Ron Rash: Smoky Mountain darkness: ‘There’s that physical sense of not getting enough light’

The Appalachian writer Ron Rash brings his dark southern tales to the Kilkenny Arts Festival

The stories and novels of the Appalachian writer Ron Rash are steeped in the culture of the American south, but if you're thinking Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara, forget it. Rash's characters are very much of our time: older farmers who are struggling to make a living, women who are drowning in loneliness, young people who have given in to the temporary comforts of crystal meth. In his most recent volume of stories, Nothing Gold Can Stay, the mountains of Carolina create a claustrophobic frame for lives of quiet desperation.

“It’s a darker book than my other books,” Rash says. “There’s a sense that the mountains are trapping these people, that they can’t get away. There’s also that physical sense of not getting enough light. Traditionally, people have not lived on mountain-tops but have had to live in coves and valleys where the water supply is – places where, very often, you only get a few hours of direct sunlight.

“I think what was going on with those stories is that it was an attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to capture the zeitgeist of rural America. Right now there’s a real feeling of hopelessness in the US, and particularly in the rural areas, because so many of the young people are going off to fight these wars. There’s very high unemployment. Farming as a way of life in the area where I live is now pretty much gone. And there’s the meth.”

Not to be avoided
If you're making a mental note to avoid Rash's work on the grounds of unrelenting bleakness and misery, don't. The stories in his 2010 collection, Burning Bright, are superbly crafted examples of the genre; his short novel from 2012, The Cove, is close to perfect. Even the dark, angry stories of Nothing Gold Can Stay erupt in moments of dry humour and transcendent beauty. Indeed, the stories in the new collection are more varied, tonally and stylistically, than his earlier work.


What links them is something the author himself describes as resonance. “There seems to be some thread that works from one to the other,” he says. “There are faint echoes. And I would hope that goes through all of my work. I see all of my work as very much like a quilt. They’re different patches, but ultimately they’re all connected.”

The final story in Nothing Gold Can Stay literally shines a light on two old guys – one a farmer, the other a veterinarian – as they help a sheep to give birth in the wee hours. The piece has the focussed intensity of a Rembrandt painting: the tiny figures, the massive landscape, the pressing darkness. "That's an important story in that book," Rash says. "As I said, it's a very dark book but I would like to think that some more light comes in toward the end. And there's a line in there, 'There's a wonder to it yet'. That, to me, is the crucial line in the book. What, ultimately, gives us hope? Friendship, love, life. The recognition of the wonder of the world. We have to be alive to the wonder, or we're doing existence a disservice."

The story is called Three Am and The Stars Are Out. Is that a song title? "Naw. I just made it up." Nah-aw. Ah jest made it eh-up. Despite, or perhaps because of, his easygoing amiability and scrupulous politeness, the baroque twang of Carolina gives drama to Rash's mildest utterance. He lives within hiking distance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in an area where his family, on both his mother's and his father's sides, have been settled since the 1700s.

Power of landscape
So he is steeped in that mountainous landscape, for better or for worse? "Some southern writers feel the need to leave the place to write," he says. "Certainly Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and Carson McCullers did. But others – Eudora Welty, Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor – felt like they had to stay. I felt like I had to stay. Landscape's a major character in my work. I want it to be an abiding presence. But I'm also fascinated with the idea of landscape as destiny; how the landscape a person is born into affects the sense of possibility, the psychological state."

Thanks to the ongoing destruction of the landscape he loves, Rash’s books carry an implicit – and sometimes explicit – environmental message. He says, however, that he’d “hate to be preachy about it”. William Faulkner has had a major influence on his work. So has Cormac McCarthy. “I’ve learned from them. But instead of that sweeping language that they employ, I’ve tried to be as concise and vivid as possible. Try to make every sentence feel it has to be there.

“That’s the goal. Now of course, we fail at that as writers. But what I want to do is make the writing as vivid as possible for the reader. The other thing that I’m interested in when I write prose is sound. When I do my last draft, I’m not even reading it for content, I’m just listening to the way the vowels and consonants are rubbing up against each other.”

This interest in the texture of words can be traced back to Rash’s origins as a poet. To date he has published four volumes of poetry, five collections of stories and five novels. When he embarks on a new piece of writing, does he know in advance which form it is going to take? “Naw, I don’t know,” he says. “And what’s always interesting is the not-knowing. With my first novel I wrote a 14-line poem of a farmer standing in a field. I thought that was it. And then I wrote a short story, maybe 20 pages. And I realised, ‘Naw, there’s so much more here’.”

That book became the novel One Foot In Eden, which, along with Saints At The River and The World Made Straight, are to be made into movies. First up on the big screen, however, will be Rash's 2008 novel Serena, with Jennifer Lawrence playing the eponymous heroine and Bradley Cooper as her adoring husband. Vicious, ruthless and self-centred, Serena is one of the baddest baddies in recent literary history. Is it easier, I ask Rash, to create "bad" rather than "good" fictional characters?

“Yes, I think so,” he says. “And this is something that strikes me as positive about human beings. That for most of us, that kind of horror – that type of psychology – is alien to us. So we tend to be interested in something that is different from our own experience. But she represents a particular American type. She has a sense of only the present. No sense of history; on the contrary, she’s wanting to annihilate all that. To me she’s frightening because of that.”

Did he have any real-life or literary models for Serena? “You know, I didn’t,” he says. “As I got to know her better as a character I started to realise some connections. There’s a little bit of Lady Macbeth, but not as much as reviewers have said. To me she’s much stronger. Unlike Lady Macbeth, Serena never feels remorse. ‘Out, damned spot’ would never cross her mind. She’s more like one of Marlowe’s characters. I did want the book to be, in some ways, like an over-the-top Elizabethan drama.”

Given her intense portrayals of the heroines of The Hunger Games, Winter's Bone and the Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook, it's a fair bet that Lawrence will make the character her own. All the more reason to check out the book, described by Janet Maslin of the New York Times as "one of the greatest American novels in recent history" before Serena arrives in cinemas this September.

Hollywood treatment
Rash, meanwhile, has stayed well away from the whole Hollywood shebang. "I can't seen any good coming from it," he says. "Every writer I've known who has tried to be involved in some way has regretted it. I didn't even read the screenplay. I didn't really want to. It's their interpretation now."

He was glad to hear, however, that after shooting most of the film in the Czech Republic, the production company did come back and record some scenes closer to home.

“They did do a good bit of filming in the Smoky Mountains as well, which I’m very happy about. I’ve heard the Czech mountains are very similar; but there are still some differences. What’s so different about the Appalachians is how verdant they are. There’s this intense green, because they’re old mountains with a lot of trees.” Green, intense, lots of trees. Rash territory – and then some.

Nothing Gold Can Stay by Ron Rash, is published by Canongate, £9.99. Rash will be reading and talking about his work, with Kevin Barry and Sinéad Gleeson, at the Kilkenny Arts Festival on August 13

Southern discomfort: five great novels

The Cove by Ron Rash
Part war tragedy, part fairy tale, The Cove is totally brilliant.

Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner
Tale of three families before, during and after the American Civil War has the longest sentence in all of literature – 1,288 words – and was described in 2009 as the best southern novel of all time.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
The horrors of the human animal have rarely been better expressed than in this 1985 classic, written as one great swoop of intensity, darkness and violence.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Debut novel about a deaf-mute who becomes the confidant of his community propelled McCullers to literary superstardom at the age of 23.

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
Hey, it's not exactly bright and breezy - but this tale of love and loss during one humid season in the Kentucky mountains isn't quite as doom-laden as the others. And it has coyotes, too.