RHETA JOHNSON: The importance of knowing earnest

RHETA JOHNSON

RHETA JOHNSON

Writer Wiley Cash is three years shy of 40, looks younger and once was mistaken for Justin Timberlake – a silly bit people won’t let the handsome author forget. He has two successful novels and, today, his former professor Ernest J. Gaines on the small stage beside him.

A room full of struggling writers might find it easy to hate Wiley, begrudge his “luck” and early success. Except that is impossible. He’s polite, thoughtful, hilarious and deserving. As young as he looks, he has known rejection and persevered.

Wiley writes about his beloved home state of North Carolina with a sensitivity not even expected in his thriller genre. “Reads as if Cormac McCarthy decided to rewrite Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’” one reviewer said of his first New York Times bestseller, “A Land More Kind than Home.” About his latest, “This Dark Road to Mercy,” a critic said: “Harper Lee by way of Elmore Leonard.”

Wiley is headliner at this Louisiana book fair in the beautiful burg of St. Francisville. He could – some would – give this small-town date the better-than-thou treatment. Not Wiley. He attends all the obligatory functions, arrives on time in a dress jacket, mingles with the natives and, I suspect, will write thank-you notes.

If Wiley is the literary Lancelot in the room, Gaines is King Arthur. Wiley has learned at the feet of a master and seems to have taken a lesson in graciousness as well as fiction.

“You have to read this,” one admirer orders while thumping a magazine page in Wiley’s face. This happens just as Gaines, who is ailing and had told organizers that he would not speak, changes his mind and begins a touching tribute from a wheelchair in praise of his former student. It’s the first and only time Wiley ignores anyone, and then only temporarily; he drops the man’s magazine in his lap until after Gaines speaks, drawing tears from most in the audience.

It is a sweet story, as literary back stories go. Wiley went to the University of Louisiana in Lafayette for his Ph.D. specifically because he wanted to study under its writer-in-residence Gaines, whom he believed was the South’s greatest living writer. Louisiana’s wonderful but alien atmosphere made Wiley miss his own “postage stamp of land,” to quote another master, Faulkner. Wiley loved Louisiana but missed his mountains.

Gaines’ example helped Wiley realize that he could have both places – the Mardi Gras and Abita beer, mountains and pork barbecue. All Wiley had to do was write himself home.

Gaines, after all, had written about his native Louisiana while living in San Francisco. It worked mighty well for him, too.

Wiley “did the work,” as he describes it. Then he found an agent, but she had no luck selling Wiley’s first. It would take several years and another agent to find a publisher with a two-book deal for the fiction writer. Wiley asked the new agent if there might be a publisher with a three-book deal, “but he told me not to press my luck.”

There are snake-handlers and shiftless fathers and abandoned children and all sorts of dark places in both of his books. Yet Wiley never condescends or condemns or exploits his region, but in print understands it.

“From my desk in Louisiana,” Wiley wrote, “I pondered the silence of snow-covered fields … I lived in two places at once, and it was wonderful.”

To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.