Inspired by real-life events, Wiley Cash’s novel The Last Ballad (hardcover, digital) tells the fictionalized story of, as he explains it, “a young, single mother named Ella May Wiggins who’s swept up in a violent textile mill strike in the Appalachian foothills in the summer of 1929.” But in talking to Cash about this book, he revealed that it while it was inspired by history, it was also influenced by musicality.
Photo Credit: Mallory Cash
Where did you get the original idea for The Last Ballad, and how different is the finished novel from that original idea?
The Last Ballad is actually based on the true story of the Loray Mill strike that occurred in my hometown of Gastonia, North Carolina, in the summer of 1929. Although I grew up there, I had never heard of the strike that had rocked the community to its core, a strike had served as the seminal moment in southern labor history, and one of the most important strikes in American history, but it was buried by history because the powerful people in the state didn’t want to remember the time that the poor mill workers stood up to wealthy mill owners and demanded a living wage, a 40-hour work week, equal pay for equal work, and basic recognition of the labor union. It wasn’t until I left North Carolina for graduate school in Louisiana in 2003 that I heard the word Loray Mill or heard the name Ella May Wiggins. Once I discovered the significance of the strike and learned of the struggle and tragic murder of Ella May Wiggins, I couldn’t help but wonder about what else I didn’t know, and I was horrified that this important history had been kept from me and others.
The book is set in 1929, but writer Ben Fountain [Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk] said of it, “I can think of no more relevant novel for our times than The Last Ballad.” Given that, why did you set in 1929 as opposed to 1989 or 2019 or 2929?
The easy answer is that I set it in 1929 because the actual events occurred over the summer of 1929. But that was really a fortunate thing for me as a writer. The events of strike sit on the precipice of the Great Depression. You have the economy, especially southern mills, slowing down as the demand for cotton cloth falls after World War I. Women earned the right to vote only a few years earlier. African Americans are beginning to demand to the equal rights of citizenship. 1929 marked an incredibly incendiary time in the history of this country, and the strike at Loray served as a flashpoint where all these issues race, class, and gender met in a tragic storm.
Do you think there are any authors, or books, that were a big influence on The Last Ballad, but were not as much of an impact on your previous novels?
My greatest literary influence is my mentor, Ernest J. Gaines [A Lesson Before Dying, The Tragedy Of Brady Sims]. From him I got my fluid dialogue and spare prose. From him I also got my intense of landscape and local customs and culture to portray people in specific classes and social sets.
While writing The Last Ballad, I was reading a lot of American literature that could be classified as protest literature: Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Uncle Tom’s Children, work by James Baldwin, Kate Chopin, and Charles W. Chesnutt: all American writers who spoke out against oppression from behind their pens and often in their daily lives. It reminded me that the novel can belong both to literature and politics.
What about such non-literary influences as movies or TV shows? Any of them have a strong influence on The Last Ballad?
I was influenced by several movies while writing The Last Ballad. Coal Miner’s Daughter, starring Sissy Spacek, and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate come to mind. I wanted my novel to feel rich and atmospheric like Cimino’s film, and I wanted my heroine Ella May Wiggins to portray the same conflicting vulnerability and toughness that Spacek’s Loretta Lynn portrays.
But of all the art forms, music definitely had the greatest influence on me while writing the novel. The mills in Gaston County were full of former mountaineers from Appalachia, and when they left the mountains for the good life promised by the mills, they brought with them their centuries-old ballads. Those ballads turned into protest songs, many of which were written and performed by Ella May Wiggins. Woody Guthrie called her the greatest American songwriter of all-time, and her music went on to be recorded by Pete Seeger. Being able to listen to that music and hear the sorrow in the lyrics balanced against the toughness of the singers gave me an idea of the world they were writing about.
So has there been any talk of adapting The Last Ballad into a movie or TV show?
There hasn’t been too much chatter yet, and even if there were I would do my best not to listen. I haven’t had a lot of experience with Hollywood, but the little experience I’ve had has led me not to take things too seriously.
Though I’d be honored to see The Last Ballad on either the movie screen or the TV screen. One would be just as good as the other.
If it was being made into a movie or show, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles and why them?
I think someone like Reese Witherspoon would thrive in the role of Ella May Wiggins. She stole the show in Walk The Line as June Carter Cash. She could do the same with Ella May.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Last Ballad, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next?
I would suggest they check out my debut novel, A Land More Kind than Home, which is also set in western North Carolina and centers around the fallout in the community after a young boy is smothered during a healing service. There are similarities between the two novels in the ways in which the landscape and the era limits and defines the characters. But, as much as they’re limited, they’re also incredibly tough and fiercely protective and devoted to the place and the people they love.