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One Book, One Community author shares writing insights

Laurinburg, N.C. – Members of the community had the unique opportunity on Thursday to ask acclaimed author Ron Rash why he wrote events the way he did in his novel Serena.

Serena is a book that took three hard years of writing to complete, but I am very satisfied with it,” said Rash. “I write about the Appalachian region not to romanticize it but to take a region that is highly stereotyped and put it in a more realistic light.”

Serena tells the story of newly wedded couple George and Serena Pemberton in 1929, who hail from Boston. The couple moves to the North Carolina Mountains to create a timber empire. However, the story begins its twists and turns as George Pemberton has lived in the camp long enough for him to father an illegitimate child. Although Serena is new to mountain living, she soon shows herself a capable working, overseeing crews, hunting rattlesnakes, and saving her husband’s life.

Together, this couple overcomes many obstacles, but when Serena learns that she will never bear children, her goal turns toward vengeance, and she sets out to kill the son George had without her. Mother and child struggle to live, and when Serena believes George is protecting his alternate family, their marriage begins to disintegrate and propels the story towards a most shocking reckoning.

Arthur Phillips, author of Prague and Angelica, proclaimed the book “An Appalachian retelling of Macbeth,” a comparison welcomed by Rash.

“I very much wanted to have the story reflect a Macbeth influence,” said Rash. “All of the names are Scotch-Irish or Scotch names. Serena is stronger than Lady Macbeth because she never shows remorse. When Serena speaks, it is in iambic pentameter.”

Many of the questions posed to Rash were related to why he created certain characters the way he did.

“I made Rachel young because I wanted to make her more sympathetic to the reader,” Rash said. “I needed a character to transform. I wanted her as a girl to transform into a woman. She became a woman of action. In the first scene, she doesn’t move on the platform of the station. One of my favorite scenes in the book is when she tells of the ticket master at the station. It shows that she has transformed into a woman of action.”

As for Pemberton, the lead male character of the novel, Rash also saw an opportunity for transformation in a less physically dramatic way.

“I wanted to take a man who was confident and cocky that he could handle any situation. I wanted to watch it slowly dawn on him that his wife is much stronger than he is and that he is powerless to do anything about it.”

For title character Serena, Rash saw the opportunity to present a character of pure evil. When asked why more past information was not provided to explain her evil ways, Rash shared his philosophy on evil.

“Real true evil is mysterious,” he said. “When you start explaining the motivation it’s a mistake. A good example is Hannibal Lecter. Part of what makes him scary is that you don’t know what his motivation is. I think it was a mistake that Thomas Harris made in going back and trying to explain why he does what he does.”

In addition to the influence of Harris and Shakespeare, Rash acknowledged the influence of Flannery O’Connor in this novel.

“When Galloway has his hand cut off, it is emblematic of incompleteness, something Flannery O’Connor used frequently,” he said. “The act fulfills the prophecy his mother shared that a woman would save his life and he would be indebted to her for the rest of his life. It also makes him even more frightening because he can still kill with only one hand.”

This opportunity was afforded at a variety of locations during the One Book, One Community events sponsored by St. Andrews Presbyterian College, the Scotland County Memorial Library, Scotland County Schools and the Storytelling Arts Center.

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