The award-winning author of Serena returns to Appalachia with Above the Waterfall, a breathtaking novel weaving violent pasts and uncertain futures. Les, a sheriff nearing retirement, and Becky, a park ranger who survived a childhood trauma, narrate alternating chapters of the story as they investigate a poisoned stream with dangerous consequences.
We caught up with poet, short story writer and novelist Ron Rash at the Decatur Book Festival last weekend to chat about scrapping two years-worth of writing to start fresh on the novel, setting books in North Carolina and what he’s working on next.
Paste: What sparked your imagination to write Above the Waterfall?
Ron Rash: All of my novels start with an image, and this image was of a fish kill. I saw the dead trout, and it began there. It started off as more of a conventional eco-terrorism novel. After about a year of working on it, I realized it wasn’t working. As I got deeper into the story another year, I scrapped the thing and started again.
Finally, I realized I had to have Becky’s voice in the novel; that was the turning point. I wanted a book about two people who had had traumatic things happen to them and felt great guilt, whether justified or not. Les has chosen to look at the world in the worst way, as if to say, “The world is a bad place, and people do terrible things.” Becky, though, can only live through the belief that there’s wonder.
I write pretty dark books, and I wanted to write a book that was more hopeful—a book that acknowledged the wonder of the world. There is wonder in the world, and if a writer denies that, he denies part of the world.
Paste: You began your writing career with short stories and poetry. When you get an idea, how do you know if you want it to be a poem, a short story or a novel?
Rash: I don’t know. [Above the Waterfall] started off as a short story about a game warden and a local fisherman who got into a feud. It escalated and got dark, but it wasn’t working. I was at a time in my life where I wanted to write about the beauty in the world. I wanted to create a voice that was different—Becky’s, I mean—a sensibility that’s different. She’s seeing things that nobody else can. The challenge of trying to create a distinct voice is to look at the world in a way no one you’ve known could.
Paste: How long was it between the time you started the novel and when you realized you wanted Becky narrate every other chapter?
Rash: Two years. It took me three years to write it. One thing that’s very important to me is the pacing and rhythm of books. I thought Les’ [chapters are] very prosy—his language isn’t poetic. I wanted it to be a kind of musical score, where you have these brief, beautiful, intense bursts and then more reflective passages.
Paste: How do you make a decision to start over after two years of working on a manuscript?
Rash: That’s one of the tough things about being a writer; you have to get to the point where you can do that. You’re going to make dead ends, and every time I write a book, I do. I don’t plot out my books; I just go by intuition. I always believe that eventually, if I don’t give up, I’ll figure it out.
This book was supposed to be published last fall, and I pulled it because I said it’s not good enough. Becky’s chapters weren’t in it, and they make all the difference. What makes the book distinctive is her voice.
Paste: The book touches on school shootings and depression. What made you plot those dark topics in the book?
Rash: I think what makes fiction work is that you have to take people and strip them to their core. Most of us in life wear masks, including myself. There’re certain times in your life—it doesn’t have to be violent, but it’s traumatic—where the masks are stripped away. You find out who you are and who really cares about you…and who doesn’t. With these characters, I’ve stripped them down to their very core. Their souls are exposed. That’s drama, that’s what makes us want to read a book. I put them in severe situations, and it’s an experiment. Let’s see what’s going to happen.
Paste: Les describes Becky and himself as “accomplices.” Can you elaborate on that?
Rash: They’re both loners, and both have had traumatic experiences. They carry guilt. There are people in the world who never quite fit, and I think even if Becky’s childhood trauma hadn’t happened, her sensibility would have made her that way. Les is that way by his nature. And they recognize each other. It’s almost like a code, when they see the [Edward] Hopper painting [in Les’ office]. Because Becky “gets” Hopper, and Hopper is the great artist of loneliness to me.
“Freight Car at Truro” by Edward Hopper
Paste: Why did you want to include Hopper’s art in the novel?
Rash: Hopper is the great painter of people who are…exiled might be too strong of a word, but alone. If you look at a lot of his paintings, even that freight car is by itself. There’s a sense of people not connecting; they’re separate. I thought, “This represents a sensibility here.”
Paste: Can you share about what you’re working on next?
Rash: I’ve written some new stories, but I’m working on a new novel. It’s about two brothers and a murder that occurred 40 years earlier in North Carolina.
Paste: Did you ever plan to make North Carolina the setting in your novels?
Rash: Writers like James Joyce, Faulkner, O’Connor decide to find the universal in the region. If you go to one place and center in on it, if you’re true enough, you’ll hit the universal. My books are in 14 languages now, and readers connect. They don’t read them because they’re about exotic people, they read them because they’re about human beings. Eudora Welty said, “One place understood helps us understand all places better.” I believe that.
I’m a writer of place. That doesn’t mean I won’t ever write about other places—I’ve set scenes in other places—but I haven’t exhausted that place yet, so why should I move on?