Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
For a primarily rural, mountainous Appalachian region with a population of fewer than 800,000 people across 16 counties, Western North Carolina can still boast exceptional talent in regard to the written word. Although many people know about author Ron Rash and may have read his The New York Times best-selling book, “Serena,” or any number of his varied works, few realize that he is not just regionally renowned but world renowned as well.
At Highlands’ Center for Life Enrichment on Sept. 7, Rash spoke to a packed lecture hall about his latest book, “In the Valley,” which includes not only short stories, but an additional novella ending for “Serena.” Participants learned that the Appalachian born and raised author, who is also the Parris Distinguished Professor in Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University (WCU), has published poems, short stories, and novels that strike a chord with regional readers and foreign readers alike. In fact, his works have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and France is a favorite fan base.
Brian Railsback, Ph.D., a professor of English and the former founding Dean of The Honors College at WCU, introduced Rash during the Sept. 7 event and explained that the French were so enamored with the author’s “loyalty to the [WNC] region” and his “writings about the Appalachian landscape and culture,” that Frédérique Spill, associate professor of American literature at the University of Picardy–Jules Verne in Amiens, France, wrote a 2019-published book about him: “The Radiance of Small Things in Ron Rash’s Writing.”
During an extensive 2014 interview, conducted by Spill in Paris, Rash explained that his books have also “done particularly well” not only in English-speaking countries, like Ireland, England, and Australia, but in countries such as Denmark, Netherlands, and China. In part because universities worldwide are beginning to teach Southern literature as a genre, but the distinct vernacular of the Appalachian region fascinates readers globally as well.
“My family has very deep roots in this region since the 1700s,” said Rash. “I have tried to write about this place as truthfully as possible. I’ve never thought about being a regional writer as being anything limiting.”
His books, including “The Cove,” “One Foot in Eden,” “Saints at the River,” and “The World Made Straight,” have earned a multitude of followers and awards primarily due to his historic and modern literary conveyance of “… the lives and longings of people living precariously in Southern Appalachia,” as David A. Davis, chair of the Lanier Prize committee and associate professor of English at Mercer University shared in February 2020.
Rash read to the audience his story “The Belt,” from “In the Valley,” that tells of a century-old Appalachian flood and how a grandfather saves his grandson from being swept away from the rising waters. “The story is very timely for today and what happened recently in this area,” said Rash. “Then and now, the flood wasn’t anticipated.”
Woven into the short story is not only elements of the Great Flood of 1916, but also specific details that take the reader into the historic time period: “… the Franklin clock chimed;” “He felt the hippin (diaper); “… went to the larder (cupboard).”
“I like to do research and find the names of actual things … the details that help you believe the story,” said Rash, who shared that he spent much time visiting his grandparents’ farm near Boone and was able to hear regularly regionally distinct words and phrases, many of which – like hippin – might find their way into his stories.
“I like to write about the changes in this region,” he said, “but also bring as much poetry into the prose as possible.”
As far as where Rash’s ideas for stories come from, he points often to his own childhood and the true stories he collected in his consciousness. But the idea for one of his most popular works, “Serena,” came from a single image in his mind of a woman on a horse. For fans of “Serena,” “In the Valley” includes a novella of the same title that provides readers of the 2008-released novel with more of the antagonistic female character’s cunning vileness.
Books Unlimited in Franklin has for many years carried Rash’s books.