While his name might not be familiar to many Australians, Ron Rash has long been a critically acclaimed writer in the United States. Originally a poet, Rash published several collections of short stories before breaking new ground in 2002 with his first novel, One Foot in Eden, a work of Southern Gothic. Serena, an epic novel about a timber baroness with unwavering, brutal ambition, expanded Rash’s celebrity internationally. The novel was nominated for the PEN/ Faulkner Award for Fiction, and was named Book of the Year in The New York Times, Washington Post and Publishers Weekly.
A Southern author writing in the tradition of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy, Rash’s work finds its cornerstone in the mountains of Appalachia. Burning Bright, his most recent short stories, is a collection of dark love letters to the rugged people, language and landscape of rural Carolina. From construction workers plundering the graves of dead confederates to a boy who discovers a plane crash deep in the Smoky Mountains, Burning Bright contains the grace, purity and concision of language for which Rash is renowned.
Kill Your Darlings spoke with Ron Rash about Burning Bright, what it means to write out of a singular locale, and the mystery of inspiration.
– Hannah Kent
KYD: Thanks for agreeing to speak with me today, Ron. How are you, anyway?
RR: I’m doing fine. I’ve just finished up a new novel, so that’s good news! I’m pretty happy about that.
KYD: Congratulations. I’d like to also congratulate you on the publication of your short story collection, Burning Bright, which is about to be released in Australia in August. I hear it won the Frank O’Connor Award. What an achievement.
RR: Thank you. I love short stories, I love writing them, and it’s nice to get some interest in them.
KYD: Well, as you may know, many Australians are not especially familiar with a lot of your work because your books have only started to be published over here. But what has been published has been met with outstanding reviews. So it’s exciting to hear that you’ve got a new novel coming out.
RR: That means a lot to me. The great thing is that I love Australian literature so much. I’ve always felt a kinship with it.
KYD: Really? Any particular authors?
RR: Oh yeah, a million of them [laughs]. Patrick White – I loved Voss. Tim Winton, Kate Grenville, Janette Turner Hospital’s Oyster is a wonderful novel. And Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish is amazing.
KYD: Oh, that’s great. It can be hard for the Australian voice to be heard overseas – we’re so isolated, and the industry is comparatively small.
RR: Actually, I know Les Murray. Les did a blurb for my third book of poetry, which I was very grateful for. He’s an amazing poet. Fredy Neptune is the best verse novel I’ve ever read.
KYD: Do you think you’d ever attempt a verse novel?
RR: [Laughs]. No, I don’t think I could. I’ve actually got a new book of poetry coming out this fall, but I couldn’t do what he did in that book. There’s just no way [laughs].
I enjoy Australian literature. I feel like the Australian sensibility is similar to my own. Landscape is very important to me, and also the natural world, and that’s something Australian writers seem to have a similar interest in.
KYD: I can certainly see that focus on landscape appealing to you. One thing that struck me about this new collection of short stories is the extent to which they all evoked your chosen locale, which is, of course, the Appalachian Mountains. Now, some Australian readers might not be as familiar with this area as your US readers. Could you please tell me a little about this area, and what it means to you as a writer?
RR: Well, it’s a big region distinct from the rest of the United States. The speech patterns are different. The country and bluegrass music that has come out of this region has had a worldwide impact. It’s a mountainous region; it’s populated with much more forest than many places in the United States. It’s very important to me because my family lived here in the 1700s. I’m actually talking to you on land that my family lived on 230 years ago.
KYD: Are you trying to bring this particular region to a broader audience, or is it something that you are inclined to explore for more personal reasons?
RR: Well, unfortunately there are a lot of stereotypes about this region, and one thing I hope my work does – while not sentimentalising the people – is show readers that although these people are different in some ways, they are recognisably human and their fears and desires are like everyone else’s. Only in a different landscape.
KYD: People are very very quick to call you a Southern writer. You’re often compared to Flannery O’Connor. Do you struggle with such labels?
RR: I have mixed feelings about it. I mean, certainly I’m proud to be part of that literary tradition, but it’s problematic when people put a ‘just’ in front of that: ‘just a Southern writer’ [laughs]. The great thing about Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner and Eudora Welty, is that even though they were very Southern and wrote about a very specific region, they were universal at the same time. You know, one of my favourite quotes is by Eudora Welty. She said: ‘One place understood helps us understand other places better.’
KYD: You had written nine books before Serena, which was the novel that arguably catapulted you into Australian readers’ lives and onto the international literary stage. You received a lot of attention for Serena. How has the attention affected your writing?
RR: Well it’s been gratifying. I’ve worked for a very long time. I’m 57 now, and I really didn’t start getting any recognition in the United States until about six or seven years ago. It’s been really gratifying to get some recognition for what I’ve spent most of my life doing, and not only in the United States but also outside of it. I’m getting ready to go to France because Serena has done very well over there. I’m getting opportunities to travel and to see some countries I’ve never been to. I’m coming to Australia next year for the writers’ festivals.
KYD: It would be great to have you here. One thing I wanted to ask you, regarding your experience as a writer, is concerned with your background in poetry. I know that you have published several collections, such as Among the Believers and Raising the Dead. To what extent does poetry – both your production of it and also your consumption of it – influence your prose?
RR: I think that, in many ways, the best training I have received as a prose writer is reading and writing poetry, because it demands vividness and concision. I was actually, earlier in my career, better known as a poet. Some people have chastised me for not writing much poetry now, but I hope when readers read my novels or stories that they sense that I am a poet writing prose. A lot of the poetry gets into the prose.
KYD: One thing that struck me about Burning Bright, as indeed it did in your novels Serena and One Foot in Eden, was the precision of your language. Can you tell me a little bit more about how you craft your sentences? Is it a very laborious process?
RR: It is. Actually, when I’m working on a story or a novel, during the last couple of drafts I’m just purely concerned with sound. I’m reading the words and the sentences and the paragraphs, and I’m listening to how they sound. And by that I mean I’m listening to which syllables are stressed, which are unstressed, and what type of rhythm each gives the paragraph. I’m very conscious of every word.
KYD: Does this mean that writing takes you much longer than it might an author who has written prose from the outset?
RR: I think so, because of what I tend to do… I think I wrote 14 full drafts of Serena. And I’m talking about full drafts. I don’t ever reread my novels because I always find places where I wish I could have done it better.
KYD: Just going back to the fact that you do, evidently, focus so closely on the words and the stress and the cadence of your prose – I read that your first novel, One Foot in Eden, actually began as a poem. How did it evolve into a novel?
RR: Actually, the poem/novel began with an image. Every novel I’ve written has come from a single image. For One Foot in Eden, the image was of a farmer standing in a field, and his crops were dying around him. That was all I had. I remember that image came to me essentially out of a dream. I woke up and kind of dredged it up, and that day I wrote a 14-line poem about a farmer in a field with his crops dying. But when I finished it I knew that… The image that I had in my head, that poem couldn’t contain it. And then I wrote a short story and that didn’t contain it [laughs]. And so I thought, well, looks like I might have to try and make this a novel.
KYD: Were you apprehensive about venturing into a new form?
RR: Oh yes. Very much so. Because I’d tried a few novels before and I’d never had any success, and I was fearful of that kind of commitment. Because I knew that it was going to be a commitment of a couple of years.
KYD: So, One Foot in Eden began with an image, which evolved into a poem, and then a short story and finally a novel. Do you generally get most of your ideas for both your short stories and the novels from an image and then write from there?
RR: Yes. Every novel or short story. When I wrote the title story ‘Burning Bright’, I had an image of this woman looking out towards the mountains and I knew it was a time when fires were possible. The whole story started with this image of a woman looking out at the mountains. That’s how it happens.
KYD: Once you receive an image, how exactly do you begin to build on that?
RR: The best way I can explain it is that when I get this kind of image, when I get a true, important image – and I know when it’s important because I can’t get it out of my head – the image nags at me. I don’t know where the novel’s going; I don’t plot out my novels and I don’t outline them. Very often I don’t even know who the characters are. I just start with that image.
What happens inevitably, with a novel at least, is that there comes a time after maybe six months, or a year, where the book just seems to die. It reaches a dead end and I can’t seem to work out what to do next. Sometimes this will last several months, sometimes a few weeks. I think writers need particular beliefs, whether they’re true or not doesn’t matter. And the one I have to believe in, or that I make myself believe in, is some ways a little bit like what Michelangelo believed. You know, he would look at the untouched block of marble and he would believe that the statue was already in it; that it was just a matter of finding it. And what I believe is that if this image is so strong, if it haunts me day after day, if I can’t get it out of my head, and I can’t forget it, then I make myself believe that the whole novel is out there. It’s just a matter of my discovering it.
KYD: I’d heard of Michelangelo’s belief about his blocks of marble, but I’ve never heard a writer thinking of a novel in the same way. You often hear of writers speaking of how they don’t know when their novel is going to end, or they’re not particularly sure about their characters, but I’ve never heard of a writer thinking of the novel as fully formed before it is written. I think it could be enormously useful.
RR: It’s very helpful to me, and it sounds crazy but it works. It’s a great help in those bleak months of despair. You sit there thinking, ‘I’ve lost a year of my life writing this novel and now it’s not working and I’ll never complete it’, and I make myself believe that that novel is out there somewhere.
The older I get, the more I write, the more mysterious writing becomes. Where does it come from? Say you write a short story – why is it that one day you think of an image or a character, and you’ve never thought of that before, and then one day it just comes. You know? Why is that? It’s not something that I think can be easily explained.
KYD: Do you think there’s a danger in questioning that too much?
RR: Of where it comes from?
KYD: In trying to analyse the intuitive, creative process.
RR: Yeah, I do. I think writers work best on intuition. Les Murray talks about writing as being very similar to a dream state. And I think he’s right about that.
KYD: How do you feel then about the way in which creative writing is increasingly being taught at a very theoretical level in universities? Do you agree that creative writing and its processes ought to be taught and analysed in an academic manner?
RR: Well, I have friends who have gone through Master of Fine Arts programs, and they’ve done fine. I do not have a MFA. What I did was actually get a traditional Masters degree in literature and just read a lot. And I think ultimately the most important thing for any writer is to be reading a lot. You know, reading really good writers. And probably the best MFA programs incorporate a lot of reading of the great writers. It just depends on who you are and what works for you.
KYD: My next question is perhaps a little concerned with study. Many of the stories in Burning Bright are set in the past. Serena is set in 1929, and the events of One Foot in Eden begin in 1951. Your rendering of these times has a verisimilitude that suggests rigorous research: what lengths do you go to achieve this historical exactitude and historical detail?
RR: I do a huge amount of research. I love to meet people who actually do what I’m writing about. For Serena I actually found one of 12 people in the United States who hunt with an eagle. He was very helpful in my understanding of how you would train an eagle to hunt rattlesnakes, the first person to say, ‘Yes, you could do that’. Previously I didn’t know if you could or not, I just thought it would be a really interesting idea if the character Serena could do that. I love to do that kind of thing. I love doing research. I’m curious. I love learning about things. But you always miss something. I mean, it’s inevitable that you’ll get something wrong, but you do the best you can.
The other reason I like to write about the past is because I think in some ways that it’s a really good way to write about the present.
When I wrote Serena I was actually writing as much about what was happening in the United States five years ago as what was happening in the 1920s. About five years ago – and this is still a threat – there was an attempt to destroy some of the national parks by allowing logging.
KYD: I’m interested in how your fiction tends to revolve around the relationships people have with the landscape they inhabit. For instance, in Serena your protagonists have a very exploitative attitude towards the mountains, and this drives the narrative, but the other characters, oppositely, identify with and are connected with their surroundings in a very spiritual sense.
In Burning Bright, the short story ‘Into the Gorge’ struck me as exploring the changing relationship people have with the land over generations. And ‘Hard Times’ is of course a story of two families dependent on their landscape for survival.
What fascinates you as a writer about the connection between the natural world and humans, or the lack thereof?
RR: I’m fascinated with the way landscape affects human psychology. Actually, there’s a bit of a phrase I tell myself. I can’t articulate it as well as I want to, but it’s that ‘landscape is destiny’. How might someone who grows up amongst mountains be different from someone who grows up in the desert? I think there are differences. I’ve noticed them. The other thing is that it’s not a matter of choosing whether the natural world matters to us. It has to! I mean, we’re part of it. The idea that we cannot be connected to the land is ridiculous. If it stops working, we go with it.
KYD: In Serena, I thought it was especially significant that Serena herself is not from the Appalachians. She’s from Colorado, and you can see the difference between her character and those that are from North Carolina.
The destruction of the natural world seems to be a continual theme in your work, as I’ve suggested. Do you consider your stories political in that they are environmentalist?
RR: Well, I’ve been concerned with environmental issues, but at the same time… One thing I try to be very careful about is to not let my books seem like propaganda. You know, I sign petitions and I do things like that, but I think for a work of art to do what it should… I don’t think that’s the right place for that kind of polemic. That’s my view. What I hope to do, instead of telling my reader what to think, is to show the reader. I think my role is more that of a witness. I show what happened.
KYD: Has anyone ever accused you of didacticism?
RR: I’m sure someone has. One thing I hope I did in Serena was show the complexity of the situation. You know, you have men [loggers] who are starving. They need jobs and you have this terrible situation where they’re destroying their very landscape, their very home, but they have to do it because their families are starving. The novel also shows the consequences of building a national park – there are people who are forced off their land. So I hope readers aren’t going to say: ‘Oh yeah, he’s just one of those tree-huggers’ [laughs].
KYD: I’m reminded of the story from Burning Bright, ‘Into the Gorge’. I thought that was a very interesting take on this issue of the natural world – especially after just having finished reading Serena. In this story, Jesse is stopped from collecting the ginseng that has been planted in the forest by his father and generations before him – he has a very close tie with that land – by the park rangers, and with dramatic consequences. Am I right in saying that?
RR: Oh yes, absolutely. And those grey areas in these ‘issues’ are the most interesting to me.
KYD: Let’s return to your creative process and your sense of locale and landscape. I think you have a particular gift for conveying the dialect of your region, particularly in the stories set in the past. How do you create the vernacular of your characters?
RR: I was very lucky growing up in that I spent a great deal of time with my grandmother on her farm. We didn’t have a TV, or a truck or a car, and so we were pretty much just there. I got to spend a lot of time with my older relatives and got to hear their way of speech. A lot of the language I use is the language I heard as a child. You can still hear this kind of language in the region. I mean, it’s disappearing, but what I hope to do as a writer is not allow it to completely disappear by recording it in a book.
KYD: I’m very fond of the way you present the vernacular of the region, particularly its unique similes and idioms. In the opening story ‘Hard Times’, there’s that wonderful phrase: ‘So damn dark a man has about to break light with a crowbar.’ Another one I liked in Serena was: ‘That fellow could hide from his own shadow.’ To many these phrases might seem a very alien manner of talking. Is this vernacular accurate? Do people actually talk in similes in the Appalachians?
RR: Very often. Yeah, they do. And one thing that I hope I do with my use of that vernacular… You know, for a long time these people have been seen as being not very well educated, but what I hope to do with my work is show that there’s a real intelligence in their use of language, particularly in their use of simile. To me, the best kind of intelligence and complexity in language is the ability to create similes. Very often I use a lot of similes in my vernacular because I feel it’s a way of showing the creativity and the intelligence of the character. They may not use an educated language, but there’s a beauty and a poetry and an inventiveness in their language.
KYD: How do you remember these similes? Do you go around with a voice recorder or do you write them down in a notebook, or do you invent some of them? Or is it all from memory?
RR: Oh, I invent some [laughs]. Sometimes they’re phrases I heard growing up, from my older relatives. I use anything I can. When I hear a good phrase I’ll usually write it down. Actually, I heard one of my uncles say, ‘so dark you need a crowbar to break the light’. That’s actually something I heard growing up.
KYD: I think there really is a certain poetry to this manner of speaking which perhaps belies the stereotypes surrounding rural people. I think we have a very similar situation in country Australia. There are many city folk who think people out there are relatively uneducated. My father is from the country and I’ve grown up with him speaking a language of similes. Such as: ‘So windy it could blow a wombat out of its hole.’
RR: [Laughs] That’s good.
KYD: Then there’s: ‘So hungry I could eat the crotch out of a low-flying duck.’
RR: Oh, I think that’s great [laughs]. You know, one of the things I think is so useful about the similes rural people coin is that they use images of the natural world. It becomes the most universal language.
These similes translate better. Comparing something to a mountain is better than saying ‘like a blue-light special at Kmart’. You might have no idea of what I’m talking about.
RR: But if you say, ‘as swift as a flooding river’, you have no problem with that.
KYD: These kinds of similes and phrases work beautifully in your own work because you do have that focus on the landscape, and explore that connection people have with the land. I found in Serena – where you have the loggers speaking in this vernacular and using a lot of these similes and a lot of these phrases – that it gives it some much-needed humour. The vernacular reflects the black humour that you find amongst rural people who are used to suffering hardship.
RR: Yeah, that was very, very important because it’s such a dark book. It’s funny, because I’ve had some people say they don’t think there’s any humour in the book, and I think I’ve written some of the best comic writing I’ve ever done in it!
KYD: The other things I think stem from the land – like this use of simile – are the superstitions and the folklore and witchery that are also explored in your writing. In One Foot in Eden, you have the widow woman who everyone believes is a witch, and then in Serena you have Galloway’s mother who can see into the future. In Burning Bright there’s a lot of folklore. Take ‘The Corpse Bird’ for instance, which is about the old belief that if the titular bird calls out three nights in a row, someone in the next house will die. What interests you about these superstitions? What do you wish to achieve by exploring them?
RR: I include the folklore to convey a sense of wonder. I mean, to me this world is incredibly wondrous, and it’s mysterious, and it’s very striking to me that we seem to be oblivious to that. And also I hope that by using the folklore that, in a sense, it makes the world ‘bigger’. Wider. I love that quote in Hamlet: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth…’ I love the idea that the world is so much more mysterious than we ever realise.
KYD: Do you adhere to some of that folklore you grew up with, and are very familiar with?
RR: Oh, you know, not in the same sense as my characters do. But I always like to believe that the world is more mysterious than we think. I guess you would say that I’m someone who refuses not to believe.
I think writing about folklore is also a way of preserving something of that culture. One of the things about where I live is that it seems to be an overtly Christan culture, but there are many pagan elements in it which the people in the community don’t realise [laughs].
KYD: I was thinking about the re-occurring themes that come up in your work – like folklore – and one theme I continually noticed was the anxiety surrounding parenting and illegitimacy. Is this something you’re aware of?
RR: I think part of it probably comes from the moral landscape that my parents lived in. It was such a big aspect of their lives. It was very important. So in a way this theme just reflects the obsessions of the times, because my stories are often set in the past and the idea of community and connectedness was very important.
KYD: One story I thought a particular standout from this collection was ‘Ascent’. On the surface it seems very simple. There is a young boy who finds a recent light-plane crash in a forest and steals items from the victims inside to support his meth-addicted parents. But I thought it was beautifully nuanced, and it presented so many questions about what it is to be a parent, and also what it is to be a child, and who has the greater responsibility towards the other. When I read it I remembered One Foot in Eden and the child at the centre of that narrative, and in Serena you have a child as a catalyst for the events that unfold. Are you particularly drawn to the idea of children and what they stand for, and our anxieties surrounding raising them?
RR: You know, that’s interesting, because you’re not the first person to point that out. It’s not something I do consciously, but it’s certainly there, and part of it may just be from being a parent myself. I have two children. That may be in part just the anxiety of being a parent and always questioning your role and your child’s role. But you’re right, it’s there.
KYD: Referring again to the fact that all of your work is set in one particular region, people are starting to call you the ‘voice’ of the South. How do you feel about that? Do you feel a duty to continue writing about this region?
RR: Yeah, I would feel very uncomfortable being called the ‘voice’ of the region [laughs]. I’m one voice in the region. We have a number of excellent writers in the region and I would never presume that I convey all of what my region is. I think any writer who did would be either incredibly vain or incredibly foolish [laughs].
KYD: Do you see yourself writing out of a different locale in the future?
RR: Probably not. I have the example of Faulkner and O’Connor and also other writers as well. So much of Les Murray’s writing is set in the rural area that was so important to him growing up. I think I’ve got enough here to last me a lifetime. There is a value in really knowing a place intimately. There are dangers, obviously, but… You know, I’m looking out of my window right now at the mountains and my ancestors did the same. I have people who lived on this ridge who are my DNA, looking out on it 230 years ago. To be aware that you’re in a place with that kind of connection – that’s a gift for a writer.
KYD: You say that you plan to always write out of the Appalachians. How do you plan to challenge yourself as a writer in the future? Is this something you’re concerned with?
RR: What I’ll write about in the future?
KYD: I would presume that when you set out to write One Foot in Eden it was a challenge because you had never finished a novel before. Serena was a novel of epic proportions. Of course, there are always challenges inherent in the writing process, but I was wondering if you have a project in mind that you would like to attempt that you have not yet done.
RR: I just turned my new novel in two and a half weeks ago, so right now I’m just in a place between projects. I’m so tired from working on that novel for two and a half years, that I’ve not been doing a lot lately [laughs]. But one thing I did in Burning Bright that I had not written about before was the drug problem in the region. Particularly the meth. I think it’s important that I don’t just write about the past, but the present as well. For instance, the story ‘Into the Gorge’ is the story of a people who had lived in a place for generations and were being displaced, because this region is changing. There are new stories that are emerging and I think they’ll come to me. I think it’s just a matter of keeping my antennae up and waiting for the stories to come.
KYD: Can you tell us a little bit about your new book?
RR: Yeah. It’s actually set in 1918, but once again I think it’s very much about the present. Part of it is historically true, and the part of it that is historically true is that in the western Carolina Mountains during World War I there was a German internment camp. Now, in the United States people know a lot about the Japanese internment camps. But it’s pretty amazing to me how few people know about the German internment camps in the United States. I mean these were not prisoners of war, these were Germans who happened to be in America. They weren’t soldiers or spies or anything. The novel deals with one of them who escapes, which is something that happened historically. And I have him meet a young mountain woman. It goes from there.
KYD: That sounds very interesting. And now, a final question for you. We’ve spoken about growing up within a particular vernacular and locale, and being immersed in this area, with all the stories that come from such an experience. Why do you think we need stories in our lives? What can fiction writers like you do that non-fiction writers cannot?
RR: Well, I think one thing we can do – and this is not my quote, it’s Muriel Spark’s, and actually Francis Bacon may have said it before her – is to deepen the mystery, to deepen the wonder of simply being alive. What does it mean to be a human being? What does it feel like? I think the best fiction does deepen that wonder better than anything else. It makes us pay attention to the mystery of being alive. I hope it also allows, through the imagination, a degree of empathy. I think it just gives us an incredible kind of pleasure that no other art form or popular-culture form gives us.
For a book or novel or story to work, there must be an act of communion between the reader and writer. I mean, if you think about it, what the writer gives the reader is splotches of ink on a piece of paper. It’s up to the reader to read with intelligence and attentiveness to create those characters in his or her head and to respond to them, perhaps even become them. When a book makes someone laugh, or it makes someone cry, you have that incredible communion between reader and writer. And to me that’s one of the great achievements of the human race.
KYD: Ron, it has been an absolute pleasure talking with you, thank you for being interviewed by Kill Your Darlings. We wish you all the very best with your new novel.
RR: Thank you. I’ve enjoyed talking to you.