a terrible poet,” Cash said. “I read fiction much more than I ever read poetry, and so I thought ‘well, I’ll try to write stories.’”
Cash remembers the defining, foundational moments of becoming the writer — from manifesting his fictional world in his dorm in Scott Hall, to the validation and encouragement of first publishing in Headwaters, UNC Asheville’s literary arts magazine.
Now, in 2016, Cash is back in the classrooms at UNC Asheville, inspiring the next generation of writers.
In his time as writer-in-residence, Cash hopes to give back by sharing what he’s learned as a writer. In particular, he emphasizes the importance of reading other writers’ work — knowing what's been said, what people are discussing at the moment, and how to make a relevant contribution to the conversation.
“We don’t write in a vacuum and, in order to write, you have to have the fuel,” Cash said.
Cash, who’s teaching courses in language and literature during his residency, described UNC Asheville as offering a holistic and meaningful educational experience for students in all academic departments.
“If you’re an undergraduate in North Carolina and you want the best undergraduate education experience,” Cash said, “this is it.”
Cash is the author of two best-selling novels, This Dark Road to Mercy, which was a finalist for the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award, and A Land More Kind than Home, which won the Western North Carolina Historical Association’s Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award and the Appalachian Writers’ Association Book of the Year award. Cash, who earned a master’s degree at UNC at Greensboro and a Ph.D. at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from UNC Asheville in 2015.