Ron Rash puts 35 years into short story collection
by Rob Neufeld
Rash’s new book, “Something Rich and Strange,” includes 34 stories written over 35 years, most of them previously published in five books, and a handful that had only appeared in magazines.
The interview that follows further reveals Rash at the juncture between his accomplishments and his new directions.
Reading the new book, we see how Rash’s perception of a fallen world combines with a special sensitivity to the human values and natural grace that attend the darker realities of human arrogance, oppression, and desperation.
The book’s opening story, “Hard Times,” reveals a farmer who seeks an answer to who or what is stealing his eggs during the Depression. Two climactic images in this tale will burn in your mind.
“Hard Times” is followed by “Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out,” in which a caring veterinarian finds a shared solace in the night sky after a disheartening experience.
Rash’s characters are heroic, but not free of moral compromise.
The young narrator of “Dead Confederates” goes along with a grave-robber to unearth objects buried with Civil War soldiers in order to pay his mother’s hospital bills.
Rash roams history as if all periods exist on the same plane; and he explores local geography.
He goes inside homes, as in “Blackberries in June,” in which a young couple has to accept the burden of the wife’s bitter sister-in-law, whose life has been made a trial by her husband’s pulpwood cutting injury. And he goes under water, as with the terminally ill father who latches onto scuba diving in “Chemistry.”
The bad guys and gals we have gotten to know in such novels as “Serena” and “The Cove” have their counterparts in Rash’s stories. In the early ones, they seem to play out allegories; in the later ones, the plot development is more character-driven.
The empathy that burns bright in Rash for casualties, whose reward in an ephemeral world is the experience of things rich and strange, serves as the spark for his remarkable chemistry.
A: I could see changes in my style and my voice. I guess I have a hundred short stories. What I did was pick the 34 I thought were the best.
Q: I loved you starting out the collection with the story, “Hard Times.”
A: I thought that was the one to start off with. It set a tone and put the reader into I’d guess you’d say my psychic landscape (laughs). I put in “3 A.M.” second. That first story is a tough one to read because of the sadness and the darkness of it. “3 A.M.,” I hope, is a story that gives the reader a little bit of a recovery.
Q: How have you become familiar with people like your characters?
A: A lot of what I learned came early, because of my family, and because of differences in education and income that I witnessed...For almost 17 years, I taught at a community college. In that environment, you see so many people from tough situations. I was getting adults who had been out of school 20 years, who’d been suddenly divorced or laid off from their jobs. I found them for the most part heroic.
Q: Are there some characters that you put yourself into more than others?
A: I think sometimes there are characters I feel a deeper connection to. The [disc jockey] in “Night Hawks” is one. I’m not an overtly autobiographical writer. “Chemistry”—that story—I’d certainly identify with.
Q: It’s interesting to see who you put forward as bad guys.
A: One of the secrets that writers know is that very often writing about the bad guys, or bad girls, is more fun than writing about good people. It’s trying to imagine that kind of darkness. The goal is to deepen the mystery of what it means to be human... I think you can find plenty of people who fit the mold.
Q: What is that mold?
A: I think it’s different molds. In “The Cove,” [the bad guy is] Chauncey, a big hawk who sends other people to war. I think part of an artist’s responsibility is to bring those people into the literary world because they’re in the real world; and also to expose them.
Q: Fiction is more effective than journalism in some cases.
A: One thing I feel as a fiction writer is I have a little more freedom. I can create characters that are archetypes of these people. I don’t want my work to be didactic. For instance, if I write an op-ed about fracking, I’m going to be more overt than I’d be in a novel because part of what I want to do in a novel is not so much answer the questions, but respect the reader enough to present the questions. I see the writer’s role as more as a witness. With “The Cove,” the questions readers ask is, “What is patriotism? Can it be abused with a person like Chauncey, who uses it for his own ends, and hides behind these words—patriot; Hun?”
Q: The photo of you in “The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth”—you look like Madison Bumgarner, the pitcher from Hickory who’s the star for the San Francisco Giants.
A: Oh, yeah!
Q: He’s such a country boy. The photo of you makes me think about someone who looks like that being sensitive and open-eyed to all these things that are going on around him. You would think that guy would wrangle horses. You don’t look like Truman Capote.
A: No, you’re right. I haven’t got an ascot on.
Q: What is it like being a physically strong person and a sensitive poet person?
A: It’s a way of blending in, of being like a chameleon. I’ve always sensed that I was seeing the world a little bit different than most of the people around me, even growing up. I was conscious that this is something that I didn’t want people to know necessarily. I wrote a long time when nobody knew I was doing it. I just wasn’t sure that I was any good at it; and it seemed a little bit strange. And then when my friends found out, they started calling me Ron Boy, like John Boy on “The Waltons.” That was pretty funny. What is it that would make someone want to write anyway? It’s kind of bizarre—to make up stories, to tell 300-page lies.
Q: It’s the lucky person who discovers what his or her aptitudes are early.
A: I think I always did have empathy. I can remember even when I was very small, I would see somebody who was in a wheelchair or something like that, and it would really affect me. Maybe it was affecting everyone else, I don’t know, but I remember those kinds of things that I could get emotional about.
Q: How much control did you have over “Something Rich and Strange”—which stories to include, the order, how to title it?
A: I had total control. Yeah, I thought that was the right title. It comes from “The Tempest.” It’s about transformation. In the scene, Ariel tells about a man who has drowned, but he’s become something rich and strange. But it’s also the idea of taking something very dark and sad—a drowning—and saying that it’s been transformed into something beautiful and strange. That’s what art does.
Q: “Something Rich and Strange” was used to create your novel, “Saints at the River.” Do you find yourself making connections between your various stories?
A: I’ve got stories set on the same road in Boone in 1865, in the early 20th century, and during World War II and contemporary time. All these journeys are going on. Blending time is important to me. I want the reader to sometimes feel unmoored from time.
A: Why is that?
A: I think it takes the reader into another place, a mental space, a kind of uncertainty. It adds a kind of depth in that there’s a repetition through the generations of these things, and variations. Time is a kind of geography as well. It allows us to go into different mind sets, different cultures.
Q: In your story, “The Corpse Bird,” the main character, who’s connected to a past time, has read about the Hmong, so there’s a connection between traditional Appalachian thinking and pre-modern thinking. Is that right?
A: Yeah, I’m fascinated with the idea of what we have lost as human beings. There’s one tribe in the Amazon that can see things in the heavens that we can’t. I’ve had this kind of thing personally happen. I had a situation when I knew that there was a snake on the other side of a log. Something in me knew, though I couldn’t see it. It’s almost as if something jerked my leg back.
Q: Is there a story that contains the kind of character that has that kind of sense?
A: I’m just finishing up a novel that has exactly that sense.
A: My new novel, “Above the Waterfall,” is about a woman who has actually gone to the point of where she is creating a new language of the world out of nature. There’s this incredible connection to nature that she has. She’s a park ranger, and she brings children to the park...to make them see the world...It’s my most poetic book.
Q: So, what took you so long to write this kind of thing?
Q: That’s a good question. My writing reflects the state of the country. Our country has been in a darker place than it has been in a very long time. There are things that worry me politically. It affects my perception of the world, and even when I’m writing about the past, I’m writing about the present...To be true to the world, I show that there’s an incredible wonder. Maybe I think this because I’m getting older, and when you sense you’re going to lose something, that’s when you really value it...The other thing I would say about that, hoping not to be grandiose, is that part of what writers do, we want to give hope and talk about what is good, what is there to celebrate.
Q: So I look up Ron Rash online, and there isn’t a Ron Rash website. But then again, there is. There’s Ron Rash, the tattoo artist.
RR: Somebody told me about that.
RN: You don’t have a tattoo, do you?
RR: No, no.
RN: Would you ever have a tattoo?
RR: If I did have one, it would be a Carolina parakeet. That bird is like a talisman for me.
RN: That’s great, because that story that includes it [“The Woman Who Believed in Jaguars”] mentions that the parakeets flocked together rather than scattered when they were shot at.
RR: That image, when I first read it, I was in tears.
Something Rich and Strange: Selected Stories by Ron Rash (HarperCollins, Nov. 4, 2014, 440 pages, $27.99)
Ron Rash, photo by Ulf Andersen
Terrific review and interview, Rob. Glad to see that Ron had full control over this collection. All of his work deserves to be read and re-read.