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John Lang is the author of Understanding Fred Chappell, Six Poets from the Mountain South, and most recently, Understanding Ron Rash. A Professor of English Emeritus at Emory & Henry College, where he taught from 1983 to 2012, Lang also edited The Iron Mountain Review for 20 years and coordinated the Emory & Henry College Literary Festival for 25 years. He recently spoke with Appalachian Heritage editor Jason Howard about Ron Rash’s poetry, short stories, and fiction, the development of Appalachian literature, and his own literary activity during his retirement.
Jason Howard: Understanding Ron Rash is the first book-length study of Rash’s work and follows your earlier book Understanding Fred Chappell. What attracted you to Rash as your subject?
John Lang: I first became acquainted with Ron’s work, even before he published his first book, through two readings he gave: one from his poetry and one from his short fiction. What impressed me initially was both the power of his storytelling, in his poems as well as his short stories, and his careful attention to the aural qualities of language, to sound as well as sense, in his poetry. Another feature of his work that appealed to me at that time was its humor, particularly in many of the stories that appeared in his first book, The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth and Other Stories from Cliffside, North Carolina (1994). As someone who has long been interested in religious imagery and themes in literature, I found that book of especially engaging, and throughout Ron’s subsequent career his work has addressed such themes and imagery in intriguing ways, as the titles of his books often suggest—Among the Believers, Raising the Dead, One Foot in Eden, and Saints at the River, to cite some additional examples. Over the past twenty plus years, I’ve continued to read each of Ron’s books as they’ve been published, my admiration for his work growing steadily as the substance and variety of his themes deepened and as he sharpened his skills as a poet and fiction writer. Like Chappell, Rash has published work of high quality in three distinct genres—poetry, novel, and short story—and he creates characters about whom readers care.
JH: In your book you highlight Rash’s “frequent focus on death and the theme of mortality.” Why do you think these are recurring topics in Rash’s writing?
JL: There are several reasons for the frequency with which Rash addresses these topics. Perhaps the most obvious is that mortality and mutability are among the most common yet harrowing of human experiences. In his short essay “The Importance of Place,” Rash remarks that “the most intensely regional literature is often the most universal.” One way of deploying such an appeal to the universal is to focus on widely shared human emotions and experiences: love, death, family relationships, humanity’s interaction with nature, war. All these topics appear frequently in Ron’s writing, war with almost obsessive regularity, the Shelton Laurel massacre of January 1863 becoming the pivotal historical event in his third novel, The World Made Straight, and World War I providing the backdrop for his fifth novel, The Cove. But Ron’s concern with mortality also arises out of his awareness of the environmental destruction so evident in Appalachia, whether the clear-cutting of forests recounted in Serena or the inundation of entire communities by the creation of artificial lakes like Lake Jocassee, a major subject in both Raising the Dead and One Foot in Eden, or the devastation caused by mountaintop removal. As Rash told interviewer Jack Shuler, “my imagination seems obsessed with images of loss, things vanishing.” Among those potential losses is the threatened erasure of Appalachian culture itself, a threat Rash’s writing powerfully resists through its historical consciousness, its skillful handling of regional dialect, and its acute sense of place.
JH: You mention the notion of “landscape as destiny” in discussing Rash’s novel The World Made Straight. How does this theme show up in other works?
JL: That theme is also prominent in The Cove, and the concept of “landscape as destiny” is one Rash has raised in several of the interviews he has given, in one of which he links this idea to “a certain fatalism I’ve seen in my own family that I think comes in large part from being in the mountains, from a landscape that lacks the long vision.” As I suggest in my book, this is an issue that remains unresolved in Rash’s fiction, in part, I suspect, because Rash also tends to emphasize the moral choices his characters make and the responsibility they must assume for those choices, a stance at odds with fatalism or determinism as worldviews. Some of Rash’s characters find mountain landscapes oppressive or suffocating while others, like Rachel in Serena, find them comforting, “as if the mountains were huge hands, hard but gentle hands.”
JH: Rash began his literary career as a poet, but since One Foot in Eden was published in 2002, he has produced fiction with dizzying prolificacy. How do you think his fiction writing has evolved over the years?
JL: In fact, Ron published three short stories in the late 1970s and didn’t publish his first poetry till 1986, the same year the short story “The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth” appeared in A Carolina Literary Companion. As I’ve already noted, his first book was a volume of short stories. But from 1986 through 2002 he published over two hundred poems in various periodicals, and three of his first five books were collections of poems. Since One Foot in Eden he has published five additional novels and four collections of short stories, a remarkable outpouring of fiction, as you indicate. That fiction has grown more incisive both in its character analysis and in its presentation of decisive moments in those characters’ lives. It has also become more varied in tone and in point of view, with less reliance in the short stories on the first-person narration that dominated The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth. The stories are often more tightly focused temporally, in many cases revolving around the events of a single day—as in “Lincolnites” and “Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out”—while evoking a larger historical or personal context. Such compression heightens the stories’ impact on readers. The fact that Burning Bright won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award is one measure of Rash’s high achievement in that genre.
As for the evolution of Rash’s work in the novel, there Rash has continued to build upon his first novel’s interest in both family relationships and environmental issues while enlarging the historical scope of his subject matter. In The World Made Straight he crafted evocative fictional ledger entries for his 19th-century ancestor Dr. Joshua Candler, who may have been present at the Shelton Laurel massacre, entries that counterpoint the investigation of that event by the novel’s 20th-century characters, several of whom are complicit in the initial stages of the drug culture now so pervasive in Appalachia. In Serena, his most ambitious and allusive novel, Rash deals with contemporary threats to the natural world by recounting the clear-cutting of timber in the western Carolina mountains in the 1930s even as other characters struggle to create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Rash effectively juxtaposes the villainous Pembertons with the various members of that couple’s logging crew, whose lively dialogue provides not only comic relief in a book filled with carnage but also a moral gauge by which to judge the Pembertons’ actions. In The Cove Rash addresses 21st-century xenophobia and war-mongering, though setting the novel amid American involvement in World War I. Rash revised that book between its hardbound and paperback editions, deleting two of the original chapters (both set outside the cove) and moving a third to a later position in the book, thus making the paperback the author’s definitive edition. All these changes involved Chauncey Feith, the military recruiter satirized throughout the novel, a character inspired by the Bush administration’s Douglas Feith, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, one of the architects of the war in Iraq.
JH: Rash’s latest novel, Above the Waterfall, was released in September. Have you read it? If so, what are your thoughts?
JL: Yes, Ron gave me an advance reader’s edition of that novel in May, and I’ve since read it twice. It’s a book that, in part, continues Rash’s exploration of the region’s meth epidemic, a topic he addresses in such short stories as “Back of Beyond” and “The Ascent” from Burning Bright and “Those Who Are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven” in Nothing Gold Can Stay. But the novel also reflects, through the lyrical language he creates for his female protagonist Becky, Ron’s attempt to re-enchant the natural world for his readers, to restore our sense of wonder in the presence of nature, one of the major features of his latest book of poems, Waking (2011). And in fact one of the poems attributed to Becky in the novel appears, with altered initial lines and under a different title, in Waking. Becky’s heightened diction owes a clear debt to Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of Rash’s major influences, whose poetry she says helped her recover from a childhood trauma involving a school shooting, restoring her to the world from which she felt alienated. “What wonder yet echoes from the world’s understory,” she states, not asks, as the book’s brief initial section closes. Rash establishes the narrative momentum in this novel by having a sheriff, the book’s other first-person narrator, investigate and solve a crime involving the intentional pollution of a river, with that sheriff’s shifting, uncertain relationship with Becky providing another element of suspense. Although I find the plot’s resolution not quite credible, at least given the rapidity and neatness with which matters are settled, for me Becky’s language is among the book’s great strengths. Readers interested in Rash’s poetry will find that language compelling.
JH: Which is your personal favorite of Rash’s books?
JL: Because Rash writes so well in three distinct genres, I can’t choose a single book, but among his novels I’d choose Serena. Among his collections of short stories, I’d select Burning Bright, and among his books of poems Raising the Dead, in part because of its moving central sequence of poems recounting events surrounding the death of a teenaged cousin, Rash’s first experience of a peer’s death.
JH: You recently retired from a long and distinguished teaching career at Emory & Henry College, where you directed the annual literary festival and edited The Iron Mountain Review. What changes have you noticed in Appalachian literature?
JL: Yes, I retired from Emory & Henry after teaching there for twenty-nine years, from 1983 through 2012. The first fall I was there, James Still was the featured author at the college’s annual literary festival, with Jim Wayne Miller, Fred Chappell, and Jeff Daniel Marion presenting papers about Mr. Still’s work. Coming as I did from the Midwest, where I’d grown up and taught for eight years, that festival offered quite an introduction to (male) Appalachian writers! Over the three decades since that event, Appalachian literature has changed in several significant ways. First of all, there seem to be many more poets and fiction writers from the region who are publishing regularly, in part because there are more outlets for publication, in part because would-be writers are receiving more support and encouragement from creative writing programs at colleges and universities throughout the region—and beyond. Also encouraging such writers are programs like the Hindman Writers Workshop and, during the past decade, the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival at Lincoln Memorial University. The success of a novel like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain helped to open up New York publishers to manuscripts from other Appalachian authors, as did the later success of Rash’s Serena. But there has also been increased interest in publishing works by Appalachian writers among university and other presses within the region: the University Press of Kentucky, the University of Tennessee Press, Ohio University Press, West Virginia University Press, the University of South Carolina Press, as well as Wind and Bottom Dog, to name just a few. Over the past thirty years Appalachian literature and Appalachian studies have also gained greater attention within academe, becoming a regular part of the curriculum in many colleges and universities, thereby promoting knowledge of the region’s rich literary heritage and encouraging would-be writers to join the ranks of their predecessors. A third major change involves the growing body of critical commentary on the region’s writers both in book-length studies and in collections of essays. I’m thinking here not only of Ohio University Press’s ground-breaking An American Vein: Critical Readings in Appalachian Literature (2005) but also of earlier volumes like the University of Tennessee Press’s The Poetics of Appalachian Space (1991), the University Press of Kentucky’s Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Women Writers (1998), and the University of Tennessee Press’s Her Words: Diverse Voices in Contemporary Appalachian Women’s Poetry (2002). LSU Press has published two collections of essays on the poetry and fiction, respectively, of Chappell and for years has published the poetry of many of our region’s writers. McFarland Press has published several books on Still and Charles Wright and Cormac McCarthy, along with a study of George Scarbrough. The University of South Carolina’s Understanding series includes books not only on Chappell and Rash but also on McCarthy, Mary Lee Settle, and Wright. A collection of essays on Marion’s work has just been published by the University of Tennessee Press, and I understand that such a collection will soon be forthcoming about Robert Morgan’s. Yet where is such a monograph or collection of essays on Wilma Dykeman, or Jim Wayne Miller, or John Ehle, or Lee Smith? Much remains to be done in this regard.
I should add that over the past fifteen to twenty years Appalachian literature has also become much more diverse through the work of authors like Frank X Walker and Crystal Wilkinson, among others, and their emphasis upon an Affrilachian literary presence. Authors who represent the LGBT community have likewise become a more prominent part of our literary tradition. We should expect Appalachian literature to become increasingly diverse as Native American and Hispanic writers from the region achieve greater recognition.
JH: Are you working on any projects in retirement?
JL: At present I’m not working on a book project because two years before I retired I published Six Poets from the Mountain South, with chapters on Miller, Chappell, Morgan, Marion, Kathryn Stripling Byer, and Wright, and then I spent the first eighteen months of retirement researching and writing Understanding Ron Rash, as well as completing an essay titled “Nature and Spirituality in Contemporary Appalachian Poetry” for the newly published Oxford Handbook of the Literature of the U.S. South. Over the past two years our daughter and her husband have had our first two grandchildren, so my wife and I have been enjoying spending time with them. But this past April I finished an essay on the role of the Shelton Laurel massacre in Rash’s fiction and poetry that will appear in a forthcoming collection of essays on Rash’s work. And I still do book reviews from time to time and a few manuscript reviews for some of the region’s university presses. At times I simply read a lot, trying to stay atop the flood of new books appearing from the region’s writers, though keeping abreast of them all no longer seems possible.
Featured Photo from Emory and Henry College