NEA Big Read 2019
Ron Rash has been called “a national treasure” (Seattle Times), a “writer of quiet and stunning beauty” (Huffington Post), and “one of the best writers in America writing about Appalachia” (San Francisco Chronicle). A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and award-winning author of numerous volumes of poetry and prose, Rash “gathers several of the finest stories anyone could hope to read” (Irish Times) in his collection, Burning Bright, winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. “The feral [and] beautiful stories in Ron Rash’s Burning Bright evoke Appalachians of a Civil War past—and a meth-blighted present—with the haunting clarity of Walker Evans photographs” (Vogue). The collection is “a slender set of spare and menacing depictions of the unforgiving ways of life in rural Appalachia,” noted the Washington Post. It “finds a narrow sweet spot between Raymond Carver’s minimalism and William Faulkner’s Gothic.” Highlighting the “purity and precision” of Rash’s writing, Booklist calls the stories “deceptively easy to read as they are hard to forget.”
“You go deep enough into a place and you’re going to hit the universal, because you’re hitting what’s true of people.” — Ron Rash in Electric Lit
Ron Rash’s ancestors have called the southern Appalachian Mountains home since the mid-1700s. His parents worked in a textile mill in Chester, South Carolina, where Rash was born and lived until the age of eight, when his family moved to Boiling Springs, North Carolina. His father was “a remarkable man,” he said, a “kid who dropped out of high school at 16 to work in the mill, then through incredible perseverance got his GED, went to college while working full-time, and eventually became a college art teacher” (from an interview with Shepherd University).
Rash was encouraged to embrace language and stories from a young age. Though his grandfather couldn’t read or write, he was—like many of Rash’s older relatives—an entertaining raconteur. “I grew up hearing an Appalachian dialect that you don’t often hear today” (Authors ‘Round the South). Both of Rash’s parents were voracious readers. His mother took Rash and his siblings to the library every week. But he had a special relationship with his grandmother, who had been a schoolteacher in the North Carolina mountains before she married his grandfather and turned her attention to their farm. After his grandfather passed, he’d visit his grandmother at her place in the woods. “I was like Huck Finn. My grandmother would let me go, let me wander. It was a gift. I was not afraid. I just reveled in it. The connections I made with the natural world stayed with me” (Publishers Weekly). He spent a lot of time by himself, daydreaming. “I would make up narratives, telling stories to myself. It was either storytelling or a kind of madness” (Authors ‘Round the South).
He also spent a lot of time reading, though he didn’t start writing until he attended Gardner-Webb University, from which he received a BA. He earned an MA in English from Clemson University and met his wife there. “A book that probably changed my life as much as any was Crime and Punishment…. I remember feeling an almost out-of-body experience. It was so intense, and I think it occurred to me then how wonderful it is that you can do this with mere splotches of ink” (Deep South Magazine).
Following his studies, Rash worked as an instructor in a rural high school in Oconee County, South Carolina, then for 17 years as a teacher for the Tri-County Technical College in Pendleton, South Carolina. Currently, he holds the Parris Chair in Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University, where he teaches poetry and fiction writing. “My years teaching high school and technical college made writing difficult, but I’ve always believed if writing is important enough to a person, he or she will make time. I got up early to write a couple of hours every weekday, wrote weekends and holidays” (Shepherd University).
In 1994, Rash received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in poetry and published his first book, a collection of short stories called The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth (Bench Press, 1994). Since then, he has written pieces that have appeared in more than 100 magazines and anthologies, as well as numerous critically acclaimed novels and collections of poetry and short stories, including One Foot in Eden (Novello Festival Press, 2002), named Appalachian Book of the Year and winner of Foreword Magazine’s Gold Medal in Literary Fiction; Saints at the River (Henry Holt, 2004), named Fiction Book of the Year by both the Southern Book Critics Circle and the Southeastern Booksellers Association; The Cove (Ecco, 2012); Serena (Ecco, 2008), a novel that was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and for which he learned how to hunt rattlesnakes with an eagle (Financial Times); and Burning Bright (Ecco, 2010), winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.
“I think writing a poem is like being a greyhound,” said Rash when asked how he approaches writing in different genres. “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” (Daily Beast).
This Fall’s Big Read companion book for younger readers is Saving Wonder by Mary Knight. It is written for Grades 6-8, but it’s a great read for adults as well. Thousands of local Middle Schoolers will be reading Saving Wonder in September thanks to a strong partnership between PPLD and schools across the region. The Big Read is bringing author Mary Knight to the area for four days of presentations in the schools.
About Saving Wonder:
Having lost most of his family to coal mining accidents as a little boy, Curley Hines lives with his grandfather in the Appalachian Mountains of Wonder Gap,
Kentucky. Ever since Curley can remember, Papaw has been giving him a word each week to learn and live.
When a new coal boss takes over the local mining company, life as Curley knows it is turned upside down. Suddenly, his best friend, Jules, has a crush on the coal boss’s son, and worse, the mining company threatens to destroy Curley and Papaw’s mountain. Now Curley faces a difficult choice. Does he use his words to speak out against Big Coal and save his mountain, or does he remain silent and save his way of life? With everything changing, Curley doesn’t even know if there will be anything left to save.
2017 Green Earth Book Award – Children’s Fiction
Parents Choice Award
Notable Book for Social Studies – Children’s Book Council
THE POWER OF WORDS TO SHAPE OUR WORLD:
The central premise of Papaw giving Curley a word a week—and the one that helps form the structure of the novel—comes from something that was related to me as a child. My mother would tell me the story of how her father (my grandfather) would give her and her sisters a word to learn every night at the
dinner table. They would then use that word throughout their conversation that evening. It became a game that the whole family played.
My mother’s love for words was passed down to me, of course, which is one of the reasons I became a writer. I also believe strongly that words have
power—that the words we speak and hold in mind help shape our experience of the world. This idea was a source of major inspiration for SAVING WONDER. I also feel the spirit of my own grandfather in Papaw. Although he died before I was born, I hear that he was a kind and generous man.
While I was working on another novel, I took a trip to Eden Park in Cincinnati to do some research for a scene I was about to write. During that visit, I discovered a gazebo that had been there for over a hundred years. All around its stone base, people had carved their initials and left little messages—some of them dating as far back as the early 1900s. I was enchanted by this historic gathering place of friendship and love. As I ran my fingers over the engravings, I came upon one that had an unexpected effect. Someone had carved, “I love Curly Hines.” In that instant, I knew who that boy was. It was as if he had plopped down into my psyche and said “How do you do?” I knew he was tall and thin; he had curly hair, of course, and he was inquisitive and kind. I also knew he came from the mountains of eastern Kentucky.
Sometimes I say that Curley Hines “haunted” me, but what I really mean is that the idea of this character wouldn’t let me go until I wrote down his story. It was a year before I wrote down a word of it, and then two more years before I wrote it in earnest. But honestly, the writing was a joy and I felt companioned in the process—by all of my characters. I love every one of them.
THE ELK TOUR
When my husband and I moved to Lexington, Kentucky from the Seattle area, we began missing the mountains that held so much beauty for us in the Pacific
Northwest. We decided to explore the mountains and surrounding countryside here in Kentucky, so that we could fall more in love with our new home. When we saw that the state park system was offering elk tours in the Appalachian Mountains, we jumped at the chance.
Although we saw a lot of natural beauty that weekend, this was also our first exposure to mountaintop removal mining. Like the tour in my novel, this one took us to an active mining site in order to view the resident elk herd. In our eyes, the devastation to the landscape was profound. Much of what a reader will find in the “elk tour” scene was very much like what my husband and I experienced that early February morning.
From Mary Knight’s website: www.maryknightbooks.com
Mary Knight has always enjoyed the power of a good story, whether it’s been as a children’s librarian, a freelance writer or a writer-in-residence teaching kids how to write. Several years ago, she decided to go back to school to learn how to write a novel. After graduating from Spalding University’s MFA program in writing, Mary completed her middle grade novel, SAVING WONDER, found the agent and editor of her dreams, and is now a published author with Scholastic.
Of all the things she appreciates in life, she especially values loving kindness, a good laugh, the wisdom of young people, and the ability to see the world through another person’s eyes. She believes this last quality, empathy, is the key to being not only a good friend and an awesome person, but being a good writer as well. “I must first step into the minds and hearts of my characters to discover their viewpoints,” she says. “Only then, can I find the words to create their world.”
Speaking of the world, Mary has lived in many beautiful places – among them, northern Michigan and an island in Puget Sound where she often saw whales, eagles and great blue herons close to home. She now lives in Lexington, Kentucky where she enjoys the rolling green hills of horse country, exploring the Appalachian Mountains, and watching University of Kentucky basketball. Most of all, she treasures time with friends and family who add great wonder to her life.
Dead Letter Poems and the Council of All Beings – Lesson ideas for Saving Wonder – Engaging Student Empathy
NEA Big Read Presents: Short Stories on Stage
Home. Inspired by Ron Rash’s short story collection Burning Bright, the Library District is seeking true stories about home with a strong sense of place.
In 650 words or less, share your experience of leaving, returning, finding, escaping, longing, or rediscovery. Selected stories will be read by the authors at a public, live-streamed event during this fall’s NEA Big Read and published in book format. The Home anthology will be available for purchase at the Big Read event. The selection process, coaching of authors readers, and live-streaming of the event is coordinated by Read650 productions.
Submit Deadline: August 1 at www.Read650.org
Show: Sunday, October 27, 2 pm
Venue: Cunneen-Hackett Arts Center, Poughkeepsie, NY
Calling all Book Groups!
Be counted! We know that many community book groups discuss the Big Read book selection, but we often don’t hear about it until months later. We’d like to count you in, and in order to ‘sweeten the deal’ we are offering a prize for one lucky book group – a gift certificate from Paula’s Public House for your group! A drawing will be held at the Closing Event on November 16 from all our book group entries.
View our past NEA Big Reads here!
NEA Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest.
El proyecto NEA Big Read es una iniciativa del National Endowment for the Arts (el Fondo Nacional para las Artes de Estados Unidos) en cooperación con Arts Midwest.