Writer urges students: ‘read and persevere’

Ron Rash is the bestselling author of multiple novels and has published over a dozen books. Photo by Brandon Key.

This story was originally published in The Sylva Herald.

Every Monday night since January, 10 students have met for class in the Coulter building on Western Carolina University’s campus.

They read stories, write and present on contemporary work—all while learning from one of America’s towering professional writers: WCU professor and Jackson County resident Ron Rash.

He published his first book, “The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth,” in 1994. Since then, Rash has emerged as one of the most successful Appalachian writerswould go on to become one of the most successful contemporary Appalachian writers.

His work has been published in more than 100 magazines and journals.

Three of his novels became New York Times bestsellers.

And there have been multiple film adaptations based on his work.

Rash was born in 1953 in Chester, South Carolina, but spent most of his life in North Carolina. He grew up in Boiling Springs.

The small town experience influenced his writing and exposed him to the culture of that area.

Rash watched people come and go. That level of migration, he said, demonstrated a tension between two different types of people: those who had to move to find jobs, and those who wanted to return home to the mountains.

Much of Rash’s work focuses on small communities holding dark secrets. He looks closely at what hides behind small-town values.

“The advantage of growing up in a small town is you get to learn how strange people are. Even the people that seem to be normal, if you watch them enough,” Rash said. “You also get to know every level of the poorest to the wealthiest, the least and most educated. You get a really good sense of class.”

Rash attended Gardner-Webb University, receiving a degree in English. He then went to Clemson University for graduate school, also studying English, feeling that he needed to be reading more than writing.

“A writer or any artist gets better by learning from the best. You try to get as much knowledge about how something is done. I was reading as much as I could. I read Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, writers from other countries, anything I could get me hands on,” Rash said.

He was in his early 20s when he first began writing. Rash did not enjoy initial success. He said he needed to better master his craft – which pushed him to read and write even more.

“I was slow developing as a writer. Some people develop more quickly. I didn’t start writing until college, and then there’s Lee Smith who was writing novels as a kid,” Rash said.

The author said he marvels at what splotches of ink – storytelling – can mean to readers. He remembers at age 15, feeling that excitement and emotion as he made his way through “Crime and Punishment,” by Russian Writer Fyodor Dostoevsky.

“I was just reading ink on a page and I was having an almost outer-body experience. That book changed my life,” Rash said. “It was such an intense experience and to see that language could do that made me want to try it. I tried to do it and I wasn’t successful, but I didn’t give up.”

Rash’s persistence eventually paid off, resulting, most notably, with his novels “Serena” and “The World Made Straight.”

“Serena” tells the story of a newlywed couple in 1930s North Carolina who plan to create a timber empire. Literary critics and readers often describe the books as a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

Rash said he wanted the novel to have the feel of an Elizabethan play set in North Carolina and to have a story, with undertones hearkening back to other literature.

In 2014, the story was turned into a film starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. It received mostly negative reviews. Rash described the film as “disappointing.”

“Serena” was also the “One Book” selection for WCU in 2014. Incoming freshmen were given the novel, free of charge, to read over the summer. It was incorporated into many first-year student classrooms to provide, as the university explained, a “common intellectual conversation.”

Rash’s “The World Made Straight” takes place in 1970s North Carolina. If focuses on community corruption and the area’s horrific past. This story also morphed into a film. Released in 2015, it garnered mostly positive reviews from critics and Rash himself.

The author has published five books of poems, six short story collections and seven novels; his latest novel, “The Risen,” was published in 2016.

He has received multiple awards for his work, including the Frank O’ Connor International Short Story Award for his short story collection “Burning Bright.”

He’s now finishing a book of short stories. The collection will most likely be released next year.

One of the stories revolves around a main character from “Serena” making a return to North Carolina. Another is based around cave art from thousands of years ago. The first draft of the entire collection was finished in March.

Some writers plot and outline their entire novel or series before they begin writing. Other writers just write and allow the story to evolve as they go.

Rash said he typically starts out with an image in his mind, then writes what happens.

“Serena all started when I got an image of a woman on horseback,” he said. It’s usually something really simple, though.”

“Sub-consciously, I think a lot of the writing does itself in the sense that the story is already there in the imagination and it’s up for the writer to find it, uncover it and then write it,” Rash said.

“The haunting images, though—those are the ones that I keep following,” said Rash.

Rash said he often discovers multiple smaller stories in one gigantic story; sometimes, short stories will develop into novels.

He said he sometimes listens to music before writing, to put himself in the right state of mind. His choices include Steve Earle and Ralph Stanley.

“Music has helped me develop as a writer. Being able to listen to the cadences and rhythm of music and the idea of structure really helps me with language,” Rash said. “Sound is so important to me, not just in my poetry, but it my fiction as well.

Fiction is important, he said, because it makes people be attentive and to question beliefs.

“Being completely immersed in a story or experience is rare nowadays and I think fiction brings us into our imagination and that is invaluable in today’s world,” he said.

In addition to his writing, Rash is deeply interested in research.

He’s become fascinated by cave art since writing about it, and explores questions about where art begins. He’s also interested in the thought that art can’t change once it’s created – and, how art reflects the human condition.

Rash teaches creative writing at WCU, serving as the John Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Studies. At the university, he tries to help young people become better writers and readers, urging them, as he did, “read as much as possible and stay persistent.”

Rash said he learns from his students’ work, taking note of both positive and negative aspects. Sometimes, the students inspire him to try something new with his own writing, he said.

“What I find very valuable, is when I spot problems in students’ writing I become more aware of the mistakes that I make on a daily basis. The students inspire me; they’re taking writing very seriously and they write stories that give me great pleasure. In the confines of a classroom, we all see that writing is worth doing and worth doing well,” Rash said.

His classes are designed as workshops, with the professor and his students critiquing each other’s work.

The students are given writing exercises; maybe, describing a character or type of person that hate, then flipping the point of view. This helps to teach perspective and demonstrates the depth required to make characters come alive for readers.

Rash’s current class is mixed with undergraduate and graduate students, allowing writers of varying experience learn from one another.

“I thought it was going to be pretty intimidating being in Rash’s class, but now that I’ve been in it, he’s really personable and relatable, graduate student Kristina Tingler said. “It’s a good class to be in. He’s a really good teacher.”