Ron Rash on Writing to Bring Out the Dead
Discovering the Stories That Need to Be Told
When I was 15 years old, I read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I was too young to understand many of the novel’s complexities, but the narrative’s intensity, particularly Raskolnikov’s murder of the pawnbroker, was overwhelming. I had entered books before, but for the first time in my life a book had entered me. Reading Crime and Punishment remains the most intense reading experience of my life and Dostoyevsky remains one of my favorite writers. I have remained fascinated with a question posed in Crime and Punishment and also The Brothers Karamazov: What happens if a person murders someone and is not found guilty in the eyes of the law? Ultimately, Raskolnikov is caught and punished, but in The Brothers Karamazov, the Elder Zosima tells of an acquaintance who killed a friend but was not charged with the crime, yet for this man there is no escape. “Then the punishment began,” the murderer confesses to Zosima, making it clear the guilt has never ceased.
What had been a philosophical question when I read Dostoyevsky’s work became much less abstract 20 years ago. A female college student was found dead in a lake near my home. Two men had been with her the night before and were the last to see her alive. To the police and many others in the community, the men’s alibis raised doubts. In the end, no charges were filed. Perhaps because of the proximity of the murder, I began to dream that I had murdered someone years ago and was never charged. I suspected subconsciously that I was preparing to write a novel about such an event, but I could never find an entry into the story. Finally, late in 2014, an image came to me of a mound covered with leaves. This image inspired The Risen. When a heavy rain unearths human remains almost half a century old, the novel’s narrator realizes that in 1969 his older brother, a prominent surgeon, was implicit in the murder of a 17-year-old girl both brothers knew. His dilemma, whether to turn in his brother, confront his brother, or simply stay quiet, is the crux of the novel. The most perplexing question for the narrator is how his brother, who has lived a seemingly exemplary life, had dealt with his guilt. Did he, like the character in The Brothers Karamazov, find that it was only when he was sure he’d gotten away with the crime that “the punishment began”?
Years ago I received a phone call from someone who had recently read my third novel, The World Made Straight. At the novel’s center is an actual massacre that occurred in the North Carolina mountains during the Civil War: 11 men and a 12-year-old boy, all suspected of being Union sympathizers, were shot and killed by a Confederate regiment. After talking about the novel for a few minutes, she asked me if I knew where my stories came from. I answered that I read a lot of history about our region and that my family had been here since the 1700s, but I could not say how or where the particular idea for a novel originated. It just happened. She told me I was wrong. “They are the stories the dead want told,” she informed me.
I do not believe that is true, but what made her words especially disconcerting was that while researching the novel, I went to the site where the all 13 victims are buried in a single grave. The area is isolated and the only sound was the occasional whisper of the wind. As I stared at the single marker with their names etched in it, I had the sensation that I have never fully found words for. I sensed that somehow the place itself felt more real than I was. I’ve known several other writers who have had similar experiences, one in the Australian outback and another at Omaha Beach. It’s easy to argue that we were simply projecting our own expectations onto the place. Perhaps that is true, but what I encountered at Shelton Laurel seemed something more.
Similarly, as with most authors I know, writing a novel feels like I’m discovering a story more than creating one. Every one of my novels has begun with a single image. My first novel One Foot in Eden, began with an image of a farmer standing in his field. All that I knew was that the farmer’s crops were dying around him and that something was dying inside him as well. With The Risen, the image that prompted the novel was an image of a mound of leaves, beneath which was clearly a grave.
There are certain beliefs a writer has to have to survive while writing a novel. I’ve always been fascinated with Michelangelo’s conviction that the finished statue already existed within the block of marble. All he had to do was chip away and find it. What I believe, or make myself believe, is that if an image emerges and I cannot quit thinking about it, then the whole novel already exists, either in my subconscious or somewhere out in the universe (Perhaps quantum physics has an answer).
Except for a few depictions of historical figures, my characters arrive as mysteriously as their stories. Once they appear, I’ve learned that my characters tend to follow their own paths, not mine. Denzel Washington once said that one of his goals as an actor is not to get in the way of his characters. I’ve found that good advice. Whether or not humans have free will is debatable, but my fictional characters certainly do. In The Risen, this is especially true for Ligeia, the young woman whose murder is the novel’s pivotal event.
When I first began the book, I thought Ligeia, like the two brothers, had grown up in the same town as the two brothers, but as the story developed I found that her accent was different, as were her attitudes towards sex and drugs, which in turn made the time period clear: late 1960s, specifically 1969. Ligeia was from Florida, where she had earlier run away and lived on a commune. I soon realized that in the course of one summer this exotic 17-year-old would initiate the two brothers into all of the light and darkness of that era.
My novel is done now, and I can move on to other projects, but recently there has been renewed interest in the murder that inspired the book, including an episode on a nationally televised crime show. Local law enforcement have again asked the public for any possible leads, but at this time the crime remains unsolved. As for my dream of being a murderer, once I began The Risen that dream no longer troubled my sleep. It has yet to reoccur.