Ron Rash had no intention of revisiting Western North Carolina’s 1930s logging industry, a topic he explored in his 2008 New York Times bestseller, Serena. But in the subsequent 12 years, the author — who divides his time between Clemson, S.C., and Cullowhee — couldn’t shake one of the book’s lesser-known characters: Ross, a mercurial logger with a tragic history.
“I knew there was so much more to him,” Rash explains. Ultimately, this lingering intrigue inspired his latest collection, In the Valley: Stories and a Novella Based on ‘Serena,’ which will be published Tuesday, Aug. 4. To celebrate its release, Malaprop’s will host a virtual launch party that same day at 6 p.m.
The nine stories leading up to the novella span centuries, from the Civil War to the present day. Yet thematic ties, including Rash’s exploration of the unusual bonds that sometimes develop between strangers, create a cohesive collection.
The contemporary story “Sad Man in the Sky” best exemplifies this particular motif. In it, a helicopter tour pilot winds up with a passenger uninterested in seeing the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Instead, the client — an unnamed man hauling a pillowcase filled with mysterious goods — makes an unexpected request that ultimately reveals as much about the pilot as it does the man himself. (Sorry, dear reader, but you’ll have to read the story to find out the rest.)
Vengeance, justice, loss and addiction further bind the collection’s disparate characters, despite the decades and centuries that otherwise separate them. “What I hoped for in this book was a kind of rhythm through time,” Rash says. “So that you get the sense of the past and present kind of merging and diverging throughout.”
Mystery and suspense
Time also creates urgency throughout In the Valley. In the book’s standout piece, “L’homme Blesse,” protagonist Jake Yancy is an art professor who comes across a curious series of drawings depicting strange beasts. The illustrations, which cover the walls inside a dilapidated home on the verge of being razed, lead Yancy into an unanticipated research project to uncover the story behind the artwork before it’s too late.
Like many of Rash’s characters, Yancy’s life is marked by tragedy. Yet readers only catch glimpses of his inner turmoil. Nevertheless, within these small moments, Rash manages to reveal the weight of Yancy’s past.
This minimalist technique showcases one of the author’s many talents: balancing character development and pace. And the pace of Rash’s collection is exquisite. Mysteries and suspense keep readers on edge to the point that several of the stories are essentially literary thrillers. Meanwhile, the characters never fail to surprise — both readers and Rash himself.
“That’s the fun part of writing,” he says. “I think it was Robert Frost who said, ‘No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.’”
In addition to the happy surprises that sprung up during the drafting process, Rash says he also experienced a fair amount of delight experimenting with the dialogue for the collection’s titular novella. The loggers in the story, notes Rash, often speak in iambic pentameter. The technique, familiar to students of William Shakespeare, features 10 syllables per line, alternating back and forth between unstressed and stressed syllables.
“I thought it would be fun to have these guys speaking in this very Western North Carolina colloquial language, and yet they’re also speaking in a poetic metric,” Rash explains.
Examples are plentiful throughout the novella. “There ain’t nary a bit of news in that,” one logger declares in discussing the latest round of bank closures. “Them fellows up north has lit the powder keg,” another states following news of recent labor strikes.
Much like the uncertainties Rash’s characters face, the author’s book debuts during unprecedented times. Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has altered Rash’s original plans for the release. “I would normally be doing [an in-person] book tour,” he explains. “And I kind of regret not being able to because I feel a great loyalty to stores like City Lights Bookstore and Malaprop’s.”
However, Rash remains optimistic that In the Valley will offer readers hope and points out that one of the collection’s broader themes is resilience. “The characters in this book have gone through some really rough times,” he says. “And most of them endure and get through it. And maybe that’s a good reminder, too.”
To register for the free Malaprop’s virtual release party, visit avl.mx/7re.