Through the Looking Glass

Novelist Wiley Cash headlines this month’s Looking Glass Writers’ Conference.

Wiley Cash says it’s no coincidence that his three novels — most recently The Last Ballad — are set in Western North Carolina. Place defines us, he says: sometimes by limiting us. But it also has “a strange way of emboldening us.” All of his books, he adds, feature “main characters and even secondary characters that are born of a place.” Cash was raised in Gastonia, lives in Wilmington, and teaches as writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. His work, deeply rooted in the history of this state, focuses on voices often discounted or easily forgotten.  

Cash tries to “teach people to write what matters to them.” He says, “You often have to steer [students] back toward home so they can write about something they know intimately.” His next book will take place on Oak Island, off the NC coast.

This month, Cash will headline the Looking Glass Writers’ Conference in Brevard, where 36 writers from across the country will be emboldened by this very particular place in the misty mountains of Transylvania County, home to 250 waterfalls. The conference, in its fourth year, is a collaboration between Brevard College and the Transylvania Library Foundation, says conference director and Brevard College faculty member Dr. Alyse Bensel. 

“It’s a great experience in terms of the one-on-one attention that you get, Bensel says. “It’s such a casual, easygoing, but rigorous conference.” She notes that participants will spend not only class time, but meals and down time, with their teachers, and that only one third of applicants were accepted. (One of Wiley’s students will be Alexis Henley, a Brevard College student from Mount Holly, near Charlotte, who will receive a full scholarship. Oscar Sifuentes, who also attends Brevard College, will return to the conference as a student assistant.)

Bensel says the conference’s two public readings are an integral part of the weekend. “We wanted to think about enriching the community by giving them access to these writers.” The roster also includes Frank X Walker, former Kentucky Poet Laureate and founder of the Affrilachian Poets, who will lead poetry workshops; and forest-biology professor Robin Wall Kimmerer (SUNY-ESF), director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, who will teach creative nonfiction.

Cash speaks about the importance of writing with honesty and dignity and of “looking at my grandparents and my parents and the struggles those generations had and their sacrifices that made my life pretty easy. 

“To understand where I am and get the gift of it, I need to understand the sacrifices that have come before.”  

The 4th annual Looking Glass Writers’ Conference runs Thursday, May 9 through Sunday, May 12 at Brevard College (1 Brevard College Drive). The conference hosts free readings/book signings by the keynote authors on May 10 at 7:30pm (Robin Wall Kimmerer, Ingram Auditorium at Brevard College) and on May 11 at 7pm (Wiley Cash and Frank X Walker, Transylvania County Library, 212 South Gaston St., Brevard). For more information, see brevard.edu/4th-annual-looking-glass-writers-conference.

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