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Ron Rash: How I Write

"When there is violence in my work, the goal is not to titillate but to reveal character. It reveals the mask of that person, and we see who he or she really is when that mask is dropped."

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Ron Rash
Credit: Ashley Jones

Ron Rash grew up in southern Appalachia, and his work remains steeped in the region. It’s both where he lives and what he writes about, so much so that the Philadelphia Inquirer called him “the Appalachian Shakespeare.” But his beautiful, rich, lyrical writing resonates with readers way beyond any specific geographical region.

A gifted storyteller, Rash is a prolific writer, publishing seven novels (including 2009 PEN/Faulkner Finalist Serena), six short story collections, and four books of poetry to date.

His most recent novel, The Risen, unfolds using two alternating time periods: one set in present day and another told in flashbacks from decades earlier. The result is a suspenseful, skillfully woven narrative about two brothers, a young woman, and an unsolved murder.


The alternating timeline

That was the biggest challenge of the book. I hoped that with each revelation of the past, the present became more complex, and that initial views of the reader are gradually changed with each flashback. It’s critical to the structure to make sure you don’t dwell in either place. You have to keep tension and interest.



Deciding genre

I always start with an image in my mind. With The Risen, it was a mound of leaves by a creek – so I knew there would be a body there. The novel was discovering the story behind that image. Sometimes the image leads to a poem, or a short story, or a novel. Sometimes I’ve written a poem that was good, but the story demanded more, so I’d write a short story. Twice, I knew there was even more that I wanted to talk about, and it turned into a novel.


Finding universal settings

I think anybody can do that. One of my favorite writers is Richard Price, who writes about New York City. His work tends to be very local, but he finds the universal in the particular.



When poets attempt prose

They should realize they’ve got an advantage by writing and reading poetry. Because of that, they should be able to write at a high level. Such an important part of a novel is the ability to tell a story, so I think it’s easier for narrative poets than lyrical poets. Hemingway, Joyce, and Faulkner all started out as poets. The best thing I could have done was start as a poet.


When prose writers attempt poetry

They already know how to be lucid. They know they are communicating to another human being, and that’s an advantage when making the transition to start writing poetry. Steeping oneself in poetry is the best way to learn.



Writing dark subjects

When there is violence in my work, the goal is not to titillate but to reveal character. It reveals the mask of that person, and we see who he or she really is when that mask is dropped. I see almost all of my characters as doing the best they can with what they’ve been dealt. I’m not a cynical or nihilistic writer.


Writing routine

I go by hours per day. For about 35 years, I’ve put in four to six hours per day. On weekends, I cut back a little. When I’m working on a first draft, I’ve gone 10 hours a day. Initially, I use legal pads and then type it on the computer. But I never do edits on the computer. I print out the pages and mark them up by hand.



Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.



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