Photograph by Maryan Harrington

A Gift of Hope

One of the finest Southern writers in history, Ron Rash, now 70, has a long talk with Salvation South about his career as a teacher, novelist, poet, and storyteller.

Ron Rash has written so many books in the Southern Gothic tradition that, he says, it surprises his readers he doesn’t have a raven sitting on his shoulder croaking, “Nevermore!” 

Rash is the award-winning, revered author of eight novels, seven collections of short stories, and five collections of poetry, all of which capture the realities of Appalachia and the rural South. But his influence extends far beyond his readership. He is a beloved career educator, having taught for over forty years at the high school, community college, and university levels, and the writing community adores him. I have gotten to know him over the past decade, and I find it impossible to tell where Ron Rash, the teacher, ends and Ron Rash, the writer, begins. At his core, Ron has a teacher’s heart, and his patience, encouragement, sense of humor, and generosity of spirit are unmatched. 

His latest novel, The Caretaker, is a poetic masterpiece about the role of family, both biological and chosen, in our lives, and what it means to love others selflessly. A childhood bout with polio disfigured Blackburn Gant, the book’s title character. Only his childhood friend, Korean War veteran Jacob, and Jacob’s young wife, Naomi, have penetrated the solitude in which Gant has lived ever since. Gant makes his living as a cemetery caretaker, and he approaches his caretaking duties with the deep understanding that “small acts of respect mattered.” Elegiac and weighty, The Caretaker explores the intricacies of friendship, love, and family—and how deeply humans want to know they are not alone.

While scenes take place in both Korea and east Tennessee, most of the narrative unfolds in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, in a place inspired by the family farm where Rash spent some of his happiest times as a child. The Caretaker, Rash’s eighth and perhaps his last novel, is an intentional “gift of hope” to his readers in an ever-divisive world, while also serving as a gentle ode to his own family history.

I was first introduced to Ron Rash’s writing when a former student gave me his dog-eared paperback copy of One Foot in Eden, Ron’s first novel. The student was attending a college where the book was required reading for incoming freshmen. He waited in line to get it signed by Rash, then gave it to me, his former English teacher, when he came home for fall break because he knew I “liked books a lot.” Eden was unlike anything I’d ever read. Set in 1950s Appalachia, it is a beautiful, lyrical tale about haunting, diabolical behavior.

After reading One Foot in Eden, I introduced my students to Rash's poetry and short stories. By reading stories set in their home region, where their connections were deep, my students gained a newfound appreciation of literature. Over the years, they were lucky enough to travel annually to Western Carolina University, where Rash has taught Appalachian cultural studies and fiction writing for the past twenty years. He graciously talked to them about reading, writing, and Appalachian culture. Stopping at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva became a much-loved part of our field trip, where they proudly purchased copies of Rash’s short story and poetry collections, as well as some of their favorite novels, all of which he took the time to sign. 

“I remember reading those stories and thinking these are my people, these are the places I know. That was an incredibly pivotal and empowering moment for me as a writer.”

—David Joy

On one occasion, after he had committed to talk with my students, Rash got an invitation to speak at a WCU alumni event somewhere near the coast of North Carolina. Rather than cancel or reschedule, he politely declined to attend what many would consider a much more important event to talk to a high school English teacher and her students. And that’s really all you need to know about Ron Rash. He is approachable, he is kind, and he cares about others. He has a deep commitment to growing new generations of readers, writers, and thinkers, and by example, he is teaching them they have a future obligation to do the same. 

English professor Dr. Annette Debo is a colleague of Rash’s at WCU and has seen firsthand the transformative effect he has on students and his innate ability to coax the best out of emerging writers.

“I saw him once lead his class through a writing exercise where he brought in an ad that he’d found on campus,” she says. “It read: ‘Wedding ring for sale. Never used.’ He used this found line to show students how to transform it into an amazing story opening: who might be selling the ring? What happened to their partner? Where will this sale lead them? He inspires students to think beyond themselves but to always root it in what is here, what is local, what could be real.”

David Joy, the acclaimed author of five novels, including his most recent work Those We Thought We Knew, first met Rash when he was a freshman at Western Carolina. They frequently discussed writing and language, but they bonded most closely over their common love of fishing. At some point, Rash gave Joy a copy of the late Tennessee author’s William Gay’s I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down, a collection of short stories. That book changed the trajectory of Joy’s writing career.

Ron Rash and David Joy at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina (courtesy of WCU)
Ron Rash and David Joy at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina (courtesy of WCU)

“I remember reading those stories and thinking these are my people, these are the places I know,” Joy says. “That was an incredibly pivotal and empowering moment for me as a writer.” As one of Rash’s former students, Joy once told me that without Ron Rash, “there would be no David Joy, the novelist.”

Over the years, Joy has become quite the student of Rash's work.

“My favorite poem of Ron’s is ‘Black-Eyed Susans’ [from the collection Raising the Dead],” he says. “My favorite short story is ‘3 AM and the Stars Were Out.’ [from the 2013 collection Nothing Gold Can Stay]. My favorite novel is probably a toss-up between the first two, One Foot In Eden and Saints at the River. My favorite book is [the 2010 short-story collection] Burning Bright, though if I were pressed and could only have one on my shelf for the rest of my life it would be Something Rich and Strange.”

Critics have long compared Rash’s work to that of  literary legends like William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Cormac McCarthy. Joy explains why he believes Rash deserves such comparisons. 

“I think at heart Ron is a poet and [short] story writer, those two forms being much more deeply related and connected to each other than the novel,” Joy says. “And that's not to say I don't love Ron's novels because I do. I think he's one of the greatest novelists of the past thirty years. But his understanding of the story form and his ability to dial language back to its bare bones, yet scrimshaw those bones with music is something very few writers will ever be able to do. He quite simply owns the story form, and I think that is largely due to his leanings toward poetry. Most folks are lucky if they can reach an understanding of a singular form. He’s just a rare, rare breed.”

“Ron literally blazed a trail for writers like me to follow. He not only made it feel possible for someone raised where we were raised, he also made it feel urgent.”

—Wiley Cash

Wiley Cash, author of four novels, including the gorgeously crafted A Land More Kind Than Home and the more recent When Ghosts Come Home, appreciates Rash for not only his literary influence but his friendship.

“Ron literally blazed a trail for writers like me to follow,” Cash says. “He not only made it feel possible for someone raised where we were raised (Boiling Springs and Gastonia), he also made it feel urgent. I am endlessly grateful not only for the model his career forged for writers like me, David Joy, Ashleigh Bryant Phillips, and others, I am equally grateful for the kindness and grace he has shown me for so many years. He's not only my literary idol, he's become my friend, and that means a lot.

“It’s hard to choose what I love most from Ron’s canon,” Cash continues. “I am especially partial to his poetry and short stories. A story that I perhaps marvel at more than any other is ‘Burning Bright.’ It’s a marvel both in terms of its structure and its penetrating psychological portrait.” 

Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle’s debut novel Even As We Breathe has the distinction of being the first novel ever published by someone from the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. Rash praised it highly upon its publication in 2021. A brilliant mystery largely set in the town of Cherokee and the Qualla Boundary, as well as Asheville’s historic Grove Park Inn, it details nineteen-year-old Cowney Sequoyah’s struggle to come to terms with loss and reckon with the meaning of home and the power of place. Clapsaddle also expressed her gratitude to Rash for his tireless support of both emerging and seasoned writers. 

“Ron has been a beacon for writers in our region,” Clapsaddle says. “A true master of every major genre, Ron’s eye and ear for long-form and short-form storytelling are inspiring to those of us who strive to share the complicated stories of this place. More importantly, he is a nurturer of writers, establishing a legacy of influence that spans generations.” 

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Ron to discuss The Caretaker, his writing and teaching careers, and a few other topics such as his all-time favorite works of literature and his thoughts on book banning. Here is our conversation. I have edited it for length and clarity.

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Marianne Leek: You’ve said that The Caretaker is in a way your oldest book since you worked on it on and off for seven years. You wrote over 1,000 pages, with the final version around 250 pages. Why do you think this book was so difficult to write?

Ron Rash: Two reasons: One was having heard a story about an incident, very similar to the one depicted in the book, about how far parents would go to destroy a marriage they did not approve of. About 35 years ago, I heard a true story about a young couple, a girl around 16 and a boy about 19. The parents were prominent in the community and were very much against their son marrying someone they considered unworthy. However, the two did marry and chose to remain in the community even though they were ostracized by their family. But then this young man gets drafted and goes off to war, and while he's gone, the family has the girl murdered and tells him that she's died of natural causes. This is where the story I had heard got vague, which is not good if you're a historian, but good if you're a novelist. Whether the husband ever found out was unclear. I wanted to write a novel loosely based on that true incident. However, it just would not come.  But that story did stay with me, and so about seven years ago, I decided I wanted to really get inside the parents' heads and the young man's head and imagine just how far this family would go. Would they go that far or not?

But the other reason is I've always wanted to set a novel on my grandparents' farm in the Aho community between Blowing Rock and Boone. Writers want to keep things from disappearing. I wanted to preserve that farm the way it would've been in 1951. That was important, but it also put pressure on me to get it right. 

ML: The Caretaker takes place in Korea, Boone, and Tennessee, with the Boone setting being your family farm. Why was it so important to you to get that setting right, to preserve and share part of your family history in literature? 

RR: That farm was hugely important to me growing up. I spent a lot of time there, very happy times. That's where my mom grew up and I still have land up there. Above the family farm was a church, and only a barbed wire fence separated the church cemetery from our property. When I was a kid, sometimes there'd be a storm and flowers or a wreath would get blown over onto the cow pasture and I'd be sent up there to put what had been blown over back onto the cemetery side. I have several relatives buried in that cemetery. The farm has made appearances in a number of poems including “Trout in the Spring House” and the cemetery in “Black-Eyed Susans.” The farm shows up in the first and last stories of Burning Bright, but never in a novel.

“Blackburn embodies much of what is good about us as human beings. To be true in our art, writers need to acknowledge that there are such people in the world. It seems especially important to do so right now when it seems so often we look for and see only the worst in each other.”

Rash the teacher: Ron Rash in front of the iconic Alumni Tower at Western Carolina University, where he teaches creative writing and Appalachian cultural studies (photograph by Marianne Leek)
Rash the teacher: Ron Rash in front of the iconic Alumni Tower at Western Carolina University, where he teaches creative writing and Appalachian cultural studies (photograph by Marianne Leek)

ML: This book is in many ways about how we should love and care for others—both the living and the dead. The three main characters, Naomi, Jacob, and Blackburn, are each caretakers, and the disfigured cemetery caretaker, Jacob’s best friend from childhood, Blackburn, becomes part of Naomi and Jacob’s chosen family. This story beautifully speaks to the idea that family has less to do with biology and is more about with whom we feel unconditionally loved. Why was it so important to you to see this narrative through?

RR: Blackburn embodies much of what is good about us as human beings. To be true in our art, writers need to acknowledge that there are such people in the world. It seems especially important to do so right now when it seems so often we look for and see only the worst in each other. William Faulkner said, “Most people are a little bit better than their circumstances ought to allow.”  I still believe he is right and I think it’s good to be reminded of that.

ML: What do you want readers to take away from this book?

RR: I hope, among other things, a sense of what James Dickey called a “difficult pleasure.” Sometimes we forget that the main reason we're drawn to reading in childhood is the enjoyment and pleasure of a story. Books can be about very serious, very upsetting things, but there are aesthetic pleasures also in the vividness and “rightness” of the writing, in its originality, and in structure, in complexity of characterization--of a story memorably told. In The Caretaker,  I want the reader to feel that I haven’t condescended to the characters, or simplified complex situations and motivations. 

ML: This book feels similar to your earliest work One Foot in Eden. Do you feel you returned to your writing roots on this one? 

RR: I think you're right. It has that feel. I think in part just going back to the 1950s. Because that's such an interesting period. One aspect that I became more and more interested in as I worked on this book is that this period was about the last time in history when almost all human communication would be face-to-face. It's so different today. I couldn’t help but think about what is gained and what is lost by that. This novel is interested in that aspect, the drama and risk of face-to-face encounters as opposed to on-screen encounters.

ML: When I reviewed The Caretaker for Plateau magazine, I described it as “a gentle love story,” even though some nefarious behavior takes place. You told me, “I just turned seventy, and this book feels like a kind of gift of hope to my readers—something that reminds us of the deep-rooted goodness and decency so many quiet, unnoticed people have. That most of us have…. It's important that we remember that in this time especially when our country is so stratified.” It is indeed a gift of hope. Why was this so important to you? 

RR: Again, I’d say I am being true to the world, the goodness revealed in many quiet lives. Jeremy Jones recently wrote about the quiet decency of his grandfather. Such people exist, and it’s right to acknowledge them. Nevertheless, my previous book, In the Valley, is my darkest, its final image our world’s annihilation. These last two books are an attempt to offer a vision of the two extremes of what humans are capable of.

ML: Who are some of the newest voices in Southern literature that you’re excited about? Who are some Southern/Appalachian writers that you recommend readers check out if they haven’t done so already?

RR: Definitely some of the younger writers – Jeremy Jones, Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, David Joy, Crystal Wilkinson, Wiley Cash, Charles Dodd White, Leah Hampton, Jolene McIlwain. An excellent writer who should be much better known is Mark Powell, as should be Maria Zoccolla, an East Tennessee poet. 

Older writers would include Robert Morgan, who is, in my opinion, the best poet in America. Catherine Carter is an excellent poet, as is Joyce Brown. Jill McCorkle, Steve Yarbrough, George Singleton, and Pamela Duncan are excellent fiction writers. I know I’m leaving out many more.

ML: As a reader and a writer, what are your five favorite writers or works of literature?

All of Rash’s books are available in the Salvation South Bookshop

RR: Crime and Punishment. I read it first when I was fifteen. Before, I had always entered a book, but this was the first book that entered me. It happened as I read that scene where the pawnbroker is murdered. The intensity of that scene was like an out-of-body experience. If I had to pick the Great American novel, I'd have to pick Moby Dick, as much as I love Faulkner. I do think Faulkner is our greatest prose writer. So I definitely have to pick a book by him. I love those books so much. Absalom, Absalom!, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August—all are works of genius. Definitely Flannery O'Connor. Her short stories are as well crafted as any I’ve ever read. She is profoundly original. And I go back to Shakespeare more and more. Macbeth is my favorite, followed closely by Hamlet and Henry IV, but I love them all. I recently re-read The Winter’s Tale, and I’d forgotten how great it is. I do not understand how a human being can write that well. I also recently reread The Iliad and The Odyssey (Emily Wilson’s new translations), which are endlessly fascinating.

ML: What is one book you wish you’d written? And why? 

RR: Oh, wow. I'd say The Sound and the Fury. To have done something utterly new with Benjy in that first section and then how each of the novel’s sections blend into and oppose each other. Faulkner opened up a whole new way of creating art.

ML: You once told me you identify as much or more as a teacher than as a writer. I’ve always considered you a teachers’ teacher and a writers’ writer because of your generosity of spirit and the encouragement you extend to both new teachers and emerging writers. You’ve taught at the high school, community college, and university levels. What has teaching meant to you? 

RR: Yes, teaching is important to me. I take it seriously because teachers have made a huge difference in the trajectory of my life. My first book, One Foot in Eden, is dedicated to Bill Koon, one of my teachers at Clemson University, where I did my graduate work. I have also dedicated a book to Joyce Brown, a teacher of mine at Gardner Webb. I didn't do well in high school, mainly because I was more interested in running track, but I was reading. I didn't have a great high school teacher as a lot of people have. However, when I was a sophomore at Garden Webb, Joyce Brown realized I read a good bit. She saw some of my first attempts at writing. She was very encouraging and made me feel as if I had something to offer, but she also taught me important writers to read, including Flannery O'Connor. 

At Clemson, Bill Koon was a wonderful teacher. I learned so much about the art of teaching from him. What I loved most was his passion for teaching. I don't think he could teach today and still have a job, because, if you didn't think what he taught was important, he held you in contempt (laughs). I mean, he had no qualms about that. He wasn't saying, “Well, I know you probably don't find this all that interesting.” No, it was just the opposite. W.H.Auden once said, uh, “Great books judge us. We don't judge them,” and Bill believed that.

ML: You’ve had two books that were made into movies, neither of which did well at the box office, even though the screen adaptation of Serena starred Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. The adaptation of David Joy’s book Where All Light Tends to Go didn’t do well either, even though it starred Billy Bob Thorton and Robin Wright Penn. Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain is about the only time I’ve seen an Appalachian work translate well to the big screen, and it was filmed in Romania instead of locally. Why do you think Hollywood has such a difficult time getting Appalachia right? 

RR: That's a good question. I don't know. Maybe they don't trust the story as much as they should. I think what made Serena interesting to me was her strength and strong will. However, in Serena the movie, she is made into this weak woman who breaks down at the end. I do think they did well with the adaptation of (my 2006 novel) The World Made Straight. It was filmed in Madison County, North Carolina. The director was also from North Carolina, so that helped.

ML: Now more than ever, teachers struggle with what texts to teach and face repercussions due to book banning. As a teacher and a writer, what are your thoughts about this topic and what teachers are facing in teaching literature and engaging students in hard conversations in the classroom?

RR: That's such a tough question. I still believe that people are more alike than different. We have our cultural differences, differences in language, socioeconomics, whatever, but at the end of the day, we’re more alike than different. So when we read about people in different situations and in situations that may even be very disturbing, that may help us better understand each other and the world. As a writer, I think we have to be true to the world, and sometimes that world can be very disturbing. If people don't want to read a book, that's fine. But as far as libraries, the idea that just because you don't want to read a book you find offensive doesn't mean that others shouldn't have the opportunity to do so…. I also have issues with the notion that sensitivity readers [a modern phenomenon in which publishers hire readers to scour books pre-publication for “offensive” content, biases, or stereotypes] should decide what an author can or cannot say. Writers can often feel pressure from the left and the right, and I think writers have to resist capitulating to either side’s demands and write as honestly as they can.

“I still believe that people are more alike than different. We have our cultural differences, differences in language, socioeconomics, whatever, but at the end of the day, we’re more alike than different. So when we read about people in different situations and in situations that may even be very disturbing, that may help us better understand each other and the world.”

ML: You have always expressed a deep sense of gratitude for readers who embrace you and your work. Why do you believe it’s necessary to show gratitude in all aspects of our lives, particularly in the world we currently live in?

RR: Having a readership has allowed me to continue to do what I love. It’s a great gift that I’ve been put in a situation where I have the time to write that I might not have had without a readership. My gratitude goes back to my parents also who met in a cotton mill. My father dropped out of high school but ended up getting his G.E.D. He ultimately became an art teacher. My mom went back to school in her thirties and became an elementary school teacher. They worked so hard to give me and my siblings opportunities that they never had. Also, the gratitude toward writers such as Robert Morgan and Lee Smith. They inspired and taught me with the excellence of their work, but they also were incredibly kind and encouraging toward me as a beginning writer. Their humility was equally impressive. They made me want to be a better writer and a better person. 

ML: When it comes to writing, you are meticulous about craft—the smallest details, word choice, or dialogue written in iambic pentameter. You are regimented in your process, writing approximately three hours, often more, every day. You were a college athlete, and the discipline with which you approach your writing seems to be an athletic approach. What are your thoughts on this?

RR: The fiction writers I love the most are the ones whose work I can find something interesting being done with the language page after page, so I try to do that myself. That’s the part of fiction writing I enjoy the most. With each novel, I also like the challenge of trying to do something new in the novel’s deeper structure. In The Caretaker, I decided it would be interesting to mimic a poetic sound refrain with visual images to establish visual rhythm that resonates through the novel, as with the lantern, for instance. Well, that’s enough pretentious nattering for that part of the answer. 

As far as the second part, I ran track in high school and college, and it taught me discipline. And I’ve always tried to discipline myself to write daily. It has always been very much like athletics—training and being there ready to work every day with the idea of a long-term goal. When I ran track, I essentially trained all year, particularly at the college level and after. Working day in and day out to achieve in athletics is very much like writing. 

ML: What one sentence best sums up your body of work? 

RR: The hope that a reader would finish a book, poem, story, or novel and say “Well, that was pretty good; I’m glad he became a writer instead of a track coach.”

ML: You’ve said that you don’t know if you’ll write another novel, and that you are planning to focus on short stories for a while. What’s next? A collection of short stories? A new collection of poetry? How do you think The Caretaker rounds out your body of work?

RR: I would like to get back to writing some poetry, though I have tried to bring what I've learned about poetry into my fiction. I think right now I’m ready to settle into short stories. This novel took so much out of me, and part of it is that writers are like athletes. Faulkner said that most fiction writers have a ten-year period where they do their best work. This was certainly true for him, but it's true for a lot of novelists. I think there's this period, and it comes at different times for different writers. Some writers, it comes early, sometimes, you know, late. For Philip Roth, it came pretty late. For Faulkner, it came early. I think I had that period when I was working on Serena and Burning Bright.

The Caretaker rounds out my body of work because it’s set on this family place that was so important to me. It’s a return to who I am, my family, my place in the world. There’s a moment in the book where Jacob points and remembers his teacher pointing to the map and saying, “We are here.” That is what The Caretaker is for me, what Seamus Heaney said in one of his later poems, “Me in this place, and this place in me.”


About the author

Marianne Leek is a retired English educator who teaches part-time in western North Carolina. She contributes frequently to Salvation South and her work has appeared in Our State, Okra, Good Grit, Plateauand WNC Magazine.

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