I count myself lucky that I met Ron before he was Ron Rash, before he was a household name in Southern fiction. Saints at the River might’ve just come out, I can’t rightly recall, but either way it was early enough in his career that he was still trudging along when I was dropped in his lap like a stray dog. We sat down recently for a short interview ahead of his upcoming event at Greenville’s M. Judson Booksellers & Storytellers to celebrate the paperback release of his most recent novel, The Risen. As always, he had plenty of good things to say.
Pen to Paper // Appalachian writer and Western Carolina University professor Ron Rash has a wide repertoire of works. He’s penned seven novels, four poetry collections, and six short story compellations, including Chemistry and Other Stories, which received the O. Henry prize twice for “Speckled Trout” and “Pemberton’s Bride.” He is currently working on another short story compellation.
From the beginning, your work has been very much a literature of a people and a place. Those two things, as is often the case in the South and particularly in Appalachia, are seemingly inseparable. What is it about where you come from, about those people and this place, that set its hooks into you? >> My father’s family was from Buncombe and my mother’s from Watauga, and I think it was just knowing that they’d been there over 200 years, and just that deep heritage. I spent my summer vacations with my grandmother on her farm in Aho, North Carolina, between Blowing Rock and Boone, and I think that was a Huck Finn kind of experience. She didn’t have a vehicle, a television, and she just kind of let me run wild. It was right on the Parkway, and I’d walk the Parkway and fish, just wandering around.
My grandparents were farmers and that was still a farm when I was young. They had cattle and crops. My uncle was a tobacco farmer, tobacco and cabbage, and I think that in some ways, I just saw what they went through. They lost their whole tobacco crop in a fire one fall. It was in the barn and it was uninsured. Then they’d have a good year and the prices would be down. My uncle one time went to either Hickory or Lenoir and had a truckload of cabbage and the price was so low that he just came back and dumped it, what they couldn’t can. Just being aware of how hard those people struggled. Those are just the people that I knew best.
Of all your books, what stands out to you as the best thing you’ve ever written? >> That’s tough. I think I’d have to break it down into favorites as far as each genre. Serena I’d say is probably my favorite novel. My favorite story collection is Burning Bright. I think maybe what I do best is short stories, and I think you agree. You know, One Foot in Eden and Serena I think are damn good novels and I’m proud of them, particularly those two, but I don’t know, I think short stories, I just enjoy writing them more. It’s a form that I just love the challenge of [doing].
One of our mutual friends once said he was going to quit writing, and we jokingly said to each other that if he quit we’d drive down there and kill him. I feel that way about your short stories. I’d love another novel, but I might have to track you down and kill you if you quit writing stories. So the last question I’ve got is, what are you currently working on? >> I’m working on a book of stories.
Are you just saying that because I said I’d kill you? >> [Laughs] Nooo! I mean that’s an incentive! But I’m actually working on a book of stories, and it’s really nice to be back in that zone. I guess I’ve got about eight or nine now that I’m okay with. That’s the main thing. I’m also working on something else, maybe trying to do a novella. That’s a form I’ve never tried and I think that would be interesting. I love what Jim Harrison was able to do with novellas. But mainly, especially recently, I’ve just been writing stories, and I’m really enjoying it.
Ron Rash is set to appear at M. Judson Booksellers & Storytellers this month as part of its Books & A Beer series. The event is free and features samples from a local brewery. David Joy is the author of Where All Light Tends to Go and The Weight of This World. For more information, go to mjudsonbooks.com.