There are few female protagonists as strong, not to mention as scary, as Serena, the title character in Ron Rash’s 2008 best-selling novel, which was adapted into a film starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Rash’s most recent story collection, “In the Valley,” just out in paperback this month, includes a novella that picks up Serena’s scorched earth trail. Rash, a professor at Western Carolina University, lives in Cullowhee, N.C.
BOOKS: What are you reading?
RASH: I just read “Unsettled Ground” by the British writer Claire Fuller. The rural poor are rarely represented in British literature, but this book does that with empathy. It’s a beautifully constructed book with interesting characters.
BOOKS: What was your last best read before that book?
RASH: It might be Margot Livesey’s “The Boy in the Field.” You think you know the characters and then they reveal depths that are unexpected. My best nonfiction read of the last few months was “Stepping Stones” by Christine Desdemaines-Hugon, which draws aesthetic connections between Paleolithic cave art and artists of our era.
BOOKS: What else have you been reading?
RASH: I’ve gone back to Chekov’s short stories. He’s one of those writers I’ve appreciated more as I’ve gotten older. He can find this one detail that suddenly pushes the story into the sublime.
BOOKS: Are there writers you’ve reread and found you changed your mind about them?
RASH: When I was young I really didn’t like Thomas Hardy. Now I particularly love his “Tess of the D’Urbervilles.” It has one of the best examples of landscape symbolizing destiny. When I reread Eudora Welty I found she’s a lot tougher than I remember. Another book I reread was T. Geronimo Johnson’s “Welcome to Braggsville.” He did something we need more of, written a book with a lot of satire but also a lot of heart.
BOOKS: How much contemporary fiction do you read?
RASH: At 67 I read less but I do still try to keep up. I also love French writers, such as Jean Giono, who wrote in the midcentury. I’ve probably read 12 novels by French writers in the past 18 months. I read “Disturbance: Surviving Charlie Hebdo” by Philippe Lançon, one of the staff members of the magazine. That’s a powerful book about his recovery from the deadly terror attack there.
BOOKS: What is the rhythm of your daily reading?
RASH: I’ll read a novel in the morning while I use an elliptical. Poetry is a late-night thing for me, maybe because it’s such a solitary thing.
BOOKS: When did you start reading poetry?
RASH: I failed the sixth grade, which is quite a feat in western North Carolina. Then I barely graduated from high school but I loved poetry and reading. When I was 14 or 15 I found a list of 100 great novels, and Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” was on it. I was always an ambitious reader so picked it up. I was getting a D in biology and reading that book on my own.
BOOKS: Were your parents readers?
RASH: We didn’t have a lot of money but we always had books. The irony of that was my father’s father couldn’t read or write. My mother would take us to the library every Saturday. One Saturday it snowed and, you know Southerners, we all panicked. All the white bread for 20 counties had been taken off the grocery shelves. But my mother braved the road to get my brother and sister and I to the library.
BOOKS: Do you have lots of books?
RASH: Several thousand. I tend to write in the margins of my books. It’s fun to see something I wrote about 40 years, like, “This is boring.” I also date my books when I finished them. I’ve read Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!” like eight or nine times. I can see different inks I used, starting in the 1980s.
BOOKS: Do you have any other reading habits?
RASH: My new hobby is committing poems to memory. I’ve done several by Heaney and Yeats. Now when I drive instead of listening to ESPN sports I practice reciting poems. Sometimes when I’m just sitting around I’ll recite one, like Heaney’s “Postscript”: “And some time make the time to drive out West Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore.” It’s just kind of fun to do that.