• Elegance and Grit

    by David Menconi

There’s a harsh reality to Ron Rash’s novels set in the mountains and foothills of the Carolinas. But he writes with a sparseness and grace that belies his beginnings as a poet.
Rash published his first book, a collection of short stories, in 1994. In 2002, he dedicated his first novel, One Foot in Eden, to Clemson professor Bill Koon. This year, movies based on two of his novels were released — starring the likes of Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Noah Wyle.

Author Ron Rash is an elegant verbal craftsman, even when it comes to something as simple as automated-reply emails. For example, if you happened to send him a message at a certain point this past spring, here’s what came back:
“Because of a novel deadline that is making my head implode, plus being no big fan of electronic communication anyway, plus my amazing ability to hit wrong keys/buttons and therefore erase, displace, replace, deface whole paragraphs, please forgive any response that may be any/all of the following: days, weeks, eons late, and/or brief, illiterate, gnostic, perhaps even runic.”
But not to worry. Rash managed to stave off technophobia and head-implosion long enough to submit his manuscript in time for the novel, Above the Waterfall, to be published this fall. It puts a capper on the most high-profile year of Rash’s career, one in which not one but two movies based on his novels were released — “Serena,” a Depression-era drama starring Bradley Cooper and Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence in the film adaptation of his 2008 best-seller; and “The World Made Straight,” a gritty coming-of-age thriller starring “E.R.” veteran Noah Wyle and based on Rash’s 2006 novel.
[pullquote]Like most of Rash’s books, Above the Waterfall is set in the place he knows best, the mountains and foothills of the Carolinas where he grew up and still lives, teaching at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.[/pullquote] Beyond that, however, the new book might surprise some longtime fans because Rash calls it “the most hopeful, optimistic book I’ve ever written” — relatively speaking, of course. “Well, most of my books start out with a single image, and this one started with the image of a dead trout,” Rash says with a sheepish laugh. “A central part of the novel is a fishkill. Yeah, meth addicts and fishkills, I guess that’s upbeat by Ron Rash standards. But the world can be dark and tragic, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve recognized some of the light and wonder. A writer has to be true to both of those, and sometimes we need to be reminded of the light in dark times. A lot of my books have certainly reflected the sense I have that we’re not living in the best of times. But this one is a little different even though there is plenty of darkness to it, believe me.”

  • A writer in training

Now 61 years old, Rash was born in the South Carolina town of Chester, where both his parents worked in a textile mill. That lasted until he was 8 years old, when the family moved to western North Carolina, the Rash clan’s ancestral home since the mid-18th century.
They wound up in the college town of Boiling Springs, and Rash’s father earned a college degree at night school, eventually taking a teaching job at Gardner-Webb University. Young Rash earned a bachelor’s degree at Gardner-Webb himself, although by his own admission he was “not a great student.” Yet he also showed all the symptoms of being a writer from a young age, most notably comfort in the solitude of time spent alone in the woods along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Still, Rash had entered college with no loftier goal than someday becoming a track coach.
By the time he arrived at Clemson for graduate work, Rash was not feeling particularly sure of his path. But it turned out to be the right place at the right time of life for a late bloomer.
“Clemson was exactly what I needed at that time as a writer, which was to be reading,” Rash says. “The M.A. program had a real emphasis on the literature and not so much on criticism or theory — and I find literary theory puritanical because it allows no recognition of the pleasure we can, and should, derive from reading literature. I also had several great teachers at Clemson, especially Bill Koon, who recognized that I had some potential. He was very encouraging and introduced me to writers I wouldn’t have read on my own. Almost everything I know about teaching, I learned from him.”
Years later, Rash would dedicate his first novel to Koon, 2002’s One Foot in Eden.

Elegance, grit and harsh reality

While Rash is best known as a novelist, he started out writing primarily poetry and short stories. He has had poems appear in more than 100 magazines and journals, but didn’t publish his first book until his 40s, the 1994 short-story collection The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth and Other Stories From Cliffside, North Carolina. After a couple of poetry collections came One Foot in Eden, the first of his six novels.
Whether writing poetry or prose, Rash is noted for the poetic rhythms of his language. Rick Bragg, the Pulitzer-winning author of last year’s acclaimed biography Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, is enough of an admirer to have used some of Rash’s 1998 poem “Eureka Mill” as a foreword to his 2009 essay collection The Most They Ever Had.
Over the phone from his home in Alabama, Bragg reads a bit of it:
“This is what I cannot remember
A young woman stooped in a field
The hoe callousing her hands
The roads stretch out like hours.
And this woman, my mother, rising
To dust rising half a mile
Up the road, the car
She has waited days for
Realized in the trembling heat…”
“Man,” Bragg says, sounding as if he’s come out of a reverie, “Ron Rash is the real deal, to use the vernacular of my people. You’ll hear this beautiful thing from him that’s not exactly eloquent language, more like the kind of thing you’d hear in a pool hall. But he writes with an elegance and a grit, and that is the secret. I’ve been a fan of his for knockin’ on a lot of years. You don’t want to compare writers, but who’s better than Ron? He writes beautifully, and he’ll about scare you to death, too.”
Harsh reality tends to rule in Rash’s novels, along with cathartic violence that reveals the essences of his characters. He has themes that recur from book to book, especially the impact of the dead on the living and the psychological effects of landscape. His stories seem to take place in a dimension where time is fluid, and ghosts and landscapes can seem more alive than the living. [pullquote]Clear-cut mountainsides almost seem to cry out in agony in Serena, while echoes of a blood feud going back more than a century reverberate throughout The World Made Straight — rendered in language that shows the continued influence of poetry.[/pullquote]
“I wrote mostly poetry for a lot of years, and the danger for a poet writing fiction is getting too descriptive,” Rash says. “What I hope I learned from poetry is how to make every word count in as concise a way as possible. What I enjoy most about writing is revising, and what I hate is getting down the first draft. Once I get into something and it becomes about the language, that’s the good part. How vowels and consonants rub up against each other, the rhythms of the sentences and the paragraphs and the pages, that’s what gives me the most pleasure as a writer.
“The other part I love is interviewing people,” he adds. “Like for Serena, I interviewed a guy who was one of only 12 people in the U.S. who hunted with an eagle. I love that because these people will always give you something fascinating you would not have known to ask for otherwise. They tend to be fanatics who only care about one thing. Kind of like writers, I guess.”

  • From a single image to pencil on paper

Most of Rash’s books begin with a single image he can’t get out of his mind, like the dead fish noted in Above the Waterfall. For Serena, it was a woman on horseback. And for The World Made Straight, it was a live fish in an isolated stream. Once the image takes hold, it leads to questions — who is seeing the fish, why is he here, what happens next if he continues upstream? — and eventually a plot will emerge, although it takes the obligatory first-draft agony to draw out.
Every book takes about three years to finish. Rash still writes in longhand, with a pencil and pad of paper, typing it into a computer afterward. But he still edits with that pencil, on hard-copy printouts. “There’s something about it being onscreen that I don’t like,” he says. “I’d rather mark it up on paper and then go back and change it in the computer. But it’s amazing how hard it can be to find pencils anymore. I carry one with me all the time.” Rash pauses to reach into his jacket pocket, drawing forth a No. 2 pencil with a well-worn eraser. “I’m kind of between projects right now, catching my breath,” he concludes. “But there’s something I’m working on now, though not too hard. It could be a short story. I don’t know yet.”
David Menconi is a freelance writer living in Charlotte.
Listen to Ron Rash tell the story of reading with his grandfather.