Although Ron Rash is not exactly old at 63, this week he made plans to secure his literary legacy well into the future.
On Thursday, the University of South Carolina announced that it had acquired Rash’s personal archive for an undisclosed sum.
The collection spans the life of the author — whose novels include Serena, The Cove and The World Made Straight, along with numerous poetry and short story collections — and includes journals (personal, running, and trout fishing), school work, literary drafts, correspondence and family genealogy.
Research files are included also, with as many as 500 pages that show the background work that went into his 2008 novel Serena.
Parts of the collection are currently available for viewing under glass at the Hollings Library. These include letters, well-marked drafts and various international versions of Rash’s work.
“Ron Rash is a rising superstar,” said Tom McNally, dean of University Libraries. “He is a great writer who has international acclaim and so many more works that he will produce. His archive is an excellent addition to the amazing manuscript collections we are building.”
One of the key influences in the acquisition was the late novelist Pat Conroy. The popular Lowountry author — who sold his papers to USC in 2014, just two years before his death last year — told McNally that he should pursue the Rash collection, and he urged Rash to accept.
McNally said the subject came up when he asked Conroy to name a writer who might help fill out USC’s Contemporary American Literature Collection.
“He said, without hesitation, Ron Rash,” McNally recalls, “and he said, ‘You better go get him now, because you won’t be able to afford him later.’ Pat really saw the trajectory that Ron had been on. I started to learn about Ron. I started to read Ron and I started to see exactly what Pat was talking about.”
“Pat encouraged me to do it as well, because we were friends,” Rash said, “and it would be nice to have those papers together. Certainly I was not feeling either mortality or ego.”
McNally said the acquisition was “rolling the dice a little bit,” given Rash’s age. With the steady rise of Rash’s career, McNally said said his hopes have been more than fulfilled.
“Now I believe that this will become one of the premiere writer archives anywhere,” he said.
Besides serving as a guide to future scholars, Rash’s papers may also attest to the sheer human willpower involved in creating an imaginative work. To hear Rash describe it, writing fiction is a journey without a map.
“I’ll start with an image and that image will quickly become a character or a voice,” he said, “but I usually don’t know where I’m going. To me that’s the scary part, particularly in writing novels. Usually about a year or a year and a half in it will just seem hopeless, and I just have to wait it out. Usually the solution will come, but it’s more intuitive.”
A novel can take three years and up to 15 drafts, not to mention weeks of doubt, frustration and second-guessing.
“I can think of one right now where I cut more pages than I kept,” he said, “All of those cuts, all of those places where I all-too-frequently went in the wrong direction, sometimes for 40 or 50 pages — just cut those and start again. So in a sense what you see is the progression, the places where I change or alter radically what I’ve got. Then I have the joy of reading the book after I finish and finding things I wish I had caught.”
For the past few years, Rash’s work has routinely won critical praise and often hit the bestseller list, and not just in this country. He’s also very big in Denmark — the country, not the little town near Bamberg — where his work is debated in scholarly journals. He’s also attracted quite a fan base in France, where he often visits. The French TV program Encore brought “the Southern Scribe” in 2012 to “discuss his poetic vision and clarity of prose.” Last year, the French Channel 5 program La Grande Librarie talked about his novel Le Chant de Tamassee, (The Tamessee River), better known here as Saints at the River.
None of which surprises Southern historian Walter Edgar.
“Ron deals with a very specific part of the American South, Appalachian America, which is often forgotten, but through these characters he speaks to the universal human condition,” he said. “They could be every man, every woman.”
Edgar said Rash is also exemplary of someone who writes what he knows, and knows it well.
“Most of his novels are set in the late 20th, early 21st century, [with people] dealing with forces and events they really can’t control and how they cope with those — whether it’s the company coming in to deforest the trees or whether it’s an opioid problem, which he discussed in his book [Above the Waterfall] long before it became a national headline.”
Despite the attention he has received, some critics have suggested that Rash’s very attachment to his North Carolina roots may have also kept him off the literary radar when it comes to the literary ranking system.
“Ron Rash occupies an odd place in the pantheon of great American writers, and you’d better believe he belongs there,” wrote Janet Maslin in The New York Times in 2014. “He gets rapturous reviews that don’t mean to condescend but almost always call him a Southern or Appalachian writer, and Mr. Rash has said he can hear the silent, dismissive 'just' in those descriptions.”
After the events of this week, Rash will be back at his desk.
He has no plans to ease up on production or to get comfortable, and he always has one of his influences, Flannery O’Connor, on hand to keep him honest.
“I actually have a photograph of O’Connor frowning at me, above where I write,” he says. “She’s looking at me, just reminding me, 'You’re not there yet.’”