For Issue Six, Kill Your Darlings was delighted to speak with North American writer Ron Rash. A poet, novelist and short story writer, Ron Rash has won many awards for his work, including the 2010 Frank O’Connor prize for his short story collection, Burning Bright. We spoke with Ron about his Appalachian stories, the evolution of his writing from one form to another, and the ‘dream state’ of writing.
Ron Rash: I think that, in many ways, the best training I have received as a prose writer is reading and writing poetry, because it demands vividness and concision. I was actually, earlier in my career, better known as a poet. Some people have chastised me for not writing much poetry now, but I hope when readers read my novels or stories that they sense that I am a poet writing prose. A lot of the poetry gets into the prose.
Kill Your Darlings : One thing that struck me about Burning Bright, as indeed it did in your novels Serena and One Foot in Eden, was the precision of your language. Can you tell me a little bit more about how you craft your sentences? Is it a very laborious process?
RR : It is. Actually, when I’m working on a story or a novel, during the last couple of drafts I’m just purely concerned with sound. I’m reading the words and the sentences and the paragraphs, and I’m listening to how they sound. And by that I mean I’m listening to which syllables are stressed, which are unstressed, and what type of rhythm each gives the paragraph. I’m very conscious of every word.
KYD : Does this mean that writing takes you much longer than it might an author who has written prose from the outset?
RR : I think so, because of what I tend to do… I think I wrote 14 full drafts of Serena. And I’m talking about full drafts. I don’t ever reread my novels because I always find places where I wish I could have done it better.
KYD : Just going back to the fact that you do, evidently, focus so closely on the words and the stress and the cadence of your prose – I read that your first novel, One Foot in Eden, actually began as a poem. How did it evolve into a novel?
RR : Actually, the poem/novel began with an image. Every novel I’ve written has come from a single image. For One Foot in Eden, the image was of a farmer standing in a field, and his crops were dying around him. That was all I had. I remember that image came to me essentially out of a dream. I woke up and kind of dredged it up, and that day I wrote a 14-line poem about a farmer in a field with his crops dying. But when I finished it I knew that… The image that I had in my head, that poem couldn’t contain it. And then I wrote a short story and that didn’t contain it [laughs]. And so I thought, well, looks like I might have to try and make this a novel.
KYD : Were you apprehensive about venturing into a new form?
RR : Oh yes. Very much so. Because I’d tried a few novels before and I’d never had any success, and I was fearful of that kind of commitment. Because I knew that it was going to be a commitment of a couple of years.
KYD : So, One Foot in Eden began with an image, which evolved into a poem, and then a short story and finally a novel. Do you generally get most of your ideas for both your short stories and the novels from an image and then write from there?
RR : Yes. Every novel or short story. When I wrote the title story ‘Burning Bright’, I had an image of this woman looking out towards the mountains and I knew it was a time when fires were possible. The whole story started with this image of a woman looking out at the mountains. That’s how it happens.
KYD : Once you receive an image, how exactly do you begin to build on that?
RR : The best way I can explain it is that when I get this kind of image, when I get a true, important image – and I know when it’s important because I can’t get it out of my head – the image nags at me. I don’t know where the novel’s going; I don’t plot out my novels and I don’t outline them. Very often I don’t even know who the characters are. I just start with that image.
What happens inevitably, with a novel at least, is that there comes a time after maybe six months, or a year, where the book just seems to die. It reaches a dead end and I can’t seem to work out what to do next. Sometimes this will last several months, sometimes a few weeks. I think writers need particular beliefs, whether they’re true or not doesn’t matter. And the one I have to believe in, or that I make myself believe in, is some ways a little bit like what Michelangelo believed. You know, he would look at the untouched block of marble and he would believe that the statue was already in it; that it was just a matter of finding it. And what I believe is that if this image is so strong, if it haunts me day after day, if I can’t get it out of my head, and I can’t forget it, then I make myself believe that the whole novel is out there. It’s just a matter of my discovering it.
KYD : I’d heard of Michelangelo’s belief about his blocks of marble, but I’ve never heard a writer thinking of a novel in the same way. You often hear of writers speaking of how they don’t know when their novel is going to end, or they’re not particularly sure about their characters, but I’ve never heard of a writer thinking of the novel as fully formed before it is written. I think it could be enormously useful.
RR : It’s very helpful to me, and it sounds crazy but it works. It’s a great help in those bleak months of despair. You sit there thinking, ‘I’ve lost a year of my life writing this novel and now it’s not working and I’ll never complete it’, and I make myself believe that that novel is out there somewhere. The older I get, the more I write, the more mysterious writing becomes. Where does it come from? Say you write a short story – why is it that one day you think of an image or a character, and you’ve never thought of that before, and then one day it just comes. You know? Why is that? It’s not something that I think can be easily explained.
KYD : Do you think there’s a danger in questioning that too much?
RR : Of where it comes from?
KYD : In trying to analyse the intuitive, creative process.
RR : Yeah, I do. I think writers work best on intuition. Les Murray talks about writing as being very similar to a dream state. And I think he’s right about that.
You can read the rest of the interview in Issue Six of Kill Your Darlings, available here.