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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Easter Quillby is a 12-year-old who has learned to keep her expectations low, to protect herself from more disappointment in life. It's a coping mechanism she developed early to keep her and her younger sister safe after her mom unexpectedly passes away. They dad left them a long time ago so they end up in foster care in their hometown of Gastonia, North Carolina. But when their estranged dad kidnaps them, they're forced to live in the middle of their father's past and present mistakes; all the while trying to figure out what family is supposed to mean.

That's the premise of the new novel called "This Dark Road to Mercy." It's written by Wiley Cash who joins me now from WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina. Thanks so much for being with us.

WILEY CASH: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: May I ask you to just, right off the bat, read the very first paragraph of the book to kind of set the stage for us?

CASH: Absolutely, this is how Easter, who you just mentioned, this is how she opens the book.

(Reading) Wade disappeared on us when I was 9 years old and that he showed up out of nowhere the year I turned 12. By then, I'd spent nearly three years listening to mom blame him for everything from the lights getting turned off, to me and Ruby not having new shoes to wear to school. And by the time he came back, I already decided that he was the loser she'd always said he was. But it turns out he was much more than that. He was also a thief. And if I'd known what kind of people we're looking for him, I never would have let him take me and my little sister out of Gastonia, North Carolina in the first place.

MARTIN: There are a couple other narratives, couple other perspectives in this book. Easter and her sister are appointed a court advocate who helps them navigate the foster care system. And his name is Brady Weller. He's one of the three narrators in this book. What's his story? How is he connected to these girls?

CASH: Well, Brady is an ex-police officer. He's an ex-detective. And he's got a bit of tragedy in his own past. And he's also - at the time of the novel's narration, he's a stranger in his teenage daughter. And so he's given the opportunity to care for these two young girls in kind shepherd them through the legal system. And when they disappear, he feels an intense sense of responsibility, not only for their lives but also, in many ways, for his own.

MARTIN: And finally, Robert Pruitt, the third narrator, he is not a good guy.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: May I say that? May I just make that statement?

(LAUGHTER)

CASH: I think that's pretty fair. You know, I mean this is a guy who once had big dreams for himself. And his dreams are dashed when our antihero, or our, you know, lovable loser, Wade Chesterfield, the girl's father, when he throws a pitch and blinds Robert Pruitt and ends his baseball career. So he's out for revenge. He's out for blood. And he's hot on the trail of this father and his two daughters.

MARTIN: So a chase ensues to find Wade and the girls and it's a matter of who gets there first - the cops in the form of Brady or the vigilante, Robert Pruitt. And, of course, the backdrop to this saga is baseball. It's happening during that epic slugfest between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998. Why?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: How does this come into this story?

(LAUGHTER)

CASH: Oh, that's a good - you know, that's kind of an interesting juxtaposition. I think at first glance it would seem as if the story has nothing to do with baseball. But, you know, the home run race is something that came during a particularly cynical time in American political history, in 1998. We have a lot of scandals in D.C. But at night, we'd all turn on the television and we'd sit down and as a family and we'd watch these two American heroes try to break this famous record, and it really brought us all together.

But now we look back and we realize that that was fiction, that none of that was true. And so, that's kind of what this novel is about. It's looking back at things that we once believed to be true, whether it's about our families or about ourselves or about our national obsessions, and asking ourselves am I believing correctly? Am I seeing this with clear eyes?

MARTIN: Not true, you say, because of the allegations of steroids that ended up tainting that race.

CASH: Absolutely, yeah.

MARTIN: And, of course, we have to talk about Wade Chesterfield, Easter and Ruby's dad - the antihero in the story. He himself has a washed up minor league ballplayer. There's something really sad and yet very authentic about this guy. Did you draw on any one specific to write this character? Have you known athletes like this who had to call it quits or were forced out and never quite got over it?

CASH: Well, I actually was a failed to minor league baseball pitcher myself.

(LAUGHTER)

CASH: No, I'm kidding

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I was going to say, wow.

(LAUGHTER)

CASH: Yeah. It's actually...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You rebounded quite well, if that's the case.

CASH: It's starkly autobiographical. I've also abandoned my two children. No, I'm kidding. You know, I think that's an American archetype, is this failed college/high school athlete who - you know, I'm thinking about Al Bundy on "Married with Children," who would sell shoes in a women's department. Every time he gets a chance goes back to the game-winning drive in his high school football game. You know, these failed athletes who want their lives to be more than what they were.

And I think Wade, it falls under that category. And I think it's almost an act of beauty to watch these people live in the past and to generate these myths and legends about them selves and to able to propel those myths and legends into the present. And it's also a tragedy and there's beauty in that tragedy in the lives they create for themselves.

MARTIN: You yourself are from North Carolina. You grew up in the town where this story takes place, Gastonia. And your books are often described as contributions to gothic Southern literature, even the titles of your books - this one called "This Dark Road to Mercy" and "A Land More Kind Than Home" - evoke a real Southern feel. What role does place play for you in your writing? Is that just a given for you that that will be the centerpiece that you will start from there?

CASH: I think it's a given now but it wasn't always that way. You know, I grew up in North Carolina but I'd left North Carolina when I was 25, and I moved to Louisiana to go to graduate school. And as soon as I was there, I realized how desperately homesick for North Carolina I was. And so, I started writing "A Land More Kind Than Home," which is set in the North Carolina mountains.

Every time I put pen to paper it's an act of trying to reclaim a place I love and a place that I miss and a place that I get to live in whenever I sit down to work.

MARTIN: Do you imagine that it will be a place that keeps giving you inspiration over the years? Or are you going to have to leave at some point?

CASH: Oh, gosh. I hope - we just moved back. My wife and I moved back to Wilmington, North Carolina in November. And I hope that I'm not suddenly cursed 'cause I'm living back in the place I'm writing about. I hope that it'll always be there for me, 'cause I'll always be there for it.

MARTIN: Wiley Cash, his new novel is called "This Dark Road to Mercy." Thanks so much for talking with us, Wiley.

CASH: Thank you so much for having me.

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MARTIN: And, while it's true, WEEKEND EDITION is only on the radio on weekends, we are thinking great thoughts all week long. To see what catches her fancy the rest of the week, and for occasional behind-the-scenes photos, even videos, you can follow us on Facebook and on Twitter @ nprweekend. You can find me @ rachelnpr. Our theme music was written by BJ Leiderman. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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