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Wednesday, 05 November 2014 00:00

In search of the perfect word

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coverThe beauty of literature is its solely unique power of transportation.

That beauty lies in the meticulous arrangement of words, phrases and sentences on a simple black and white page, where upon decoding the message you conjure endless colors, scents and landscapes. You find yourself walking the streets of far away places in forgotten eras, faces and voices long since put six feet under, all covered up in dust under the bed of a modern world. 

The key to opening the portals to these places lies in the fingertips of the writer. Sitting down and letting the images in your mind pour out onto the blank page is a sacred act, one where you let the story unfold in front of you rather than racing to find a conclusion. Crafting a story is a delicate and often misunderstood process. To find the perfect word, one must travel to the deepest, darkest corners of their soul, in search of the ideal conflict that is located at the foundation of every great story.

For Ron Rash, it isn’t about wrestling with an idea, but letting it reveal itself to him in its own time.

A renowned Southern Appalachian writer, Rash embodies this mysterious and majestic region. Since the publication of his short story collection The Night The New Jesus Fell to Earth in 1994, his career has been a slow burn of success, a flame glowing brighter every year. Soaking in the historical essence of the people, places and things in Western North Carolina and beyond, works like The World Made Straight, Serena, The Cove and Nothing Gold Can Stay are chilling reminders of what it means to be a human being — for good or ill.

At 61, Rash is seemingly hitting an ideal stride. With a handful of bestsellers under his belt, his highly acclaimed novel Serena recently hit the big screen featuring Hollywood starlet Jennifer Lawrence and leading man Bradley Cooper. A two-time winner of the O. Henry Prize, he also received the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in 2010 and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2007 and 2009.

When he’s not writing, Rash is in the classroom as the John Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University, a position that allows him to share insight and passion with the next generation of potential authors. But, at the end of the day, Rash is who he is — a writer. His art is a finely tuned discipline commanding respect and complete honesty with the face in the mirror. 

The Smoky Mountain News recently caught up with Rash as he geared up for a book tour of readings for his latest release, Something Rich and Strange, which serves as a collection of short stories, new and old. He spoke of what it takes to be a professional writer, how he dives into his bottomless imagination, and the place of the novel in the 21st century.

Smoky Mountain News: What can we expect with Something Rich and Strange?

Ron Rash: There are some new short stories and a collection of stories from the past. Out of 100 stories or so, these are the 34 I picked that I’m the most pleased with.

SMN: Where do you get inspiration from? Do you come across people in daily life and in conversation that become characters for stories or do you have a list of ideas to pick from?

RR: The stories just kind of come to me. Sure, I could hear a line that someone says and it might trigger something, stories from some research I do. They just come from different places, and they often come from an image. If I get an image in my head I just follow it into a story.

SMN: What’s your writing process? Lock the door until it’s ready or casually work on something and keep coming back to it?

RR: I tend to try to put about eight to 10 hours in for a week to get a story draft. I edit for around two weeks, put it away for a while, then come back to it and realize it’s not as good as I thought it was, so I start revising and trying to get it to where I feel good about it.

SMN: Where do you go in your head in the midst of creating a story?

RR: I just dig deep into the world of my characters. I get into their heads and I kind of leave this world for another. Today for instance, I’ve been writing for about seven hours. I forgot to eat until 1:30 in the afternoon. I didn’t even think about eating because I got lost in this world of these characters. Finally, my stomach started growling so I knew maybe I should eat. 

SMN: Where does that discipline come from? Is it a learned trait or have you always had it?

RR: I’ve always been very disciplined. I was an athlete in high school and college. I ran track. I think that kind of day-in-day-out training, the idea that this is something you do every day, and there are going to be days you don’t want to do it, but you do it. For me, discipline is a huge part of being a writer. 

SMN: What’s the best advice you ever got about writing?

RR: Not to give up. Know that many other writers, including me, started out very slowly but persevered and finally began to improve.

SMN: There are a lot of really dark themes in your work — greed, corruption, murder, the darker side of humanity. Where does that darker side come from within your mind? Are you trying to be shocking or is that just the way it comes out?

RR: What makes a short story work is conflict. I don’t bring violence into my work to just shock or titillate the reader, but it’s only in moments of extreme situations that people reveal who they really are. I like to put my characters in these extreme situations because then the mask they might wear in everyday life falls away and they reveal who they really are, as people do in real life.

SMN: And with that, I was reading the obituary for famed poet Galway Kinnell who died today (Oct. 28). He was once asked by The Los Angeles Times about why his work was so dark and disturbing. He told them, “I’ve tried to carry my poetry as far as I could, to dwell on the ugly as fully, as far and as long as I could stomach it. Probably more than most poets I have included in my work the unpleasant, because I think if you are ever going to find any kind of truth to poetry it has to be based on all of experience rather than on a narrow segment of cheerful events.”

RR: Yeah, that’s true. I do think though that even though my fiction can be dark that the characters in my work are very often trying to fight that darkness and trying to do the best with what the world has given them.

SMN: You have such strong, controversial and/or troubled female characters in your work. Why is that?

RR: I’ve always admired writers who don’t limit themselves by writing for a single gender or social class. A writer such as Annie Proulx, who writes primarily about men, part of what makes writing so amazing is that kind of empathy. To imagine somebody very different from yourself is what gives a writer range.

SMN: Was there a moment when you realized a story could be whatever you wanted it to be?

RR: Yeah, when I was a young writer I tended to outline my stories, to know exactly what was going to happen before I wrote it. And perhaps the most valuable thing I’ve learned as a short story writer is that I don’t want to know what will happen, I don’t want to know the ending, I don’t want to know where this story is going. In a sense, I want to be as surprised as my characters and also as surprised as I hope my readers will be.

SMN: What is the current state of the novel? What is its place in the modern world?

RR: It is probably more important now than it ever has been because we live in an age of sound bites and short attention spans, and I think what a novel allows is a deep reflection on life. With a good novel, it’s always a meditation of complex issues, a reminder that life and reality are not something that can be broken into small segments and be fully realized. A good novel demands a real attentiveness. In a world full of distractions, the novel offers us something increasingly rare and much needed.

SMN: Are the words triumph and tragedy synonymous?

RR: I don’t know if they’re synonymous, but they’re both essential.

SMN: Well, I guess I mean the idea from great triumph can come from tragedy and vice versa.

RR: Yeah, I mean I think that goes back to the idea of putting characters in these situations and through their challenges and temptations the reader and writer will get a sense of how they react to good and bad fortune.

SMN: I see a lot of the idea of “nothing’s the same, everything’s the same” in your work, where common themes from the past apply perfectly well to today.

RR: Yes, because I think what a writer wants to do is simultaneously show a world and time that’s different, yet at the same time connect what’s seemingly different with the culture, cultural artifacts and beliefs, but ultimately I’m writing about what it means to be a human being in the world, at any time.

SMN: What has your life in writing taught you about what it means to be a human being?

RR: I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to do and pursue something I wasn’t sure I could do. It was a big risk in my 20s to commit to writing and it has been a very slow process. For years, no one was interested in what I was doing and the writing wasn’t very good, so they shouldn’t have been. But it is very heartening to meet readers when I’m at book readings. And I enjoy that what I’ve spent so much time and a huge portion of my life doing brings some pleasure to other people. 

SMN: Writing is a very intimate and personal act. What do you like about doing readings?

RR: Because so much writing is done in solitude, it’s nice to come out of the cave and actually meet some people who are reading the work and finding some pleasure in it, or at least I hope they are. It’s good for me because I’m an introvert, and when I’m writing I’m often in solitude most of a day. It’s probably good for me to get out, do readings. I’m like a groundhog, I pop my head out occasionally and then go right back in. 

SMN: What is it about the Southern Appalachian landscape and its people that lends itself to so much mystery and conflict in literature?

RR: My primary interest is because my family has such deep roots in the region. My mother’s family is mostly from Watauga County, near the Boone area. My father’s side is from Leicester and Buncombe County. Generations of my people have lived here and that in itself I find fascinating. But also I’ve just been interested in how particular landscape affects the psychology of people. 

SMN: What do you see with the college kids you’re instructing at WCU?

RR: I’m delighted with the students I’ve been working with. One of them, David Joy, is getting ready to publish a novel with a major New York publisher. So, I’m very proud of him. I’m just trying to teach them to be better writers. Many are better than I was at their age. I tell them that, and its true. The question is how badly they want it. I tell them not to get discouraged and there’s a good chance they’ll see people who are not as good of writers getting attention and maybe winning prizes, but that also if you persevere and keep getting better somebody is going to notice you.

SMN: What’s next? I see that “Serena” is hitting theaters now.

RR: I haven’t seen it or really kept up with it. I haven’t even read the screenplay. I stayed out of it. It’s hard enough to write a good story, so I just concentrate on that. The next thing for me is a novel called Above the Waterfall. I’m actually finishing it up right now, I was working on it today. The plan is to have it out next fall. I’m hoping to have it finished completely by February and have it out by next fall. It’s a book about wonder. It really is the most upbeat novel I’ve written. It even has a happy ending. People sometimes ask me, “Why can’t more good things happen in your novels?” A lot of good things happen in the next book, but of course it does start out with a fish kill.

 

Want to go?

Bestselling Appalachian writer Ron Rash will present his new short story collection at 11 a.m. Nov. 8 at Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville and at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9 at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva.

Something Rich and Strange brings together some of Rash’s best stories from previous collections and also includes two stories not previously collected. 

828.456.6000 (Blue Ridge) or 828.586.9499 (City Lights).

 

 

Ron Rash: A history

Poetry

• Eureka Mill (1998)

• Among the Believers (2000)

• Raising the Dead (2002)

• Waking (2011)

Short story collections

• The Night The New Jesus Fell to Earth (1994)

• Casualties (2000)

• Chemistry and Other Stories (2007)

• Burning Bright (2010)

• Nothing Gold Can Stay (2013)

Novels

• One Foot in Eden (2002)

• Saints at the River (2004)

• The World Made Straight (2006)

• Serena (2008)

• The Cove (2012)

Children’s book

• The Shark’s Tooth (2001)

Awards

• 1987: General Electric Younger Writers Award

• 1996: The Sherwood Anderson Prize

• 2002: Novello Literary Award (One Foot in Eden)

• 2002: ForeWord Magazine’s Gold Medal in Literary Fiction (One Foot in Eden)

• 2002: Appalachian Book of the Year (One Foot in Eden)

• 2004: Fiction Book of the Year by the Southern Book Critics Circle (Saints at the River)

• 2004: Fiction Book of the Year by the Southeastern Booksellers Association (Saints at the River)

• 2004: Weatherford Award for Best Novel of 2004 (Saints at the River)

• 2005: James Still Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers

• The Short story “Speckled Trout” was included in the 2005 O. Henry Prize Stories. This story formed the basis for the first chapter of The World Made Straight.

• 2008: Finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction (Chemistry and Other Stories)

• 2009: Finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction (Serena

• 2010: Heasley Prize at Lyon College

• 2010: Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award (Burning Bright)

• 2010: Inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors

• 2011: SIBA Book Award (Fiction) for Burning Bright

• 2012: David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction for The Cove

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