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. 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.
“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.”