Wiley Cash’s monthly literary column highlights all things books in the Old North State.
Chapel Hill-based fiction writer Daniel Wallace had to travel all the way to New Hampshire to figure out how to tell a true story.
He’d gone there to decide whether or not he could tackle a memoir about his brother-in-law William Nealy, the famed cartoonist and outdoor adventurer whose life ended by suicide in 2001. Nealy had entered Wallace’s orbit like a comet in 1971 in Birmingham, Alabama, when 12-year-old Wallace arrived home from school one day to see his 18-year-old sister’s boyfriend leaping, over and over, from the roof of the family’s second story into their swimming pool.
From that moment forward, Wallace was struck by the effortlessness with which Nealy seemed to live his life—both adventurous and cerebral, thrilling yet meditatively calm. But over those 30 years, subtle cracks began appearing in Nealy’s’s veneer. Wallace found himself questioning the reality of the image his brother-in-law maintained. Did he actually know the man he’d long admired?
Upon discovering Nealy’s journals after his death, he found the answer to that question was a resounding no. But who was Nealy, and did Wallace have the right to tell his story?
In order to answer these questions, Wallace had to get away from his home in Chapel Hill, and Nealy’s in nearby Hillsborough. In 2016, he headed to MacDowell, the iconic artists’ colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.
“When I decided that I was going to use William’s journals I knew that I was going to need a big space to spread out and focus on all this material,” Wallace told me over the phone recently. I’d just finished reading the book that became This Isn’t Going to End Well: The True Story of a Man I Thought I Knew, and I’d called Wallace to tell him how much I loved it.
I was especially interested in how he’d written about someone so close to him and how he’d written so honestly about his own obsessions, shortcomings, and mistakes.
“Well,” he said, “I’d never written nonfiction before, never actually researched a story before, and I needed a place where I could have room all to myself and no distractions,” Wallace said. “There’s always something calling me away from my writing when I’m at home, and McDowell removed all of these issues. I didn’t have anything to do other than work on this book for three weeks.”
I knew what Wallace was talking about. I’d spent three glorious weeks at MacDowell in August 2011, and right now—as I sit on my porch in Wilmington, while my wife is at the pharmacy getting antibiotics for our 8-year-old daughter’s ear infection and said daughter is arguing with her younger sister inside the house and dinner and bedtime remain distant specters of responsibility—I can picture the piney woods surrounding MacDowell, the solitary mile-long morning walk to my studio in the woods, where I would spend the day working, interrupted only by the sound of an angelically kind man named Blake who leaves delicious, packed lunches on the studio steps.
I didn’t even know artists’ residencies were a thing until my debut novel A Land More Kind Than Home sold to William Morrow/HarperCollins in a two-book deal in 2010, which meant that I had a second novel to write and not a lot of time to write it in. Privacy is what’s so delicious about working on a debut; no one expects anything from this strange hobby you’ve given yourself over to.
But that changes once your hobby becomes your career. When you have a book under contract, someone, whether it’s your agent, your editor, or, if you’re very lucky, your readers, is waiting for that book to be done. It’s a lot of pressure.
The first artists’ residency I ever visited was Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York. Like the MacDowell Colony, which was founded at the turn of the 20th century by composer Edward MacDowell and his wife Marian, Yaddo was also founded in the early 1900s after financier Spencer Trask and his wife Katrina dedicated their mansion and outbuildings to fostering uninterrupted time for artists to work.
My first full day at Yaddo in June 2011 I sat down at my desk and wrote the opening scene of This Dark Road to Mercy, and I didn’t look back. After a month at Yaddo I went home for a couple of weeks and then I went to MacDowell, where I almost finished the first draft of the book.
When This Dark Road to Mercy was published in early 2014, I was already under contract for two more novels. We had recently returned to North Carolina and made a home in Wilmington, and right after the book was published, we learned that we would soon be a family of three. Suddenly the idea of weeks away at various residencies wasn’t so appealing, but after having kids the financial stakes tied to writing became higher and the distractions more immediate, and cuter.
My writing has always been inspired by home, whether it’s my hometown of Gastonia or western North Carolina, where I learned to write, or the Cape Fear region, where I now live. But sometimes it’s nearly impossible to write about a place when you’re living in it, and it’s equally difficult to understand your emotions when you’re living among them.
This was true for Wallace when he was writing This Isn’t Going to End Well at his home in Chapel Hill, in a house where Nealy had spent countless hours visiting and working on small projects. Wallace said he could also feel the ghosts of his former life with Nealy in downtown Chapel Hill, where they’d spent countless late night hours shooting pool.
There was a similar psychic resonance to the property in nearby Hillsborough that Nealy had long shared with Daniel’s sister, Holly, in a home he’d built himself. Wallace knew he had to get away from it all to tell the truth of it, so he did.
“It helped to be away from this deeply emotional component of the work because there’s a balancing act that I think happens with memoir. It’s derived from a really intimate experience, but if you dwell in that experience too deeply you’re not going to be able to write about it. It just becomes this slobbering, crying, sad thing,” he said. “The reader has not lost this person, so you have to bring them into the book. These flesh and blood people have to make a transference into characters that are, in many ways, not any different from the characters we create in fiction. Being at MacDowell allowed me to detach and compartmentalize a little bit.”
Once he got started, Wallace found that he could work a little closer to home, especially after I introduced him to Dennis and Nancy King Quaintance, owners of the O. Henry Hotel in Greensboro, a place that has opened its doors to writers, including me, who need a few days away from home to get some serious work done.
“I’ve written a lot of stuff there,” Wallace said of the O. Henry. “I’ve written part of my last novel. I’ve written stories and essays there. I’ve edited. There’s nothing I haven’t done there writing wise.”
I can attest to the joy of solitude behind a closed door at the O. Henry Hotel thanks to the Quaintances. I can also attest to the similar experiences I’ve had during residencies at the Weymouth Center for Arts and Humanities in Southern Pines, North Carolina, where I wrote much of the novels that would become The Last Ballad and When Ghosts Come Home.
More recently, I experienced it as the inaugural writer-in-residence for both the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy in a little cabin near the summit of Big Yellow Mountain and the Wilma Dykeman Writer-in-Residence Program at UNC-Asheville.
On a perfectly temperate evening in early April, Wallace held the launch event for This Isn’t Going to End Well on the lawn of Hillsborough’s Colonial Inn. Posters of Nealy’s art were on exhibit, and although I never met Nealy, I soon came to feel that I had known him, the real him. I have no doubt that Wallace felt Nealy’s presence that evening too—or that it felt like home.
Correction: The spelling of William Nealy’s last name has been corrected.
Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels and the founder of This Is Working, an online creative community. He’s been a fellow at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and he teaches fiction writing and literature at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, photographer Mallory Cash, and their daughters.