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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A message from the Rural Assembly

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.

A message from the Rural Assembly

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