BOTH AS an individual and as a writer Ron Rash, who reads in Galway next month at the Cúirt International Festival of Literature, has been indelibly shaped by his southern Appalachian roots.
Rash grew up in the small rural town of Boiling Springs in North Carolina and his family have lived in the surrounding region since the mid-1700s. Over a writing career that has spanned almost 20 years and encompassed novels, poems, and stories his work has been deeply informed by the people and places of what he has called “his spirit country”.
It is a country that remains his home to this day as Rash currently teaches creative writing at Western Carolina University where he is Professor in Appalachian cultural studies.
Rash’s work has met with growing recognition and acclaim, winning the Frank O’Connor Award for Burning Bright, and twice being shortlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award, for Chemistry and Other Stories and his 2008 novel Serena. The latter is perhaps his best-known book to date, a gripping Depression-era saga of greed, corruption, and revenge set amid Carolina logging camps and featuring a female protagonist – the eponymous Serena Pemberton – as ruthless and bloodthirsty as Lady Macbeth.
A major film adaptation of Serena, directed by Susanne Bier and starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, has recently been completed and will hit cinema screens this year. 2013 has also seen the publication of Rash’s latest book, Nothing Gold Can Stay, a collection of stories hailed by The Boston Globe as “lyrical and honest, grounded in place yet sweeping in scope” and by The Independent as “beautifully crafted, sure and strong”.
Ahead of his forthcoming Galway visit, Rash took some time to chat about his work and influences, beginning with a description of the distinguishing characteristics of his Appalachian homeplace.
“It’s a very mountainous region and like many mountainous regions it has tended historically to be less populated and in some ways more insular,” he begins. “Until very recently, people have tended to stay in the area for generations. It’s a very different part of America, the culture is very distinct. Appalachian speech is distinct, as is its food and music – this is where so much country and bluegrass music came from. All those things set it apart.”
A number of Rash’s stories are centred around people and events of the American Civil War and how it impacted on his region.
“It has left a trace,” he acknowledges. “Any time something that traumatic happens in a culture it continues to resonate for a time. What made western North Carolina in some ways a place where it was even more deeply imbedded was that the region was so divided, there was a lot of Union sympathy. As a matter of fact when they had a popular vote whether to secede from the United States, in North Carolina the popular vote was against secession and particularly in the western part in the mountains because there were very few slave owners up there, especially compared to the coastal areas. The war had a big impact, even today you can sense differences that show that.”
Rash has written about how his grandfather was a key early influence, a man who was a gifted storyteller though he could neither read nor write. Another shaping factor in Rash’s early years was the speech impediment that afflicted him for some time.
“It affected me in an obvious way for several years,” he recalls. “There are still certain words I have trouble pronouncing today. But I think it also made me much more keen-eared for language and it made me listen more intently to the way people speak. Though I didn’t see it that way at the time, I think now it was a great gift for a writer.”
Religion, specifically his upbringing as a Southern Baptist, was one more vital ingredient in the formation of Rash’s writerly sensibility.
“It encouraged a particular view of the world, a view of Man as a fallen creature - which I would argue history confirms, even if you’re not of a religious bent,” he notes with a wry chuckle. “Another thing, and I didn’t recognise this until years later, was how important it was for me to be immersed in the King James Bible, not just the stories in the Bible but also the rhythms, the cadences, the language. Flannery O’Connor once said one of the great benefits of being a Southerner was that you grew up knowing your Bible. Just hearing those rhythms, and the beauty of that book and the language on a regular basis was really important.”
As he has mentioned Flannery O’Connor, I ask Rash to what extent he sees himself as writing within that long tradition of Southern writers or if it’s something he resists?
“A bit of both, certainly you don’t look to be a mere imitator,” he replies. “I grew up knowing that people from my region, the South, - O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Faulkner - we were good storytellers, we had a love of language. In my own writing I think I have a more pared-down style than the likes of Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy – though both those writers have been important to me. I hope some of the concision and vividness I find in their work has found its way into mine.”
The Irish angle
Rash then goes on to describe the great impact Irish writers have had on him.
“The other influence that has been huge for me, and I think equally valuable, has been a real love of Irish literature – and I’m not just saying that because you’re interviewing me today. There was something about reading people who were writing about a similar background – Seamus Heaney was hugely important to me early on – this was part of what made world literature, not just American or Southern; by writing about a particular place you found the universal.
“Early on, Dubliners was another book that was very important to me, particularly the concision of some of those stories, how much could be conveyed in just a few pages. Even today the short story is probably the form I love most and my favourite writers of stories, one is Alice Munro but the other two are William Trevor and Edna O’Brien.”
Suffice to say, Rash is looking forward to the prospect of meeting Heaney and O’Brien when he comes to Cúirt. And Cúirt audiences, by the same token, will surely be keenly looking forward to seeing and hearing Ron Rash read. He takes to the stage at the Town Hall on Saturday April 27 at 8.30pm and is joined on the evening by Claire Keegan.
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie