You could certainly forgive poet and novelist Ron Rash, who holds the John and Dorothy Parris Distinguished Professorship in Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University, for taking a moment to rest on his laurels after being named recipient of a 2017 Guggenheim Fellowship on Friday, April 7.
But while Rash has no hesitation about setting stories and poems among the laurels – and rhododendrons – of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, he’s not one to let honors, even one as prestigious as a Guggenheim Fellowship, divert his attention from his primary task.
That task is, of course, writing. Rash is currently working on a new collection of short stories, which he hopes to have published by next spring. “I’ve got about 10 stories completed right now, so I will be writing a few more before I have the collection finished,” he said.
Although he has attracted international attention as a best-selling author of novels, Rash said he has no definite plan or timetable for his next novel; instead, he wants to concentrate his creative energies on short-form fiction.
“My favorite form is the short story. It is, for me, the most rewarding,” he said. “I enjoy the challenge of writing them, and although the readership for short stories is not as large as for novels, there has been a renewed interest in the form in the last decade.”
Since the announcement by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation of Rash’s inclusion among a diverse group of 173 scholars, artists and scientists from the U.S. and Canada selected for the fellowships, he has taken an occasional break from his writing and teaching responsibilities to read the many emails and notes that have been pouring in from readers and fellow authors.
Among those expressing congratulations is Margaret Spellings, president of the University of North Carolina system.
“Ron Rash is a treasure of the university and the state, and it seems only fitting that he has been selected to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship. I had the opportunity to attend one of Ron’s readings as part of my visit to Western Carolina University last March. It was a privilege and pleasure to be in the presence of a literary giant,” Spellings said.
“His fiction and poems may be grounded in the Southern Appalachian region, but he is able to use those locations, situations and characters to tell stories that are authentic and universal. His work as a writer, as a poet and – most importantly – as an educator represents the UNC system with distinction, and I congratulate him on this esteemed award,” she said.
Guggenheim Fellowships are awarded “on the basis of prior achievement and exceptional promise,” the foundation said in announcing the recipients. Honorees were chosen from a group of almost 3,000 applicants in the organization’s 93rd competition.
“It’s exciting to name 173 new Guggenheim Fellows,” said Edward Hirsch, president of the foundation. “These artists and writers, scholars and scientists, represent the best of the best. Each year since 1925, the Guggenheim Foundation has bet everything on the individual, and we’re thrilled to continue to do so with this wonderfully talented and diverse group. It’s an honor to be able to support these individuals to do the work they were meant to do.”
Each of the 2017 recipients will receive a $50,000 award to support his or her work.
“It truly is an honor for me to be chosen for this award, especially because many writers whom I admire have received this award in the past,” said Rash, a resident of Cullowhee. “I am humbled to find myself mentioned alongside the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood and Raymond Carver.”
Rash came to WCU in 2003 to join the Department of English as the university’s first Parris Distinguished Professor. His latest novel, “The Risen,” hit bookstores last September. He is author of six other novels, including The New York Times bestseller “Serena,” and numerous collections of short stories and poetry.
Richard Starnes, dean of WCU’s College of Arts and Sciences, said the awarding of a fellowship by the Guggenheim Foundation to Rash provides another compelling piece of evidence of the author’s stature on the national and international literary scene.
“Ron Rash is the defining voice in Appalachian literature today, but he is so much more,” Starnes said. “In the tradition of Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, Ron uses his native region to ask profound questions about the complexities of the human heart, man’s relationship with nature, and sense of place. In this way, his work speaks to people everywhere with power and grace.”
A selected list of past Guggenheim winners indicates the level of interdisciplinary prestige the award carries, said Brent Kinser, head of the Department of English, naming composer Aaron Copland (1925); chemist Linus Pauling (1926); and writers Zora Neale Hurston (1936), John Dos Passos (1939), Eudora Welty (1942), Gwendolyn Brooks (1946), Susan Sontag (1966) and Billy Collins (1993), who recently read from his work at Western Carolina’s Spring Literary Festival.
“This recognition by the Guggenheim Foundation is a testament to the work of Ron Rash and to Western Carolina University as it continues to demonstrate its crucial role in the cultural life of the region, the state, the nation and the world,” Kinser said.
The fellowship is the latest in an ever-expanding roster of honors for the native of Boiling Springs. A teacher of poetry, literature and creative writing at WCU, Rash has received an NEA Poetry Fellowship, the Sherwood Anderson Prize, the Novella Festival Novel Award and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and is twice winner of O. Henry awards. His 2015 “Above the Waterfall” was the Prince of Tides Literary Prize Winner in the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance’s 2016 Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize competition.
Meanwhile, under the category of “you can’t win them all,” Rash learned recently that “Above the Waterfall” is not among the 10 titles advancing to the “shortlist” of nominees for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award. The work by Rash, along with “Where all Light Tends to Go” by WCU alumnus David Joy, were on the awards’ “longlist” announced last fall.
Over the years, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation has granted more than $350 million in fellowships to more than 18,000 individuals, among whom are scores of Nobel laureates, Fields Medalists, Turing Award winners, poets laureate, members of the various national academies, winners of the Pulitzer Prize and recipients of other important, internationally recognized honors.
This year’s recipients represent 49 scholarly disciplines and artistic fields, 64 academic institutions, 27 states and the District of Columbia, and three Canadian provinces. They range in age from 27 to 79.
The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation was established by U.S. Sen. Simon Guggenheim and his wife, Olga, as a memorial to a son who died April 26, 1922.