Language Can Be Magical
An Interview with Ron Rash
by Pam Kingsbury
Photo credit: Jeff Daniel Marion
In a soft-spoken voice, the music of language rolls of Ron Rash's tongue -- bespeaking years of Appalachian heritage. In his quiet nature, a love of the environment and family is exposed. His stories of loss and redemption are poignant and complex. Ron Rash's sense of place is strong.
Where are you from?
My family has lived in the Appalachian Mountains since the mid-1700s Ė both families, my mother's and my father's are from here -- which is why I focus on the South Appalachians as a setting. I grew up in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. It's between Charlotte and Asheville. It's also the home of Earl Scruggs.
Where did you go to college?
I attended Gardner-Webb in North Carolina and Clemson. I have a B.A. and M.A. in English. I have found the intense reading I did at Clemson of great benefit.
Your first works weren't novels ...
My first published work was a collection of stories (The Night Jesus Fell to Earth?). Then I worked in poetry for almost a decade. I didnít consciously set out to write novels. Both started with a single image I first tried to make into a poem.
After publishing three collections of poetry, earning an NEA poetry fellowship, and publishing two collections of short stories, you're "an overnight success" as a novelist ... Discuss your transition in genres.
Iím a narrative poet, which makes the transition to fiction easier. Iíve spent the last twenty-six years of my life writing seriously. I averaged three to five hours a day six days a week. Iím fifty now, and Iíve worked for a long time. Iím glad what success Iíve had has come slowly, because it has allowed me to work under the radar and concentrate solely on my writing.
What do your two novels -- One Foot In Eden and Saints at the River Ė have in common?
Both books are set in the same landscape, the same county, Oconee, in the most mountainous corner of South Carolina, located along the South Carolina border. Some of the same obsessions as well, especially the impact of the dead on the living, the erasure of a culture, the way landscape affects people psychologically.
Earlier you mentioned that there was always "one image" in your head starting each of your works. What was the "one image" for Saints at the River?
The first image was of a child's face looking up through water.
I wanted to write a novel about environmental issues, but one that refused simplifications. I picked a situation where I was essentially in conflict with myself, the part of me who is an environmentalist and the part of me who is a parent.
What was the "one image" in One Foot In Eden?
A farmer standing in his field, crops dying around him. He had a look of desperation of his face that transcended the drought.
What do you enjoy most about booksignings and readings?
One thing is meeting people who've heard or read my work and found something there that has given them pleasure. Iíve also enjoyed meeting other writers. Particularly in the South, thereís a real sense of camaraderie among writers.
What's your most amusing "author event" story?
My first public reading EVER was at the New York Public Library. I was thirty-two and had won the General Electric Younger Writers Award. I asked them to mail me the prize money but they said I had to come to New York and do the reading to get the money. I really needed the money so I went. I told myself Iíd never see any of those people again and, besides, theyíd never understand my accent. It turned out to be a wonderful experience.
Does book promotion interfere with writing?
I worry about the danger of getting away from writing. I travel with a laptop and try to work two to three hours every morning because I don't want to get out of the rhythm of writing.
What's your next book?
A novel, set in western North Carolina. It's set for a winter '06 publication with Holt.
You hold the John Parris Chair in Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University. How do you balance writing, teaching, book events, and family life?
I have no real social life, except the book-promotion events. I rarely go to parties. I donít belong to the Moose Club or go out to bars. Iíd rather spend time at home with my family.
What advice do you give your students regarding writing?
Read as much as possible and read widely. Persevere. Too many good writers give up too quickly. Perseverance is underrated in Creative Writing. For most of us, who are not Shakespeare or Keats, it takes work.
Whose works do you include in your Appalachian Literature courses?
Lee Smith, Robert Morgan, Fred Chappell, Silas House, Pam Duncan, James Still, Harriet Arnow, Jeff Daniel Marion, and many more fine writers.
Who are some of the writers readers should be reading or who should be better known?
Donald Harington from the Ozark Mountain region. His work is tremendously underrated; Chris Holbrook out of Kentucky; and Catherine Landis. I think she's the real deal.
Have you had mentors?
Lee Smith and Robert Morgan have been supportive and their work important to me. They are both exceptional writers and exceptional human beings.
What have you been waiting for someone to ask?
What is it that makes someone become a writer? I have vivid memories of my grandfather -- who couldn't read or write. I asked him to read Cat in the Hat and he made up a story. He always "read" it differently. His stories were more entertaining than my mother's. He taught me language can be magical.
© 2004, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved