Drinking with Writers

A Born Storyteller

Wills Maxwell makes comedy real

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

Wilmington-based comedian Wills Maxwell routinely opens his sets with a joke about what he claims is his desire to fit in. “I’m a conformist,” he says. “I’m such a conformist that the only reason I’m black is because everyone else in my family is.”

The son of an attorney and an insurance claims adjuster, and the brother of three sisters — all of whom have advanced degrees — the career path Wills has taken proves he is not one bit concerned with conformity. Even when he was a kid growing up in Raleigh, Wills knew he wanted to be a storyteller.

“My ambition was to write comic books about superheroes,” he says. “I wanted to tell stories however I could, so I came to UNC Wilmington and studied filmmaking and screenwriting and learned how to tell stories that way.”

The skill Wills developed behind the camera landed him a job directing the morning news at WWAY TV-3, the NBC/CBS/CW affiliate in Wilmington, but it was his talent in front of the camera that landed him a weekly segment he calls “What Did We Miss?” in which he “tells you the stories that WWAY did not.” The three-minute segments cover outlandish news, and they are marked by Wills’ hilarious one-liners and asides. In one episode he covers a crew of car burglars in Los Angeles who are using scooters to flee the scenes of their crimes. In another episode, he covers the story of a man in an Easter bunny suit who breaks up a street fight without removing his mask.

It is no surprise that Wills is able to turn inane news items into comic gold. He has been perfecting his comedic timing and writing for several years, first on stage at Dead Crow Comedy Club in Wilmington, and later on stages across the Southeast. His big break came last year in Charlotte when he made it to the finals round of StandUp NBC, a nationwide search for stand-up comedians from diverse backgrounds. That success got him an invite to return to this year’s Nashville competition and an automatic leapfrog to the second round, where he will have two minutes to earn another spot in the finals.

For Wills, it all comes down to storytelling: “Comedy lets me tell stories in a way that puts people into my perspective, so maybe they can leave the show just a little more aware of how other people live.”

Recently, Wills and I sat down for lunch at the Dixie Grill in downtown Wilmington, and as we ate — a club sandwich for me and a chicken finger basket for him — we discussed his desire for audiences to see things from his perspective. I ask him what that means to him.

“In the summer of 2015, I went to Charleston, South Carolina, to work on an independent film,” he says. “I arrived in town a week after Walter Scott was shot in the back by a police officer while he was running from a traffic stop because he had a broken brake light. Filming wrapped and I left Charleston one week after Dylan Roof murdered nine people just because they were black.”

He pauses and looks out the window at the tourists on the sidewalk, some of them heading north on Market Street toward the city’s Confederate monuments.

“Those were dark bookends to my summer in Charleston,” he says. “Even before those tragedies I was on edge and paranoid, and I was thrown by Charleston’s adoration for the Confederacy. But I found some kind of relief in seeing the Confederate flag being flown because it showed me that I was not welcome everywhere. I did not have to rely on suspicion. It was proof.”

I ask him if it is hard to take these serious issues and make them funny in front of an audience.

“It can be hard,” he says. “The goal is to make people laugh and to make them feel good, but I want things to stick with people in a way that makes them say, ‘Oh, I’ve never thought of it like that.’ After Walter Scott was shot, I made jokes about being afraid of the police. Now, maybe someone in the audience doesn’t have my paranoia about the police, but if they hear my jokes it may make them understand a little about why I feel afraid.”

I comment that all comedy is based on tragedy, either your own or someone else’s.

“And laughing helps us understand it,” Wills adds. “It helps us look at someone else’s tragedy and really see it, but every audience is different.”

Later, this summer, Wills will be returning to Raleigh Supercon, a three-day festival for people who love comic books, science fiction, fantasy and video games. “It’s nice to be in front of a crowd that gets my jokes about the Power Rangers,” he says.

I imagine that it is also nice for him to get away on a weekend instead of pulling late nights in clubs after waking up at 3 a.m. to get to the news station to prepare for that morning’s show. I ask him how he does it, how he works the stage late into the night and works behind the camera early in the morning.

“I feed myself,” he says. “I stay alive. I pursue what I want to do.”

Spoken like a true nonconformist. OH

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.

Drinking with Writers

One Man’s Good Advice

Clyde Edgerton and the art of negotiation

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

In 2011, my wife and I were living in West Virginia when I learned that my first novel was going to be published. My editor asked me to reach out to any well-known authors I knew to see if they would offer a blurb for the book jacket. The problem? I didn’t know many well-known authors, so I began sleuthing for email addresses. Clyde Edgerton’s was one of the first I found. I wrote to him and told him that I, like him, was a North Carolina native who had written a North Carolina novel, and I wondered if he would be willing to give it a read and consider offering some kind words. He not only read my novel and offered some kind words that ended up on the front of the hardcover, he offered some criticism as well. There was one particular scene in the novel that he felt went on a little too long, and he suggested some edits. I made the edits; they were the last I made before the novel went to print, and they improved the novel in ways I never could have imagined. I had never met Clyde Edgerton. I had never been one of his students. He was just being kind, giving more of his time and talent than I ever expected.

Clyde’s kindness and giving of time continued in the spring of 2012 when he appeared at Pomegranate Books in Wilmington, North Carolina, to attend one of the first events of my book tour. I had not expected him to be there, and it was a little like shooting free throws while Michael Jordan watched from the stands, but I will never forget how deeply honored I felt. At the conclusion of that event, I spoke a little about a new novel that I was working on, and I expressed the difficulty I was having with the ending. A few days later, I received an email from Clyde, sharing his ideas about how to end novels in ways that satisfied both writers and readers.

Clyde and I struck up a friendship after my wife and I moved back to North Carolina and settled in Wilmington in 2013. He christened our second child. Our kids go to the same school. We have shared the stage with other authors at literary events and fundraisers around the South, and over the past few months we have fallen into a routine of eating omelets and biscuits and gravy and sharing sliced tomatoes in a booth at White Front Breakfast House at the corner of Market and 16th Street.

That was where we were sitting recently when I sought Clyde’s advice about a particularly difficult ethical situation I was facing in my professional life. Aside from the respect I have for Clyde as a writer, it is exceeded only by my respect for him as a citizen and altruist. After asking for his advice, Clyde shared some wisdom he had gleaned from a local reverend, friend and ally named Dante Murphy.

“Don’t get angry at people in these situations,” he said. “When it becomes personal that anger can poison you. Get angry at institutions. You can change an institution. It’s harder to change a person.”

Clyde knows what he is talking about. For the past few years he has been one of a handful of citizens leading the charge to uncover racial inequities in the New Hanover County School System, something he first encountered while tutoring students at Forest Hills Elementary. The school had a Spanish language immersion program, and while the student body was 46 percent African-American, every single one of the 40 slots in the language program had been taken by white students before open enrollment even began. Since then, the former principal and school system have given a number of excuses — some laughable, some offensive — about the racial disparity in the program. None of it has deterred Clyde and a group of citizens from following leads, learning of other instances of discrimination or wrongdoing, and meeting with parents, school board members and city and county employees.

None of the students on whose behalf Clyde is working have ever met him. They are not his children, but he is working for them regardless. It is similar to the compassion and care he showed me all those years ago, but the kindness he showed me never got him banned from county school property.

How does Clyde address these issues with school leaders? The same way he approaches finding a satisfying conclusion to a piece of fiction he is writing.

“Some writers think that story comes from conflict,” he says. “I don’t think that’s always true. Conflict can be impassable, and there’s no story with an impasse. I think good stories come from negotiation. Good stories happen when everyone can see they have a stake in a good outcome.”

For a good outcome, whether in a community or a novel or a literary friendship, negotiation is key. Clyde, please pass the sliced tomatoes.   OH

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.

Drinking with Writers

Blood Memory

Five friends and a meal to remember

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

In his first poetry collection, 1998’s Eureka Mill, Ron Rash writes about the connection he feels to his father, grandmother, and grandfather, especially their waking before dawn to work in textile mills. Rash refers to this connection, the connection to an ancestor’s experience without the experience itself, as “blood memory.”

I have always felt a kinship with Ron, and it is not just because our people come from the same places — the South Carolina Upstate and western North Carolina. I feel a deep bond with the experiences he writes about, the people he portrays, and the often disappearing landscapes he puts on the page. Is it blood that connects us? No, but when I read his work I feel like I understand Ron and the people he writes about as much as I understand my mother and father and the people who came before them.

This is what I was thinking about — this blood memory — when I left my adopted hometown of Wilmington and drove across the state, where the Appalachian Studies Association was hosting its annual conference on the campus of the University of North Carolina-Asheville. Normally, I am not someone who enjoys conferences: the academic talk, the nametag gazing, the feeling that everyone there is vying for the same thing, whether it is publication, notoriety, or the keys to both. But I felt at ease as the elevation increased and the air cooled because I knew I would be spending the weekend with writers and scholars who view the world in much the same way I do.

There were many people I was looking forward to seeing again or meeting the first time during our stay in Asheville, but I would be lying if I said I was not giddy at the thought of spending time with Lee Smith, someone I do not see as often as I would like and someone I will go to my grave believing is the most charming and warm-hearted person in all of American literature.

Along with novelist Silas House and his husband, writer Jason Howard, my wife Mallory and I had plans to have dinner with Lee in Asheville on Friday night before Saturday’s conference keynote event: a discussion between Lee and Ron Rash with me serving as the moderator.

I had met Silas House a few times over the years, but I really got to know him after we spent an evening in Swain County, North Carolina, last spring, facilitating creative writing workshops and readings with groups of high school students from western North Carolina and New York City who were participating in a literary exchange program. I had never met Jason before, but I knew his work, much of it focused on Kentucky’s rich music history and environmental issues like mountaintop removal. 

For dinner, the five of us met at Rhubarb in downtown Asheville. Asheville has become a culinary mecca over the past decade, and while you may hear a lot about restaurants like Cúrate and Cucina 24, Rhubarb serves consistently incredible food comprised of regional ingredients. John Fleer, a Winston-Salem native and Rhubarb’s owner and chef, is the former executive chef at Blackberry Farm, and he was named one of the “Rising Stars of the 21st Century” by the James Beard Foundation. After a meal at Rhubarb that might include crispy fried hominy dusted with chili and lime alongside wood-roasted sunburst trout you can see how Fleer is steering into the 21st century with the roots of his Southern history fully intact. Rhubarb is one of my and Mallory’s favorite restaurants in Asheville, and we were proud to share it with Lee, Silas and Jason.

Over dinner and drinks, I asked Silas how he had come to know Lee.

“Over 20 years ago I submitted a story to a workshop Lee was teaching at the Hindman Settlement School in Kentucky,” Silas said. “And a few weeks later I went to one of Lee’s book signings. I was so nervous to meet her because I loved her books, and I wanted to be in her workshop.”

Lee laughed and picked up the story.

“And when you came through the line and told me your name so I could sign your book, I said, ‘How funny. I just read a very good story by someone named Silas.’”

“And it changed my life,” Silas said. And his life is still changing. His most recent novel, Southernmost, received rave reviews and kept him on a book tour for most of the spring and summer.

Over the years, Jason came to love Lee just as much as Silas does.

“I was in Washington, D.C. a few years ago,” Jason said, “and suddenly I heard Lee’s voice on The Diane Rehm Show. I dropped what I was doing and drove right to the NPR station. The receptionist asked me what I needed, and I said, ‘I’m just waiting on Lee Smith to finish her interview.”

Lee burst out laughing.

“I came out of the studio, and there you were. It was like we planned it.”

Before dinner, Mallory and I had discussed whether or not she should bring her camera gear, but we decided against it. We wanted to enjoy the evening talking to people we do not get to see that often. But Mallory did take one photo with her cell phone; in it, Lee, Silas, Jason and I are all squeezed onto one side of the table. If you did not know better, you might think we were family.

The next afternoon, during the conference keynote, Lee, Ron Rash, and I spent an hour or so onstage in a packed auditorium talking about Appalachian writers and literature and issues specific to the region.

“I think it’s important to be able to steer students toward writing that reveals something about themselves,” Lee said. “There’s value in seeing your life on the page.”

“Robert Morgan did that for me,” Ron said. “And so did Fred Chappell’s book I Am One of
You Forever

After our discussion, we took questions from the audience. Someone stood in the dark theater and asked if any of us have ever felt slighted because of the place we call home or how we speak.

“For me personally, that’s why I don’t want to ever lose my accent,” Ron said, “Because that to me is a rejection of your heritage. The way I look at it is, OK, you can make fun of my accent, but we can out-write you, we can out-music you, and we can out-cook you.”

I agree with Ron. I am proud of the place and the people I am from, and I am proud to share stages and dinner tables with them. They feel like family. They feel like blood.  OH

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.

Drinking with Writers

With the Author Himself

An internal dialog

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

Wiley Cash and I have known one another for almost 42 years, but I do not see him very often. Work as writer-in-residence at the state university in Asheville has him driving back and forth across the state quite a bit, and if you are to believe his social media accounts, he is usually sprinting through one airport or another, behind on a writing deadline and struggling to find Wi-Fi to return students’ emails. That’s what he gets for giving up his smartphone.

Life has been pretty busy since Wiley’s first novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, was released in the spring of 2012. Since then he has published two more novels, taken a few teaching positions, and moved a couple times. He and his wife, Mallory, who is a photographer, are also the parents of two young daughters.

A few weeks ago I sent him a text. (He can still text with a flip phone. It just takes him longer.)

Me: let’s get a beer

Wiley: high cholesterol. Been jogging. Coffee?

Me: does beer give you high cholesterol?

Wiley: beer makes it harder to jog

Me: where should we meet for coffee? Prefer a place that also serves beer.

Wiley: our house Thursday morning

Mallory meets me at the door when I arrive at their home near Carolina Beach.

“His majesty is still in his robe,” she says.

“Late night?” I ask.

“No,” she says. “He just works from home. His robe is like his employee uniform.”

“You work from home too,” I say. “You’re not wearing your pajamas.”

“Maybe the robe life is the exclusive lifestyle of authors.”

I look up and see Wiley coming down the stairs in a bright red robe and gray bedroom slippers. We shake hands.

“It’s been a while,” Wiley says. “When did you get glasses?”

“Last year,” I say.

He strokes his white beard and tucks his (graying?!) hair behind his ear.

“We’re getting old,” he says. He smiles. “At least you are.”

“I guess that means we’re having coffee instead of beer.”

He smiles and leads me down the hallway, past the kitchen, and into a sitting room that has recently been converted into his daughters’ playroom. He offers me a seat in one of two tattered yellow armchairs.

“When we bought this house we thought it would be a great place to host parties,” he says. He smiles and looks around the room. “Turns out it’s been a great place to host children’s books and games and toys.”

While Wiley makes coffee in a French press, we discuss what has kept him busy since his most recent novel, The Last Ballad, was published in the fall of 2017. He tells me about the Open Canon Book Club, an online book club he founded to introduce readers to diverse books by diverse authors, and the Land More Kind Appalachian Artists’ Residency, a retreat he and Mallory and two friends founded in West Virginia. He is also teaching, a lot: Aside from his work as writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, he also teaches in the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA Program. In his spare time he is trying to work on a new novel, one that is already behind deadline.

“How are you finding the time and space to write?” I ask.

He pours me a cup of black coffee, pours one for himself, and then sits back in his chair.

“It’s hard,” he said. “I’m really busy, but everything I do is about writing in one way or another. When I teach, I teach writing. When I give a talk at a library or university, I’m talking about writing. When I’m reading books for the book club or reading through applications for the artists’ residency, I’m thinking about the written word and how it works to achieve an author’s intentions. Literally everything I do pertains to writing. My life is one huge literary conversation that never stops.”

“It all sounds like a lot of work,” I say. “Are there many rewards?”

“Aside from my mom constantly asking if my editor’s mad at me because my novel is late? Sure. There are a lot of rewards,” he says. “I’m so lucky that my one-time hobby has become my full-time occupation, or occupations.” He looks over his shoulder at a wall of glassed-in bookshelves in the living room. “Speaking of rewards,” he says, “you want to see a really cool one?”

He gets up and walks into the other room. When he returns he is carrying a small statue on a pedestal. “Meet Sir Walter Raleigh,” he says. He slides one of his girl’s chairs away from a children’s table and sets the statue on the chair. He makes a show of polishing it. “I received this a few weeks ago from the North Carolina Historical Book Club. I love it.”

“You seem like a proud father,” I say. “Speaking of fatherhood, how has it changed your writing?”

“Being a parent has deepened the experience of storytelling in ways that have really surprised me,” he says. “Our oldest, who’s 4, is obsessed with narrative. I probably tell six or seven stories a day about saber tooth tigers and early people and ghosts and pirates. A few nights ago I heard her telling Mallory about how telling stories can cause them to feel true. That left a huge impression on me because that’s what I want to do as a writer. I want to tell my readers fictional stories that they believe nonetheless.

“And our 3-year-old is really interested in telling stories. A few days ago, she told Mallory a story that began It was the first day of school. His mother came to get him. He was not sad, but quiet. Are you kidding me? I don’t write opening lines that beautiful.”

“If your girls told a story about you, what would it be?” I ask. Wiley takes a sip of his coffee and looks toward the window.

“It was the first day of writing a new novel,” he says. “His mother had already called to check on his progress. He was not sad, but tired.”

“Pretty good lines,” I say.

“Thanks,” he says. “They’re yours if you write my biography.”  OH

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.

Drinking with Writers

The Art of Civil Discourse

A little healthy organic juicing with Rachel Lewis Hilburn

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

Last year I attended a literary event with some of the best known writers in the country, but as soon as the event began it became clear that the crowd was more interested in seeing emcee Rachel Lewis Hilburn, a woman whose disembodied voice had been speaking to them for years from the studios of WHQR Public Media. She joined the station in 2011, and she was named news director in 2012. A year later she anchored the pilot episode of CoastLine, a show that focuses primarily on local and statewide issues and the people they affect. Over the past six years, Rachel and her guests have discussed issues as diverse as gun control, water quality, film incentives and Thanksgiving recipes. No matter what the topic, Rachel always finds a fascinating angle. I will admit that I once sat in my driveway for 15 minutes and listened as Rachel and a county official discussed recycling. Like her voice, Rachel’s questions are direct and smooth. Her interactions with people are civil and genuine, and she gives her guests an opportunity to tell their stories as well as the expectation that they will be held accountable for the stories they tell.

This is not to say that Rachel does not ask hard questions. I sat for a CoastLine interview when my last novel was released, and at one point Rachel read a quote from a terrible review I had received in a major newspaper. Then she asked, “How do you keep that dagger from staying inside you?” Ouch! No one had ever asked me how I recover from bad reviews, and that question forced me to be honest about the vulnerability of artists. I look back on that hour I spent on-air with Rachel as perhaps the best interview experience I have ever had.

I took an opportunity to ask Rachel a few questions of my own one chilly morning in late January. We met at Clean Juice in downtown Wilmington on the corner of Grace and North Front Street. I ordered the Immunity One, an organic blend of carrots, lemons, oranges, pineapples and turmeric. Rachel ordered the Glow One, a mix of organic apples, cucumbers, kale and spinach. We found seats by the huge windows that look out on Grace Street. While I serve on the board of directors at WHQR and have known Rachel for several years, there was one question I had never asked her.

“What was your path to public radio?” 

“I started life thinking I would be an actor,” Rachel said. “And I went to the North Carolina School of the Arts, and then I moved to New York and L.A. and did some theater.”


“Yes,” she said. “At one point, when I was in L.A., I decided I wanted to have a steady income and see what other things I could do.” She laughed and took a sip of her juice. “So I became a financial adviser, but only for about two years.”

“How did you get to Wilmington?”

“I knew people in Wilmington, and I loved the East Coast,” she said. “I was tired of the desert in Los Angeles, and I just loved the texture of the weather here. I came to Wilmington and embarked on a process of finding the next version of myself.” During that process Rachel wrote and produced television news broadcasts for WWAY; she wrote and produced a documentary about the 1898 Wilmington race massacre; and she served as the executive director of the homeowners association at Bald Head Island.

When you stack all these jobs together — financial adviser, news writer, producer, documentarian and executive director of a homeowners association — it becomes clear that Rachel has been perfectly prepared for a career in public radio. Over the course of her diverse work history she has managed personalities, produced content, sought facts, and listened closely to people’s concerns and this is exactly what she is doing with an exciting new serialized program called CoastLine: Beneath the Surface.

According to the description on the program’s website, the community members who will participate in Beneath the Surface are “thoughtful and engaged listeners who’ve agreed to be part of a yearlong conversation. They are black and white, youngish and older. Their politics cover the spectrum left, right and center.”

In this politically charged environment, what happens when you put a group of diverse strangers in a room? Rachel has the answer: She assembled the group for a meet and greet a few days before their first on-air discussion.

“I thought I would have to do some goofy icebreaker,” Rachel said. “But no icebreaker was needed. People freely went around the room introducing themselves. They seemed really enthusiastic about being there, and they didn’t want to leave!”

Rachel said that, at least initially, conversations on Beneath the Surface will focus on local issues because she believes that is the place where people who are sitting together in the same room can achieve some level of civil discourse. Hopefully, that civility will trickle up.

“I happen to think the political dynamic, that super division and vitriol on Capitol Hill, and even at the state level, isn’t going to change until regular folks change,” Rachel said. “Public radio can pull back the curtain and introduce you to a situation in its context. It can introduce these whole human beings, and it makes it hard to put them in a box.”

In keeping with Rachel’s history of discussing timely topics and asking hard questions, the first topic broached on Beneath the Surface was the issue of Wilmington’s Confederate monuments. I listened to the show, and I could hear the strain in people’s voices, their discomfort in defending positions that may not be popular. But I could also hear other things: the click of boxes opening as people grew comfortable with one another; the sound of voices speaking calmly while sharing ideas and experiences. These were the sounds of whole human beings coming together and being civil.

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.