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Born May 18, 1953; got saved at Truett Memorial BC in Hayesville, NC 1959. On rigged ballot which I did not rig got Most Intellectual class of 71, Gaffney High School. Furman Grad, Sociology major but it was little tougher than Auburn football players had Had three dates with beautiful women the summer of 1978. Did not marry any of em. Never married anybody cause what was available was undesirable and what was desirable was unaffordable. Unlucky in love as they say and even still it is sometimes heartbreaking. Had a Pakistani Jr. Davis Cupper on the Ropes the summer of 84, City Courts, Rome Georgia I've a baby sitter, watched peoples homes while they were away on Vacation. Freelance writer, local consultant, screenwriter, and the best damn substitute teacher of Floyd County Georgia in mid 80's according to an anonymous kid passed me on main street a few years later when I went back to get a sandwich at Schroeders. Had some good moments in Collinsville as well. Ask Casey Mattox at if he will be honest about it. I try my best to make it to Bridges BBQ in Shelby NC at least four times a year.

Friday, September 10, 2010

My January interview with Ron Rash

It was published, good bit of it, in the June issue of Baptists Today

From the LA and NY Times to the Shelby Star Ron Rash is making his mark in American Letters. Of his first novel One Foot in Eden the LA Times wrote in 2002: "Equal parts vintage crime novel and Southern Gothic, full of aching ambivalence and hard compromises, and rounded off by bad faith and bad choices, One Foot in Eden is a veritable garden of earthly disquiet".
Janet Maslin in the NY Times March 7,2010 praises Rash's latest collection of short stories, Burning Bright, reminding readers of the "piercing language, bleak and beautiful details" of his 2009 Pen/Faulkner nominated novel, Serena, whose title character is "cooly ferocious".
Longtime fan Pat Conroy blurbs Serena "catapults Rash into the front ranks of American novelists." Both One Foot in Eden and Serena have been adapted for the screen and are in develoment. In March and April of this year, Rash was invited to give readings in the Netherlands and France; France where his One Foot in Eden is in its third printing in the native language.
All this has caused his hometown paper the Shelby (NC) Star to recently announce Rash as the Cleveland County Man of the Year. This fall his alma mater, the Baptist affiliated Gardner-Webb, will hold a literary festival in his honor.
Raised Baptist often thee times a week attendance growing up in Boiling Springs, deeply influenced by the hymns, sermons Sunday school Bible verse memory work, Rash has created a world of fiction and poetry that profoundly depicts the Appalachian Mountains and Foothills including its preoccupation with religious faith.
Rash was born in Chester, South Carolina in 1953 where his father worked in the Eureka Textile Mill. Moonlight educating himself out of the Mills, Rash's father moved the family to Boiling Springs when Ron was eight; his father becoming long time arts educator at Gardner Webb, and his mother an elementary school teacher. Ron Rash is now the James Parris Chair of Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University in Cullowee.
Rash's novels and works of poetry are chock full of religious imagery and Biblical names allegorizing many of the Old Testament stories. One Foot in Eden has motifs of the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood of Noah, as well as as a son named Isaac. Isaac's story is a dark twist on the Biblical tale of a child longed for. Isaac's parents Billy and Amy Holcombe lack the virtue of Abraham and Sara, but their wish for a child is just as strong. Isaac has to lose one family to gain another one, more resembling Abraham and Sara; but once his Eden has been flooded, we are left to wonder if Isaac will in the new land where his home once was.
While Rash concedes Appalachian spirituality often is enchanted by pagan themes of witchery, magic and soothsaying, at the heart of his work is a testament to belief. And even though his literary and intellectual curiousities have led him among other places to explore doubt in James Wood's Broken Estate, Essays on Literature and Belief, Rash's calling to honor the sacrifice of those who shaped him brings him back to faith. Like Baptist pastor Jim Dant raised in a mill village, Rash is drawn to themes of suffering saints whose simple resurrection faith helps them persevere in the face of overwhelming obstacles and opportunities for despair.
The great Eudora Welty in her time was troubled by critics by who wanted to catalogue writers who dug deep into one location in the world as regional. Like Faulkner, Welty, O'Connor, Marilynne Robinson and others Rash long ago broke into the ranks of the chosen of whom Welty said: "The art that speaks most clearly...and passionately from its place of origin will remain the longest understood."
In February I had the honor and good fortune to have a 90 minute conversation with Rash. What follows are explorations I think will be of most interest to the Baptist Today audience.

The Title story for your first collection of short stories is The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth. A used car salesman is Jesus for the Christmas Pageant and even advertises his business on the church marquee announcing his starring role.
What kind of fun were you having there?

Rash: It's true I was goin for some humor; but it's a look at human foilbles, not necessarily mean spiritted in its satire.
We all fall short of our ideals. Growing up in a religious household most often going to church the local Baptist church three times a week, at a certain age you begin to recognize the difference between what people espouse and what they do. For a while it can turn you off from religion, but then comes a period when you get beyond that, and come around.
Jesus "Fell" to earth in my story; it's that Baptist imprint that we are fallen.

Fox: The summer of 1970 I became good friends with Roger Milliken, Jr.; the son of the most powerful textile magnate in the country; legendary in Upstate South Carolina, the biggest single donor to Nixon in 1972,and the man who many say drove Goldwater to run in 64.
So of course I was captivated by your stark and unflinching Poem in the Hub City writers Project, Eureka Mill; the Poem, the Last Interview.
Your Hub City colleague GC Waldrep, now a professor at Bucknell, has said your poem is "eerily accurate" account of some real life interviews he had with mill owners.

Rash: The poem comes from my imagination from stories of my mother and father and maternal grandparents at the Eureka Mill in Chester, but I hope I captured the sensibility.
It does not come from resentment or any revenge motive at all. In fact, I know from my Grandmother who worked in Eureka, her gratitude in the 30's to the mill owner who kept the mill running at his own costs so his workers could eat.
I think it was Francis Bacon who talked about deepening the mystery; we always want things to be black and white. But it is the role of the artist to deepen the mystery, to explore the lack of certainties in character no matter the station, high or low. I hope I did that in my collection of poems Eureka Mill.

Fox: Roger, Jr. is head of the family's timber interests in Maine, and in the fall of 2008 became chair of the Evironmental group, The Nature Conservancy. How ironic that two sons of Upstate South Carolina textiles would coincide in national acclaim with influential efforts (the publication of Serena) in the Environmental conversation.

Rash: I commend him for that endeavour with the Nature Conservancy. His circumstances are such, he didn't have to do that; indeed a noble choice.

Fox: You have written how the Shelton Laurel Massacre is not only the key component of The World Made Straight but how it compelled you to write the novel. You've said: "One of the most troubling aspects of history is how some of the worst atrocities have occurred among people who have coexisted for generations, as in Nazi Germany and more recently Rwanda and Bosnia. Such was the case in the county known as "Bloody Madison" during the Civil War."
It occurred January 18, 1863 at the height of the Civil War and you've found your ancestry in those parts on both sides of the tragedy and invoked Bonhoeffer's name.

Rash: That's true. The title comes from Handel's Messiah. Lot of folks say when they think about the Holocaust; how could anybody stand by and let that happen.
The truth is you don't know. You don't know what you would do until you are in that situation. People in my own family just a few generations took different sides in the Massacre.
It is in these moments of hopelessness that a Bonhoeffer comes to mind. He had to make a decision of courage for decency. In the midst of a great darkness he stands as a powerful light.

Fox: Instead of an idea provoking a novel as in World Made Straight, most often you say it is an image that starts the process for you.

Rash: With an image you enter the mystery from the beginning. Where does this image come from; from that you have something like two wires crossing and a sparking.
Joyce used the term epiphany,; sudden illumination, a moment of grace. Suddenly this thing happens you don't understand.
Frost called it a momentary state of mystery; in a way its an illusion because a work of art is nothing but a moment of clarity, insight.

Fox: My Dad was a Baptist preacher. Growing up I was fascinated with all the characters that came through, for two week revivals, January Bible Studies and varieties of fellowship. Lots of colorful stories about the human condition.
Your preacher McIntyre in Serena, is not the only preacher in your novels, but maybe the most memorable. An end timer who first time we meet him "looks up at the gray-slate sky as if it were some Gnostic text only he was capable of deciphering. He tipped his black preacher's hat heavenward, seemingly satisfied at what he had seen."
You're gallery of misfits make a lot of sport of him during the course of the novel. What's he about.

Rash: McIntyre kinda represents a fellow, a type of character or preacher we don't often like; kinda self righteous.
But look what happens to him in the novel. The comic characters kinda don't like him, but after he's struck mute, he develops this humility that gives him substance; he becomes true. He has this moment of where he has the spiritual insight he's just been prattlin about. Last thing he says, he looks at the devastated land (where the timber has been clear cut); says I think I'm lookin at the end of the world.
Doesn't volunteer that, he's asked what he thinks.
It's McIntyre's moment of truth as a backwoods prophet; and in that moment of humility that hasn't been recognized before, the most cynical of his detractors, Ross, is amazed and gives him respect.

Fox: The Pulitzer Prize winner Marilyn Robinson has written of the horror that often comes with the darker reach for a Utopian vision; a vision that carries the baggage of total control. Cheryl Miller says her adherence to the"harsh doctrine" of original sin has proven far kindlier than the belief that we can "reason our way to a code of behavior that is consistent with our survival, not to mention our dignity or our self-love."
Serena in some ways seems an exploration of that notion.

My title character Serena has no accountability; she is outside the pale of humanity. A lot of people who read the novel miss the point that after she exploits Western North Carolina and leaves it barren, she ends up in Sao Paolo, Brazil, as a business partner of the Nazi Joseph Mengele and his West German Tractor Company. My clear implication is Serena has found her own kind is in a community of like minded vision.
So yes I think Robinson is right.
The exploitation of a region has its after effects. I was in Eastern Kentucky a few years ago and struck by the number of military recruitment posters at every corner; this is where the foot soldiers for our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan are coming from. I'm working on a short story about that now.

Fox: There is a lot of violence in your novels. You led a workshop last summer at Appalachian State on violence and beauty....

Rash: It's not about violence to titillate. It's comparable to Flannery Oconnor's world-- a Good Man is Hard to Find in particular-- where an extreme situation, often the moment of violence reveals the essence of character.
A good story is like an iceberg, it is the tip of the story that reveals all that's underneath, gets to the core of character. I was telling my students last week the key moment of a good short story is when we learn about the world in a way not imagined before; haunting because everything else is stripped away.
In One Foot in Eden when Billy Holcombe shoots Holland Winchester, it sets up repercussions that direct the rest of the novel.
In Serena, it's not the knife fight that starts on the first page, its the first murder. Rachel for me is more interesting than Serena, in the way her character develops after that. Rachel goes on the trip with the child when she's sick, several mile walk to the Doctor; a woman with a great capacity for love; as she's not sure she loves the child before then.
The Biblical names are intentional, Rachel as an character in exile, as her namesake in the Old Testament. And her son, Jacob. You know, Jacob and Esau in the Bible.
Serena is very much a story about who has the birthright.
Rachel's story in Serena brings up a good point about being raised Southern Baptist. Again, it was the Catholic Flannery O'Connor who realized all those Southern Baptists around her in Central Georgia knew the Bible, knew these stories; and also the beauty beneath that, the beauty of the King James Bible.
And me, growing up Southern Baptist, memorizing all those verses, having contests....I remember it was really interesting in grad school. We had some students from outside the South reading OConnor, Milton and Faulkner and they would say how do you know all this and I'd say: Mrs. Parker, my third grade Sunday School teacher in Boiling Springs, North Carolina made me memorize these verses.
Growing up every Sunday, hearing those stories, the richness of the language; such a great thing for a writer.

Fox: The Catholic Belgian born essayist Luc Sante is fascinated by Hard scrabble religion, the tent revival era of Billy Sunday and River Baptism. There is a similar strong vein in your work.

Rash: I would not be the writer I am today had I not been raised Southern Baptist. I'm immersed in it. One friend has said every time one of my characters gets near the water,he's a goner.
In Saints at the River you have an actual Resurrection of a Body from a Stream, an answer to prayer. Water is a potent symbol of Death and Resurrection. In the Celtic tradition water is a conduit between the Living and the Dead.

Fox: Your poem Sunday Morning 1959 is one of my favorites. I'm convinced any regular churchgoer who at one time worshipped in a country church can identify with it. Was Randy Ford a real person and how about the cows?

Rash: There is a real Randy Ford and sitting in my maternal grandmother's Friendship UMC in Wautauga County,North Carolina you could hear the cow bells in the pasture just outside the church. I was six years old that Sunday Morning, daydreaming; first moment in my recognition of timelessness, transcendence.
What's that Robert Penn Warren poem about the geese: I "could not know what was happening in my heart"?
In the poem The Smithsonian tapes my aunt's voice; Not about a dying culture but more about the dead in the cemetery resurrected with us in the Spirit; Sense of being overwhelmed, what Wordsworth called spots of time, living in the eternal.

(end of conversation/interview but the following is part of submission for conclusion of the effort/article)

There is a wealth of material on Rash online including video of interview on about twenty minutes long. And a simple google search for Shelton Laurel Massacre and World Made Straight will take you into the heart of several great links and profiles of Rash's work at the Russoff agency, including a stellar profile in the 2006 Columbia, SC State.
Searches for the reviews of Serena and World Made Straight in the Appalachian Heritage magazine are worthwhile as well.

Ron Rash's Sunday Morning 1959
August, 1959: Morning Service
Ron Rash
Beside the open window
on the cemetery side,
I drowsed as Preacher Lusk gripped
his Bible like a bat snagged
from the pentecostal gloom.
In that room where heat clabbered
like churned butter, my eyes closed,
freed my mind into the light
on the window's other side,
followed the dreamy bell-ring
of Randy Ford's cows across
Licklog Creek to a spring pool
where orange salamanders swirled
and scuttled like flames. It was
not muttered words that urged me

back to that church, nor was it
the hard comfort of pews rowed
like the gravestones of my kin,
but the a cappelia hymn
sung by my great-aunt, this years
before the Smithsonian
taped her voice as if the song
of some vanishing species,
which it was, which all songs are
years before the stroke wrenched her
face into a gnarled silence,
this morning before all that
she led us across Jordan,
and the gravestones leaned
as if even the dead were listening