A dozen years have elapsed since Ron Rash published “Serena,” a novel set in 1930s North Carolina Appalachia detailing the story of Serena and George Pemberton and their cutthroat timber business. But in those 12 years, according to the author, at least one of those details needed a more full telling. So we have in Rash’s newest collection of stories, “In the Valley” (Doubleday), the title novella exploring the lumber baroness and company in ways the novel only hinted at.
Because this is Rash’s seventh book of stories, those hints show a deft pen. A typical collection of short works from Rash, the Parris distinguished professor in Appalachian cultural studies at Western Carolina University, leaves readers not only looking at a forest that has been clearcut, but marveling that they got there by the felling of a single tree at a time.
In “In the Valley,” Rash layers 10 stories with the destruction and redemption of people you know, or met or had over for Thanksgiving dinner. In the past, and in the interview here, Rash has admitted his admiration for the form of the short story, and each presented in “In the Valley” is proof of that veneration.
Sharing his insights into the stories and people populating his new collection, the following interview with the author has been edited for length and clarity.
Tom Mayer: You’ve said in the past that your novels are years-long labors of love, but that you have an especial fondness for the short story. “In the Valley” is your seventh short story collection, so I’m guessing that the fondness hasn’t faded.
Ron Rash: No, not at all. It’s still my favorite form and I’ve said this to other people, it’s my favorite and most challenging, and in a way that’s part of the appeal of it — to really see what’s possible in that kind of form. It also allows me to use what I’ve learned from writing poetry and novels and bring all that into it. At least, that’s my hope.
TM: Another lasting fondness that remains strong is your love for the setting of Appalachia, where “In the Valley” and your previous works are set. You grew up in rural North Carolina and, I believe, spent many summers in Watauga County, didn’t you?
RR: Yes. My grandmother was born in Aho and a lot of my relatives still live on Aho Road and yeah, I would spend my summers out there. Actually, I would spend my summers with my grandmother. That’s an area very dear to me. I kind of had a Huck Finn existence because it was just my grandmother and me on that farm and it borders the Blue Ridge Parkway. I would roam the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was wonderful.
TM: Is it solely because of those memories, or is there more to what keeps drawing you back again and again to this region in your writing?
RR: I realized I’ve been lucky enough to have writers such as James Joyce, (William) Faulkner and Eudora Welty that showed me that there’s enough here. That I’ll never exhaust it. And, just the idea that one of the most effective ways to approach the universal is through the specific. Eudora Welty said this better than I can. She said that to understand one place well is to understand all other places. I like that idea. But also because of my family: Both of my mom’s and my dad’s families have been in Appalachia since the 1700s. Part of it is being compelled to try to understand their stories by very often going into the past and my love of the region. That’s the place I want to write about.
TM: You have a gift for pulling universal tragedies out of ordinary, or as you've said, specific lives.
RR: That’s my goal. In a way it shows something I do believe — that it’s not just about elite people. (Ordinary people’s) lives are rich and complex. We know that on some level, but at times it’s easy to forget that.
TM: Short story collections are often driven by a theme. In “In the Valley” the unification I’m seeing is destruction. And that destruction — of culture, environment, honor, morals and respect — is driven by a number of things in specific stories: greed (“In the valley”), lack of opportunity (“Last bridge burned”), poor choices (“Sad man in the sky”), pure meanness (“The baptism”) and generational clashes (“When all the stars fall from the sky”). Is this a fair assessment?
RR: Yes. Certainly, the time that we’re living in, the last few years, have been really tough. And now it’s even tougher with what’s happening with the virus. One reason I wanted to go back to “Serena” was that (I’m seeing today what I) wrote in “Serena” 12 years ago — I’m seeing now this peril for the national parks. There’s a lot of push to change what is considered wilderness that can be mined or timbered. My hope is that this (story) would remind us how hard won these national parks were and what they were fighting against. In some ways, (“In the Valley”) is a dark book. You’re seeing people in trouble, but I hope you’re also seeing people who rise above it. People who fight it. To me, that’s also important. Not to just give into cynicism.
TM: That’s interesting to me, because I’m also seeing these stories tied together by what I’m going to call, “limited redemption.” Limited based on the opportunities and choices that remain after the destruction takes place. Take, for example, the pure unselfishness after a very selfish existence at the end of Jubal’s life in “The Belt” — arguably the most touching story in the collection — or Carlyle’s actions in “Last bridge burned.”
RR: I like that “limited.” I don’t want to write sentimental stories where everything just kind of works out because that’s not true to life very often. Faulkner had a quote that I dearly love. He said that he believes that most people are a little better than their circumstances ought to allow. That to me is a kind of limited optimism. To me, someone like Carlyle shows that. He acts in a way in that moment in a way that’s a little better than everything that has been part of his life. Some of it is his own fault, certainly. We see it “In the valley” because what Ross does essentially saves Rachel and her son’s life. He keeps that horrible woman (Serena) from killing more people or causing more destruction, but at the same time he has to give his life to do that.
TM: That leads into a question I have about the concept of “culture of honor.” The writer Malcolm Gladwell defines this term as a world in which a man’s reputation is at the center of his livelihood and self-worth. This concept is at the core of “When all the stars fall from the sky,” in which a man failingly tries to teach his son how honor is at the core of the family business. Is this where our society is heading today? A cautionary tale? Both?
RR: In that story my hope is that we can see the outside pressures on the younger man. But, the idea of honor and that we should act honorably, I would say that from my own experience with my family, that’s been a really important thing. It’s important that we do try to act honorably. We all fail. But it’s important we try. A lot of times people can rise to that. One reason I wanted to use that (Dietrich) Bonhoeffer quote at the beginning (“and I do not mean the faith which flees the world, but the one that endures the world …”) — you know, Serena does really represent an overwhelming force in the world, but there always seem to be people who rise up against it. I want to believe that. Sometimes they fail, sometimes they don’t. To me, it’s a tragic story (in “When all the stars fall from the sky”) in that the father has tried in his own life to instill something in his son and at the end we not only recognize that the son has rejected it, but that the father knows it, too.
TM: Well, speaking of Serena and overwhelming forces … the theme of destruction that carries throughout the book is at its height in the title story’s novella — your first published novella, I believe, by the way — in which you just about blow up the world. We’ve spoken about the necessity of putting attention on our national parks, but is there more that drew you back to this novel?
RR: Yeah, yeah. What happened is that in “Serena,” Ross is an interesting character, but I always sensed with him that he was more educated and that there was something really deep and important in him and I hadn’t been able to get it into “Serena.” For me, the book and the novella is as much about Ross. He had hounded me as a character and I always wanted to go back. But the one thing I didn’t want to do was write “Ghostbusters 2.” I’ve always been very suspicious of that. Obviously there are examples of people who have done it well, but I didn’t want to do it in a novel. And, I’ve never done a novella, actually the last forms of those I’ve never done. I admire the really good writers who have done them: Denis Johnson has a great one, “Train Dreams.” It’s a wonderful form and it’s a really hard form, as I found out. So, this gave an opportunity to try something very different … and it also fit the overall tone of the stories in the book. Thematically it fits.
TM: Speaking of fitting thematically: In “In the valley” you define Serena on an even more granular level than in the novel as one of the most ambitious and ruthless female protagonists in literature. Critically, she’s been compared to Lady Macbeth — but I don’t see her as a woman likely to step off stage and commit suicide. To me, she’s more King Herod. I mean, after all, that the child lives is what drives her obsession. Your thoughts?
RR: You’re absolutely right. There are obvious parallels to “Macbeth,” but I’ve always thought and said she’s much stronger than Lady Macbeth — who cracked in a way that we can’t imagine Serena would. The actual quote at the beginning of the book (of “Serena”), the epigraph, is not from Shakespeare, but (Christopher) Marlowe (“A hand, that with a grasp may grip the worlde.”). And Marlowe’s characters tend not to be regretful. I think of (Serena) as someone who’s not going to break. That’s one reason I thought the movie (“Serena,” 2015 by Magnolia Pictures) really made a mistake. … One thing I did with that opening (of the novella), that might be subtle: You know the Hitler movie, “Triumph of the Will,” they had him descending out of the clouds like a god. I wanted the same thing with Serena (in the opening of that story).
TM: I can see a master’s thesis in the working just on this novella.
RR: Well, I don’t know. … Those are the kinds of things I do to amuse myself. It’s just one of those fun things.