markgunnells (markgunnells) wrote,

Interview with Author Ron Rash

Ron Rash is a name that I feel everyone should know. He is a gifted poet, short story writer, and novelist, and I believe one of our greatest living storytellers. His work is diverse and evocative, mining the emotional depths of the human condition. I have had the pleasure of seeing him at several events over the years, and I was delighted when he accepted my invitation to allow me to interview him for my blog. He is warm, funny, and intelligent, and below is a transcript of our conversation. Enjoy.

MAG: At what age did you start to seriously consider becoming a writer?

RR: I started later than most of my friends. Actually, I was in college before I first tried to write poetry or fiction.

MAG: You are proficient in poetry, short stories, and novels. Did you dive into all three at once, or how did that evolve?

RR: When I was in college, I pretty much did short stories and poetry together early on. I can remember of the first five or six pieces I wrote, two were poems, three or four were stories. Actually, when I first got published in my college literary journal, I had a short story and a poem in it.

MAG: When did the novels come into play?

RR: I tried to write one when I was in my late 20s and failed. I tried again in my 30s and failed, but finally in my mid-40s I felt like I’d written something that was worthwhile. That was One Foot in Eden. So yes, the novels came later.

MAG: Excellent novel, by the way. Everyone always asks who’s your favorite novelist, but I want to ask who would you say is your favorite poet?

RR: I guess if I had to pick a favorite…I don’t know how you view Shakespeare. Shakespeare, to me, is the best of everything. If I had to pick an individual poet, purely a poet, it would probably be John Keats.

MAG: Your poetry has a strong narrative drive. I am particular fond of your poetry collection Eureka Mill, which through a series of connected poems tells the story of farmers driven off their land who go to work at a mill and live in mill houses. Did you write these pieces with the intention of doing a collection, or were they written individually and just pulled together when you realized they told a cohesive story?

RR: I had seen the mill villages start to disappear, and it was almost like no one was noticing that this way of life that had been so prevalent for so many people, not just in the south but at one time in New England, was disappearing. So I wrote five or six poems, and I started to realize that maybe I could do something that would be a collection of poetry that might also have the feel of a novel, a more expansive way of telling this story. After five or six poems, I started to realize this could be something bigger. I wasn’t sure what at first, maybe a chapbook, but I kept working and I felt better and better about it. Actually, it’s getting ready to be republished as a 20th Anniversary edition. It’s coming out in October, so it’s held up pretty well. (

MAG: One of my favorite novels of yours is The Cove. I found that bit of history about World War I (the American internment camps where Germans were held, and the plight of a certain German luxury liner’s crew) enlightening as I wasn’t aware of it.

RR: You’re not alone. Very few people seem to know about it.

MAG: True. The novel also spoke so eloquently of issues we face today. How much research did you do for that book?

RR: I did a huge amount. I love doing research. I’m just a curious person, and it’s always fun to learn about things I don’t know a lot about. I did a good bit of research, particularly on the ship. I actually found a book about the ship, and I had to order it from New Zealand. So yes, I did a lot of research, but also that cemetery is in Western North Carolina, pretty much near where I grew up, so I had some sense of it already. I think research is important to get the details as right as you can. You always miss something when you set a novel in a particular time, but at least I try to minimize it. And one thing I feel about this book and Serena, in particular, is that I was writing as much about the present as the past.

MAG: My next question is actually about Serena, which is perhaps the most well-known of your novels. It is excellent, and the title character is simply fascinating. When I read your collection Chemistry and Other Stories, I noticed that there was a short story called “Pemberton’s Bride” which is a shorter version of the novel, with a drastically different ending. I assume the short story came first?

RR: It’s kind of interesting. Even when I wrote that story, I already knew it was going to become a novel, but I felt like I could write something more concise and I thought that would be interesting. I was early into the novel at that time, and Rachel wasn’t even a character after the first page or two. The real change in that novel came later with Rachel. So yes, I was working on it but felt I had enough there to have a good story but all the while knowing I was going to do something more expansive. I also sort of did that same thing with the novel The World Made Straight and a short story called “Speckled Trout,” though in that instance I wrote the novel a couple of years after the short story.

MAG: Your most recently released novel, The Risen, is more contemporary than novels like Serena and The Cove. You seem to go back and forth between contemporary novels and period ones. Do you approach the writing differently when the time period you are writing about is more recent?

RR: Probably. The levels of research I have to do are different, and with contemporary novels I’m relying more on personal memory. Particularly in The Risen. In 1968 I was fourteen years old, and I really had that sense Eugene had, of all this amazing change and the love generation and optimism. But I was in a very small, conservative area in Western North Carolina, a small town of I guess 800 people, so it was like it was happening everywhere but there, but I was listening to the music, and as I say in the novel it was really like I was getting messages in a bottle from this other place. So certainly personal experience probably plays more of a role in that novel than any other novel I’ve written. I would say far more, actually.

MAG: It has one of the most beautiful endings I’ve ever read.

RR: Thank you. That book did not do as well as I might have liked, but I feel like it holds up. I think it’s a book that if you read it a second time, it may open up in ways the reader might have missed the first time. My goal was to write a book where the second reading, maybe even the third, would be where something really happens to the reader.

MAG: I will definitely be rereading it. In an interview, I heard you talk about short stories, saying that you believe them to be America’s great contribution to literature. I wondered if you could expound on that a bit. For instance, who do you think have been the most influential American short story writers?

RR: I think we can start with Poe, certainly. His influence on the French has been incredible. In a sense, he really was one of the most important short story writers and innovators. His short stories have been a great contribution to world literature, and then you see Hawthorne coming later. I think Hemmingway certainly has had a huge impact on world literature, particularly his short stories. And more recently Raymond Carver, and of course Flannery O’Connor continues to have a huge effect even outside the United States. I don’t know of a country that has produced greater short story writers. I think when we look at America’s great contribution to literature, to me it is pretty obviously the short story.

MAG: Short fiction is challenging, in that you have a smaller canvas on which to work yet still need to create a full world and authentic characters and a satisfying conclusion. Do you have any particular techniques you use to accomplish this, or do you trust completely to instinct?

RR: I just go by instinct, but I will say that almost every writer I’ve heard who does both will agree that to write a good short story is harder than writing a good novel. It’s not something I really want to think about too much. I really do want it to be intuitive, and the stories tend to almost always start with an image and then I just let it go where it will go. I’ve learned to trust that. The one thing I never do, though I did this early on until I learned it was exactly what was stifling me, is try to plot out a story. That, for me, doesn’t work. It’s almost as if you’re putting it all on a single rail, and those swerve moments that are unexpected are the moments that the short story really works. I work by intuition, even with novels. Everything I write starts with an image, Serena started with just an image of a woman on horseback.

MAG: As an avid lover of short fiction, I wondered if you had any other collections in the works?

RR: Absolutely. I’ve got one pretty much finished up. I’ve got twelve stories, and actually I’m probably going to have a novella where I bring back Serena to finish up her last job, which in the novel is left undone. She comes back from Brazil, but the story is actually focused much more on the loggers. In a sense, she’s not much more than a presence because it’s really about the logger Ross. I get into his backstory. So the collection is pretty much done. Over half the stories have been published. One just came out a week or two ago in Ploughshares, probably the one I think is the best. ( I’ve been working on a novel as well, and I’ve got a new publisher so they want the novel first since it’s my first book with them.

MAG: Do you remember your first public appearance as an author? If so, what stands out about the experience?

RR: My first public appearance as a writer was at the New York Public Library. I’m not kidding. That was the first reading I ever did. The first or second short story I ever published, I think it was the very first actually, was in a small literary magazine in North Carolina, but at that time General Electric had a Young Writers Award for writers under 40. They nominated it, and somehow incredibly it was selected by the judges. I think there were six of us who won. Rick Bass won, Rita Dove. There was a $5,000 first prize, and my first child had just been born. I said, “Can you just send me the check?” I didn’t want to go to New York, but they said, “No, you’ve got to come.” So I went up there and did the reading at the New York Public Library. That was my first reading. It’s funny, because I’m an introvert. I can fake it, but I remember thinking, Nobody up here knows me. If I screw this up completely, no one will know about it.

MAG: I believe you’ve done some events outside the country. Where’s the farthest you’ve traveled to promote your work?

RR: New Zealand. My books have done well in Australia and New Zealand. They’ve done well in Europe and China. Which I think is what you hope for as a writer. I’ve always had problems when people call me a “regional writer” because I think in a sense almost all of us are regional writers. James Joyce writes about a region. He’s as local and regional as you can get. All his books take place in Dublin. I think ultimately your goal, at least my goal, is to write stories that while very much of a particular place and culture transcend it at the same time. As I tell people, I think ultimately what I’m trying to do is capture something of what it feels like to be alive in the world.

MAG: I think really great fiction is universal, and yours certainly is.

RR: I hope there is a sense of that. Certainly I use a lot of world mythology, and I’m aware of it from different cultures. I’m pretty much a Jungian, and I’m pretty interested in the collective unconscious. The idea that certain archetypes are instilled in us that we all share, and I think a lot of times what the writer does is touch on those archetypes. It’s not so much that you’re doing it deliberately, but I think the reader senses, “This feels right. It feels true.” A lot of times it is not just human experience, but a kind of resonance from that type of archetypal aspect of our consciousness.

MAG: I’ve noticed you have little to no online presence, something I admire and sort of envy. I know from experience that these days publishers like their authors to do a lot of self-promotion on social media. Do you get pressure from your publisher to be more active on social media platforms?

RR: I think they’ve pretty much resolved that I’m not going to do that. I feel like the best thing I can do for my audience, my readers, is to put all my energy into writing the best book I can. Social media is just not something that feels right for me. Whether others do it is their business, obviously. I don’t do Facebook or any of that, it doesn’t interest me.

MAG: You seem to do a lot of appearances in the area, though.

RR: Yes, that’s different. People invite me, and I do a good number of fundraisers. A lot of times I do it because I want to support independent bookstores. Particularly in this region my books sell pretty well, so I know if I go to an independent that will help them. And I’ve done two literacy fundraisers in the last month, so I’ll do fundraisers for causes I believe in. Those are the kinds of appearances I usually do.

MAG: For fans who are interested in keeping up with your upcoming works, what would you recommend as the best way to keep abreast of your latest releases?

RR: My Amazon author page has all my work, and any new works I have coming out will be added. (

I want to thank Mr. Rash for taking the time to speak with me. His work is widely available, and I encourage everyone to give it a try. You won’t be disappointed.
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