West Virginia Book Festival

Ron Rash at the top of the short story world

Ron Rash came to the West Virginia Book Festival in 2006. I don’t know what it cost to get him here, but if we want him back, it might cost a little more.

Rash has won the sixth annual Frank O’Connor Award, which is the richest prize for short fiction in the world. This year’s prize money is 30,000 euros. At the current exchange rate, that’s $40,203.03.

Rash won for “Burning Bright,” a collection of stories set in Appalachia, ranging from the Civil War to the present day. As the Guardian newspaper in London reports:

Judge Nadine O’Regan, arts and books editor for the Sunday Business Post, said that Burning Bright was “technically absolutely beautiful – incredibly well-wrought”. “It’s a very understated collection of short stories in many respects. He tends to compress an awful lot into his sentences, and says an awful lot in a very distilled way,” she said.

“It’s a bleak collection, very bleak, but he has such attention to detail and is a real storyteller, a real craftsman.”

Although many of the stories in the collection are set in the past, the judging panel “felt the themes still really resonated”, she added. “A lot of the characters in the stories are victims of circumstance, stuck trying to navigate a path through life which is virtually impossible. And we thought that in today’s world, with the recession, people losing jobs, the stories resonated through the decades and said something to us on the judging panel about the inevitability of the path life can take when you’re caught in the grip of something much larger than you are.”

As for Rash himself, he had this to say to the Guardian:

“Sometimes I think we think of regionality in a negative way, maybe particularly in the US, but you find the universal through the particular – that’s the kind of story I’m intrigued with. The authors I grew up admiring, Faulkner and O’Connor, were able to centre their work on a very specific geographical area and use it as a conduit to the universal,” he said.

“Eudora Welty said that ‘one place understood helps us understand all places better’ and that’s what I hope my work does a bit, as well … It’s up to the reader to decide.”

Rash is the John A Parris Jr. and Dorothy Luxton Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University. Many critics believe that the short story is the best form for him, but it’s not the only one. He’s written four novels, the latest being the critically lauded “Serena,” and at least three collections of poetry.

Of the six finalists for the Frank O’Connor Award, five were American. Besides Rash, they were Laura van den Berg, “What Will the World Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us”; T.C. Boyle, “Wild Child”; Robin Black, “If I Love You I Would Tell You”; and Belle Boggs, “Mattaponi Queen.” The only non-American, David Constantine of Great Britain, was nominated for “The Shieling.”

The Frank O’Connor Award is presented by the Munster Literature Centre in Cork, Ireland. O’Connor, a famed short story writer in the mid-20th century, was raised there. The Cork City Council helps fund the prize.