Friends & Fiction
Friends & Fiction

Episode 18 · 2 weeks ago

WB S1E18: Ron Block, Patti Callahan with Ron Rash

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

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 allprobably know this quote. He says that he believed most people were a littlebit better than they ought to be. Uh and I love that quote and uh and andthat quote was kind of with me when I wrote these stories. Yeah, welcome to the Friends and fictionWriter's Block podcast four new york times, bestselling authors, one rockstar librarian and endless stories join Mary Kay Andrews, Kristin Harmel,Kristy Woodson Harvey and Patti. Callahan Henry. Along with Ron BlockAs novelists, we are four longtime friends with 70 books between us and Iam Ron Block. Please join us for fascinating author interviews, Insidertalk about publishing and writing. If you love books and are curious aboutthe writing world, you are in the right place. Welcome to another episode ofFriends and fiction Writer's Block podcast. Southern poets are among themost highly regarded in literary circles. Their focus and unique view ofthe 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 towelcome Ron rash. I am Ron block and I am Patty Callahan. Let me tell you abit about our guest and my friend the acclaimed writer Ron rash. He has beencelebrated as the Appalachian Shakespeare for the depth andtimelessness of his writing. An accomplished poet, short story writerand novelist. Ron has been rewarded with the frank O'Connor Internationalshort story Award, the O Henry prize, the Sidney Lanier prize for Southernliterature and he has been inducted into the fellowship of southern writersand the south Carolina Academy of Authors and he is the author of one ofmy favorite novels. Serena for sure. No slacker. They're they're welcome to thepodcast. Never a slacker. Welcome Ron to the podcast. We're so grateful foryou joining us today. It's not, let's start by talking about how you came towrite poetry. What's the origin of that? And what were the seeds that wereplanted in your young life that led you to writing? Well, I've always enjoyedpoetry, but I think probably two writers had a huge impact on me as Igot into my late teens, early twenties, James dickey, uh probably best knownfor 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 sobecause he needs kind of had there was a sense that youwere reading and a writer who was acclaimed worldwide and yet I alwaysfelt it. But he was writing about my world as much as his. And so thosewriters inspired me. And uh, I've always loved music. I wanted to be arock and roll star, but I couldn't sing and I was no good playing guitar. So Ikind of had that fall back on another kind of music and I hope I got a littlebit 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 theabandoned homestead in Watauga County and it's that's universal because I'mfrom upstate new york, which is so far from north Carolina, but it's universalthemes, it's universal thoughts and...

...it's universal imagery. So itinternational's just it's amazing. And I love how you're writing of novelsand short stories and now in Avella all feel like poetry but in a differentformat. 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 latetwenties, early thirties, I was really concentrating on poetry and I hope, andI've tried to bring everything I learned from writing poetry into thepros and so, you know, and the writers, you know that, but I think prosewriters, I've always enjoyed Joyce and Faulkner just the way they play withwords and what they do with rhythms. So yeah, you know, I think that wasn'tvaluable Kind of four grounding for for pros. And I think a lot of writersstart 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 andshe was classically trained also as a poet and just like you when you'rereading her prose, you're thinking wasn't this once a poem? Right. And youknow, do they take a poem and turn it into a story and how different is itfor you to write the novella versus the novel versus the poem? And do you go inknowing which one you are going to write? I think uh a lot of times Idon't yeah, I've had several, several novels, start off his poems and thenbecome short stories and then, you know, that happened particularly most vividlywith one ft and Eat because that novel I kept, you know, I kind of had thishorrifying 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 hadto give them just run away and uh, you know, but but yeah, you know, a lot oftimes, 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 wherefinally everything comes in. But yeah, a lot of times, I don't know. Sosometimes, you know, I will, you know, use my own maybe this shows how limitedI am, but I will write a poem and then, you know, maybe write a short storypretty much on the same using a lot of the same imagery or sometimes even thesame kind of narrative. Yeah, your largest novel serena was that, did yougo into that knowing it was going to be a novel or was it more of an image orwas it more that you thought it was going to be a poem? I'm so curious howthat grew out of the ground either as a poem or a full novel in your headalready. Yeah. Uh actually it came from the beginning of came as an image I wasactually driving on a back road and just this image came to me of a womanon 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 andseemingly everything else. And uh and I knew that someone was looking at and Ikind of was just daydreaming and and I knew that whoever was looking at or wasin love with it, but also afraid of that turned out to be her husband andthat image actually comes about middle. Yeah, just started there. Oh, that gaveme chills. It reminds me when people asked C. S. Lewis where Narnia camefrom, he said he imagined he just had...

...an image one day, just like youimagined he was 16 and he or 14 and he saw a fawn in a snowy would carryingparcels, buy a lamp post and that's what do you do, what I mean? Do youstart how do you see so many times I start with an image I tried to peg downthe origins of things, you know how tough it is wrong. People say, wheredid that poem come from? And you can't, you're like um um um um right. But Ithink I've narrowed it down. It's either a question or an image and Ithink for you, it's almost always images. Yeah. You just starts at workand you have to let your mind free float to let images show up. You can'tmake images show up. That's fascinating to Yeah, I mean, that's where I'm a bigreader. Carl, you're getting, yep, that's he comes closer to the toexplaining this, what happens as anyone, that just that sense of stories and theforms are out there. You know, it's not so much we create them as we just kindof somehow tap into something that's already there. It's the universalunconscious 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 indiscussion right here and I'm here for it. I am here for it. I'm listening toboth of you are going like, I wonder if these ideas and images must like dukeit out in your brains to see what form they're going to come out in. And I Ijust 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 AppalachianShakespeare. 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 howhe did it, He is so much greater writer. I I mean I go, but I actually read himprobably as much as anyone just continue to be amazed. Uh he works onthat level of language and character. Uh but I just try to yeah, I just, youknow, I try to use what I've learned from other writers as much as I can. UhI 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 ofcriticism 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'mtrying, you know, I'm trying to write the best, you know, former story and ifit 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 youactually feel like I can do this and you feel like you might have had somesuccess in writing. Oh wow, I was kind of a late bloomer, I didn't reallystart right until I was in college, we're trying and it just didn't didn'treally 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 thathelped and a couple of writers actually saw my work writers I respected in somesmall journals and let me know that they like, Yeah, but I think there's always asense every time I start writing a new new project or a new story, am I rightor am I? You know, there's always a lot of self down which I tell my studentsis 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 lotbetter though. I mean, I think if you...

...were too over confident it would belike, oh, I think that's the worst thing to happen. Yeah, when somebodysays 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 likestarting over of course there's what we've learned in the language, but it'snew 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 onething 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 differentthings. But yeah, that's it's always a struggle. And what I find interestingis how some stories novels come so easily and then others and usuallyunfortunately it's the ones that come easier. That seems to be the ones thatwork out. And I've got a feeling this is where we kind of go back to theyoung and you just suddenly tapped into something that that I always call itthe 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 tothat river under the river, it's even better. Which is what you do. Whichbrings me to serena, I remember years ago talking to you about this novel andtelling you how much I loved it. And you told me how very, very much thatstory took out of you. You said it was one of the hardest books you had everwritten line by line, you know, sentence by sentence, it had reallyrung you dry. But now you re visit her, you took the hardest one you have inthe valley. This astounding collection of short stories and a novel aboutserena. So, what drew you to revisiting her story in this way. Yeah, well, I'venever been one to to go back to characters, but I think I saw something,you know, I saw some some really bad thingshappening environmentally a couple of years ago, three years ago, four yearsago. And it was almost as if I wanted to write about that issue again or atleast, you know, kind of remind people how quickly lost wilderness can bebecause, you know, there there was a lot going on as far as trying to openup the federal lands and so that was a compulsion. But yes, I kind of, I needto bring serena back into this world, but I didn't want to write a novel andthat for me, I just I just didn't want to do that because I felt like thatwould be I didn't want to write Ghostbusters to,you know, uh but but I always wanted to write anovella because I've admired that form. You know, your door. Well, she'swritten a couple Jim, Harrison, Dennis Johnson, probably one of my favoritenovellas, trained ones. Any proof? You know, you can see a Brokeback, whichhas caused long course world. So uh yeah, and I found out no village arereally argue on it. Have you written 1? I have written one that is an audibleoriginal about Florence nightingale and you're right, I'm when I finished Isaid I might as well have just written a novel, it would have made my lifeeasier because pai rowing it down to what you want out of it is reallydifficult. Yeah, that was what I found...

...really tough trying to because you areI mean, I think novella has the effect of the novel, but you somehow make itmore precise, but it was it was fun and it made me appreciate people who do itreally well and but it was fun to get back. No, and seeing up couple ofcharacters and you know, Rachel, I wanted her to have a moment where wereally got a sense of where she's, what she's become. Uh I mean, you know, whenI start serena that opening scene in serena, she doesn't move, she's on theuh bench. Yeah, and she uh is completely just there and by the end ofserena, but also as we see in these last things, she's really become astrong, strong human being. Just that image of her just ready to go at itagain, that transformation, we get to see her transform a little bit. I'mcurious because we're talking about young in and archetypes. What do youthink serena is? I see her as a warrior. Yeah, a warrior, uh perhaps a deathforce, a kind of uh I think I get to talk about the spirit that denies Ilike, So I think she's she's something, you know, and I think what's again withyou 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 thescariest aspect of her that she is this morning to be outside of humanity andshe achieves it. But enterprise, she wants to be outside the norms becausesomething else matters to her even more. And I love that archetype. But I feelwhen you read these characters to me echoes a solid archetype that way, themore we can relate because they're all little broken off pieces of ourselvesat the same time. And so we recognize it or we abhor it, but all at the sametime. It's all the pieces of being human. It's fascinating. I think that'swhy we respond to them. Yeah, these archetypes system. Well, speaking of inthe valley again, you talked about serena and some of the environmentalconcerns, but there's also a lot of social concerns that the other piecesin the book address and and tell us, can you talk to us about the intent ofthose and what you hoped that the reader would take away. Yeah, Well, asI was working on this book, finishing it up, Covid hit and and I really thatthat really shaped well, also I added the flu epidemic in in in in the valleyand the novella that became a little more focused for me, but also I wantedto write stories about people being in really, really, I mean a sense, I guessI always do. But even really dire situations. But I wanted also to showpeople really, which I think is usually the case responding bravely allowingthemselves to moments for their little bit better human beings. And that maybethey have a right, there's a great quote, my fault. You all probably knowthis quote. He says that he believed most people were a little bit betterthan they ought to be. And I love that quote. And uh, and that quote was kindof with me when I wrote these stories. And uh, and I wanted to finish thestory with, you know, the grandfather, you know, the saving the greatgrandfather 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 sadthings at times. But I think literature is about those moments when we reallyreveal who we are. And I don't think of myself as a I'm not a nihilistcertainly, and I do believe very awesome people kind of come through inthose moments. And I think particularly in this book is as tough as thesituations world we seek, but not in all stories because not in not in law. Right, Right. So, another great quote Ilove is from George Saunders. He says that what a story is about. And Ithought of you when I read this, what a story is about is to be found in thecuriosity it creates in us, which is a form of caring. So you create thiscuriosity which makes us care and you do it even with the characters whoaren't doing what we might define as a good thing. I'm curious if that'ssomething in your mind or these characters or you outline them or youre search them or do they very much grow just from the soil of imagination? Yeah, they kind of uh, but they tend togrow, you know, I'm not much older, you know, I don't really I mean there are alot of research for the characters, but they just kind of they kind of come andI do a lot of drafts and your voice is so you do more drafts than you dooutlining. Yeah, I don't I'm usually not doing much outlining differentwriters as you know, we all do it a little bit differently, but I'll tellhim that a lot of times I need to wander to find my story. Uh, even whenI think I know where the story's been, it always surprises me. There's a greatscene, uh plenty of counter actually a good country people when the biblesalesman steals the wooden leg. If you read that story, it's good good countrypeople, you you you just you feel like, oh wow, she set this up so well, socareful and she said, and I believe her, you know, a good catholic that she shewas uh that she says, I didn't know he was going to steal that leg till thetill she wrote that. And I believe it. And yet, you know, at the same time itjust seems so right and inevitable. So those are the kind of, that would be tome that's yeah, we'll use her language that those are moments of grace forright just comes and we've all had them. And I think what keeps us writing ishoping we get another one of those moments of grace because we write andwe 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 yourfor at least a little while. You're a little bit better than you really areor your characters a little wiser than you are. And they rise up and they saysomething 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 workingthrough the pandemic, just like the rest of us were and Ron trying to run alibrary, you know, during the pandemic. And we were trying to write both of ushad books out during the pandemic. What are some really great standout readsbecause you're such a good reader on top of being an incredible writer. Youare such a good reader. I love hearing who you're reading. I think I'vewritten down everyone, you you said today, what were some standout pandemicreads? Well, I read while Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller. Okay, britishwriter that boat. Really. Uh one thing I've never uh you know, contemporarybritish fiction, even when it's about...

...social class, tends to be more urban,but she writes about the rural poor and that that book is wonderful. Uh I readthat one. I read a book by lee Durkee, a guy I've never met, he lives inOxford 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 ofthe stories in in the valley is about uh cave art or the soldier sees. ButI'm just fascinated when you you see these images that are, you know, talkabout young again Uh image that's 35,000 years old. And when I see thoseimages, 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 theneed for art and story and expressing themselves. Right? This happened thenthis happened then this happened I think about when you talk about thosekids, I think about the paris catacombs and how they underneath the groundthere, which I think is the perfect way to end. Even though. I know we couldall talk for hours. Ron. Thank you so much for joining us. Well, so good tosee you. And despite the rumors you did not are not the model for serena? I'mnot letting that go. Oh wow, I'll take the I'll take the good and light andbeautiful parts. But the problem is you cannot take one without the other withher. You don't get to choose just the good parts. But I love hearing aboutimages and young in and poetry. I just love talking to you. Well, what one?Just quick anecdote about that? A minister woman who's actuallyadministered Clemson And read 1st 50 pages of Serena and she was giving asermon about strong women in the bible as role models. And she actually saidin this novel that I've been reading about Ron rash has a strong woman namedserena. And some people in the congregation that read the book. And soit'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 notsure what scripture applies to her. Something about hell and brimstone, I'msure. But you got to be. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much. So goodto 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 ourlisteners where they can find you and find out more about your work? Well uhI think I've got a website. You do. You do Okay that doesn't tell you a lot butI mean I don't do facebook or twitter, that's just my weird choice. But youknow I'm I'm in the bookstores, I teach at Western, I do teach at westernCarolina university, so if you drop by the university uh knock on my door uhI'll answer if I'm not too busily writing away that's better thanfacebook. Trust mark. Uh yeah you're probably saving a lot of headache notbeing on social media. So thank you both for this master class today. It'sjust been so enlightening and just so in depth and it's been wonderful. Thankyou and thank you all for tuning in to the Friends and fiction Writer's Blockpodcast on behalf of Patty and the rest of the Friends and fiction team. We soappreciate you joining us. Please consider leaving a review on yourfavorite podcast platform. Be sure to share with a friend is always will beback each friday with a new episode that you are sure to love. Thank youfor tuning in to the Friends and fiction Writer's Block podcast. Pleasebe sure to subscribe rate and review on...

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