Wiley Cash’s debut novel, A Land More Kind than Home, is a dark and haunting mystery about the death of a disabled boy during a Pentecostal service in a small North Carolina town.
What’s your relationship with the Pentecostal movement?
I was raised in the evangelical Southern Baptist church, which isn’t a holiness church or Pentecostal; it’s not a charismatic church. But I was familiar with faith healing, the laying on of hands, vigorous praise music, and things like that. I’ve always been interested in the Pentecostal movement: what’s going to compel somebody to pick up a snake or drink strychnine, or walk across coals, or hold a flame to their face, or believe they can raise the dead? For these people, in order for the Bible to be the literal word of God, they believe somebody needs to be doing these things.
What drew you to examine evil?
What’s amazing about the charismatic faith or the holiness movement is that everyone is considered morally corrupt. And you can be morally corrupt and pray your way out of it. You can be the greatest sinner in the world and then ask for forgiveness. You credit your successes to God and your failures to the Devil. In that kind of environment, humans can get off scot free. Evil is powerful and makes people do things they wouldn’t normally do. Power—whether it’s religious, political, or economic power—is intoxicating, and like anything you can get addicted to, it takes stronger and stronger doses until you become intoxicated. [In the novel,] Pastor Chambliss can’t get enough of it, neither can his parishioners, and it’s leading to disaster, just like any addiction does.
How did you come to the novel’s three narrators and their voices?
These three characters represent all of the phases of religious belief or disbelief that humans can experience. Jess represents a child’s wonder—he’s nine, and when I was nine I can clearly remember sensing and perceiving the mystery of religion, but also that I had doubts about it, and trying to balance the wonder and the mystery with pragmatism. [The old woman] Adelaide’s faith is tempered by tragedy, it’s emboldened by deliberation, and I think that she represents the purity and innocence and beauty of personal faith. Clem [the sheriff] is the rational mind, trying to make sense of what people are willing to do—break up their families, kill one another—over religion. In many ways he’s the character that most represents the reader.
What would you like the reader to know about the book before reading it?
When people crack the pages of this novel and see what it’s about, where it’s set—because it’s in the South, because it talks about religion, because it talks about family—I would ask that the readers leave their cynicism behind. When I say the South, people often think: racism and the Confederate flag. When I say Southern evangelical, they think Jerry Falwell, Tammy Faye Bakker. When I say family, they think infidelity, isolation, abuse. And obviously some of these things are in the novel, but they’re not defining aspects of these families, or this region, or the faith.