Ron Rash: I've just always been fascinated with what happens when you have characters in their landscape and how they react to it and how the landscape impacts them. And certainly the culture I write about, the Appalachian mountain culture, I am convinced of the psychological impact. I hope when a reader reads my books that the landscape feels like a character.>
Jo Reed: That's author Ron Rash and I'm Josephine Reed. You’re listening to Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts
Ron Rash is one of those rare writers who moves effortlessly from poetry to short stories to novels. In fact, he gotten literature fellowships from the NEA for both poetry and prose. On the poetry front, he’s written Eureka Mills and Waking; his short story collections include Burning Bright and Something Rich and Strange,while his longer fiction includes Serena and The Cove. But whatever the genre, Ron’s focus is the geography and culture of the southern Appalachian Mountains. And he brings to both to an intense immediacy with some of the most beautiful writing around. And as anyone knows who’s read, say, Serena—Ron Rash also knows how to construct tight plots and create vivid characters.
We see all his skills at work in his latest novel, The Risen, a mystery where the choices made by two brothers while young have unexpected and unsettling repercussions in the present. It's hard to give a plot synopsis of a mystery because you don't want to give anything away, so I think I'll just let Ron Rash tell it.
Ron Rash: The novel’s about two brothers who grew up in the North Carolina mountains. In 1969, one of the brothers fell in love with a young woman who had come from Florida. She was kind of the first sense of an alternative lifestyle that they had ever seen, but now 46 years later her body has been found in that same area and one brother realizes that the other brother covered up the murder and he’s in a situation where he has to decide should I go to the police, should I confront him or keep my mouth shut because it’s been so long. And the novel works in that way in the sense of the decision whether to confront the older brother or not.
Jo Reed: And the two brothers are Bill, who’s the older brother, and Eugene, who is the brother who is conflicted about what to do.
Ron Rash: Exactly.
Jo Reed: And the girl’s name is-- pronounce it—Ligeia?
Ron Rash: Li-ja-a, Li-gee-a; it could be either one but that name was very significant because it means “queen of the mermaids” and in the novel she’s associated with water and kind of something magical about her, so I felt like that was the apt name and also it evokes Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “Ligeia.”
Jo Reed: There are real differences between the brothers, between Bill and Eugene. Can we talk about their characters and who they are?
Ron Rash: Eugene is the younger of the two brothers and in the decades that have passed in the novel between the murder and the present day has pretty much wrecked his life. He’s an alcoholic, he’s lost his marriage, his job, and pretty much so much of his life has gone wrong while his older brother, Bill, has become very successful as a neurosurgeon now, very prominent in the area. And so a kind of rivalry that developed early on continues to be played out I think and also just the idea of-- I thought that idea of the two brothers-- there’s always a kind of archetypal tension between siblings and I thought that would be interesting to play off that and also the idea that who’s right in this situation, who do we admire, and I hope the reader feels as ambivalent about that as I do. I deliberately in this novel wanted to create two characters that the reader has conflicting views of. Is one more admirable or less admirable than the other?
Jo Reed: Yeah, and as a reader one keeps going back and forth. I mean the more you get into the book you’re thinking one thing and then you’re really quite not so sure anymore as more gets revealed. There’s also the character of the grandfather who sort of hovers like a dark angel over the book. Tell us about him.
Ron Rash: I think he in some ways maybe is as frightening a character as I’ve ever read and partly because he has this control over the two boys-- their father’s died and also their mother who’s married into the family-- and he’s a man who feels omnipotent and very cruel, manipulative and his ability to impact these two boys’ lives is very significant. And I think that once again makes the boys and their reactions to the world and to life more complex because how much of it is this man’s cruelty as opposed to some personal responsibility.
Jo Reed: He certainly is controlling about those boys, but he’s also controlling about the people in the small community in which they live because he’s the town doctor and as it’s implied in the book he knows everybody’s secrets and he’s perfectly willing to use them to get what he wants.
Ron Rash: Right. He’s ruthless, and I grew up in a small town and fortunately my doctor wasn’t like that but I remember thinking one day as I saw him on the street that he sees everyone in this community in a way probably different than I would. He remembers what’s happened in their lives, what’s been covered up, what’s been hidden, and I thought if a man were manipulative or mean enough, whatever word you want to use, what power that would be in a small town because no one would ever feel completely safe from something he might say or reveal.
Jo Reed: Indeed you created a character who did just that. It’s interesting about the archetypes that you talked about in The Risen between the brothers, Bill and Eugene, because there are kind of those archetypes that have appeared in other of your books and I’m thinking of for example Above the Waterfall. We have the two narrators, Becky and Les, Becky who is a forest ranger and Les who’s the sheriff, and then probably most dramatically in Serena where you have Serena and Rachel. Can you talk about how you play with those throughout your books and what the appeal is?
Ron Rash: For me the appeal as a writer and I hope for the reader is the sense of that you’re setting up certainly a conflict because those characters tend to be very different, and to me so much of the tension in the novel comes from those situations that I set up between those two people, and very often sometimes they kind of balance between darkness and light. Though I hope the characters are always more complex than that, they’re not that simple, but I think their tendencies tend to conflict and I find that to be a very rich way to enter a story and to tell a story.
Jo Reed: Well, another way you certainly enter and tell stories is through the landscape and the effect of the North Carolina mountains most specifically has on the people themselves, and you’ve said that you think landscape is destiny. Can you talk a little bit more about that? I agree and I find it fascinating.
Ron Rash: I’ve just always been fascinated with what happens when you have characters in their landscape and how they react to it and how the landscaping impacts them, and certainly the culture I write about, the Appalachian mountain culture, those mountains I found can be both -- giving great solace in the sense the solace as if they’re womb-like, the valleys, the people inside, the inhabitants, are being protected, yet at the same time those mountains can loom over the characters. There’s a timelessness to those mountains that can make the characters feel trapped, insignificant, and so I am convinced of -- the psychological impact. And one thing that’s been interesting about my books as they’ve been translated into other languages is how many people from other mountain cultures whether it’s the Andes or the Pyrenees have written me or when I’ve been on a book tour internationally and said, “You get that sense of those mountains and the same feelings I have.” And I thought was very interesting as far as how landscape would impact people not just in Appalachia, but any culture that’s mountainous.
Jo Reed: Yeah. I was going to in fact ask you that about what you write about is about Appalachia very particularly, but how much it really is about mountain culture and that mountain culture happens to be set in Appalachia.
Ron Rash: Yeah, and my kinship to other authors includes writers such as John Giono from France and Mo Yan from China, and one reason I love those writers among many reasons but-- is the way the landscape and character become inextricable. They’re just tied together so closely and to me that adds another level of depth to a novel. I hope when a reader reads my books that the landscape feels like a character to the reader.
Jo Reed: Oh, yeah.
Ron Rash: And a couple of novels I’ve really wanted the landscape to be the dominant character, certainly in Saints at the River and also in The Cove so to me that just adds a deeper sense of the place but also of the people.
Jo Reed: Your books often also look at who stays and who goes and who goes and who comes back.
Ron Rash: Yeah, and I think that’s always one of the questions about growing up in a rural area as I did there’s the pull of home but at the same time there’s a sense that a person may be stifled, and I found that conflict that I think either way you end up wondering if the right decision was made to leave or to stay, and it’s something that I think many people feel but particularly people who grow up in a small town or a rural area. I know from personal experience a number of my friends stayed, others felt like they had to leave and I was actually one of them, but I think that conflict is very rich for literature.
Jo Reed: Yeah. A lot of your books also deal with dialects, turns of phrase, kind of specificity in the narrative voice and in the dialogue, and I would imagine as somebody who wants to sort of portray the wholeness of that area it’s like a tricky line to walk so that it doesn’t become a stereotype, but that it rather is authentic and I’m just wondering how you grapple with that.
Ron Rash: Oh, yeah, and I think -- I’ve actually got a theory about this. It’s almost as if you’re giving a translation instead of a rendering of the way these people speak, and by that what I mean is if I attempted to mimic exactly the way someone in the mountains would have spoken in the 1950s you’re absolutely right; it would have come off cartoonish, almost something out of “The Beverly Hillbillies.” And so what I’ve found I have to do is it’s almost like seasoning with cooking. I sprinkle in some, enough to give a sense of the language but to the point where it doesn’t start to draw the reader away from the book. I think that’s the danger, that it starts to pull the reader away, the reader notices it too much, but at the same time you want to be true to the way these people speak and. And one way I tend to do this, to give a sense of the-- what makes that language unique is through the use of simile and simile has two purposes. One, it is a way of showing a distinctive culture. I mean if a character uses a metaphor about farming or a simile about farming then that in a sense reveals something about that character’s place in the world, but the other thing is it does the very thing we’re-- that we’re-- you’re bringing up. To create a good simile, a person has to have intelligence because the person is taking two unalike things and making a connection so to me it’s a way of also showing people that might be uneducated in the sense of how much time they’ve been in schools yet at the same time have an intelligence. So, I can remember one time my uncle who was a tobacco farmer once said a young woman didn’t have enough clothes on to wad a shotgun and that’s a very sophisticated use of simile. I had to wait three novels to get it in, but I finally did.
Jo Reed: Now, tell me about your growing up. You grew up in North Carolina in the countryside.
Ron Rash: Yeah, a small town in western North Carolina and I spent so much of my childhood and early adolescence on my grandmother’s farm in the mountains and there was no vehicle there, no television, just she and I were there, and it was just this wonderful childhood and as I say early adolescence where essentially she would just let me run the land to the border to Blue Ridge Parkway so sometimes I’d be gone five or six hours not really going-- sometimes I might take a fishing rod with me, but it was just that chance to be out there not only kind of learning about the natural world but also imagining, making up stories. And it’s not a childhood I think is even possible now, it’d be very difficult, but I think it had a lot to do with my becoming a writer and also my interest in nature and the older ways of the storytelling.
Jo Reed: Yeah. I was just thinking about that, about just giving kids that freedom just to be able to discover what’s around them but also the way that has to ignite their imagination--
Ron Rash: Yeah.
Jo Reed: Because if they’re alone they’re telling themselves stories or if there are more than one of you it’s “Let’s play pretend.”
Ron Rash: Right, and I think it was just great training to be a writer because so much of writing is about solitude.
Jo Reed: And were you on your own? Did you have any siblings with you when you went?
Ron Rash: No, and that-- looking back on it-- I was talking to my brother and sister about this-- they never once went with me on these trips; they liked to stay home and go to the swimming pool. They were much more extroverted than I was <laughs>
Jo Reed: I want to talk about fishing because clearly trout means a lot to you--
Ron Rash: Well—
Jo Reed: --I think.
Ron Rash: Oh, yeah.
Jo Reed: Does it? How does fishing factor into your life and trout most specifically?
Ron Rash: Well, it all goes back to my grandmother’s farm. One of my very, very earliest memories was my grandfather taking me across the road into the pasture and there was a small stream there and I saw him catch a trout-- I caught my first one I think when I was six, but there’s something else about those; particularly the trout that I was catching there are called brook trout and speckled trout. They’re the only native trout in the Appalachians, but they’ve become very rare. Only a few very isolated streams hold them now and to me there’s a kind of resonance in the fact that you have these fragile creatures that are backed up into the furthest reaches of the mountains. And they tend to represent a lot to me, but I’ve just always been fascinated with the water and the beauty of those fish and it just evokes so much for me. I guess Proust had his biscuits; I’ve got my speckled trout.
Jo Reed: When did you begin writing?
Ron Rash: I started later than many of my writer friends. I didn’t really start writing until I was a freshman in college. I think I was preparing to write. I was always a voracious reader and as I’ve said I was very used to solitude, my-- using my imagination, but when I was 15 I read Crime and Punishment and obviously at 15 I missed a lot of the depth of that book, but I can remember when I read the scene where the pawnbroker is murdered that for the first time in my life it wasn’t so much I’d entered book-- entered a book, but the book had entered me. And I remember just being so amazed that just splotches of ink on a page could affect me that much so I think there I started to realize that I want to do this too; I want to see if I can do this. And Dostoevsky has continued to be probably the most important novelist to me I think particularly in this book, The Risen, because the questions I think Dostoevsky raised are, “Can one redeem oneself after something-- doing something or participating in something terrible?” Those kinds of questions have always fascinated me, troubled me in the sense of how does someone live after doing a terrible thing. And at least some of those questions are being asked in this book.
Jo Reed: And that’s a lot of what you examine and work through in so many of your books, certainly in The Risen.
Jo Reed: You’re a poet, a novelist and a short-story writer so where did you begin?
Ron Rash: I began with some short stories and-- but pretty quickly after that I was trying poems. I wrote some short stories in my late twenties that I felt pretty good about, eventually got published, but as I turned-- got into my thirties I pretty much spent about five or six years almost completely writing poetry before I went back to short fiction and ultimately to novels. And I think in many ways it was the best thing I could have done for my prose for my short stories and novels because it has made me so attentive to language and to the point where when I’m doing my last revisions on a novel or a short story it’s purely about sound. It’s about what syllables to stress, the play of vowels off consonants, and sometimes that may sound a little bit tedious but to me that’s my favorite part of writing and it’s ultimately where the magic comes from in writing because it’s those things-- it’s that kind of attentiveness I think that draws the reader in and helps to create the dream that is a novel. I mean there are certain rhythms, prose rhythms, that kind of induce a sort of altered state. I think when I read Cormac McCarthy for instance or Faulkner there- there’s a kind of rhythm in those books I think that draws the reader in deeper and I hope I achieve some of that in my own work as well.
Jo Reed: To be practical, because I’m always interested in how you were supporting yourself as you were starting out.
Ron Rash: I taught. I taught high school, then I taught at a community college 17 years, and unfortunately I had to make a living <laughs> or not so I mean I enjoyed teaching and-- but that’s always the dilemma, but what I found was to be able to write particularly when I was teaching five classes a semester at the community college was I had to do away with everything else in my life pretty much except my family. I had no social life, I didn’t go out to parties, and it was a choice. I got up early. I’d teach night classes at the college so that I could have my mornings free to write. I’d get up an hour early. One <laughs> semester when Daylight Savings Time either came or went I stayed on the old schedule because somehow psychologically it made me think I had another hour, I mean just weird stuff like that, but yeah, I think it was just that I wanted it that bad. I’m not a well-rounded person; I’ve only wanted-- intended to want maybe to do one thing well. It started off being fishing when I was a kid but I pretty much focus my energy in one direction, which is why when my air conditioning goes out or I have a flat tire I’m hopeless.
Jo Reed: I’m of the belief based that every artist needs one person, just one person to believe in them absolutely I mean to keep on going, not necessarily huge public acclaim. Everybody in the world can be against you but just to have that one person in your corner really can make all the difference in the world and I’m wondering if you had that.
Ron Rash: Oh, I have, but it- it’s really been all family members that did that that—
Jo Reed: Well, yeah, that’s what I mean.
Ron Rash: Yeah. Yeah.
Jo Reed: I mean it doesn’t need to be a famous person I mean but just one person who is like “Yes”—
Ron Rash: Right,-but at first I didn’t let anybody know. No one knew I was writing; I didn’t let anybody, even my siblings, know because I was-- I wasn’t sure if I could do it. But once I started kind of showing my work a little bit to members of my family they were hugely supportive, and my sister did this amazing thing for me that I can never repay her enough and this is exactly what you’re talking about. When I was teaching at that university my sister paid the college to-- so that I could-- I only had to teach three classes in the spring, so I could write more. She did that four straight years when I was teaching there.
Jo Reed: Wow.
Ron Rash: I mean that’s to me the ultimate act of faith. It’s funny. My brother and I were English majors, she’s an engineer, but she believed in my work and believed I could do this and also knew how badly I wanted to do it, that two-course reduction made a huge difference particularly ‘cause I was starting to write novels then and it really allowed me to write my first book-- first novel.
Jo Reed: So what’s the story behind the publication of your first book?
Ron Rash: That was interesting because I had written a couple of novels that weren’t any good so I just threw them away but when finally I wrote One Foot in Eden, my first novel, the first one I really felt worked. I was able to get an agent, but the book ultimately didn’t sell, got some nice rejection letters, but there was a contest for North Carolina books, a small press in North Carolina, and it won the contest and was published as a hardback and I got very lucky. NPR happened to somehow find out about the book and gave it a good notice and a couple of national newspapers did, which was pretty amazing because as I say it was such a small press and only had like a 3000-print run, but that got attention in New York, got me a new agent who was very helpful, and one of the ironies, once it had shown that it could be successful this book, the hardback One Foot in Eden, two of the publishers who had turned it down bid on the paperback rights.
Jo Reed: And that’s how you moved to a major publisher.
Ron Rash: Exactly, yeah. This was when I was in my late forties so it took a while and I’ve never regretted the fact that what attention has come to my work has come later because it was a real gift not to have the distractions that can come once you achieve a certain level of recognition. I mean nobody was really interested—
Jo Reed: Oh, yeah.
Ron Rash: --in what I was doing outside my family and so I was really able to study my craft.
Jo Reed: Will you read a little bit from the beginning of The Risen?
Ron Rash: Sure. “She is waiting. Each spring the hard rains come and the creek rises and quickens and more of the bank peels off silting the water brown and bringing it light-- she is waiting. Each spring the hard rains come and the creek rises and quickens and more of the bank peels off silting the water brown and bringing to light another layer of dark earth. Decades pass. She is patient, shelled inside the blue tarp. Each spring the water laps closer, paling roots, loosening stones, scuffing and smoothing. She is waiting and one day a bit of blue appears in the bank and then more blue. The rain pauses and the sun appears but she is ready now and the bank trembles a moment and heaves and the strands of tarp unfurl and she spills into the stream and is free. Bits of bone gather in an eddy, form a brief necklace. The current moves on toward the sea.”
Jo Reed: You've said your stories usually start with a single image and I’m wondering what that image was for The Risen.
Ron Rash: It was an image of a wooded area and a mound of leaves, but I could tell from the way the mound was shaped that a body was beneath it.
Jo Reed: I thought it was something like that.
Ron Rash: Yeah. <laughs>
Jo Reed: You write – as we said – poetry, novels, short stories. Does your approach differ when writing in these forms or is it pretty much the same? Do you start with an image for all your work or how do you approach them differently?
Ron Rash: Yeah. It almost always starts with an image and I really don’t know where that image will lead. I mean sometimes it does lead to a poem, sometimes to a short story, sometimes to a novel though whenever it’s a novel I just groan because I know the next three years of my life I’m going to be thinking about this thing, carrying it around with me.
Jo Reed: You have the image and you decide it’s going to be a short story or a poem or a novel. What’s the next step? What’s the routine? If it’s a novel for example, do you outline it all? Do you have a sense of where it’s going to go or what the endpoint is going to be?
Ron Rash: No, I never know and early in my writing I would always know where the story was going. Sometimes I would outline it, I’d know pretty much how it was going to go, and those stories never worked so what I’ve come to believe is that I just have to let those characters move about in my head and they start to kind of develop and become more real, but very often I don’t know where a story’s going. And particularly with novels there’s always not just a moment but sometimes months -- and it almost always happens after a year. Where it just seems like the story’s stalled and I’m unsure how it’s going to work. Very often as I say I just go in every morning trying to figure a way out but I’m convinced that it’s that sense of not knowing that allows a kind of surprising moment-- and I think Robert Frost said, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader”. In a way, it’s almost as if a character says, “Okay. Hold it. You haven’t heard my side of this” or “I’m the one in control of this story.” It’s funny. Whether you believe in free will for human beings you have to let your characters have it.
Jo Reed: You say, you write every day?
Ron Rash: I try to, yes, and usually do. Sometimes on Sundays I won’t, I’ll be thinking about it though, but I've learned to write on the road. I can write in motel rooms now, hotel rooms. To me it’s a matter of just sitting down and saying, "Okay, I'm going to sit here for several hours. If I don't write a word, I'm still going to sit here for several hours."
Jo Reed: What’s the hardest part about writing for you at this point in your career?
Ron Rash: Oh, wow. Well, I think not repeating myself is something that’s very important. But always for me the hard part is that first draft. Once I can get the draft down I’m fine, but it’s the first draft that I dread and I’ve learned the only way I can do it is just to write as rapidly as I can, and the story may-- will alter drastically of course.
Jo Reed: You've written so much, and this is, this is a hard question: If you had to choose a book to give to somebody as representative of your work or something that you're particularly proud of, what would it be?
Ron Rash: Oh, wow. That is a tough one.
Jo Reed: I know.
Ron Rash: Well, I’m going to have to give you two answers. I would give—
Jo Reed: Okay, good.
Ron Rash: Yeah. Something Rich and Strange is my selected short stories that came out about two years ago and I think that book would be the one that I would give for the short stories, but if I had to pick a novel I would do Serena. I think that’s my most ambitious book and the one that I’m personally most proud of. I’ve never gone as deep as I did in that book. I mean in a way it was almost scary; I felt like I was coming a little bit unmoored because I was so obsessed with it. But it’s a book that yeah, I felt very good about, continue to feel good about, and I suspect it’ll be the best novel I ever wrote.
Jo Reed: It’s a wonderful book. Ron, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Ron Rash: Well, thank you, Jo.
That’s author Ron Rash. We were talking about his recent novel, The Risen. You can meet Ron at the National Book Festival on September 24—he’s reading in the NEA’s poetry and prose pavilion at 1 pm. Go to loc.gov/bookfest for details. You’ve been listening to Art Works. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed, thanks for listening.
No one tells stories embedded in Southern Appalachia with more grit or more beauty.