On multiple occasions, Ron Rash says he gave up on his latest novel, The Caretaker.
“Every time I write a book, I’ll get about a year in, and it just seems hopeless,” the award-winning New York Times bestselling author explains. “For this one, I had so many wrong turns.”
These detours, Rash continues, resulted in an initial 1,000-page draft. The story’s final version, which hits bookstores on Tuesday, Sept. 26, is a fraction of the original count: 255 pages.
What ultimately got Rash back on track, the author says, involved a pivotal scene near the end of the novel, where the book’s central character, Blackburn Gant, faces a choice that could alter the trajectory of his life.
Set primarily in Blowing Rock in 1951, The Caretaker is a story about outcasts. Blackburn, a young man living with the physical and emotional scars brought on by a childhood case of polio, is the sole caretaker of a hilltop cemetery. His lone friend, Jacob Hampton, is the only surviving child of the town’s most affluent family. But when Jacob elopes with Naomi Clarke, a poor, pregnant and uneducated 16-year-old from Tennessee, scandal ensues. Matters only further intensify after Jacob is conscripted to serve overseas in the Korean War, leaving Blackburn behind to assist Naomi during her pregnancy. Following Jacob’s departure, the two must navigate an unfriendly town, with hostilities set and directed by Jacob’s own parents, who are intent on rewriting their son’s choices and future amid his absence.
“People tell me, ‘Your books are dark and tragic,’” Rash says, reflecting on his career, which includes five works of poetry, seven short story collections and eight novels. The Caretaker, he continues, is likely his last full-length publication, though he still plans to write stories. With this in mind, he adds, “I wanted to give [readers] a little bit of hope. A book that makes them feel, for the most part, good about humanity.”
He pauses, reflecting on the novel’s actual storyline. And then he laughs.
“This is about as close as I can come,” Rash says.
Sense of an ending
Given Blackburn’s profession, it felt appropriate to meet Rash at a graveyard. We agreed on the Chapel Hill Baptist Church Cemetery, situated on the Western Carolina University campus, where he has taught for 20 years. But with limited shade and the sun’s relentless rays, we quickly gave up on the idea, retreating to the nearby Mountain Heritage Center — also a fitting location when you consider Rash’s long history and focus on the region within his writing.
Here, we settled in to discuss his latest book, as well as his future plans. Along with it being his 20th publication, The Caretaker arrives a day before Rash turns 70 years old.
“Writers are like athletes,” he says. “You have a period where you peak and you’re doing your best work. That has to end.”
This sense of an ending, however, did not influence the story’s setting. The small cemetery Blackburn manages, Rash explains, was inspired by his youth. As a child, he regularly visited his grandmother Ethel Mae Holder in Aho — a town 10 minutes northeast of Blowing Rock. Her property, which remains in the family, stood adjacent to a small graveyard. On stormy nights, the wind often disturbed the flowers adorning the graves. One of Rash’s childhood jobs was to gather these remembrances and return them to the site.
“I didn’t know which graves they’d be on,” he says. “But I was taught to do the work with real reverence.”
For decades, the writer says, he’d been trying to fit that setting into a story. Then, as is often the case with his fiction, he had a vision in his mind that inspired his latest project: a woman kneeling before a grave. Intrigued by the ideas that spawned from this image, he pursued the tale.
Face to face
Like the story’s setting, the book’s time period was also influenced by family.
“I had an older relative in Leicester who fought in Korea,” he explains. “He told me some stories about it — always talking about how cold it was. That’s something we forget. We think about Vietnam and the jungles and the heat. But in Korea, the fighting took place in the cold.”
Though much of The Caretaker’s plot unfolds in Western North Carolina, the book begins overseas, with an unforgettable and horrific hand-to-hand combat scene between Jacob and a North Korean soldier. The injuries and trauma that Jacob unleashes and sustains are the first of many that readers will encounter throughout the book. The episode is also the first of several intimate confrontations — though none of the subsequent conflicts come close to the severity of the book’s opening struggle.
“I didn’t realize it at first,” Rash says in discussing the novel’s time period, “but this is one of the last times in American history where the majority of people’s communication was face to face. … Maybe it’s because I’m old, but there is something more dramatic about that. A depth that isn’t filtered through screens.”
On Wednesday, Oct. 4, at 6 p.m., Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe will host Rash for a book signing event. For longtime fans, it may be one of their last chances to attend a local reading with the author.
Of course, Rash is the first to note nothing is written in stone.
“I’ve said it before with other books — that this will be my last novel,” he says. “So, I may be a liar. But this one felt a little bit like a summation. I think sometimes writers, late in their lives, want to give the reader a gift. … A little bit of hope that sometimes the better angels win.”
Rash and I wrap up our conversation inside the Mountain Heritage Center. Outside, the afternoon heat continues to surge. Rash walks back with me to my car, still parked at the cemetery. Given the high temperature, he asks if I’d mind giving him a lift to his office a few blocks down. With my car’s AC blasting, we continue to discuss his life, career and what he hopes readers take away from his latest (and possibly final) book.
“That it’s worth reading,” Rash says. “What I think it really comes down to is pleasure. We sometimes forget that. It can be a difficult pleasure. And part of the pleasure can be it opens up matters that make us realize a bit more about the world. But ultimately, we don’t talk enough about the pleasure of reading a well-told story.”