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Ethel Rohan

Raised in Ireland, Ethel Rohan now lives San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Potomac Review, and Los Angeles Review among many others. Cut Through the Bone was Long Listed as a notable collection by the 2010 Story Prize.

Blurbs

“Rohan’s stories are, more than anything else, about loss . . . and about the odd, endearing, and desperate ways that people fill the void or ignore it.”

– LORI OSTLUND, AUTHOR OF THE BIGNESS OF THE WORLD

“These stories create a sense of loss in the reader, an ache, but thankfully they avoid dull cynicism. Instead, they bear witness to the difficulty of living for oneself while sacrificing for others."

– Victor LaValle, author of Big Machine

“In this unforgettable collection, Rohan reveals her mastery in finding the danger of ordinary objects, the way they come alive when her characters hold them in their hands.”

– Kevin Wilson, author of Tunneling to the Center of the Earth

"This is a marvelous collection, filled with moments that startle and shatter."

– Laura van den Berg, author of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us

" . . . beautiful and inventive, tender and absurd, quirky and heartbreaking, dark and strange and devastating."

– Michael Kimball, author of Dear Everybody,

"Ethel Rohan’s women, despite their wounds, are strong of spirit."

– William Walsh, author of Pathologies

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Cut Through the Bone

An Interview with Ethel

06/24/11

I feel like at this point, Ethel Rohan needs no introduction here at The Lit Pub, so I’ll just make with the love here and give you the interview, raw and uncut.

You write as someone who seems pretty intimate with loss. What’s your relationship with loss? Are there specific moments in your life you use to fuel the imagery and pathos in these stories in Cut Through the Bone?

I don’t consciously write about loss or any other subject matter. When I write, I don’t structure or plot and never know where I’m going. I follow the words and am always grateful whenever those words lead to a story I feel good about.I’m constantly surprised by the stories that come out of me and in awe of the writing process and creativity in general. At some point in the revision of every story, I ask of the work, “why would I write you?” It isn’t until I realize why each story matters to me personally that I can even hope to ‘finish’ the work and make the stories matter to others. I do feel intimately familiar with loss and have come to realize I’m everywhere in Cut Through the Bone in that I “know” what it is to have lost loved ones and lost parts of myself.

Obviously there’s lots of talk about the themes of loss and absence in this collection, but as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve taken from it more a theme of what is gained in the space left by that absence, space as a metaphor for possibility. Do you feel there’s too much focus on the loss and not what there is to gain?

The insistence on the loss and darkness in this collection was at first intriguing and instructive to me. Now I feel somewhat frustrated by the narrow focus on loss and darkness in the collection. I think the best writing goes into a dark place and brings out some key knowledge and meaning into the light. Readers’ resistance to suffering in fiction fascinates me. It can’t be that we’re so fragile or unconscious? So why does it seem that many can’t handle the truths—however hard-hitting—that fiction can deliver?

I’d go so far as to say the reluctance to acknowledge darkness and suffering in life and in literature angers me. What’s to be gained by denying truth and turning a blind eye to what’s difficult and painful in the world? Why, I wonder, is darkness and suffering so much easier to accept, even revered, in film and on TV versus in writing? I’m confounded by that. It’s one thing if someone feels traumatized by what they read, or there’s some fault with the work, then by all means stop. But to turn away and give up on stories only because they look hard at pain, suffering and life’s difficulties, I don’t understand that. Too many look away from sadness and suffering in literature and in life, and it’s wrong. Yes, absolutely, reading for escapism and entertainment has its value and its place, but our art cannot be limited to such narrow, irresponsible lenses. Art should mirror life and we shouldn’t look away from its harsher images and truths. There can be no change without disturbance and no gain without struggle.

We live in dark, difficult times and I don’t want my work to add to the suffering, I want my stories to acknowledge, confront and examine suffering in the hopes that we can alleviate it.

I love the idea, thank you, of “what is gained in the space left by that absence, space as a metaphor for possibility.” If we’d only look into the dark more often so we can set it afire and try to recover the missing more often, the world would be a better place.

I tried to start a community collaborated interview with you earlier this month, but it didn’t really take off. Molly posed a great question though that I wanted to be sure was asked here: “Ethel blogs a lot about her mother. If she’s willing, I would like to know more about what’s happening in her life. She is so willing to share a touch of the detail, the suffering her mother is going through, but I really want to know what Ethel’s going through . . . maybe for no other reason than to send her virtual hugs.”

At some point, I accepted that everything I write leads back to my mother. I resisted that truth for a long time and it’s something I tried to rid my work of. However, my mother and our complicated relationship both feed and haunt my imagination. When I was a child, my mother and I warred much of the time and we both hated and desperately loved each other. She was mentally ill and I was angry and scared and wanted nothing more than for her to be well, but she never recovered. My mother’s still alive (in her twelfth year of Alzheimer’s and recently diagnosed with uterine cancer) but she’s been long gone. Her absence and great suffering are among my demons and it’s because of her I write. Writing gives me somewhere to put the pain and fear and yearning. Writing offers me opportunities to heal.

It’s been interesting to have read first these stories in Cut Through the Bone, which no doubt had plenty of editorial review during the publishing process at Dark Sky Books, and going back to find earlier versions of these stories published online so I can link to them from my Story Focus posts here, allowing people who haven’t gotten the book yet to read the story. Particularly, I noted a lot of changes in “More Than Gone,” where you were a bit more liberal in your word count and description, whereas in the collection, your language is a lot more sparse. What has your growth been like as a writer, developing this bare-bones language that’s prevalent in your work now? Has the editing process at Dark Sky contributed to that voice?

I think my publisher, Kevin Murphy, would agree that there was little editorial input from Dark Sky on this manuscript. When I first submitted the collection, Kevin rejected the manuscript, essentially saying, “it’s not there yet.” Kevin encouraged me to work more on the stories and to resubmit. Thus motivated, I tried to be merciless with the work and studied every story and word for its worth. Over the course of months, I re-worked the collection and then sent the manuscript to Kevin O’Cuinn, my compatriot, fellow writer, and fiction editor at Word Riot, for his input and feedback. In response, Kevin provided excellent comments and edits that helped me get these stories where they needed to be.

During my MFA at Mills, Victor LaValle always said we should, “know our weaknesses as writers and police against them.” Some of my writing weaknesses are repetition, over-writing, flowery language and sentimentality. These bad habits appear in my first drafts and in revision need to be eradicated. Sometimes, butchering my stories and getting them to that better place can be especially hard because I love description and emotion. I’m still struggling with knowing what are bad habits and what are my style and voice. I want to rid my work of the former, but not the latter. Just as recently as this week, Matt Salesses of The Good Men Project hacked away at a story I submitted and made it so much better. This was an important lesson and reminder that those weaknesses are still clear and present dangers in my work and I need to be ruthless against them. As writers, we are forever students.

You had some really fantastic things to contribute to the discussion regarding men’s vs. women’s literature. Where do you see the future of literature in this regard? What would your ideal publishing/literary atmosphere be in regards to gender?

I’m very optimistic about the future of gender and race equality in literature. Thanks to the excellent marriage of the internet and the printed word, we live in exciting literary times and things are only going to get better. As women writers, readers, and buyers we’re raising our voices and harnessing out collective power. Some of the direct results of that activism and clout are increased visibility for, and accessibility to, the widest and most equitable range ever of writers, voices and works. We also have independent publishers to thank for the exciting state of literature today. Indie publishers are proving to be innovative, risk-takers with their fingers very much on the pulse of writing and works that matter. Indies are committed to excellence and inclusivity in writing and are fast becoming industry leaders and groundbreakers.

You just recently had a new book released by the illustrious PANK, Hard to Say. Can you tell us a bit about this book?

Hard to Say is a tiny collection of fifteen linked stories set largely in Ireland. I’m heartened by the excellent response thus far to this little book because these stories are personal and painful, and I agonized over whether or not I should publish the book. Unlike Cut Through the Bone, where I feel very much hidden inside the stories, in Hard to Say, I feel very much exposed and it was difficult to find the courage and get the necessary distance to tell these stories right and well. Only time and readers will tell if I succeeded in the latter.

Hard to Say is an apt title and I’m still coming to terms with the little book being out in the world. It’s deeply encouraging and rewarding that readers are moved by these stories and I feel buoyed by how many readers and fellow writers have found the work meaningful and worthwhile. To expand on the idea above regarding the opportunities in spaces, I’m excited about the new spaces that have opened up inside me now that I’ve gotten the stories in Hard to Say out of my insides and onto the page, and I look forward to finding out what can be gained in their absence.

Lastly, what’s next for you/what are you working on now that we can look forward to? Have you had any recent publications you’d like to share that our readers can check out?

I have a third story collection I’d love to see published, one that both my agent and I agree is best suited to an indie publisher. I’ve also finished a novel manuscript that I’m about to send off to my agent. It’s a novel I’ve worked long and hard on now over the course of nine years and I’m crossing every body part I can, hoping it’ll at last get to be in the world.

*   *   *

You can find more of Ethel’s recently published work in the Highlighted Stories section at her website’s Published Works page.

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14 Comments

  1. Steve Himmer said on 06/24/11 at 12:28 pm Reply

    Great interview. One of the things I really admire about Ethel’s fiction (and there are many) is that while her characters are shaped by suffering they’re rarely defined by it. There’s an insistence that stories (and people) are larger than just one aspect of themselves, so as blunt as her stories are about suffering and, often, misery, they’re never satisfied to wallow in it.

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/24/11 at 12:42 pm

    That’s a really great observation — that they may be shaped by suffering but they’re rarely defined by it. Thanks, Steve. I hadn’t thought about it quite like that. It’s a great perspective to have, in general. . . .

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/26/11 at 9:44 am

    Thanks for reading, Steve, and for these kind comments. I love that you recognize how these characters, however misshaped they may be and feel, refuse to be defined by misery and suffering.

    Thanks again.

  2. Jordan Blum said on 06/24/11 at 10:32 pm Reply

    Very revealing and insightful. I especially connect with the paragraph about her MFA and knowing her limitations as a writer. Having just earned the degree, I’m just starting out as a serious writer, and I struggle with these things like everyone else. Sometimes I want to just write freely, but then I simultaneously want to edit myself and turn it into what I think people will want to read.

    Reply

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/26/11 at 9:47 am

    jordan, don’t simultaneous edit yourself. Write those first drafts and fast and free as you can, then edit. I wasted years writing sentence by sentence, polishing and trying to perfect every sentence as I went, and it kills possibility after possibility. Just let those first drafts fly out of you–there’s where all the good stuff is. It’s only when I think my story is ‘finished’ that I then really get to work on revision.

    Jordan Blum said on 06/27/11 at 1:48 pm

    Thanks, Ethel. I mean, I don’t actually edit as I go– I just immediately dismiss what I write as not good haha. I’ve revised certain poems many times, and for some I have the opinion that “okay, this is done. Now it’s up to publishers and readers to either like it or not like it. I’m not changing it, though. It’s done.” There is a certain level of pride in that, but also a level of panic because it’s like your best effort is still only mediocre by comparison. But then again, who’s to say what’s good or bad? That’s what awesome/frustrating about writing. Hell, some people love WCW “Red Wheelbarrow”; I think it’s a simple phrase, plain and simple. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Neither and both, I guess. That goes for just about every piece of writing.

    I think that initial drafts should be stream-of-consciousness pieces where some ideas stick and most are never utilized again. I wrote two drafts of a novel called “Kosher Kin.” The first helped me get the characters’ names and some dramatic moments to use later. The second draft (which I used as my MFA thesis) really focused on the story and cohesion and a point. I was going to revise it chapter by chapter, but I decided to pretty much rewrite the entire thing. At the end, my professor said, “this is a huge improvement from the first draft. If you can make this big of a leap with your third and fourth drafts, it’ll be publishable.” Now, maybe it is publishable already (who’s to say some people wouldn’t like it as is?), but I felt good about it. If I do revise it a second time, it’s almost guaranteed to be better, right? That’s something I always wonder: does a revision automatically make for a better version of the piece?

  3. Emily Lackey said on 06/25/11 at 9:16 am Reply

    “As writers, we are forever students.”

    I love this, Ethel! I get so discouraged by the sense of competition and cutthroat in some creative communities, and I think it stems mostly from a sense of “being better than” other writers. None of us is perfect, and, as you said in your comments about editing and being edited, we are always learning from others. Putting ourselves in competition with our peers only serves to close us off from learning.

    Reply

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/26/11 at 9:57 am

    Emily, you’ve made me think about what else, aside from craft, I might want to police in myself with regard to my writing. Some of the saddest of writer traits are jealousy and bitterness. However, competition is something different. A certain level of competition is healthy and when I read other writers’ work and see their successes I feel both inspired and ever hungrier. What I also gain from others’ successes is a sense of belief and buoyancy: If it can happen them, it could also happen for me. What I’m forever struggling with as a writer is balance: how to juggle everything and not go crazy or lose sight of what’s most important in life. At the end of my days I want to look back on my life and feel proud of my body of writing, yes, be surrounded by books I love, yes, but I most want to be with the people I love, yes.

    Emily Lackey said on 06/26/11 at 11:55 am

    Agree, agree, agree. With everything you said. I definitely meant that I am disenchanted by the jealousy, bitterness, and self-doubt that comes from competing with our peers, not the belief and hunger that reading their work inspires. Thanks for making the distinction!

  4. Dawn. said on 06/25/11 at 2:11 pm Reply

    Love this interview. 🙂

    Chris, I especially love what you say here: Obviously there’s lots of talk about the themes of loss and absence in this collection, but as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve taken from it more a theme of what is gained in the space left by that absence, space as a metaphor for possibility. So true. In this darkness, I see many paths.

    Some of my writing weaknesses are repetition, over-writing, flowery language and sentimentality.

    I am also a repeat offender of all those, Ethel. This puts a big silly smile on my face because I know I’m not alone in these writerly crimes, haha.

    Reply

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/26/11 at 10:18 am

    Thanks, Dawn. I’m laughing, Dawn, because even though I know my weaknesses as a writer, I can’t seem to cure my work of them, at least certainly not in the early drafts. What about the weaknesses I’m not aware of? It’s hard to know what are bad habits and what are my style and voice. The work, and journey, are ongoing. The sense of striving can feel exhausting, but I hope I’m always striving and never complacent.

    Thanks again.

  5. Richard Thomas said on 06/25/11 at 3:21 pm Reply

    Great interview and answers.

    THIS:

    “We live in dark, difficult times and I don’t want my work to add to the suffering, I want my stories to acknowledge, confront and examine suffering in the hopes that we can alleviate it.”

    I can really relate to that. There’s something cathartic about coming out the other side intact, if not whole. That’s one of the components of Ethel’s work that I love. I think I’ve mentioned it before, if not here, elsewhere, but a personal mantra of mine is Nietzche who said (and I paraphrase here) “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” If you’re able to survive something you can use that lesson, that tragedy and intensity to make yourself a stronger, more aware, better equipped person. Hopefully with more sympathy and understanding for others. I think that’s why i writer darker fiction, and am drawn to it. The journey, the lesson, the emergence as more than when I went into it.

    Loving both the CTTB and TCOW discussions. Awesome.

    Reply

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/26/11 at 10:48 am

    Thanks, Richard. Yes, it’s about going *through* in our work and our lives, rather than avoiding or looking away.

    I’m so glad you’re enjoying TLP discussions. Thanks for adding your voice.

  6. Kenny said on 06/26/11 at 4:44 pm Reply

    This was a really great interview, I enjoyed it very much, for a number of reasons. Firstly, I very much admire Ethel for “mining” (for want of a better term) her past for inspiration, and also exorcism. It’s something I’ve never been able to do, despite encouragement from people to do so, I can’t seem to write about my own life without it sounding false (the continuous struggle for authenticity), and also because I have never found the right amount of distance to be able to get into a place mentally to do it in the first place. So that Ethel has managed to do these things is both inspirational and to be admired.

    I was also struck by the discussion of needing to identify your weaknesses as a writer, to know what they are and consciously battle them. As someone who has often been accused of being more interested in “style” than plot/character/narrative/story etc (I would argue that isn’t the case…but…let’s not get into that here), it is something I have now started to look at in my own writing and ask myself serious questions about how I write, why I write the way I do and so on. Not sure what the outcome will be, but it will be an interesting process.

    So thank you to Ethel and to Chris.

    Reply

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