Ron Rash is a teacher, poet, short story writer and novelist whose family has lived in North Carolina since the 1700’s. Most of his work is set in this part of Appalachia. While his work is distinctly Appalachian, he’s quick to point out that he and his fellow regional authors aren’t “just” Southern or Appalachian writers.
Rash’s impressive body of work transcends region. His writing has been published in more than 100 magazines and journals and translated into 17 languages, winning numerous awards. He’s twice been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction. Two of his novels, Serena and The World Made Straight, have been made into feature films.
In his most recent collection, Something Rich and Strange, his evocative short stories cover time periods from the Civil War to the present. In this collection, as in most of his work, his characters often find themselves difficult situations, pushed to extreme acts of violence, but just as often demonstrating powerful acts of generosity and empathy. His new novel, Above the Waterfall, will be released this September.
Daily Yonder: Tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up?
Ron Rash: I grew up in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. That’s in Western North Carolina. It was a very small town, I think there were a thousand people in it when I was growing up. It was very rural.
DY: And your family has lived in North Carolina for a very long time.
RR: Yes, since the 1700’s. My mom’s family, and my dad’s, too. So we have very deep roots in North Carolina.
DY: And where do you live now?
RR: I’m back and forth between North Carolina and South Carolina. I work at Western Carolina University, which is in Cullowhee, which is about an hour south of Asheville. It’s a rural area, about 15 miles from the Smoky Mountains National Park.
DY: Do you think the family history you have in the region is what keeps you living in and writing about Appalachia?
RR: Oh, yea. I think it’s the sense of knowing my family has lived in these rural areas for so long. My grandfather on my mother’s side had a farm and I spent a lot of time there. It was near Boone (North Carolina). That was very important. It showed me that life. And one of the sad things is that it’s so hard to make a living that way now. It’s always been hard, but I think it’s even harder now.
DY: The stories in your most recent publication, the short story collection Something Rich and Strange, have been written over the course of 20 years.
RR: Even longer, I guess. Probably 35 years.
DY: How did you go about pulling the stories in the collection together? They vary in tone, time period, and subject matter, and yet they feel like they fit together.
RR: In a sense, I wanted those stories to fit together like a quilt. Patches that, I hope, if the reader reads all the way through will have a sense of the place, and seeing that place over time from pretty much the Civil War on. I think the connection is the landscape.
DY: Landscape, and the effect of the Appalachian landscape on its people, is such an important part of so much of your writing. Do you think that effect is truer in Appalachia than in other places?
RR: I’ve seen other writers do that in different places. I think Annie Proulx really does it well. She tends to write about Wyoming. I think there’s something in a rural landscape, because if you’re living in rural area, you’re constantly reminded of that landscape and the natural world. Writers can certainly write about the landscape within a city and a lot of writers do that well, but I think landscape is really important and it affects the psychology of people. I think if you go up in the mountains it affects you in a way that’s different from, say, growing up in the Midwest.
DY: And is there a way you articulate that difference specifically?
RR: In my work, I show it in two ways. One way is that I think people in mountains tend to feel very close to that place. … There’s almost the sense that the mountains are rising up around them, protecting them, almost like a womb. There’s a sense of security in a way. I think that also at times it can be oppressive. There’s a sense of mountains looming over people, reminding them how small and brief their lives are. I find it interesting to see what I can do with that as a writer.
DY: In Something Rich and Strange, there are stories from the Civil War, from the Great Depression, and some that feel very recent. When you’re working on stories from the past, what kind of research do you do? Have you always been interested in learning about the past?
RR: Yes, I do a lot of research. I love writing about the past, and I love learning about it. Some of those stories, particularly the Civil War stories, are based on stories I heard from my family. But then I’ll go back and do a good bit of research. I want to know what kind of shoes somebody would be wearing, or what their trousers would be made of, or if the person had a weapon, what would it be—those kinds of details. I think people love to read novels or stories to learn about real things. I think that’s one of the pleasures; you feel like you’re kind of brought into that world.
DY: Some of your work has slight dialects or comes from a very specific narrative voice. Do you think about how that’s perceived by readers who don’t know a lot about Appalachia? I guess I’m asking if you consider stereotypes when you’re writing and do you try to toe that line?
RR: Oh, yea. And that’s always the challenge, and if my works succeeds, my goal is that I don’t want to sentimentalize these people by showing them as just noble and hard-suffering, but I don’t want to demonize them, either. You’re not going to find any Deliverance-types in my work. My characters tend to be in pretty precarious situations, but I hope the reader recognizes that these concerns, these motivations, are human. These are people in a different landscape, but we understand them as human beings, and like so many people, they’re doing the best they can with what life has given them.
DY: I’ve read interviews where you’ve said that your stories usually start with a single image. Where do those images come from? Is it something that just flashes into your mind, do you dream them?
RR: They just kind of come, unbidden. To me, it’s that mysterious part of being a writer, that you don’t know exactly where they come from. Sometimes, it’s obviously something I’ve read or remembering a story, but what I find interesting is, why do I remember it now as opposed to, say, a year ago? Why does this story come to me on this particular day? And I don’t know, but that’s kind of the mystery of it. I just trust my instincts.
DY: I’ve also read people ask you about how you feel about being classified as a Southern writer, or an Appalachian writer. And your response is that sometimes there seems to be an implied “just” in front of those descriptors—“just” an Appalachian writer or “just” a Southern writer. Do you still feel that way?
RR: Yes, it’s complex. I mean, I’m very proud to be from this region, and I’m proud to be associated with so many great writers that have come out of our region, but I think that what makes them great writers (someone such as Faulkner or O’Connor) is that you can be both. You can be intensely Southern, but you’re also universal. I think that’s where my problem with when I hear someone called a Southern writer, it is that sense of “just.” It’s someone who just writes about this region but doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the world. My books have been translated into 17 languages now, so I think there’s some kind of connection going on there, and I think most of the best Southern writers—Faulkner, O’Connor, or more recently people such as Larry Brown—they’ve transcended the region even though they’ve been very much of the place.
DY: Bob Cummins, whose publishing company Iris Press published two collections of you poetry, recently told me that you’re the hardest working writer he’s ever worked with. How do you respond to that?
RR: Well, I doubt I’m that, but I think I am disciplined. I taught at community college for a long time, and I usually taught five classes each semester. That’s a pretty heavy load. But, it was important enough to me. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for people who say, “I don’t have enough time to write.” If it’s important enough, you’re going to find the time. It may be waking up 30 minutes early, it may be staying home and writing instead of going out to a party, but you make decisions and I think I’ve always been very certain that I would get in some writing pretty much every day, at least six days a week.
DY: How long have you been writing, and what made you start?
RR: I always loved to read, but I didn’t start writing until I was in my early 20s. A lot of my friends who are writers started a lot earlier. I just always loved to read and I thought, “I’m going to try this.” And it didn’t go very well for a long time, but finally I wrote something that I thought wasn’t too bad, and then something else, and slowly a few people started to notice. It’s been very gradual, which I think is the way it should be. Just keep at your craft, and figure that if you’re doing something well enough, someone’s going to notice eventually.
DY: You started in short stories and then spent about a decade focusing on poetry before ever publishing a novel. Do you approach these different forms of writing differently?
RR: It’s very different. I can’t write poetry when I’m writing fiction. It’s just a completely different wavelength. It’s very hard sometimes to go back and forth between them. And I don’t. If I’m writing poetry, I tend to just write poetry. If I’m writing fiction, I write fiction.
DY: But you obviously have all of those impulses in you. Many writers just sort of stay in one mode.
RR: That’s one area where I think being from Appalachia’s been a great benefit because I’ve seen writers such as Jesse Stuart, James Still, Robert Morgan, Fred Chapell, all those writers wrote novels and stories and poems as well. So it hasn’t seemed to be something totally alien.
DY: How has Appalachia changed since you started writing about it?
RR: At least the regions I’ve known, there’s a real influence of retirees and I think that’s changed things in ways good, and in some ways not so good. I’m old enough to have seen the movement away from agriculture. So many of my relatives were farmers, and in my generation, none of us are full-time farmers. Some of my cousins farm, but it’s part-time. They may have some crops or cattle, but it’s not their full-time occupation. You just can’t make a living at it anymore. But, on a more hopeful note, I’m starting to see more organic farming in Western North Carolina. It’s a generation of young people who are doing that and evidently making a livelihood of it. And I think that’s a wonderful development.
DY: You had two novels made into movies. What was that like?
RR: Well, I stayed out of it, so it really didn’t have much of an impact on me. I think the big thing would be that it brought people to my work who wouldn’t have read it before, and to me that’s the best thing that’s happened. One adaptation I didn’t think was very good, and one I thought was excellent, but I didn’t write the screenplays or anything, I just kind of stayed out of it.
DY: You’re also an educator [Rash is the Parris Distinguished Professor in Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University]. How does that interact with your writing?
RR: My teaching right now is very different than when I was teaching at technical college. I tend to teach fiction writing and it takes time, but I like the fact that I’m working with younger people. I like their enthusiasm. I’ve always thought that teaching was a very honorable profession, so I’m glad to be involved in it. And I think it’s good sometimes for a writer to have another kind of job because if you depend on your output for the day, your whole sense of accomplishment is on what you wrote, and if you have a bad day of writing, that’s kind of a bummer.
DY: What are you working on now?
RR: I’ve got a new novel out in September called Above the Waterfall. It’ll be set in contemporary Appalachia.