Rash’s suspense novel gives time to poetry
by Rob Neufeld
A fish kill precipitates the story involving fishing rights, a crystal meth epidemic, and two reeling characters: Les, the county sheriff, who’s sick of human depravity, and preparing to retire; and Becky, a park ranger, who has lived in a dream of words and animals ever since she’d witnessed her schoolteacher being shot by an intruder.
Rash presents his book at Malaprop’s Bookstore, 7 p.m., Tues., Sept. 8.
“I like to go up above that waterfall and look at them specks,” Gerald Blackwelder, a mountain hold-out, responds when questioned about poaching on what has become private resort property.
“That water’s so clear you can see every dot on them.”
Watching is the first step toward getting to be nature-smart, Rash observed in an interview Monday.
Becky’s aptitude for that kind of “old awareness” grew from the muteness that afflicted her after the shooting, and from her time on her grandparents’ farm, to which she’d been sent by exasperated parents.
“Word and wonder and world could be one,” Becky writes.
Becky takes turns narrating the novel with Les. In her opening chapter, she establishes her voice.
“I watch last light lift off level land,” she murmurs, walking in her park. “Ground shadows seep and thicken...The meadow itself becomes a pond filling.”
In the meantime, Les stages a meth bust in a trailer, and finds a destroyed woman who points to the microwave when asked where her infant is.
“For a few moments no one breathed,” Les recounts. “It was like we believed if we were still enough that her words and their meaning might slide right past us and evaporate.”
As his characters seek ways out of their hurts, Rash arranges themes like flowers, and hooks it all to a thriller plot, featuring clues and solutions. The result is an original product that has you thinking about it afterward.
(Photo by Ulf Anderson)
Rob: It was great looking into your poetic state of mind with your character, Becky.
Ron: I wanted to do something a little bit different this time. The voice of that woman, I just wanted to see what I could do with it, so I ran with it.
Rob: How much did you go into your own practice of writing poetry in order to create Becky?
Ron: I hoped to be able to use all that I’ve learned over the years writing poetry in a voice that speaks in prose, conveys information. I particularly used (Gerard Manley) Hopkins. I did the best I could to make every syllable count....Hopkins has that kind of intensity that Becky has to see the world in. She has to put herself this deeply into the natural would to survive.
Rob: It’s compelling when she says she wants sight, sense, sound, words, and the world all come together. Could you talk about that some?
Ron: This was a book in which I was trying to reach a place that is almost beyond words...Part of what Becky is trying to do is close up the gap as much as possible between language and vision. Also, she had a horrific experience one time when she’d spoken. She believes she caused her teacher’s death by being afraid and speaking out loud. It’s almost as if the whole idea of language is corrupted by that. She can’t get past the destructiveness of her utterance. She’s trying to restore a language that she can survive with, a language that will restore the world, restore beauty and hope. She’s grasping for it almost like a lifeboat, and not just the language, but also the ability to experience nature so deeply she can transcend into it, get as close into it as she can. The language is stretching and straining to get there as well.
Rob: How do you figure out a voice like that?
Ron: She is feeling or seeing the world in a way that maybe nobody else was. I think that’s where I was thinking not just of Hopkins, but also, a little bit, of Emily Dickinson. Emily Dickinson, she does these beautiful lines, she makes you see the world in a way you haven’t before. But also you just get the sense that no one’s ever thought quite this way before...That’s the hope, that somebody can think this way, or make these connections; to see just the outline of a fish and think how would that sound?
Rob: Can you give me a fitting Emily Dickinson poem to look at?
Ron: Look at “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass.”
Rob: Let’s talk about Les, a character who has to deal with his former cowardice. How did his character develop for you in this novel?
Ron: Oh, this book changed so much. When I first started it, Becky didn’t even have a voice.
Ron: It was all told from Les’ point of view. I knew he was connected to her. As I got into the drafts and he started developing, she did, too. I think they’re both trying to find a way to survive. Because of this human but horrific thing that Les had done, telling his wife, “Well, just go ahead and kill yourself”—and she almost did—that since then, he’s tried to look for the worst in the world because in a way it lets him off the hook...I see Becky at the same time—and it’s words that are so destructive for both of them—Becky has to find the good and see the beauty to survive.
Rob: How did she come into your head?
Ron: I knew there was going to be a crime—or a fishkill—because I always start with images, and the image that started this one was a fishkill. I could see the dead trout in the stream. And I knew that Les was going to be working with her. I also knew that they both were scared of any kind of commitment to another human being.
Rob: Why is that?
Ron: For her, it was not only the shooting, but then when she had finally fallen in love with someone, and trusted someone, he turned out to be an (eco-) terrorist. Les, I think, is afraid of what he could do to another person. I knew that these were two loners. I just thought of (the painter, Edward) Hopper. As different as his landscapes are, there was something about what he does that these characters are also doing—that separateness.
Rob: That’s great. So, Becky was a major character but not a narrator in the first drafts.
Ron: Right. And it was really more of a plot-driven book, a whodunit, and I brought in SBI agents, and made it into an eco-terrorist story, and I thought, “This is horrible.” And it was. So I asked myself, “What is this book really about? What is the core of this thing?” And it’s that there are two people who have been severely wounded by language, and who are trying in some way to find a way back into the world. They’re both exiles in different ways. They’re people who have been drawn to loneliness.
Rob: Despite the human suffering and the loss of animal species, the book, because of the characters, is not a downer.
Ron: I think this is my most optimistic book, which is not raising the bar too high.
Rob: (laughs) How does one effectively communicate the urgency regarding ecological disaster?
Ron: I think I do that in this book. Becky has that vision later in the book...where she’s able to imagine a world when there’s not anything left alive. I think the last line is: “wind and water pass past unheard.” A lot of this book is about the need to protect the natural world, or revere it. But I think people have to first see the world before they can even care about it.