Ron Rash merges sound and sense in new collection

In Ron Rash’s short story, “Hard Times,” the character Jacob recalls his father’s words: “This cove’s so damn dark a man about has to break light with a crow bar.” That’s how Rash bursts into a story. One thwack of a first sentence, and you’re in full narrative light. You can’t stop reading.

His just-released “Something Rich and Strange” includes 34 stories, all set in Appalachia, some of which were published before. You’ll find “The Trusty,” originally in The New Yorker; “The Ascent” and “Into the Gorge,” in “The Best American Short Stories.”

My favorite is the title story, “Something Rich and Strange.”

Rash’s themes are universal: man’s struggle with nature, with others, with himself.

Here’s a woman trying to improve herself married to a man who dreams of falling. A thriving couple with big plans whose parents insist they give it up for an ailing brother. Elderly parents relegated to an unheated trailer while their meth-addicted son holes up in the big house with his girlfriend. Rash’s characters are tightly yoked, for better or worse.

Locales include Sylva, Boone, Valle Crucis, Blowing Rock. His characters live in farmhouses down red-dirt roads, in lake houses, in haunted houses with rotting front porches. Wherever they are, they’re enmeshed in complication.

Rash, who’s 61, was born in Chester, S.C., and grew up in Boiling Springs. He descends from mountaineers who settled in Western North Carolina in the early 1700s. He is a professor at Western Carolina University.

Rash talked recently by telephone from Nashville, where he was on tour.

Q. During those early years of rejection slip after rejection slip, what kept you believing in yourself?

a. Stubbornness. Also kind of thinking if I stayed with it long enough, eventually I would be able to break through. I’ve never been a well-rounded person. I’ve always wanted to do one thing well. In my adult life that was to write well.

Q. You dad was able to leave a textile mill job, earn a degree and dedicate his life to teaching art at Gardner-Webb. What was it about your dad that allowed him to hoist himself from one world to another?

A. The even more amazing story is that my dad actually dropped out of high school and went back and got his GED first. He pretty much through sheer will decided he could do this, which made it possible for my sister and brother and me to live a middle-class life. We realized how hard it was for him to get there. He gave me the greatest gift in the sense of allowing me not to have to do everything he did to get to the point where I could be an artist. To honor that, I try to write as well as I can.

Q. I’ve never heard you talk about writing mentors.

A. I never took a creative writing class in college. But I think I did have good teachers – Welty and Faulkner and Dostoevsky. For me, I think that was the way I needed to do it – immerse myself in deep reading. I had good teachers who helped guide my reading. I just don’t understand how anybody can be a good writer without being a good reader.

Q. You’ve called your maternal grandmother’s farm near Boone your “spirit place.” Was it as much your grandmother, Ethel Mae Holder, as it was place that gave it “spirit”?

A. Both. Certainly, the way she accepted me. I was kind of a strange child. I wanted to go up there where there was no TV and no vehicle. I was on this farm that bordered the Blue Ridge Parkway. She had enough faith in me to just let me wander all day, which was really important in my development as a writer. I noticed things. I got used to solitude and the natural world. I would go to isolated areas, which she didn’t know about. I used my imagination, made up stories.

Q. There’s an amazingly powerful 289-word sentence in the story “Something Rich and Strange” where the girl goes under the water. It felt like a current was pulling you along as you wrote.

A. My background is in poetry. Sound and sense merge. I wanted the reader from the sound and sense to capture the rhythm of what she would feel, the strength of the river. I just kind of went with that and revised it and worked on it and tried to get it as strong and vivid as possible.

Q. What’s a writing day like for you?

A. I’m very ritualistic. I go to a gym and exercise for an hour – ellipticals, weights, stretching. That kind of gets the energy going for me. Then I get me a big 44-ounce cup of iced tea, unsweetened, usually at Hardee’s. Back home or in my office I close the door, get me a pencil and paper and just immerse myself. No computer. No cellphone. I don’t like to type directly onto the computer. I start with pencil and pad and then type it in. I stay from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., unless I get so caught up I forget to stop. I take a break to eat. Come back from 2 to 4.

Sometimes if it’s really going well, I’ll write til about 7, which I would not recommend. If it’s going well, I’m afraid to let it go.

Q. Talk about revising.

A. The part I hate most is first drafts. It’s like an ugly glob of clay on the wheel.

It’s been the revision where the work is being done. I revise furiously. Every novel goes through at least 14-16 drafts. Late in the process, I’m seeing how vowels and consonants play off each other. That’s where the magic comes from. I’m at that point with this new novel where I’m really concentrating on the language. I’ll spend 30 minutes playing with a single sentence. That for me is fun. How a vowel sound in the first syllable will echo or resonate with another vowel sound in the fourth syllable. I do this not to show off but to make it smooth.

Q. What have you learned about writing?

A. I no longer start with an idea. I don’t say, “I’ve got this idea for a story and I’ll map it out.” I start with an image, and I can run with it, and I don’t know where it’s going, and I kind of trust the image to lead me. I’m surprised, and the reader is surprised, too. One of the challenges of a short story is to get the reader into a world quickly. I learned from other writers – Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor – you’ve got to hit the ground running.

Q. What will you say about your new novel?

A. It’s called “Above the Waterfall,” and it will surprise some people and disappoint others. It’s a book about the wonder of the world. It’s probably the most optimistic book I’ve written. I think to be true to the world as a writer, you deal with the dark part and the sadness. But there’s also beauty and wonder and goodness, and we can’t forget those either.

Q. Speaking of goodness, where do you go for barbecue?

A. Bridges in Shelby. I order a large tray sliced, hush puppies and an extra order of the red slaw. There are times I’m eating it I want to cry I’m so happy.