15 Minutes With Ron Rash
The bestselling author talks about the struggle between darkness and lightness and landscape as destiny in his new novel — and the importance of writing every day.
Ron Rash has established himself as one of the South’s most acclaimed novelists. The Frank O’Conner International Short Story Award Winner is well known for his regional prose and his investigation into the way we effect, and are affected by, our environment. The bestselling author of Serena is currently in the midst of an international book tour to promote his latest novel, Above the Waterfall. In it, a park ranger sees the world through the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins; a retiring sheriff investigates poaching at a local fishing resort, and contends with the area’s crystal meth crisis. The novel continues Rash’s exploration of man’s relationship with the natural world while the characters struggle with past traumas, remorse and uncertainty as they try to find a way to move on. I contacted Ron Rash while he was stuck in a New York City cab and managed to get 15 minutes to ask him about his newest novel — and his status as one of the South’s most prolific writers.
TG: When did you begin writing, and when did you first contemplate having a career as a writer?
RR: Well, it started late. I didn’t start writing until I was in college, but I’ve always been a voracious reader, and I think those two things go together. A book that probably changed my life as much as any was Crime and Punishment. I read it when I was 15, and I was too young to really understand that book on a lot of levels, but it deeply affected me. I remember feeling an almost out-of-body experience. It was so intense, and I think it occurred to me then, how wonderful it is that you can do this with mere splotches of ink.
TG: Besides Dostoyevsky, were there any writers that were especially influential to you as you became more vocational about writing?
RR: I think certainly Faulkner and Flannery O’Conner were important. I mean, my style is very different, but I think they showed me that I could write about my particular region while also being universal. I think that’s why we see them read all across the world.
TG: Has the reception for this novel been different from your other novels? Is it less nerve-wracking to have your work reviewed by major publications now that you’re so well established?
RR: I ask myself when I finish a book: “Have I done the best I can with this particular book?” And if I’ve honestly done that, you know, what more can I do? Some people will like it, some people will not, but in a way that’s kind of beyond my control. All I can do is give my readers the best book I can write.
RR: Well, actually, I’ve had two books turned into movies: Serena and The World Made Straight. I look at it that what I get out of it is people who may not have heard of my work may come to my work after seeing the movie or hearing about the movie. I had nothing to do with either movie, really. I wasn’t a screenwriter or anything. I answered a few questions, but it doesn’t change my book one word. Ultimately, it’s their interpretation of the book, and I think maybe I can be irritated that a movie is not as well done or true to the book as I would have liked, but I think, you give them the rights, you can’t complain much.
TG: One thing that was particularly arresting for me, reading your latest novel, was this feeling that Les has to confront his lawful duty in the face of his feelings toward Becky. Do you think that being susceptible to changing our ideals as a result of our feelings for others is dangerous, or is it rather something that should happen when we love somebody else?
RR: Well, I think that’s why I love a situation like that, because of its complexity. And I think what a serious novel does is not give you the answers. In a way, I leave it up to the reader to decide whether Les did the right thing in that situation. And did he do the right thing with CJ at the end? I mean, I don’t want to give that away, but at the end Les has to make a similar decision, and if you think about it, he decides one way with Becky, but on the other hand, later in the book we have a moment where he realizes, ‘well, I’m not going to do that.’
TG: The novel deals pretty extensively with trauma, and it’s in stark contrast to this beautiful Appalachian setting and these poetic descriptions we see throughout Becky’s narration. How do you think environment and location play into the psychological development of your characters?
RR: I think, to me, landscape is hugely important. I think landscape can even become destiny at times. I think particularly for mountain people, it can seem both a place that seems sheltering and protective — the mountains protecting someone — but also the way they loom over us, the eons they’ve been there, remind us how insignificant we are. So I think that both of those things definitely affect my characters at different times in the story.
TG: You mentioned Faulkner’s influence on you, and I think much of the Southern tradition of writing has this attachment to darkness. Is one impetus for your writing and prose to deal with that trauma, similar to that which the characters experience in Above the Waterfall?
RR: I think in some ways, yes, but ultimately the key is not so much that you’re trying to titillate the reader, but rather it’s only in those kinds of situations that character is revealed. The characters are stripped of their veneers, their masks, and who they are is totally revealed — to others and sometimes to themselves.
TG: What was your impetus for including Les’s having to contend with the meth crisis in his region? I know that I read it metaphorically, but I’m wondering if it was a more literal intention than that.
RR: Well, I think that, unfortunately, it’s a real problem in our area. But ultimately, I think it really says a lot about Les, that he, in a sense, is wanting to see the worst, almost, I think, exonerate himself about causing his wife to kill herself. And so I think the fact that he seems to be searching for the darkness in the world certainly is one aspect that is metaphorical, you know, that Becky is always seeking the light, and he’s seeking the dark, but these are both coping mechanisms, to use a psychological term. They are trying to find a way in which they can go on.
TG: Above the Waterfall is only the latest of your acclaimed novels. I was hoping to gain some insight into your writing process. Is there a large amount of planning that goes on before you begin drafting, or do you just let the story come to you as you go?
RR: It always starts with an image. In this case, I started with an image of a dead trout in a stream, but it just kind of branches out from there. I never outline or plot, I just kind of let the story reveal itself. Then, as I get into the later parts of the novel or draft, it becomes more and more about language and sound.
TG: Well, I’ll let you go. I’m sure you have an incredibly busy week ahead of you.
RR: An incredibly busy month. I’ll be in Washington next, then France for a week, and then I come back and hit St. Louis, so it’s kind of crazy. But today I’m writing, because that’s what it’s about. If I don’t write when I’m on the road like this, I feel like I’ve lost a day. So, I’m tired, but you know, that’s what it’s about ultimately, it’s about the writing. It’s not about anything else.