There was an image of a woman on horseback. She was haughty, blond, tall, elegant. The sun was behind her illuminating her hair and creating a shimmering crown as she rode in the fog. Somehow, he saw her between Earth and Olympus. It was 1929-30 in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. So, in a voice straight out of the mountains of North Carolina, where his family has lived since the 1700s, Ron Rash described how Serena came about. The image stayed with him, a sign that he was destined to write the story.
He was interested in two major plot elements. The first was the fight for and against the creation of the Smoky Mountains National Park. The Park was rescued at a crucial point by a $5m donation from Rockefeller. The second issue was how nasty the fight between those with the timber interests and those who supported the Park became. There were elements of environmental destruction and loss of jobs as the talons of the Great Depression sank into the peaks and coves of the mountains. He wanted to bring Serena to this world and give her control of the timber camp. She quickly assumed mythical status among the men.
Rash has always appreciated Elizabethan drama, including Shakespeare, but especially Marlowe. He wanted the novel to read like a drama. He created 4 parts and a brief "Coda" which, in a nod to Marlowe, provides a fitting end to the tragedy of Serena. Serena's speech is loosely iambic pentameter to elevate her status from the common people. There is a Chorus of "good ole boys" to contrast with her, to comment on the action, and provide comic relief. Snipes sees himself as a philosopher while McIntyre is a preacher who sees Serena wearing pants as a sign of Satan. The eagle at one point drops a rattlesnake right in front of him. This causes him to be taken to the "nervous hospital" where they "electrocute" people.
His background as a narrative poet enlivens the imagery of this story. Rash captures the language of the mountains, long reputed to be Elizabethan in character and pronunciation, a myth that reinforces the reality of the characters' speech. The historical reality of the fight for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is brought to life here, both sides being presented.
Serena is a reference to Selena, Goddess of the Moon. Rash saw it as an erotic name. She is certainly not serene in any sense of the word. The doctor who delivered her says she kicked hard to get out. Her fatal flaw is an inability to admit to her humanity. She has allegiance to design not to people and is willing to sacrifice those she loves. She shows shades of Absalom, Absalom or an evil Gatsby who cannot accept Daisy.
Asked about critics' tendency to see Southern writers as having only regional appeal, Rash noted that Ulysses is about as "regional" as one can get, yet it is undeniably a classic. "I want to write about the universal through the particular." Clearly, he does not see "regional" writing as a negative. Faulkner was certainly a regional writer, and critics outside the US have recognized Southern writers for years, he said. "I see two types of writing. There's local color writing" that does little more than show what makes a place. "Regional writing" uses the local to illustrate universal themes, Flannery O'Conner being a prime example.
Rash described Serena as a great story well told, on a different scale, more ambitious than his previous efforts. It is, by his judgment, the apotheosis of his career. "I was obsessed by this one," thinking about it 10 – 12 hours per day. He worked on it for 6 hours per day, 6 days per week, for 3 years, completing 12 full drafts. Friends knew that "something had let go when I finished." "I feel that this is the best thing I'll ever write. It contains Elizabethan drama, environmental issues, rich language. I hope it worked."
It worked beautifully. This is a must-read novel.