Monday, April 2, 2012
A Land More Kind Than Home: A Love Letter to My Wife
by Wiley Cash
I met my wife in a bar in Wilmington, North Carolina. Once we started dating we wanted to tell people that we’d met in a bookstore or in Sunday school, but the “cute” story that follows made that impossible: the moment I met my wife I told her she looked just like Ashley Simpson; she responded by threatening to smash the bottle she was holding and using the broken glass to stab me. The actor Steve Buscemi had been stabbed in a Wilmington bar just a few years earlier while filming a movie with Vince Vaughn, so I knew she probably meant business. Some people meet and fall in love online or in coffee shops or through friends. I met the love of my life while staring down the wrong end of a Corona bottle. Steve Buscemi’d had Vince Vaughn to help him out on the night he’d been stabbed; I had my younger brother, who, at the time, was standing back and watching the scene with a thrilled look on his face, perhaps hoping he’d soon be telling this story to the cops. He didn’t; he told it at our wedding instead.
Obviously, the woman who would become my wife didn’t stab me. Instead, we spent the rest of the night talking. We talked on the phone the next day too – and the next. We spent a lot of time talking that summer, which means that I spent a lot of time talking and she spent a lot of time listening. One night, we climbed into an empty lifeguard stand on Wrightsville Beach, and
I spent hours and hours telling her all about this book I was going to write about an autistic boy who’s smothered during a healing service in a little church in the mountains of North Carolina. That night, she told me she had no doubt that my unwritten novel would be published. Over the next five years, she never wavered in that belief. I wish I could say that I shared in her
I worked on the novel over the next three years and landed an agent in the fall of 2008. My agent and I spent several months revising the novel before submitting it to publishers. The novel began to take a new, more improved shape, and I truly believe the revisions made it a better book. But that didn’t keep a handful of editors from rejecting the manuscript. With each rejection, I returned to the novel in an attempt to improve it based on the editor’s suggestions and criticisms. This went on for several months until it seemed there was nowhere else to go. My agent told me that she was struggling with the revisions I’d made as well, and, if I wanted to part ways, she would certainly understand. I didn’t blame her; I was struggling too. I’d revised, reworked, and reimagined the novel to the point that I no longer recognized it; I couldn’t find the original thread of the story, and I couldn’t fathom the challenge of returning to the manuscript and attempting to untangle the mess I’d made of it.
One day, in February 2009, I mailed a letter to my agent, effectively ending our relationship. I couldn’t help but feel that in ending that relationship, I was also ending my relationship to the novel I’d spent four years writing and rewriting.
That evening, my wife came home from work and found me sitting on the couch; the look on my face must have perfectly portrayed what I was feeling.
“Did you mail the letter?” she asked. I nodded my head yes. Then she asked a question that only a woman like her can ask. “Do you need to go shoot basketball?” I nodded my head yes again. On our way down to the park near our apartment in Bethany, West Virginia, she devised a plan. “You can’t give up,” she said. “You got one agent; you can get another one.” Then, while she and I played HORSE: “Let’s go back to the novel, make a timeline, organize the chapters, and find the story again.” On the walk home: “Give it one more revision, and I’ll read twenty pages at a time and I’ll imagine that I’ve never read it before. This will work.”
By the time we arrived home, the roles we’d played since the summer we met were suddenly reversed; she became the one talking about the novel as if it was a done deal. I became the one listening, saying things like “That does sound good.”
I got back to work that night, and every night after I sat down at my desk and reimagined a novel I thought I’d finished years before. As soon as I’d written twenty pages, I’d print them off and give them to my wife. She’d read them, pen in hand, marking things that worked and things that didn’t and making comments in the margins. We’d lie in bed at night and talk about reorganizing the manuscript, discussing ways to make the opening pages more exciting and interesting.
There are two stories I remember from these nights. In one, my wife is reading a scene in the novel where an elderly woman confronts the charismatic pastor of her church; the scene is pretty intense, and it culminates with the woman down on her knees in front of the church, her hand thrust into a tiny box that houses a rattlesnake, the pastor standing above her calmly whispering threats into her ear. The scene came about two-thirds of the way through the novel, but my wife made an interesting suggestion. “This scene is horrifying,” she said. “Why don’t you use it to open the novel?” I gave it a shot, and those were the pages my new agent used to sell the novel to William Morrow. That night, after making a suggestion that would eventually change our lives, my wife dreamt that she was lying on the floor of a church and someone was standing above her, dangling snakes over her face before draping them across her body. She screamed so loud that I called our neighbors to let them know she was okay.
In another story, my wife and I are reading in bed. She’s reading the manuscript of my novel, and I’m reading a book on Abraham Lincoln. At one point, she lays the pages on the bed in front of her, sighs, and says, “This is amazing! This is how you write a novel!” I’d never felt such pride in
my life. When I looked over, I saw that she’d been reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. I figured it was better than her dreaming of being tortured with snakes, so I couldn’t complain.
My novel sold to William Morrow as part of a two-book deal, and I began writing my second novel in the summer of 2011. I was very fortunate to be awarded summer writing residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and soon we learned that my wife had been offered a job as an attorney with a great firm in Morgantown, West Virginia, roughly an hour and a half south of where we lived in Bethany. We quickly bought a house in Morgantown and moved all of our
furniture with the help of a few friends, and then I left for a full two months away. For two weeks, my wife worked her old job in Bethany until 5 p.m., and then she’d drive home, load up her car with stuff we couldn’t get in our first move, drive down to Morgantown, unload, and then drive back to Bethany and sleep on an air mattress. The next day, she’d go to work and do it all over
again. I was working hard on my second novel during this time, but I was also being very well cared for at these wonderful residencies. Even so, not once did my wife complain about how hard she was working or about how difficult the move was on her; not once did she ask me how much work I was getting done or make clear that my time away had better be worth it. She started a new job in a new city in early August; I missed that too.
My wife is the hero of my writing life; other teachers may have taught me more about writing and people in the industry may have taught me more about promotion and marketing, but no one has taught me more about dedication, patience, and kindness than my wife.
A few weeks ago, I received an early hard copy of my novel in the mail. I immediately opened it and inscribed the first page to my wife. Then I drove to her office and called her and gave it to her when she came outside. I won’t tell you what I wrote, but I will say I considered writing
something funny, perhaps “You look just like Ashley Simpson,” but I’d learned my lesson in that bar in Wilmington. Besides, we were alone outside her office, and there was no one around to call the cops in case she made good on her original threat.
It was a small gift, and there’s no way it can repay the gifts she’s given me. But it’s interesting that this newly published book is just as old as the story of our meeting, and, like that story, this book is just as much hers as mine.