A writer’s life: Ron Rash on his craft, career, new novel
On the campus of Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, in a building within earshot of the football stadium, there’s a small, unassuming office at the end of a quiet, dead-end hallway.
The room has a single window, bookshelves wall-to-wall, boxes of files and a desk covered with papers in haste. It’s the sort of hidden away space you’d expect a writer to inhabit. It’s the escape hatch famed Southern Appalachian novelist Ron Rash ducks into when he’s not teaching one of his creative writing courses.
“Usually, every novel I’ve written has [taken] three [years], but this one took me six years — I just kept making wrong turns,” Rash said. “I wrote over a thousand pages, but the book’s only 255. I kept going off and [more] characters appeared. It was like I couldn’t get my imagination free to where it needed to go to really open up the story — then I finally did, but it took a while.”
What resulted from this six-year odyssey of the written word is Rash’s latest, highly-anticipated work, “The Caretaker.” Amid the backdrop of the Korean War, it centers around young love, betrayal and what lies beneath the surface within the trials and tribulations of the human condition. It’s also loosely based on a true story Rash once heard.
“I’d been told about a young man who had eloped against his parents’ wishes with a much younger girl,” Rash noted. “The parents were outraged. [Then, the boy] got drafted in the war and while he was gone, the family had [the young girl] murdered.”
With “The Caretaker,” Rash found inspiration from not only the tragic tale, but also his grandparents’ farm, a property located in the unincorporated community of Aho, situated between Boone and Blowing Rock.
“We still have land up there, and I’d always wanted to set a novel [on that farm], but I never could find the story [for it],” Rash said. “Right above the farm is a cemetery. I used to go there as a kid. As I got deeper in the story, I realized the central character was going to be the caretaker of that cemetery — that’s when everything came together.”
“Everything came together” could also be the underlying theme of the ongoing life and storied career of Ron Rash — one of the finest writers to ever emerge from Southern Appalachia.
“Every time I write a novel, I never want to repeat myself. So, I really work hard to write something completely different, even though I’m using the same landscape,” Rash said. “And it doesn’t get any easier. But I think the one advantage is that I know I can [write another novel] because I’ve done it before.”
With each book, Rash starts out with a single image in mind. He mentions Michelangelo and how the sculptor would look at a block of marble and knew the statue was already in there, somewhere.
“[For ‘The Caretaker’], I had an image of a woman mourning at her own grave,” Rash said. “And I actually gave up on [this novel] four or five times, one time for as long as four months. But, I kept seeing that one image and I kept believing [I could finish the book].”
That stubborn persistence and dogged passion in Rash’s work harkens back to his days as a decorated track athlete in high school and later in college at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs.
Much like training to meet and exceed goals in running, writing consists of a long-term vision, one where the individual must wander through endless darkness toward a light at the end of the tunnel, always just out of reach until the journey is completed — you must trudge through the blood, sweat and tears in order to achieve greatness.
“It’s that idea of discipline — and particularly with running — because you are out there alone [in training, at the starting line and during the race],” Rash said. “And if you run, you break through certain barriers. With [running and writing], I’ve learned that kind of delayed gratification — realizing you could train a year for just one race.”
And, in a simple twist of fate, it was exactly that — extensive training for one race — that ultimately set Rash on his current and ongoing trajectory of literary legend and lore. Following college, Rash trained rigorously in hopes of qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Trials.
“I’d have gotten my butt kicked the first round, but I just wanted to qualify,” Rash recalled with a chuckle.
With a personal record of 01:53 for 800 meters, Rash spent countless months working through his carefully-planned training program — the goal being he’d hit his running “peak” at the trials.
“And training was going really well. But, in February, I was running up a hill and pulled a hamstring — it never healed,” Rash said. “[At that time], I was in graduate school [at Clemson University]. Just like that, all of that energy, all of that discipline went right into writing — it just flowed.”
Rash admits the “writing was terrible” in those early days. Up until that point, Rash was a voracious reader, someone who truly admired writers and their craft. While in college he majored in English, with the notion of writing himself a tiny spark he mostly kept to himself.
“I didn’t write anything that I felt was good. And it always looked good until you put it away for a week,” Rash laughed. “But, then I started writing poetry and short stories, mainly because I don’t think I was ready to write a novel.”
And yet, even though Rash felt a completed novel — one of clever creativity and literary merit — was way out of reach back then, he did see the potential in doing so as his talent in poetry and short stories expanded in skill and scope.
“[Poetry] makes you a better fiction writer, a better prose writer,” Rash said. “And it’s funny, I can see the influences in my early stuff — I was reading James Dickey this week, I was reading Ernest Hemingway this week. But, that’s how you learn. You imitate people who are better than you are, then you find your voice.”
Rash kept at it. Chipping away, albeit slowly and steadily. The piles of rejection letters would soon transition to letters of acceptance, published works of all shapes and sizes appearing on bookshelves and magazine racks or in mailboxes of subscribers. The tiny spark grows and increases in momentum.
And as with any craft or worthwhile endeavor, the simple traits of patience, passion and purpose all fit together in due time — your words through the lens of your true voice eventually coming to fruition.
“Writing is still a challenge, but it’s just something that I love. And when it’s going well, there’s nothing better,” Rash said. “Ultimately, [writing] is not a choice. You [feel] you have to do this or your life isn’t complete — it’s a central part of who you are.”
By the numbers, Rash has five volumes of poetry, seven books of short stories and eight novels under his belt. Many of the works have reached national acclaim, with numerous awards and accolades garnered throughout the years and decades.
Other works became films, with the novel “Serena” becoming a major motion picture featuring Hollywood A-listers Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. No matter though, what matters most is human connectivity through the ancient act of the written word.
“We’re so fragmented now [as a society] and it’s hugely important to be empathetic, to imagine and understand lives other than our own.” Rash said. “With [‘The Caretaker’], I want to write about the ability to forgive, that we are capable of noble acts, that people who are different can sometimes rise to occasion to become better people.”
But, regardless of the praise and recognition, what remains is the work itself — what’s been completed, what’s yet to be done — with the novel still the main focus for Rash and his literary aspirations.
“A good novel is one of the last places where complex issues can be dealt with in the depth that they need — it’s not a soundbite, it demands a continued attentiveness,” Rash said. “And I think, in some ways, that maybe novels are more important now than they’ve ever been, because if we get to where we can only take in soundbites, then that’s perilous.”
For Rash, it’s wild, more so surreal, to peer into the rearview mirror and see all those endless pages of words, characters, emotions and themes — his intricate, intrinsic imagination spilling out of his fingertips and across the blank page.
“I kind of view [the writing] as like a patchwork quilt. And it all takes place within a hundred miles of here,” Rash said. “It’s been interesting to try to deal with this region through history. I’ve tried to really hit certain flashpoints of the last 200 years — World War I, Great Depression, all these moments in time.”
As the Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Cultural Studies at WCU, Rash has taught at the school for 20 years, with another chunk of time instructing at a community college before venturing to Cullowhee and greater Western North Carolina.
“I enjoy teaching, I really do,” Rash said. “And one of the great things about this job is even if there are days and weeks where [I’m writing] nothing, I can at least teach a class and feel like I’ve done something [constructive].”
Most recently, Rash quietly celebrated another milestone — his 70th birthday. In essence, it’s just another number. One more candle on the cake. Another lap around the sun. And yet, Rash is taking a moment to take inventory of the road to the here and now — a life genuinely well-lived, one still unfolding in real time.
“I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to do what I loved, [especially] knowing so many people who weren’t,” Rash said in a humbled tone. “Literature is something that’s hugely important for a full life. I think of how much reading has enriched my life and continues to — [and with writing], you hope you can make some converts to that.”--
Want to go?
Presented by City Lights Bookstore, “An Evening with Ron Rash” will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 3, at the Jackson County Public Library in Sylva.
To celebrate the release of Rash’s latest book, “The Caretaker,” there will be a special reading and signing. The event is free and open to the public. To contact City Lights, call 828.586.9499.
Hosted by Blue Ridge Books, Rash will also be center stage for a reading and signing for “The Caretaker” at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 10, in the Fangmeyer Theater at the Haywood Arts Regional Theatre in Waynesville.
Tickets are $10 per person. You can purchase tickets at Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville or by calling the store at 828.456.6000. Tickets will be available at the door as space allows.
To note, copies of “The Caretaker” and other previous Rash novels are available for purchase at City Lights Bookstore and Blue Ridge Books.