Writing Rural: Ron Rash

Novelist, poet, and short-story writer Ron Rash says discipline, mystery, and geography have contributed to his work over the years. But don’t make the mistake of calling him “just” an Appalachian writer.

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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?

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