Interview* by Sandra Davidson | Editing Support by Scott Stegall
Ron Rash is a leading voice of Appalachia and the mountains of our state loom large in his biography and body of work. The best-selling novelist and poet grew up summering on his grandmother’s farm outside of Blowing Rock, in a region where his ancestors settled in the 1700s. He’s known for vividly capturing the people, places and atmosphere of the mountains in his writing and is a beloved mentor to many young authors. Ron has received the O. Henry Prize twice and is the John Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University. Three of his books have been featured on the New York Times Bestseller list, including Serena, which was made into a movie starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.
A long-time friend of the North Carolina Arts Council, Ron Rash is a consummate believer in public funding for the arts, and he recently contributed an essay about Earl Scruggs to the Oxford American magazine’s 20th Annual Southern Music Issue on North Carolina.
Tell me about your family’s connection to western North Carolina.
My mother’s family [lived] in Watauga County and my father’s family [lived] in Buncombe County. The roots are very deep in those areas, and that’s one reason I’ve chosen to write so much about it.
I was really intrigued by what you had to say about your interest in how landscape affects psychology and how landscape becomes destiny in an interview you did for the New York City Public Library. I’d love for you to reflect on how that manifests itself in your work.
I’m fascinated with the idea of how the landscape we’re born into, or we live in affects us psychologically. I’ve seen it in my own family in the mountains in two ways. One way [is] very positive, and one [is] not so positive. One positive way I think is the sense of the mountains being protective, almost womblike in their ability to shelter us from the world in a very peaceful, very calming way.
The other one is not quite as positive. It’s the sense of limitation in the mountains. The mountains [are] always reminding us of how small we are, how insignificant and fleeting our lives are. With that, sometimes, is a sense of fatalism. I’ve seen the complexity of that vision of mountain culture not just in western North Carolina but in the world. My books have been translated into a number of languages now, and one thing I’ve learned from my travels overseas is how people who have grown up in other mountain cultures reflect and agree with that sense that the novels impart—both the positive and negative.
Will you describe specifically your personal relationship to the mountains and the landscapes you write about?
It feels like the only landscape I’m comfortable in. I can remember the first time I went to the Midwest. I felt very naked with that huge expanse and openness. I found that very disconcerting. It felt too open for me. I find the mountains, in many ways, very protective and very calming. It does feel as if they are shielding me and protecting me. I don’t know that I could ever live in a landscape that didn’t do that for me.
Have you always written about them? Is it something that you’ve been doing since you can remember?
I didn’t start writing until I was in college. I was a lot later than [most]. I know Lee Smith, she was 5 or 6 and already writing novels. I couldn’t have imagined that. I was training to be a writer. I was certainly an introvert. I was very comfortable in solitude. A lot of that solitude was spent outside and in the mountains. I’d grown up in Boiling Springs, which is [in the] foothills, but my grandmother’s farm was near Boone. I spent a huge amount of my time with her on that farm. That landscape was the one that intrigued me and [that] I felt most connected to [considering] my family’s history. When I began to write, it naturally went in that direction.
You are an artist and also an arts educator. I know many young writers who deeply admire your work. I wonder if you could reflect on what it means to practice educating young people about the craft of writing and literature?
The teaching keeps me from getting jaded. It’s great to watch my students imagine a scenario or write from a different point of view and to see them creating an imaginary world. It reminds me of the excitement of creativity. I tell people that North Carolinians have done three things really well: cook barbecue, make music, and make literature. I think one of the great aspects of our state is that literary heritage. In a sense, it’s a small way for me to encourage and pass on that legacy.
How has that legacy inspired and influenced you? I’d love to hear if there are North Carolina writers or North Carolina musicians who you really admire.
I think there’s a real argument to be made that North Carolina has more strong writers than any other state right now. I really believe that. It’s something we do well. Obviously, for me growing up in western North Carolina, Thomas Wolfe was a huge influence. Reading his books when I was a teenager made me realize this is something I might be able to do. At that time Asheville was a very small town. It was amazing to see this guy who had grown up in Asheville [become] world famous. Later I read writers such as Robert Morgan, Fred Chappell, Lee Smith. They were writing about a world I certainly knew. They influenced me. It was a sense of joining that tradition. Music was very integral as well. [I grew up] hearing Doc Watson. I grew up in the same town as Earl Scruggs, worked for his uncle, and went to school with his nephew. All those artistic influences were around me. All those things inspired me and gave me the idea of the possibility that this was something that I might be able to do.
Do you have any theories as to why North Carolina is such a nurturing place for the arts?
I think, for whatever reason, [it’s] the culture. Maybe the fusion of people from different cultures just happening to come together at the right place. It’s hard to understand individual genius, but, for whatever reason, I think the region has certainly nurtured it. As far as literature, it’s [because] traditionally education has been so valued in North Carolina. We’ve had these great universities and this emphasis on public education. I think that certainly had a huge effect on people getting a sense of the possibilities of what one might do intellectually [and] artistically.
Will you tell me when your career and your work first crossed paths with the North Carolina Arts Council?
I received a grant pretty early in my career. I remember that being so important because at the time I was teaching at a community college in South Carolina. I was teaching a pretty heavy load, at least five classes a semester, and [I had] a lot of other duties with that. That grant helped me in two ways. The idea that somebody valued and believed in my work enough that they wanted to help me bolstered my confidence. The other thing was I really needed the money at that time. It freed me up in the summer to do some writing.
Are there other ways that it has supported your writing career?
It certainly helped introduce other people to my work. I think it drew attention to me as a writer from the region that might be worth some notice. For young writers, those grants really help a lot because there’s a lot of discouragement, a lot of rejection slips, and a lot of questioning when a writer starts out. I think it’s helpful to have affirmation that your work is seen as having some value, and not just value now but in the future…that this is a writer worth supporting in the hopes that we can encourage this writer to go on and write better and more.
For part of this campaign, we’re asking artists to help us convey why they personally believe public funding for the arts matters. What would you say to that?
This is something that we believe in. This is something that we’re proud of and that it’s an act of faith in our next generation. As they come up, we want to give them as many possibilities to find their talents and to nurture their talents as possible. When we look at the total budget of a state or a country, it’s not a huge amount of money. I think what we get from it is immeasurable.
Is there anything that you’d like to add about your experience of North Carolina and its art community or your career as a writer?
There was a program in New Zealand where they had me come out and do a reading for a public event, and they played “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by Earl Scruggs. I was thinking, here I am [from] Boiling Springs, North Carolina, and I’m in New Zealand, and the music they’re introducing me to is by Earl Scruggs who grew up in the same community of about 1,000 people. When I go overseas whether it’s France, New Zealand, Denmark, these people know about North Carolina’s artists. They know about the musicians such as Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs. They know about writers such as Thomas Wolfe and Robert Morgan. I just think that’s such a great thing that our state has made not just this country-wide contribution to the arts, but worldwide. There are not many things more valuable for our state than this.
*This interview was edited and condensed.