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Serena headed to the big screen

Ron Rash’s novel, Serena, was birthed in an image: his mind’s eye pictured a woman on horseback. From the woman’s posture on that horse, her very way of being, Rash said he knew this would be a novel about a very singular human being indeed.

“I knew she was very strong,” said the writer, who teaches at Western Carolina University and lives near Sylva. “And that someone was looking at her with fear and love.”

This image of Serena, which Rash developed into the bestselling 2008-released novel, has now spurred a major motion picture. The film version of Serena is set for release in 2014.

Serena, the novel, is set in Haywood County.

Actor Bradley Cooper and actress Jennifer Lawrence, who recently played leading roles in the to-be-released David O. Russell movie, “The Silver Linings Playbook,” will team together again in the movie “Serena.” Lawrence was in North Carolina last year for filming of “The Hunger Games,” to be released next month.  

The location of filming for “Serena” has not been announced.

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Rash’s Depression-era set novel relates the story of timber baron George Pemberton, who is married to Serena. The couple moves to Western North Carolina to create a business empire. When Serena discovers she cannot bear children, her anger becomes directed toward her husband’s illegitimate son. Cooper and Lawrence will portray George and Serena Pemberton.

Academy Award winner Susanne Bier will direct the movie for 2929 Productions. Bier recently finished work on an Italian drama with Pierce Brosnan titled “All You Need Is Love.” Her other films are “Things We Lost in the Fire” and “In a Better World.”

Rash said he will not be involved in the movie’s production, but that he’s “very pleased” that the novel will be produced in film form. Rash hasn’t seen the screenplay. He didn’t, however, seem particularly worried or concerned about how his novel might be tailored to fit the big screen. The movie and novel are two separate retellings, entirely different works of art, he indicated.

“It’s out of my hands,” Rash said.

These days, the novelist’s attention is much more focused on the upcoming release of his 10th work of fiction and his fifth novel, The Cove. It will be released April 10. The Cove is set in Western North Carolina during World War I.

Rash’s fiction include the short story collection “Burning Bright,” which garnered him the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, the world’s richest prize for the short story literary form.

“He is Appalachia’s most accessible writer who not only treats our history and culture with integrity, but has gained an amazing audience,” said Gary Carden of Sylva, a storyteller and writer with deep family roots to WNC and a frequent book reviewer for The Smoky Mountain News. “(Rash) is, in every sense of the word, an advocate for the spirit of Appalachia.”


How the sausage is made

Writing is hard for everyone, even an experienced writer who so adeptly brings stories to life as Rash. It generally takes him about three years to put a single novel together — “that’s typical,” he said.

Rash locks himself in a room, at home on Locust Creek Road in Sylva or at his office at WCU, and works. And really works, for up to six hours at a time: no music, no noise and no interruptions.

“I must be by myself,” Rash said in explanation. “I need solitude. You have to get really deep into it and enter that world as a writer.”

The image is always the beginning for this writer, as it was in Serena, he said. But there are hours and days and weeks and months of historical research, too. Readers of Serena are usually struck by the painstakingly accurate historical detail, portrayals that ring true to those familiar with these mountains. And the fact is, Rash tries to be representative of what he’s portraying.

“On Serena I did a huge amount of research,” said Rash, a descendant of Southern Appalachian families who was raised in Boiling Springs.

He studied and read about the formation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and about the conflicts that arose between those conservation efforts and the timber interests, through books, newspapers and whatever he could get his hands on.

Rash doesn’t simply regurgitate research and fob it off as fiction: always there are those guiding images, those flashes of meaning and insight that characterize this novelist’s work.

The research confirmed the power wielded historically by these timber barons. The image, however, for Rash was discovered when, on a trip to Lake Logan in Haywood County, he observed a table made from a single piece of yellow poplar, a table forged from a large tree. The table struck the novelist as being a trophy. A trophy, that is, for the timber barons.

From such images Rash wove his novel, Serena.  

The Cove, Rash’s forthcoming novel, hasn’t been birthed easily. This experienced writer hit writing roadblocks he’d not experienced before.

“This last novel has been so difficult,” Rash said. “It seemed more difficult than the ones before. I just seemed to take a lot of wrong turns. After two years, I was ready to give up on it, but I didn’t because I’d put so much time into it by then.”

Ultimately, Rash worked out the problems. He described himself as satisfied and happy with The Cove.

Despite ever-increasing recognition as an accomplished and important fiction writer, Rash said he plans on staying and teaching at WCU.

“I love teaching,” he said. “And I enjoy my students. I think their enthusiasm is good for me — it helps keep me alive to the wonder of writing.”

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