Weekend Edition Saturday Scott Simon talks to author Ron Rash, an Appalachian ballad writer of a kind who writes pointed, fierce, funny and tightly packed stories about people on the run, betting their all and trying to get through lonely nights. His new collection of short stories set in Appalachia is called Nothing Gold Can Stay.
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Traveling soon? You know, you can put less time into reading a short story in Ron Rash's new book, "Nothing Gold Can Stay," than you do into a quick game of "Angry Birds." And if you do read Ron Rash you might meet characters whose stories will stay with you for life. Ron Rash is considered a master of the form and Appalachian ballad writer of a kind who writes poignant, fierce, funny and tightly packed stories about people on the run, betting their all, trying to get through lonely nights. Ron Rash is also author of bestselling novels, including "The Cove" and winner of the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, teaches at Western Carolina University. He joins us from the studios of Clemson University. Thanks so much for being with us.
RON RASH: Glad to be here today.
SIMON: How does a short story idea come into you?
RASH: Very often, they're not ideas at all. I actually start sometimes with a voice, usually an image, an image that won't leave me alone and I have to find out where that image will lead me.
SIMON: Can you give us a for instance?
RASH: Well, in "The Trustee," the first story in the book, I had an image of a trustee, a prisoner, in the 19 - it was early 20th century, who was walking down the road with a bucket in his hand. I didn't know where he was going or who he would meet but I knew I wanted to follow him.
SIMON: He's a guy in a chain gang sent ahead to get water and he sees a young farmer's wife. And I love this exchange. She asks him: Have you ever considered trying to escape? And he says...
RASH: Have you?
SIMON: So, these are two seemingly lost souls but...
SIMON: Yeah, exactly. I guess the lesson of that story is don't kid a kidder.
RASH: Very true.
SIMON: When you're writing a story like "The Trustee," how do you put yourself back in another time?
RASH: I think that's what I love about writing, is the ability to try to, in a sense, take a vacation from yourself and try to enter the sensibility of another time, another character, another place. But very often I will do research. Certainly, I will try to find out just the little things, because one thing I found about writing fiction is that if you don't get the small things right the reader won't believe the big lie.
SIMON: You grew up in a small North Carolina town, I gather.
RASH: I did. The same town as Earl Scruggs. That's our most famous citizen.
SIMON: Did you grow up thinking you'd be a writer?
RASH: I didn't, but I think I showed all the symptoms. I was very comfortable being by myself. I spent a lot of time alone and particularly out in the natural world. I think I had a particular moment when I was 15 years old. I read "Crime and Punishment," and that book just, I think, more than any other book made me want to be a writer, 'cause it was the first time that I hadn't just entered a book, but a book had entered me. I can remember exactly where I was. I was in a biology class. I was supposed to be listening to the teacher but I was on the back row. And I can just remember so vividly just never having that kind of feeling, that kind of intensity from a book. And, obviously, at 15 I didn't understand exactly what was going on with Raskolnikov. But there was a particular scene early in that book where the pawnbroker was murdered that I will never forget. It's one of the most vivid memories in my life - not just my reading life.
SIMON: This book is set in Appalachia, and I gather you've written a lot about the area in which you live. Have you ever thought about going to Paris or New Zealand?
RASH: Well, I've been there.
SIMON: Well, I didn't mean as a visitor.
RASH: Well, I decided early in my writing life that I would adhere to what the writers I love most have been able to find the universal in the particular. That included James Joyce, William Faulkner, writers such as Eudora Welty. Eudora Welty once said one place understood helps us understand all other places better. And I chose to be that kind of writer.
SIMON: Want to ask you about one of these stories in the book toward the end called "Nighthawks." Ginny is a former middle-school teacher whose story you tell. She becomes a late-night DJ. But as you go deeper into her story, you realize this is a character who, if I can put it this way, wants to hide in plain sight.
RASH: Absolutely. And her problems in the story I think go back to childhood. And she's someone in, I think, in many ways a very tragic character. But she has a kind of integrity and flawed beauty beyond the physical that I found very interesting.
SIMON: We should explain as a middle-school teacher, there's a terrible tragedy that befalls one of her students. She holds herself responsible. It does raise the question as to what powers there are in the universe that makes us steer our lives one direction or another.
RASH: Absolutely. And one aspect of that I'm fascinated by is how landscape is very often destiny, that the landscape a human being grows up in has an incredible impact on the way he or she perceives reality, yeah. I always argue that Gatsby could only be written by a Midwesterner. He's such a Midwestern character in the sense of possibility. My character...
SIMON: This is F. Scott Fitzgerald from Minnesota coming east to Long Island.
RASH: Right. And Gatsby just strikes me as that optimism, that belief that he can undo the past is very Midwestern. And the openness, the expansiveness of that landscape, I'm more interested in what happens in the Appalachian landscape because we see very often a sense of people who grew up in the region being intimidated because the mountains are always reminding us of how fleeting our lives are, our smallness. It can also work in a more positive way in the sense of almost a womb-like protectiveness. But that's one aspect of literature of landscape I'm fascinated with.
SIMON: I want to take an unusual step here and end our interview with a reading, 'cause I find a graph you have in there just about the loveliest thing I've read for a while. I wonder if you can set the scene and read that for us.
RASH: This is at the very end. Ginny has gone back to the radio station. It's a snowy day. She's broken up with the man who loves her, and she's preparing for the night. And she knows what awaits her. (Reading) At the radio station, she would unlock the door and soon enough Buddy Harper would end his broadcast and leave. She would say, this is the nighthawk, and play after midnight. Ginny would speak to people in bedrooms, to clerks drenched in the fluorescent light of convenience stores, to mail workers driving back roads home after graveyard shifts. She would speak to the drunk and sober, the godly and the godless, all the while high above where she sat, the station's red beacon would pulse like a harp, as if giving bearings to all those in the dark adrift and alone.
SIMON: That's utterly beautiful. I can't thank you enough.
RASH: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: Ron Rash. His new book is short stories, "Nothing Gold Can Stay." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.