Friends & Fiction
Friends & Fiction

Episode 18 · 1 year ago

WB S1E18: Ron Block, Patti Callahan with Ron Rash


WRITERS' BLOCK: Ron Block and Patti Callahan talk with Southern Writer, Ron Rash about his career and works as a poet, short story and novel writer. 

...there's a great quote by Faulkner, you all probably know this quote. He says that he believed most people were a little bit better than they ought to be. Uh and I love that quote and uh and and that quote was kind of with me when I wrote these stories. Yeah, welcome to the Friends and fiction Writer's Block podcast four new york times, bestselling authors, one rock star librarian and endless stories join Mary Kay Andrews, Kristin Harmel, Kristy Woodson Harvey and Patti. Callahan Henry. Along with Ron Block As novelists, we are four longtime friends with 70 books between us and I am Ron Block. Please join us for fascinating author interviews, Insider talk about publishing and writing. If you love books and are curious about the writing world, you are in the right place. Welcome to another episode of Friends and fiction Writer's Block podcast. Southern poets are among the most highly regarded in literary circles. Their focus and unique view of the world they inhabit remains universal and revered around the globe. Our guest today is among the finest of these. It is such a gigantic honor to welcome Ron rash. I am Ron block and I am Patty Callahan. Let me tell you a bit about our guest and my friend the acclaimed writer Ron rash. He has been celebrated as the Appalachian Shakespeare for the depth and timelessness of his writing. An accomplished poet, short story writer and novelist. Ron has been rewarded with the frank O'Connor International short story Award, the O Henry prize, the Sidney Lanier prize for Southern literature and he has been inducted into the fellowship of southern writers and the south Carolina Academy of Authors and he is the author of one of my favorite novels. Serena for sure. No slacker. They're they're welcome to the podcast. Never a slacker. Welcome Ron to the podcast. We're so grateful for you joining us today. It's not, let's start by talking about how you came to write poetry. What's the origin of that? And what were the seeds that were planted in your young life that led you to writing? Well, I've always enjoyed poetry, but I think probably two writers had a huge impact on me as I got into my late teens, early twenties, James dickey, uh probably best known for deliverance, but a fantastic four. He cannot show me the possibilities in my own landscape, north Carolina, but also she Mazzini. And in some ways maybe even more so because he needs kind of had there was a sense that you were reading and a writer who was acclaimed worldwide and yet I always felt it. But he was writing about my world as much as his. And so those writers inspired me. And uh, I've always loved music. I wanted to be a rock and roll star, but I couldn't sing and I was no good playing guitar. So I kind of had that fall back on another kind of music and I hope I got a little bit of that. Right? No, you did. You did. It's so funny. You talk about universal things? One of my favorite poems of yours is the abandoned homestead in Watauga County and it's that's universal because I'm from upstate new york, which is so far from north Carolina, but it's universal themes, it's universal thoughts and...'s universal imagery. So it international's just it's amazing. And I love how you're writing of novels and short stories and now in Avella all feel like poetry but in a different format. Am I right that you came to poetry first and then the other forms? Pretty much I've written a few short stories, but I spent most of my late twenties, early thirties, I was really concentrating on poetry and I hope, and I've tried to bring everything I learned from writing poetry into the pros and so, you know, and the writers, you know that, but I think prose writers, I've always enjoyed Joyce and Faulkner just the way they play with words and what they do with rhythms. So yeah, you know, I think that wasn't valuable Kind of four grounding for for pros. And I think a lot of writers start there. Yeah, start there and uh and sometimes move on sometimes don't, you know, one of our favorite authors of Ron and I both is Paula McLain and she was classically trained also as a poet and just like you when you're reading her prose, you're thinking wasn't this once a poem? Right. And you know, do they take a poem and turn it into a story and how different is it for you to write the novella versus the novel versus the poem? And do you go in knowing which one you are going to write? I think uh a lot of times I don't yeah, I've had several, several novels, start off his poems and then become short stories and then, you know, that happened particularly most vividly with one ft and Eat because that novel I kept, you know, I kind of had this horrifying moment when I realized I was going to have to try to write a novel. And I've never I've written I've written to that were so bad and I had to give them just run away and uh, you know, but but yeah, you know, a lot of times, I just don't know, it's almost like going to a optician and you know, how they kind of click and sometimes, yeah, it takes that moment where finally everything comes in. But yeah, a lot of times, I don't know. So sometimes, you know, I will, you know, use my own maybe this shows how limited I am, but I will write a poem and then, you know, maybe write a short story pretty much on the same using a lot of the same imagery or sometimes even the same kind of narrative. Yeah, your largest novel serena was that, did you go into that knowing it was going to be a novel or was it more of an image or was it more that you thought it was going to be a poem? I'm so curious how that grew out of the ground either as a poem or a full novel in your head already. Yeah. Uh actually it came from the beginning of came as an image I was actually driving on a back road and just this image came to me of a woman on horseback and I could just see from just the image she was in silhouette, that she was very direct, very, very much in control of the horse and seemingly everything else. And uh and I knew that someone was looking at and I kind of was just daydreaming and and I knew that whoever was looking at or was in love with it, but also afraid of that turned out to be her husband and that image actually comes about middle. Yeah, just started there. Oh, that gave me chills. It reminds me when people asked C. S. Lewis where Narnia came from, he said he imagined he just had... image one day, just like you imagined he was 16 and he or 14 and he saw a fawn in a snowy would carrying parcels, buy a lamp post and that's what do you do, what I mean? Do you start how do you see so many times I start with an image I tried to peg down the origins of things, you know how tough it is wrong. People say, where did that poem come from? And you can't, you're like um um um um right. But I think I've narrowed it down. It's either a question or an image and I think for you, it's almost always images. Yeah. You just starts at work and you have to let your mind free float to let images show up. You can't make images show up. That's fascinating to Yeah, I mean, that's where I'm a big reader. Carl, you're getting, yep, that's he comes closer to the to explaining this, what happens as anyone, that just that sense of stories and the forms are out there. You know, it's not so much we create them as we just kind of somehow tap into something that's already there. It's the universal unconscious and young and symbolism and archetypes whenever you can tap those, it's even better. All right, well, we could we could have a whole young in discussion right here and I'm here for it. I am here for it. I'm listening to both of you are going like, I wonder if these ideas and images must like duke it out in your brains to see what form they're going to come out in. And I I just it's a great, I only have one form, so only Ron's head is duking it out. I'm a one string band. I don't know. Yeah, very powerful by? Yes, agreed. So, Ron you have actually been as we mentioned before, the Appalachian Shakespeare. How does that feel to you? Because that's kind of a heavy title. I'm not, I'm not, you know that there's only one Shakespeare, I don't know how he did it, He is so much greater writer. I I mean I go, but I actually read him probably as much as anyone just continue to be amazed. Uh he works on that level of language and character. Uh but I just try to yeah, I just, you know, I try to use what I've learned from other writers as much as I can. Uh I just try to write as well as I can, you know, there's a great moment, Stephen King did an interview years ago and you know, he gets all sorts of criticism about not being a serious writer, being a bad right or whatever. Somebody asked him about this and he said, well I'm trying, I, you know, I'm trying, you know, I'm trying to write the best, you know, former story and if it falls short, not at least I've given it my best ever. If it was easy, everyone would do it Ron Yeah, that's true, that's true. So, um when did you actually feel like I can do this and you feel like you might have had some success in writing. Oh wow, I was kind of a late bloomer, I didn't really start right until I was in college, we're trying and it just didn't didn't really trump well easily for me, but When I got into my late 20s, you know, I got a form or to accept it, no, started, you know, I think that that helped and a couple of writers actually saw my work writers I respected in some small journals and let me know that they like, Yeah, but I think there's always a sense every time I start writing a new new project or a new story, am I right or am I? You know, there's always a lot of self down which I tell my students is probably the best thing. Uh you know, you have to be a little bit that way. Yeah, that's got to make the work a lot better though. I mean, I think if you...

...were too over confident it would be like, oh, I think that's the worst thing to happen. Yeah, when somebody says to me, I think it's the best thing I ever wrote, I'm like, oh no, right. You know, when they're, when they claim it, I just, the loathing and self doubt, our never ending and Ron don't you feel like everything we right, It's like starting over of course there's what we've learned in the language, but it's new every time you don't go into it thinking, oh, I know how to do this. Yeah, no, absolutely. I mean when I go in, I, I never know, I mean the one thing that is somewhat assuring is that you have done it uh at the same time, you know, doing it before and doing it well and I'm there are two different things. But yeah, that's it's always a struggle. And what I find interesting is how some stories novels come so easily and then others and usually unfortunately it's the ones that come easier. That seems to be the ones that work out. And I've got a feeling this is where we kind of go back to the young and you just suddenly tapped into something that that I always call it the river under the river, right? It's under I was that's how I imagine it, right. That if I just write from this river, it's good. But if I can get to that river under the river, it's even better. Which is what you do. Which brings me to serena, I remember years ago talking to you about this novel and telling you how much I loved it. And you told me how very, very much that story took out of you. You said it was one of the hardest books you had ever written line by line, you know, sentence by sentence, it had really rung you dry. But now you re visit her, you took the hardest one you have in the valley. This astounding collection of short stories and a novel about serena. So, what drew you to revisiting her story in this way. Yeah, well, I've never been one to to go back to characters, but I think I saw something, you know, I saw some some really bad things happening environmentally a couple of years ago, three years ago, four years ago. And it was almost as if I wanted to write about that issue again or at least, you know, kind of remind people how quickly lost wilderness can be because, you know, there there was a lot going on as far as trying to open up the federal lands and so that was a compulsion. But yes, I kind of, I need to bring serena back into this world, but I didn't want to write a novel and that for me, I just I just didn't want to do that because I felt like that would be I didn't want to write Ghostbusters to, you know, uh but but I always wanted to write a novella because I've admired that form. You know, your door. Well, she's written a couple Jim, Harrison, Dennis Johnson, probably one of my favorite novellas, trained ones. Any proof? You know, you can see a Brokeback, which has caused long course world. So uh yeah, and I found out no village are really argue on it. Have you written 1? I have written one that is an audible original about Florence nightingale and you're right, I'm when I finished I said I might as well have just written a novel, it would have made my life easier because pai rowing it down to what you want out of it is really difficult. Yeah, that was what I found...

...really tough trying to because you are I mean, I think novella has the effect of the novel, but you somehow make it more precise, but it was it was fun and it made me appreciate people who do it really well and but it was fun to get back. No, and seeing up couple of characters and you know, Rachel, I wanted her to have a moment where we really got a sense of where she's, what she's become. Uh I mean, you know, when I start serena that opening scene in serena, she doesn't move, she's on the uh bench. Yeah, and she uh is completely just there and by the end of serena, but also as we see in these last things, she's really become a strong, strong human being. Just that image of her just ready to go at it again, that transformation, we get to see her transform a little bit. I'm curious because we're talking about young in and archetypes. What do you think serena is? I see her as a warrior. Yeah, a warrior, uh perhaps a death force, a kind of uh I think I get to talk about the spirit that denies I like, So I think she's she's something, you know, and I think what's again with you on, you know, there is something within us to that kind of death drive, that kind of uh breaking oneself off from humanity. Yeah. Which is to me the scariest aspect of her that she is this morning to be outside of humanity and she achieves it. But enterprise, she wants to be outside the norms because something else matters to her even more. And I love that archetype. But I feel when you read these characters to me echoes a solid archetype that way, the more we can relate because they're all little broken off pieces of ourselves at the same time. And so we recognize it or we abhor it, but all at the same time. It's all the pieces of being human. It's fascinating. I think that's why we respond to them. Yeah, these archetypes system. Well, speaking of in the valley again, you talked about serena and some of the environmental concerns, but there's also a lot of social concerns that the other pieces in the book address and and tell us, can you talk to us about the intent of those and what you hoped that the reader would take away. Yeah, Well, as I was working on this book, finishing it up, Covid hit and and I really that that really shaped well, also I added the flu epidemic in in in in the valley and the novella that became a little more focused for me, but also I wanted to write stories about people being in really, really, I mean a sense, I guess I always do. But even really dire situations. But I wanted also to show people really, which I think is usually the case responding bravely allowing themselves to moments for their little bit better human beings. And that maybe they have a right, there's a great quote, my fault. You all probably know this quote. He says that he believed most people were a little bit better than they ought to be. And I love that quote. And uh, and that quote was kind of with me when I wrote these stories. And uh, and I wanted to finish the story with, you know, the grandfather, you know, the saving the great grandfather saving the child. This, you know, that kind of sacrifice heroism. But I think what literature can do very...

...often and because sometimes people say, well why do you why do we write about searching extreme things? Are such sad things at times. But I think literature is about those moments when we really reveal who we are. And I don't think of myself as a I'm not a nihilist certainly, and I do believe very awesome people kind of come through in those moments. And I think particularly in this book is as tough as the situations world we seek, but not in all stories because not in not in law. Right, Right. So, another great quote I love is from George Saunders. He says that what a story is about. And I thought of you when I read this, what a story is about is to be found in the curiosity it creates in us, which is a form of caring. So you create this curiosity which makes us care and you do it even with the characters who aren't doing what we might define as a good thing. I'm curious if that's something in your mind or these characters or you outline them or you re search them or do they very much grow just from the soil of imagination? Yeah, they kind of uh, but they tend to grow, you know, I'm not much older, you know, I don't really I mean there are a lot of research for the characters, but they just kind of they kind of come and I do a lot of drafts and your voice is so you do more drafts than you do outlining. Yeah, I don't I'm usually not doing much outlining different writers as you know, we all do it a little bit differently, but I'll tell him that a lot of times I need to wander to find my story. Uh, even when I think I know where the story's been, it always surprises me. There's a great scene, uh plenty of counter actually a good country people when the bible salesman steals the wooden leg. If you read that story, it's good good country people, you you you just you feel like, oh wow, she set this up so well, so careful and she said, and I believe her, you know, a good catholic that she she was uh that she says, I didn't know he was going to steal that leg till the till she wrote that. And I believe it. And yet, you know, at the same time it just seems so right and inevitable. So those are the kind of, that would be to me that's yeah, we'll use her language that those are moments of grace for right just comes and we've all had them. And I think what keeps us writing is hoping we get another one of those moments of grace because we write and we write and we write and then they hit and then we wait for another one. Yeah. And you have those wonderful moments and athletes do, this happens to your for at least a little while. You're a little bit better than you really are or your characters a little wiser than you are. And they rise up and they say something or do something and you sit back and say, oh because you know, that's wiser than yourself. I wouldn't have said that when you were working through the pandemic, just like the rest of us were and Ron trying to run a library, you know, during the pandemic. And we were trying to write both of us had books out during the pandemic. What are some really great standout reads because you're such a good reader on top of being an incredible writer. You are such a good reader. I love hearing who you're reading. I think I've written down everyone, you you said today, what were some standout pandemic reads? Well, I read while Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller. Okay, british writer that boat. Really. Uh one thing I've never uh you know, contemporary british fiction, even when it's about... class, tends to be more urban, but she writes about the rural poor and that that book is wonderful. Uh I read that one. I read a book by lee Durkee, a guy I've never met, he lives in Oxford was called, I think the last taxi driver. Yeah, read read some books on cave art. One coach stepping stones. I'm fascinated with that. Actually one of the stories in in the valley is about uh cave art or the soldier sees. But I'm just fascinated when you you see these images that are, you know, talk about young again Uh image that's 35,000 years old. And when I see those images, there's something about because we're, you know, that's our ourselves, that that and it's that incredible moment where humans certainly have the need for art and story and expressing themselves. Right? This happened then this happened then this happened I think about when you talk about those kids, I think about the paris catacombs and how they underneath the ground there, which I think is the perfect way to end. Even though. I know we could all talk for hours. Ron. Thank you so much for joining us. Well, so good to see you. And despite the rumors you did not are not the model for serena? I'm not letting that go. Oh wow, I'll take the I'll take the good and light and beautiful parts. But the problem is you cannot take one without the other with her. You don't get to choose just the good parts. But I love hearing about images and young in and poetry. I just love talking to you. Well, what one? Just quick anecdote about that? A minister woman who's actually administered Clemson And read 1st 50 pages of Serena and she was giving a sermon about strong women in the bible as role models. And she actually said in this novel that I've been reading about Ron rash has a strong woman named serena. And some people in the congregation that read the book. And so it's pretty funny because she's not very busy. She's not exactly You know, the one we think is a great, we're not doing a bible study on serena. I'm not sure what scripture applies to her. Something about hell and brimstone, I'm sure. But you got to be. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much. So good to see you, patty you to see you again. I hope to see you for too long, definitely, definitely. Um, can you before we go, can you tell our listeners where they can find you and find out more about your work? Well uh I think I've got a website. You do. You do Okay that doesn't tell you a lot but I mean I don't do facebook or twitter, that's just my weird choice. But you know I'm I'm in the bookstores, I teach at Western, I do teach at western Carolina university, so if you drop by the university uh knock on my door uh I'll answer if I'm not too busily writing away that's better than facebook. Trust mark. Uh yeah you're probably saving a lot of headache not being on social media. So thank you both for this master class today. It's just been so enlightening and just so in depth and it's been wonderful. Thank you and thank you all for tuning in to the Friends and fiction Writer's Block podcast on behalf of Patty and the rest of the Friends and fiction team. We so appreciate you joining us. Please consider leaving a review on your favorite podcast platform. Be sure to share with a friend is always will be back each friday with a new episode that you are sure to love. Thank you for tuning in to the Friends and fiction Writer's Block podcast. Please be sure to subscribe rate and review on...

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