Nothing Gold Can Stay, the fifth volume of stories by Ron Rash, is named for the Robert Frost poem that relates the seasons of nature to the brevity of human life. It's a theme that looms large in Rash's tales of upheaval in the lives and landscape of Appalachia, including his 2008 novel Serena, a saga of the strong-but-ruthless wife of a timber baron in Depression-era North Carolina.
Nothing Gold Can Stay was released Feb. 19, and the acclaimed N.C. author is making the rounds in the Triangle this weekend. Speaking recently by phone, Rash, who grew up in Boiling Springs and teaches at Western Carolina University, warms to the topic of his attraction to the short story.
"What I love about [short stories] is that when they work, they not only give you the satisfaction of a novel, of something that's complete," he says, "but they also very often give you the tightness of language, the concision of language that we find in poetry.
"I think when we look at America's contributions to world culture, our most significant contribution has to be the short story, going all the way back to Poe and Hawthorne, and more recently such people as Raymond Carver and Annie Proulx."
Rash says that he tries to create a backdrop that encompasses all his work. "I hope that my poetry and short stories and novels are in some way like a quilt, in that they're all different, but in some ways are ultimately part of a whole.
"And that's my goal—when a reader reads my work, there are certain resonances, certain continuities that are recognized. It's not as developed as far as William Faulkner's world, as far as individual characters, but I hope that I'm giving a sense of this place, set over two centuries."
Rash's family, on both his mother's and father's sides, have nearly 200 years of history in Appalachia, which attracted him to using the region as a backdrop for his fiction. He's interested in creating a more informed vision of mountain communities than most audience are used to seeing.
"It's also a region that has often been very misunderstood, particularly in popular culture—you'll see a lot of movies about 'wrong turns' or 'deliverance,'" he says with a laugh.
"I think sometimes people might actually believe those stereotypes. The region obviously has its problems, as any region does, but I would hope that my work doesn't sentimentalize. I think that would be just as bad as demonizing."
In crafting his work, Rash tries to create a language that is both rich and true to the region's oral and literary traditions and to the "complexity of Appalachian speech."
"Growing up, I heard this, and I try to include it in my work," Rash says, "through the use of metaphor, of using similes, which is an aspect of any folk speech—being able to connect the natural world to human concern. That takes complexity and intelligence to create a metaphorical language, and I grew up hearing that language, seeing those incredible comparisons."
To find inspiration, Rash delves into Appalachia's past. "I do a lot of research—I was lucky that I spent a lot of time with my older relatives, so I got to hear the speech patterns pretty much as they were in the early part of the 20th century, and I got to hear the stories. I read a lot of oral histories, a lot of dictionaries of Appalachian speech. Anything like that, I'm very interested in."
Rash's work is due to get a larger profile later this year with the film of Serena, which reunites Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from their Oscar-nominated pairing in Silver Linings Playbook. Rash had little involvement with the film, which was directed by Susanne Bier (Things We Lost in the Fire), from a script by Kathryn Bigelow collaborator Christopher Kyle, and is scheduled for a U.S. release next fall.
"I think they're probably glad [I wasn't involved], and I'm glad as well," Rash says. "I think my job, once they began the project, was to stay out of their way. I had some questions asked of me, and I was glad to help that way, but I deliberately stayed away—I didn't even read the screenplay."
Rash continues to focus on short pieces and is two stories into a new collection. He's enthusiastic about the literary scene in North Carolina: "I think it's one of our great legacies. Whatever small part I've had in it, I feel like I'm on a good team."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Mountain maestro."