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Ron Rash talks about joining his mentors in the NC Literary Hall of Fame

Ron Rash is now part of the NC Literary Hall of Fame.
Courtesy of Western Carolina University
Ron Rash is now part of the NC Literary Hall of Fame.

Award-winning Appalachian author Ron Rash is the newest inductee into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, joining some of his mentors.

He says writing wasn’t always a life goal.

“When I was in college for a couple of years, I was a P.E. major. My goal was to be a track coach. So I hope that now when people read a book by me, they might think, ‘well, I'm kind of glad he didn't become a track coach. I enjoyed this book,’” Rash said.

Looking back on his life, Rash said he is glad that he committed to writing.

“I didn’t know if I ever would publish a book but I wanted to try,” he said.

The novelist, who is also known for his short stories, said his work is inspired by his home in Western North Carolina.

He said he identifies as an Appalachian writer because of his family’s deep connection to the region. His father’s family came to Madison and Buncombe counties in the mid-1700s, and his mother’s family came to Watauga County around the same time.

Writing about Appalachia is a tribute to his roots, Rash said.

“It's a way of, I hope, in some ways honoring them.”

The influence of the region came in many forms, including music, Rash said. He grew up connected to famous Appalachian musicians.

“My family knew Doc Watson in Deep Gap. I grew up in Boiling Springs where Earl Scruggs is from. So I was certainly familiar with those musicians and I listen to music all the time but I don’t when I write, I have to have silence,” Rash said.

Music is a critical part of his writing process, he said. He listens to music before writing to set the mood for a particular book.

“I was working on a book, 'The World Made Straight.' I was listening to Steve Earle a lot,” he said.

While Rash’s work focuses on Appalachia, the themes of his writing find universal appeal.

“While you want to be as true as possible to give a strong sense of a particular place, like Western North Carolina, that ultimately the reader recognizes that you are talking about all places.

Eudora Welty once said, ‘One place comprehended helps us understand all other places better,” Rash said.

Rash said he is particularly honored to join ranks with other famous local writers in the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame.

“It's a real honor because a number of the writers, particularly from Western North Carolina: Thomas Wolfe, Robert Morgan, Fred Chapell and also Lee Smith — who grew up in Southwest Virginia — are in the Hall of Fame, and they've been writers who've had such an impact on me,” Rash said.

For the last 20 years, Rash has worked to motivate the next generation of writers as a professor of Appalachian Cultural Studies in the English department at Western Carolina University.

“It's almost as if you were in a track meet and you hand off the baton to another generation. I think the generosity of the writers that I mentioned, Lee Smith, Robert Morgan, those writers certainly helped me along, and if I can help a few writers along that's great to you know to continue this tradition,” he said.

David Kinner, dean of WCU’s College of Arts and Sciences said the honor bestowed on Rash is “well-deserved.”

“Like WCU, Ron’s work is tied to our region, its history and its people, and through his writing, he has entertained us, moved us and made us think,” Kinner said in a press release. “Ron is a prolific author, an integral part of our community and our students benefit from being able to learn from him.”

Rash said he shares a surprising piece of advice for writers: not to write but to read.

“The key is to be reading and to read widely, of course, geography, you know writers from other countries over continents, but also other time periods,” Rash said.

Reading many different styles of authors, forms and topics is what helps you form your own unique voice, Rash says.

“The way artists create a singular voice is through immersing [themselves] in many voices and then that part of you that's distinctive kind of comes out. I always think of it as kind of a stew. Stir it around, all those influences, and what it is that makes you a particular person and your voice emerges out of that,” Rash said.

Though best known for his novels, Rash wrote four collections of poems and six collections of stories, including “Burning Bright,” which won the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. He is a two-time recipient of the O. Henry Prize given annually to short stories of exceptional merit.

Rash said he loves writing short stories and considers the form America’s greatest contribution to the world of literature.

“It just it does something that a novel or a form can't do it. Just it stands alone, and it has an effect that is so powerful and so lingering and to do that in say 10, 15 pages. I think is remarkable,” he said.

Rash said he plans to continue penning short stories but he confirmed that “The Caretaker” will probably be his last novel.

He said he wants to close the arc of his work on a high note like authors John Cheever and William Faulkner.

“I wanted to kind of leave that [The Caretaker] as a kind of final statement about human decency. That we can rise to the occasion of honor and sacrifice and that there are people who are capable of that. Actually, I think today as conflicted as our society is, it’s a good reminder that these things are not completely lost yet,” Rash said.

Inductions to the Hall of Fame are held every other year and is a program of the North Carolina Writers’ Network.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.