Ron Rash writes a novel inspired by a real-life cold case

BIG DRAMA: In small towns, "You get to see every level of society," says author Ron Rash, who sets much of his fiction in such communities. "It's always a microcosm of the whole world." Author photo by Ashley Jones, Clemson World magazine

Writing — especially fiction — is a strange occupation. “I’ve spent more time making up people than being with real people,” says local author Ron Rash. In his recently published work, The Risen, some of those characters are not even the type of people Rash would want to spend time with in real life. The book, split between present day and the late 1960s, unravels the mystery of a teenage girl who disappeared after being in the company of a pair of brothers. Rash will read from and discuss the novel at UNC Asheville’s Humanities Lecture Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 21.

In the past, the author said it took him about three years to complete a full-length work of fiction. The Risen was different — “I wrote this book in half the time,” Rash says. Then again, it was a story 20 years in the making. Two decades ago, an 18- or 19-year-old woman was murdered near where Rash was living at the time. Though two young men had been seen with her the night before, no one was ever charged in the crime.

“I was really haunted by that scenario,” says Rash, “and the idea of what it would be like to get away with murder. It intrigued me that there was one other person involved. How would it be to live your life knowing that this other person, for whatever reason, might decide to admit it?” Though he knew soon after the incident that he would write about it, the story took its time in coming to fruition. Rash started having nightmares several times a year that he, himself, had committed a murder but had forgotten about it. When he finally started the book, the bad dreams vanished.

For Rash’s characters, though, the nightmare wends its way through the village of Sylva during the tumultuous summer of 1969. While 1967’s Summer of Love and the more violent underbelly of hippie culture had influenced larger cities for years, those in rural settings didn’t feel the changes — until they did. The Risen, Rash says, seeks to pack the whole range of cultural shifts into a single season.

The insular small-town environment is blown open — especially for younger brother Eugene, still in high school — when worldly Ligeia shows up. Sent to Sylva by her parents to keep her out of trouble, Ligeia is well-versed in drug culture, psychedelic music and sex — all of which draw Eugene to her.

Meanwhile, older brother Bill, already a med student following in his grandfather’s footsteps, serves as the voice of reason. But there is trouble beyond that which Ligeia brings. The brothers’ grandfather is a malevolent and controlling patriarch (“In truly evil characters, there’s always something inexplicable,” Rash says). He’s always in the company of the mute handyman, Nebo, who “waited between jobs on the office’s back porch steps, in one hand a long straight razor and in the other a whetstone,” Rash writes in a chilling scene.

“All small towns have secrets,” the author says of his fascination with the setting. “I’ve never known a doctor who [abused his position], but it struck me the power that a doctor would have, especially in the 1960s. They’d know everything.”

He adds, “Evil can be hidden away, but it eventually comes to light.”

The revelation of what happened to Ligeia does unfold in Rash’s tale, but not every answer is revealed. The story retains its sinister tone due, in part, to the choice of Eugene as the chronicler. As a teen, he’s impertinent and daring; as an adult, his life has been derailed by tragedy and alcohol — “In some ways, he’s an unreliable narrator,” Rash says. The author hopes that slant adds another level to the novel on a second read.

But Eugene, a failed writer, does maintain a love of literature, especially for native son Thomas Wolfe. Eugene’s mother named him for the lead character in Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, a book Rash weaves into The Risen. Meditating on his own troubled relationship with his sibling, Eugene muses, “I wonder how Wolfe’s portrait would differ if [his brother] Ben had lived. What negative aspects, so present in portrayals of his other siblings, might he have added?”

Wolfe’s familiar prose and The Risen‘s idyllic local landscapes, like the river where the brothers fish and rendezvous with Ligeia, give little comfort. This is a story of dark intentions and strange twists. “More than any book I’ve written, I had characters that the reader may not know how to feel about,” Rash says. “That’s kind of risky.”

But Rash, also a writing professor at Western Carolina University, did what he might have suggested to his own students: He took a cue that he attributes to Shakespeare.“If there’s an element we can’t quite know about a character,” Rash says, “it makes that character interesting.”

WHO: Ron Rash presents The Risen
WHERE: UNC Asheville Humanities Lecture Hall, 1 University Heights, malaprops.com
WHEN: Wednesday, Sept. 21, 7 p.m. $25.99 (includes a hardcover copy of the book)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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