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Serenaby Ron Rash
Such was the case in my latest novel, Serena. One afternoon while driving on a winding two-lane road in the North Carolina Mountains, an image came to me of a woman on a magnificent white stallion. Her posture was upright, haughty, and proud. She and the horse were on a ridge crest, somewhere in the same mountains I was driving through. It was early morning, and the sun rising behind the woman made her blonde hair glow as if adorned with a golden garland, perhaps even a golden crown. Coils of fog surrounded the ridge, giving the illusion that she was amid clouds. I knew that someone (I'd write over a hundred pages before I realized who that someone was) was watching her with a mixture of awe and fear.
I began writing and soon discovered that Serena's story took place in a timber camp in Depression-era Appalachia. Serena is the new bride of a man named Pemberton, a Bostonian who owns the camp, and at the novel's beginning she has just joined him in North Carolina's Smoky Mountains. Serena, whose father owned a timber camp in Colorado, quickly reveals that she knows as much about logging as any of the workers. Soon Serena is the one riding into the forests with the cutting crews. While she gives commands and makes sure those commands are carried out, her husband stays in the office and keeps the books. She proves a worthy opponent for anyone who threatens her and her husband's budding empire, including the advocates for a national park. Serena is capable of anything, even murder.
As Serena exerts her will on those around her, Pemberton realizes that he is incapable of matching his wife's ruthless ambition. Like the loggers, Pemberton comes to view Serena with awe and fear, for she seems beyond human constraints. Fittingly, it is Pemberton who peers out a window and sees Serena on the ridge crest, her hair gilded by the rising sun, and so the image that had begun the novel had finally found its place in the story.
Yet I wasn't finished with the image, or I should say the image wasn't finished with me. As reprehensible as Serena is, I found that, as the novel expanded, I couldn't help but feel a degree of sympathy for her, even view her as a tragic figure. I came to realize that Serena possessed a peculiar American innocence. Like Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby and Faulkner's Thomas Sutpen, she believes that ordinary human limitations do not apply to her. The "design" that she pursues for Pemberton and herself cannot accommodate human weakness. Inevitably, Pemberton, the one other human she believes worthy of her dream, will fall short of her expectations. Daisy Buchanan tells Gatsby, "Oh, you want too much!" and Henry Sutpen renounces his role as successor to his father's North Mississippi plantation. Similarly, Pemberton will come to a point where he refuses to help Serena achieve her design, and she will have to go on alone. Thus I came to realize that the image of Serena on horseback that had begun my novel was ultimately an image of how Serena viewed herself more than human, beyond the realm of what Hawthorne called "the magnetic chain of humanity."
I've had several readers recently ask me what triggered the image for Serena, where it "came from." Such readers tend to be skeptical when I tell them I have no idea. Like most writers I go out of my way not to delve into the where and why. A reader once left a message on my answering machine asserting that my novels were stories the dead wanted told and that she'd be glad to explain this premise at length if I called her back at the following number. I did not call her back, but the idea that the stories are out there waiting to be told is true to how it feels when the image emerges, as though the novelist alone is capable of finding the right frequency for the story to be transmitted. So now that Serena is finished, all I can do is wait and see if yet another image comes forth and demands its story.
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Ron Rash's family has lived in the southern Appalachian Mountains since the mid-1700s, and it is this region that is the primary focus of his writing.