Ron Rash wins O’Connor Award, world’s richest short story prize

Western Carolina University faculty member Ron Rash has captured the world’s richest prize for the short story literary form, the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, for his collection “Burning Bright.”           

Rash received the award—equivalent to $45,300—during a ceremony held Sunday (Sept. 20) in Cork, Ireland. The award was presented to Rash by Liadin O’Donovan, daughter of the late Irish short story writer for whom the award is named.

News of Rash’s win for his collection of 12 short stories was reported in the Guardian of London.

“I guess I know how it feels to win a beauty pageant now,” Rash told the newspaper. “It was a great feeling, a real honor. I write novels and poems as well, but the short story is my favorite form.”

The Guardian reported that Nadine O’Regan, a contest judge and arts and books editor for the Sunday Business Post of Dublin, Ireland, called Rash’s third published short story collection “technically absolutely beautiful – incredibly well-wrought.”

O’Regan told the Guardian that although many of the stories in Rash’s collection are set in the past, the judging panel “felt the themes still really resonated.”

“A lot of the characters in the stories are victims of circumstance, stuck trying to navigate a path through life which is virtually impossible,” O’Regan said. “And we thought that in today’s world, with the recession – people losing jobs – the stories resonated through the decades and said something to us on the judging panel about the inevitability of the path life can take when you’re caught in the grip of something much larger than you are.”

 Rash told the Guardian that “even though the stories are very regional in one sense,” he hopes they also have a universal flavor. “The authors I grew up admiring, Faulkner and O’Connor, were able to center their work on a very specific geographical area and use it as a conduit to the universal,” he said. “Eudora Welty said that ‘one place understood helps us understand all places better’ and that’s what I hope my work does a bit, as well. It’s up to the reader to decide.”

The Irish Examiner newspaper reported that the contest judges as a group called Rash’s book “emotionally affecting, a technically brilliant achievement, where all the versatility afforded by the traditional form was fully explored. It reveals a mature author at the top of his form.”

Rash had been short-listed for the O’Connor award with a group of five other authors, including T.C. Boyle and Belle Boggs, a writer and teacher who lives in Chatham County. Five of the six finalists were American.

“Burning Bright” was released by HarperCollins Publishers in March. As with Rash’s other works, which include seven books of fiction and three books of poetry, the stories in “Burning Bright” are set in Appalachia. The time frame of the stories spans from the Civil War era to the present day.

A native of Boiling Springs who was raised there and in Chester, S.C., Rash teaches Appalachian literature and creative writing at WCU. He holds the position of Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Culture.