Where do you live and why?
I live in Cullowhee, North Carolina. That’s where I teach, at Western Carolina University. That region is where my family has lived for a long time and that region is my landscape.
You’ve often been described as an “Appalachian writer.” Is that a geographic or stylistic title, or a little of both?
I have mixed feelings about any adjective in front of the word “writer.” Chekhov has talked about this, that any designation besides writer (Russian writer, whatever) was a diminishment. I’m proud to be from the region. But sometimes it seems to me that there’s an implication of “just” an Appalachian writer or “just” a Southern writer. That kind of diminishment is bothersome. If a writer is any good, he or she has to both evoke and transcend the region. Faulkner is beloved worldwide because his region, as he himself noted, was “the region where the human heart is in conflict with itself.”
Do you have a favorite place to eat?
Oh yes, there’s one I love. It’s called Bridges Barbecue in Shelby, North Carolina.
They’re going to love this endorsement. If you google Ron Rash, you get not only your books but also a well-known tattoo artist. Ever tempted to meet him and get some ink done?
No I haven’t, that is funny, because I’m sure we have people who mistake us. I’ve never contacted him, but that is amusing. I guess we’re both creative in our own way.
You write poetry, novels, and short stories. How does your approach differ when writing in each form? Does one come more easily than another?
They’re all radically different. I think writing a poem is like being a greyhound. Writing a novel is like being a mule. You go up one long row, then down another, and try not to look up too often to see how far you still have to go. Short fiction is the medium I love the most, because it requires that I bring everything I’ve learned about poetry—the concision, the ability to say something as vividly as possible—but also the ability to create a narrative that, though lacking a novel’s length, satisfies the reader. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is as perfect as any story I know.
What are some stories that might not be on everyone’s hit list, but that I should be sure to read?
Okay. That’s always a tough question, let’s see. Oh man. I recently read an amazing story by the Irish writer, Claire Keegan, it’s called “Foster.” William Gay’s short story, “My Hand is Fine Just Where It Is.” Alice Munro is my favorite living short story writer. I could give you 50 by her. One of her most recent that I love is “Corrie.”
Describe your morning routine on a day that you’d be writing.
I start with a cup of coffee. And then I get a 44 oz. container of iced tea. Writers need something tactile, something to touch. A lot of writers use cigarettes. Little sips of tea kind of fill that for me. I sharpen a couple of pencils. I have a pad nearby. Even though I do a lot of my work on computer, whenever I’m stuck I always go back to pen and paper.
Is the tea sweetened? Is it classic sweet tea?
Unsweetened. As a Southerner, that’s a horrible admission, but as I get older, I find I have to be a bit healthier, especially as I wind up drinking about 100 ounces of it a day.
Do you sit at a desk?
I usually try to avoid sitting in front of anything interesting when I work. What I enjoy most is sitting in front of a fire, writing. That’s when I feel the most comfortable, so I’ll do that a lot. I can look into the fire. But I find that I don’t like to look outside, I have to have silence and solitude; I can’t work otherwise. One thing I have to do is stay off the Internet, no emails; it’s too much of a distraction. Maybe a few emails every two hours, as a break, but that’s about it.
What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?
I never can go by word length. I wish I could, as that would probably be healthier. I’ll usually put in between four and six hours a day. When I’m working hard I’ll go up to 10. Some days are better than others. What I’ve become convinced makes a writer are the days you hate it, the days you’d rather stick those pencils in your eyes. Sometimes I almost punish myself—if I’m not going be able to write, I’m not going be able to do anything else. I just sit there and wait.
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?
I let it flow. I never outline, I never plot. I really don’t know where it’s going. Maybe I have a vague idea, but I think sometimes there’s a danger that comes from having an outline, that you’re kind of putting it on rails, not allowing the story to jump off and go to a place that is surprising to the reader, and to you as a writer. I go by instinct, and that’s scary. Usually when I write a novel, I can have worked about a year and it’ll die on me. I don’t know where it’s going, and it feels hopeless. There can be three, four months where it just seems dead. I almost always start with an image. I just see where the image will take me.
If someone is unfamiliar with your work, and you were to assign them one of your short stories, which would you have them begin with and why?
I would say a good story of mine is “Hard Times.” That might be a good place to start, because it’s a story set in the region, the landscape I write about.
Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.
I failed sixth grade. I went to summer school and got promoted.
What is guaranteed to make you laugh?
Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Do you have any superstitions?
I suspect, like a lot of writers, I don’t like to talk about what I’m working on. I’m always afraid that I’ll jinx it.
What is your favorite snack?
I love black licorice whips. They’re my Proustian sweetbread. They bring back memories of when I was a child and evoke all sorts of sensations.
What is the story behind the publication of your first book?
It just happened that the wife of a man who ran a small press in South Carolina heard me read and suggested that I send her husband some of my stories. I did and that book was published. A very small press, but it was important to finally get a book out.
Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.
Oh yeah, I think we all have one of them! One of the funniest was when my novel, Serena, came out. A guy came up to me in Washington and said, “I’ll buy this book, but you have to sign it for me the way I want you to.” So I thought, Well, I’ll humor him. I said, “Sure, why not?” He said, “Okay, this is for Mary Anne.” He did it very slowly, he said, “This … book … is … about … the … only … woman … meaner than you.” I said, “Well, you better sign your name, too, and I’ll sign below that!”
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
It’s what they don’t want to hear. Be more concerned about the writing and the reading than the career. If you’re good enough, eventually I believe the work will get noticed. There’s a period when you’re probably lucky you don’t get published. I’d certainly say that about my work. For the first decade or so, I didn’t write anything that should be published. I look back on it and I’m glad it’s not out there.
What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
“Are My Books Still in Print?”