A year or so ago, Ron Rash was giving a reading not far from Boiling Springs, where he grew up. He noticed on the back row three girls he’d gone to high school with – Janie Patterson, Melissa Jolley and Billie Jo Jones – girls he’d had sort of a crush on.
But Rash says back then those girls weren’t intersted in him. In high school, he says he was too much of a geek, too weird. So after the reading, they came up to say hello, and Billie Jo said, “Ron, when did you become a writer?”
“Billie Jo,” he answered, “I became a writer all those weekends y’all wouldn’t go out with me.”
Some might say Rash is still a bit of a geek. He says he has no social life, other than occasional dinners out with friends when he’s on book tour. No movies, no bars. But this New York Times best-selling novelist is certainly not weird. He enjoys his family, his teaching at Western Carolina, and his writing. And the accolades keep piling up.
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The Philadelphia Inquirer hailed him as “our Appalachian Shakespeare.” The Washington Post: “He’s one of the few writers at work today with the insight, the talent and the vision to show us how sometimes, for all our sorry shortcomings, we’re able to achieve a certain redemption through our capacity for kindness and decency.”
In the rural South, the language is so rich with similes and metaphors ... My uncle once said that a certain girl didn’t have enough clothes on to wad a shotgun.
“The Risen” – with definite themes of evil and redemption – is Rash’s seventh novel, and comes out Sept. 6. Others include “Serena,” “The Cove,” and “Above the Waterfall.” He’s published five collections of poetry and six collections of stories, including “Burning Bright,” which won the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Rash talked about barbecue, dreams of murder, and the rituals surrounding his writing day.
Q. Let’s start with food – you’ve said one of your favorite places in this world to eat is Bridges Barbecue in Shelby. What do you order?
A. I get the large barbecue tray – not the plate. This gets very technical. The plate has French fries but I don’t think the French fries are barbecue worthy. A large tea. Sliced pork – not chopped – that’s important, too. What comes with that is red slaw and hush puppies. I love that red slaw so I always order an extra portion. Once I ordered red slaw at a barbecue place in Georgia, and the waitress looked at me and said, “You must be from North Carolina.”
Q. Last year, you went on an international book tour with your novel “Above the Waterfall.” What do people in France and Germany think about the South – and particularly Appalachia – as you’ve portrayed it?
A. I get the feeling that they recognize that’s a part of America that doesn’t get talked about that much. I think they recognize that those lives are worth writing about as well. One thing I’ve tried to do in my work is show that their lives are every bit as complex as anyone else’s, and that they feel love and fear and all those things everyone else feels. The French revered Faulkner before Americans did. They have always loved Southern literature. They think we’re better writers, that our stories are more interesting. Southern writers tend to know a good story.
Q. The writer Martin Amis has said that the singular thing about a writer is that he feels most alive when he is alone. Is this true for you?
A. Boy, that’s a scary question. I think there are times when I’m so locked into my writing that those are the most intense parts of my day. Yet there’s a risk there that you have lost contact with the very thing that makes you a writer in the first place – humanity. What Yeats calls “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” Part of me tries to completely isolate myself. Yeah, there is a kind of high. It’s intoxicating. It must be like being a heroin addict, where nothing else matters. But I think that hurts the art.
One of the office assistants at Western Carolina (where Rash teaches) once said, “I can always tell when you’re really writing. You have that dazed look on your face and you wander around the halls.” And I thought I was fooling everybody.
Q. Do you think it’s possible to be a successful writer – a published writer – without a healthy dose of ambition in your arsenal?
A. You also need a healthy dose of not-being-afraid-to-fail. I’m quite willing to try something and fail. I think that’s important. You do have to be driven to be really good at it. I tell people that I’m the least rounded person I know. I was a pretty good athlete in high school, but after that I wanted to be a writer. I feel like a writer has to focus on that and that becomes a big part of life. I make writing the priority outside my family.
Every English major starts out wanting to be a writer. It’s almost like going to war. After a few years, you look around, and you’re about the last person standing. Other people find other things. It’s not as important to them. I’m not saying anything negative about those people. Who wants to sit in a room by themselves making up life instead of living it?
Q. I understand that some writers think in words and some in pictures. When you’re writing, what do you think in?
A. Almost everything I write starts with an image. Once I get that first draft down, it’s really hearing it. It’s the sound. I don’t have to read it aloud. I can hear it without that. I become attentive to vowel sounds, stresses – even in the prose. I made 200 changes (between the galley and the finished copy of “The Risen.”). Small ones. Where I felt like something wasn’t working as far as sound. I usually write 15 drafts of a novel, and the last two are always about sound.
Q. So what image did inspire “The Risen”?
A. It was a mound of leaves in the woods. I kind of had this image for 20 years on one level. Twenty years ago, a young woman was murdered where I was living. Two guys had taken her out, and the police and a lot of people were very suspicous. Nothing ever happened. I’ve always been haunted by that. How does somebody live a life knowing that you’ve done that? What if one other person knew?
I’ll tell you the eerie part of this. After that happened, I had a dream – about every six months – where I had murdered someone long ago and gotten away with it, and (in the dream) was just remembering it again. Finally, about two years ago, I started this book, and once I started, I never had the dream again. In a way, it’s a relief that it’s gone because it was very disturbing. For three or four seconds after you wake up, you wonder, “Is it real?”
Q. “The Risen” is set during the summer of 1969, and the narrator says, “When I look back on the summer of 1969, I marvel at how unconnected Sylva seemed from the rest of the United States.”
A. Yeah. That was such a weird experience – the late ’60s – in small towns in the South, you felt like it was so foreign. Manson. Vietnam. Berkeley. I was listening to rock ‘n’ roll songs on the radio just knowing I was living in a place (Boiling Springs) where nothing was ever going to change.
Q. I was fascinated with the two brothers in “The Risen,” and their differences. Bill, the dutiful first child. Eugene, more of a feeling person. Bill was able to break with the overbearing grandfather. Eugene ended up as an adult living in his grandfather’s house.
A. I think there’s something primal in this novel. Cain and Abel. (John Steinbeck’s) “East of Eden.” Conflict. Tension. There is a powerful, almost mythic resonance between the brothers.
Q. The younger brother is by all accounting an alcoholic. Do you see his alcoholism as part of his inherited nature or as a result of the things that happened to him during childhood?
A. I want to let the reader make that decision. I’ll be honest. I don’t know my own feelings about him. Having finished the book, I don’t think I can say. What I feel like is that I’m watching somebody in real life, and you wonder, and you don’t know what caused it or if anything did. I’ve always loved (the Russian novelist Fyodor) Dostoevsky. And it’s like in “Crime and Punishment,” when Raskolnikov goes to prison. There’s a sense that he’s beginning the redemption of his life. Something maybe cathartic. I leave that open-ended.
Q. I love this sentence in the new novel: “The midday sun fell full on the water, so when we waded in up to our waists, heat and cold balanced as if by a carpenter’s level.” Did that just come to you?
A. Well, I guess one thing I want to do as a writer is to make everything as vivid as possible and use similes that resonate with the world. That’s a sentence I’m happy with. The rhythm of it. That sensation. I can remember that sensation afer going to a mountain stream on a hot day. Wonderful.
Q. A friend, a former journalist who’s writing a memoir, told me recently that he is unable to create metaphors or similes. Do you think those things can be learned? And, on the other hand, do you think they come naturally for some?
A. I think you can certainly be made more aware by reading. In the rural South, the language is so rich with similes and metaphors, it becomes part of the way we interact. My uncle once said that a certain girl didn’t have enough clothes on to wad a shotgun.
As a kid, I spent so much time on my grandmother’s farm near Boone, and I got to hear that language. And growing up in Boiling Springs, Gardner Webb had a library, and I had plenty of time to wander the woods and read. So in a way I was exposed to it. I think, ultimately, not everybody can do it. It can’t be taught. I’ve never had it in painting. The one place I have it is with words.
Q. Now about plotting and the intricacies of chronology. Do those come easily for you?
A. I try to be very careful. The pacing of a book is very important. I want it to feel like a musical score, that kind of rhythm, so the reader never feels bogged down and the tension is not lost. I spent a lot of time asking myself: When am I going to reveal this? I want to keep the reader curious, but not too curious.
And, particularly with this novel, I want it to be a seemingly simple story. The hope is that when the reader gets through, it haunts him, and he thinks about it. A lot has happened in this book. There’s the big moral question: How does one redeem a life? I hope the characters are ambiguous enough that readers will have sympathy for both Bill and Eugene. I’ve never wanted to make cardboard characters. That’s too easy. I want them shaded in gray.
Q. What gave you the most difficulty with this novel?
A. I wanted to leave myself with a feeling of I’m not quite sure who my sympathies are with. I cared deeply about the characters, but I think with these it’s almost like a part of me wanted these characters to be mysterious to me. It’s like in real life. Something happens to somebody. We can see their reaction. But can we really know what’s going on? There’s always a part of us as human beings that we don’t know each other completely. I don’t want to tell my readers what to think. It’s a matter of respect for them.
Q. What next?
A. Short stories. I love short stories. I think probably some short stories and (eventually) a book of short stories. That’s my favorite form. And just continue to write and write as well as I can.
Q. I can’t let you go without asking about your schedule. Am I right that you exercise first thing in the morning?
A. Yes. I exercise first and then get my big half-gallon of iced tea. I find that if I exercise first it kind of gets me going. And the tea – I have to have something tactile. With writing, you’re inside your head and taking sips of iced tea is taking something tangible. I think that’s why so many writers smoke.
Then I get out my pad and sharpen my pencils. There’s something about all that that makes the writing easier. It’s preparation.