Ron Rash, one of America's most-admired contemporary Southern writers, is conscious of working in a venerable literary tradition that goes back through O'Connor, Welty and Faulkner.
But he notices modern trends, too, such as the recent emergence of the short story as a dominant literary form. Not so long ago, critics and publishers had all but given up the short story for dead. Now, story collections are making the bestseller lists.
"Something is definitely happening," Rash says from his office at Western Carolina University. "I don't know whether it is a reflection of our busy lifestyle, or our declining attention span, but the short story seems to be more popular than ever."
Rash's own new collection of Appalachian-based short stories, "Nothing Gold Can Stay," has just been published to the kind of acclaim he's been getting since his first book came out in 1994.
"The Boston Globe" calls the new collection "lovely, essential," while "The New York Times" says it's "the author's best book since his 2008 'Serena,' " which in turn "is one of the greatest novels in recent memory."
Like all Rash's novels, short stories and poems, the new collection is set in the Southern Appalachian culture of Western North Carolina, an often-neglected part of the country.
"I knew early on what I wanted to write about," says Rash, who was born in Chester, S.C., and grew up in Boiling Springs, N.C., also the hometown of bluegrass great Earl Scruggs. "I learned from Faulkner and Welty and even James Joyce that the universal grows out of the particular."
Rash does bristle at being thought of as a "regional writer," a term often used dismissively. Most great writers, he says, are regionalists. Joyce wrote about Dublin. John Cheever wrote about suburban New England. Richard Price writes about New York.
"Please say that I admire all of those writers," Rash says, quoting Eudora Welty's famous maxim, "One place understood helps us understand all places better."
Rash grew up a solitary country boy who wandered the woods and read a lot — good training for a writer. He also says he's beholden to the rich oral storytelling tradition of the Southern Appalachians.
"I take exception to the idea that mountain people sound ignorant," Rash says. "On the contrary, the Appalachian dialect is rich in language and metaphor and simile."
Once as a boy, Rash says by way of example, he was walking down the streets of Boone, N.C., with his grandfather when a scantily clad Appalachian State University coed approached from the other direction."
"My grandfather said, 'That girl wasn't wearing enough to wad a shotgun,' " Rash says, relishing the memory. "It takes intelligence to devise and comprehend an image like that."
Ron Rash will appear 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 20, at Books and Books, 265 Aragon Ave., in Coral Gables. Admission is free. Call 305-442-4408 or go to BooksAndBooks.com.