By Jeremy Hauck and Kevin Basl
Ron Rash is the author of the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Finalist and New York Times bestselling novel Serena, in addition to three other prizewinning novels, One Foot in Eden, Saints at the River, and The World Made Straight; four collections of poems; and four collections of stories, among them Burning Bright, which won the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and Chemistry and Other Stories, which was a finalist for the 2007 PEN/Faulkner Award. Twice the recipient of the O. Henry Prize, he teaches at Western Carolina University.
Your profile has been on the rise over the past five years or so, with the publication of “The Trusty” in The New Yorker (last year), “The Ascent” and “Into the Gorge” in The Best American Short Stories (2010 and 2009, respectively), and also with your international book tour for The Cove. How is it different today from when you were an emerging fiction writer in the 1990s?
More visibility. But I feel very lucky that what attention has come to me has come after thirty years of writing. It’s often unhealthy for young writers to get a lot of attention. Too many distractions, and they may become too easily satisfied with the level of their work.
Have you seen this happen?
Yes, I’ve seen it. I think the most cautionary example is Truman Capote.
You have said that all of your stories and novels begin with a vivid image and grow outward. For Serena, that image was a strong, dominant woman on horseback. What image sparked The Cove, and how did it grow from there?
The image was of a young woman pulling back some rhododendron leaves and seeing a bedraggled young man playing a beautiful silver flute.
Often you write from women’s points of view, for instance, Rachel Harmon in Serena, Maggie in Saints at the River, in the short story “Lincolnites,” Lily, and of course Laurel in The Cove. What challenges present themselves to you as a writer when you do this, and how do you overcome them?
It’s not a conscious choice. I never tell myself, well, I’m going to write this particular book, or this part of a book, from a woman’s point of view. The story has decided that’s the only way I can tell it. But part of what I love about fiction is the attempt to embody another consciousness very different from one’s own. I love to read Annie Proulx because I love her male characters. I like what Ernest Gaines does. Very often he will write characters not of his race or gender. To me, that’s part of the wonder of the imagination.
Your style is characterized by concise, simple language with lyrical overtones. How did this style develop for you?
I think being a poet has a huge influence on my prose style. And with that, I’d say I try to write as clean a sentence as I can.
You’ve said you have to be careful about getting into “high rhetoric” as a writer, and you mentioned Faulkner and McCarthy specifically. How does that translate into your prose style? Is that something you’re conscious of, staying away from the high rhetoric?
Yeah. They do it brilliantly. But I wanted to go another way, and I hope the reader senses a lyricism there but one that is also taut.
Over the course of five novels and four collections of short stories, you write about the same area of the world. I was wondering if you could talk about why you continue to return to that general area of the world to write about.
It’s the world I know best, thus the best place to enter to find the universal.
Throughout your work there is a keen sense of place, and you portray the Carolina highlands with such acuteness, as in The Cove, and here’s a quote: “The air grew dank and dark and even darker as she passed through a stand of hemlocks. Toadstools and witch hazel sprouted on the trail edge, farther down, nightshade and then baneberry whose poisonous fruit looked like a doll’s eyes.” You are from that area, but was there a process of rediscovery of home that informed such writing?
I’ve always spent a lot of time outdoors, so I know the landscape pretty well, the flora, the animals, that kind of thing, but I’m ultimately just as interested in how landscape affects a character’s psychology. I would say, for me — in The Cove particularly — landscape is destiny.
How do you perform that in your writing, this idea of landscape becoming psychology and fate?
I think the landscape a person is born into has a huge effect on his or her perception of reality — I’m talking about someone growing up by the sea as opposed to living in mountains or in the Midwest as opposed to the desert. Different climates have different effects on people. I find that fertile ground for fiction.
When you use Appalachian dialects in your writing, especially in the first person, do you find the writing to be more challenging, or is it more natural?
The challenge is trying to keep it from becoming caricature. Sometimes I find that being true to the way it might be spoken isn’t true on the page, and I think dialect in fiction is an art of translation more than mimicry.
Could you tell us a little bit about your portrayal of Confederate soldiers in your work? In The Cove, for instance, Slidell has a story about his past, and in “Lincolnites,” of course, the Confederate soldiers tend to be portrayed negatively.
The vast majority of my family fought Union, which was not that unusual in the Appalachians. Actually, “Lincolnites” is based on a family story.
In another interview you’ve said that all literature is about initiation. You’ve also talked about using violence to reveal character. Do you consider the acts of violence committed by your characters to be the central moment of initiation in your work?
Yeah, or maybe their response to it, whether they’re doing it or it’s being done to them. I agree with O’Connor. She was criticized sometimes for the violence in her work, but she argued, I think convincingly, that it wasn’t gratuitous, it was putting her characters in a situation where their essence would be revealed, the mask of the everyday would be taken off of their everyday existence.
Let’s talk about period pieces. Three of your five novels are set in different time periods, including your two most recent novels. You use language such as “berlin kettle,” “Franklin clocks,” and “puncheon floors” to indicate the period. How do you make the choice to set a story in a different time period?
The story often, in a sense, chooses me. The image may come, or I will have done some research, as I did for The Cove, at first about the German internment camp in North Carolina. So, very often, it’s not so much about, say, well, I’m going to write a novel about 1918. It’s more that I’m engaged with some aspect, usually starting with the image. Emily Dickinson said “tell the truth but tell it slant,” and one thing I hope my novels do, especially Serena and The Cove, is allow the reader to recognize that they are a commentary on the present as much as the past.
What kind of work goes into making an authentic portrayal of those times?
A lot of research. And I love research. I find things that, had I made them up, no reader could believe. In The Cove, you have a German luxury liner, whose musicians are suddenly transported into the Appalachian mountains. That just would not be credible as pure fiction.
Going off of that, is it necessary for you when you write a period piece that it is in some way relevant to today? That it has to say something about today’s culture?
Yes, I would hope so. Even a work where I’m not ostensibly doing that, I would still hope that the work resonates into the present, that it’s true to what it means to be a human being.
But that just happens naturally?
Very often I’m writing as much about the present as the past. One thing I’ve learned about novels is that people love to read The Big Lie but they want to learn real things within it.
Your writing deals extensively with the changes over time in the Carolina highlands, particularly its development and the influx of tourism, also its environmental devastation, notably exemplified by the disappearance of species like the American chestnut and the Carolina panther. One gets a visceral sense for how things can be lost forever if we as a society ignore wildlife preservation. You perform this amazingly well with the deforestation in Serena. On the other hand, people need jobs, and turning trees into paper is a job, as your characters also say. So the question is, how do you feel about these conflicts, and what is it like working it into your fiction, trying to capture all the nuance? And how do you avoid being didactic?
We’ve got politicians to give us the black and white. What fiction does best is remind us of the complexity. Obviously, I expect a reader would suspect that I have pretty strong environmental leanings. But if I want to be didactic, I write an essay, or a letter to the editor, or I go help clean up a river. In the realm of fiction, that’s not so much my job. My role is to witness and leave it to the reader to decide. These things are complex. It’s much easier for someone such as myself to say we shouldn’t be logging anywhere in the Appalachian mountains, or digging coal, but — and I’m very much against mountaintop removal — if I were a miner with a 10th-grade education and three children at home, and that’s the one well-paying job, we have to acknowledge that.
Do you engage in some of the type of civic activity you describe as far as protecting the wildlife in the highlands?
I should do more, but I try to do some things, whether it’s helping raise money, benefits, or cleaning up a river.
You said in another interview that the rise of literary theory is “anti-literature” and disturbs you. Do you still feel this way?
Is there a moment from grad school where you can remember just absolutely despising theory?
I read it because there’s always a danger in dismissing something, and I have learned some from Derrida and Foucault, but I find most literary theory, particularly in the United States, puritanical. It seems to me the goal is to take any pleasure out of literature, the reading of it and the study of it.
What’s your proudest achievement to date as a writer?
That I didn’t give up, that I had enough faith in myself to keep writing when I was getting rejection slip after rejection slip. That’s part of the deal. Too many writers who are good give up too quickly.
You’ve talked before about the camaraderie among southern writers. Did you have mentors when you were an emerging fiction writer?
I had a couple of writers who were encouraging to me. They were very generous. Two of them were southerners — Robert Morgan and Lee Smith — but one was Anthony Hecht, who was from the Northeast. He happened to see my work and like it. So I had a few people, but mainly I was working by myself. I did a straight M.A. so I didn’t have that experience where one is among a lot of writers, and I’ve never been among a lot of writers. I’d been writing about ten years before the people I’ve just mentioned encouraged me. Once again, I think that was a good thing. I needed to be learning my craft.
What is the most difficult part of the writing process for you at this point? And what comes most naturally?
First drafts are hard, and it’s because I don’t go about it in a sane way. This happened more than any book with Serena. I was writing ten or twelve hours a day for a month. And I was crazy — bad crazy. I wouldn’t recommend it. I admire writers who can write a certain number of words or work for, say, two hours and then stop, but I’m not that kind of writer. I write every day, but some days I write eight or ten hours, most days I write four.
Do you consider yourself a realist author, or do you find the label problematic for describing your work?
I tend not to like any labels. “Good writer” is always nice. “Excellent writer” is even better.
What advice would you give to writers trying to break into the publishing industry today?
Learn your craft, be patient, and — I believe this, although there are a few exceptions — if your work is good, somebody’s going to notice. It may take a while. This is easy for me to say since, obviously, I have a New York publisher and my work is getting attention now, but often younger writers worry too much about that. It’s only human to want to break in and get the acclaim, but the main energy has to go into becoming a better writer.
Read Chapter One from Ron Rash’s new novel, The Cove.
Photo of Ron Rash courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.