Rash’s latest novel, THE WORLD MADE STRAIGHT, follows Travis Shelton, a high school dropout, as he gets caught, literally in a bear trap, while stealing marijuana plants from Carlton Toomey, a menacing tobacco-farmer-turned-drug dealer.
Disgusted by his son’s waywardness, Travis’s father kicks him out and Travis takes up residence with Leonard Schuler, a half-assed drug dealer and former schoolteacher. Leonard and the boy bond over books and a shared fascination over a local Civil War incident – the Laurel Shelton massacre – that divided their town.
ZACHARIAS: Do you think storytelling is something you’re born to or can just anyone cultivate the craft?
RASH: I think some people have a gift for it. That’s been my experience, but obviously, you can get better. But I think the intuitive sense of drama and how to move a story along is a natural thing.
ZACHARIAS: When did you discover you wanted to be a storyteller?
RASH: As a kid, I spent a lot of time by myself in the woods, daydreaming. I would make up narratives, telling stories to myself. It was either storytelling or a kind of madness. (laughing).
ZACHARIAS: Why did you spend so much time alone?
RASH: I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, a widow woman. She lived on a marvelous place, in many ways beyond technology. No car or truck.
I spent my time out in the woods, and with my older relatives, who were all great storytellers. I grew up hearing an Appalachian dialect that you don’t often hear today.
ZACHARIAS: Your previous novels, SAINTS AT THE RIVER and ONE FOOT IN EDEN, especially, capture the old-timey language of mountain people. Do you grieve the loss of that talk?
RASH: There’s a part of me that grieves. A part of what art does, I believe, is keep alive what is disappearing. So I’m trying to capture the language I heard as a boy and preserve it as art. To create a portrait of the beauty of it. It’s a beautiful language..
ZACHARIAS: When I visited Vietnam in 2003, I was struck by how much the Central Highlands reminded me of East Tennessee and my father’s people. The mountains. The subsistence way of life.
RASH: Something interesting happened to me while I was reading at a community college in western North Carolina. A number of Hmongs came out to hear me. They were very responsive to the reading and approached me afterwards. They said that they understood the part of the world I was writing about. I was fascinated by that.
ZACHARIAS: I guess mountain people are mountain people, no matter where they’re from.
RASH: A lot of my new novel, THE WORLD MADE STRAIGHT, deals with landscape as destiny. How where you were born affects how you see the world and how you see yourself. I think because of that people born in the mountains respond to the world in a different way.
ZACHARIAS: Your writings carry a message about our connectedness to and stewardship of the earth. Do you consider yourself an environmental champion?
RASH: It’s an important issue to me. We are inextricably linked to the natural world. If it dies, we die with it. I think it is stupid and shortsighted not to recognize this fact.
ZACHARIAS: What about the writing life appeals to you?
RASH: The difficult joy of writing. Doing something that you feel compelled to do. Of the actual writing, for me the best thing is when I feel the story or poem start to come together. There’s a joy in having the characters and place come alive.
I enjoy meeting other writers. Writers are the most interesting people I know to talk to. It’s kind of like being a member of a cult.
ZACHARIAS: So much of a writer’s life is internalized. Do you fret over being too self-absorbed?
RASH: That’s why we have families and children. (chuckles). They won’t allow us to do that, at least too much. But there’s always that danger that you’ll get too self-absorbed.
ZACHARIAS: Where does the title of your latest novel, THE WORLD MADE STRAIGHT, originate?
RASH: It comes from Handel’s Messiah. There’s a line about the crookedness of the world made straight. It’s about having this injustice – the Shelton Laurel Massacre, a civil war massacre – and trying to set it right. Leonard is trying to help Travis become a man. They are both trying to do something redemptive.
ZACHARIAS: There’s none of the young Ron Rash in Travis is there?
RASH: I think we write about the lives we might have had, if they had gone another way. Most males experience a certain amount of recklessness when they go through adolescence, I think.
Travis is a smart kid. He just doesn’t have a lot of possibilities. He’s never encouraged. I was a poor student in high school. Very poor. I liked the forestry and shop classes. (laughs). I wasn’t taking any advanced placement courses. I barely got out of high school.
Travis is a reader. He just doesn’t want to read what’s being assigned in class. I was like that. The kid sitting in the back of class, reading CRIME & PUNISHMENT, and failing French.
ZACHARIAS: Do all the boys and girls growing up in North Carolina learn about the Shelton Laurel Massacre? How did you learn of it?
RASH: It’s not taught as much. It was so traumatic and the feelings so deep, people tended not to talk about it for fear of bringing up those old feelings and old hatreds. I didn’t even know my own connection to it – I had ancestors on both sides of it. I never heard much about it until I was 12.
In the past, bragging about such things could get a fellow killed in Western North Carolina. I think that’s the reason why a lot of people kept silent.
ZACHARIAS: Then why did you pick the massacre to focus on?
RASH: I think it’s a meditation on violence. I’ve always been horrified and fascinated over people, who live in close proximity to each other, turning on one another. During Pol Pot’s reign in Cambodia. In Bosnia. Rwanda. It’s unsettling to see people fall back into a tribal mentality. To me it’s horrifying and one of the most depressing things humans can do to each other. The hope is that there will always be people who fight against it. People like Bonheoffer in Germany.
ZACHARIAS: What truths have you learned about yourself from writing?
RASH: I’ve learned to follow my obsessions. I’ve certainly done that. I’m obsessed with history and landscape. A quote about my work that pleased me was when a critic said landscape was a major character in my novels.
ZACHARIAS: That is a great compliment.
RASH: Nature is our most universal language. If you live in Rwanda, you know what a river looks like, and you certainly know what it smells like. No matter where you go, a waterfall is a waterfall. When you use the natural world in your writing, you’re using the most universal references there are. We are all surrounded by nature. Even if you live in the city, you can get to nature pretty quick.
ZACHARIAS: What’s next for you?
RASH: I’ve got a collection of short stories coming out April 2007 with Picador and I’m working on a new novel about timber barons in the North Carolina mountains, set in 1930s.