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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

Story Focus: "More Than Gone"

06/15/11

{I will open with an anecdote.}

Yesterday my good friend Carter had a birthday party in a park a few blocks from my house. The children laughed in the splash park. The adults behaved like adults, sitting at the picnic tables talking about their adult things. There was punch, hot dogs, chips, brownies, chocolate cake. All what you’d expect from a birthday gathering in a park. This is a boring story, really.

Don’t get me wrong. It was a good time, but it makes for no good story.

{I will segue into a discussion about the story I am writing about.}

Rohan’s “More Than Gone,” which you can read in full and in slightly different form at Halfway Down the Stairs if you don’t have Cut Through the Bone yet, follows home the widowed grandma after the birthday of her granddaughter, “her first public gathering since Albert’s funeral.” She carries a balloon from the party, imagining it as a friend, telling it all the happy stories of her late husband, taking care to note how passersby smile at her, “indulgently” as she puts it.

I think it’s important to note a difference here between the texts. In Cut Through the Bone, Rohan leaves this here, let’s us infer what the passersby are indulging–that this old lady is talking to a balloon as she walks through the park. What would you think? Of course you’d think it. Let’s not try to convince ourselves that we’re any better here.

In the version of this story at Halfway Down the Stairs, Rohan goes on, let’s us know exactly what it is they are thinking: senile. And pushes another step with a line that doesn’t appear in the book, “There are times she wants to be senile.”

{I will interject some discussion about current cultural topics along with some pop culture discussion.}

There exists now a drug to help you forget. Two of them, actually, both in testing.

Immediately I think of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I think of running. I don’t know why I think of running. There is that scene, maybe, in Eternal Sunshine, where they are running through the snow. I love that scene, but it makes me feel so cold. It makes me want to throw snow in your face.

I can’t understand anyone who doesn’t want to remember what it’s like to feel that kind of powdery cold love against their face.

I’m terrified of forgetting. The other day, we talked about how lies become a part of our personal narratives. I wonder how I will respond to the forgetting. I wonder if I’ll simply make up my own stories to replace those lost to memory, if I’ll construct an elaborate fiction of my life, and thinking of that, it’s almost comforting–a daily fugue, a daily recreation.

{I will go back to the personal.}

My grandmother wakes every morning forgetting that my grandfather passed away. She thinks he is already awake, down at breakfast maybe, or in the lounge watching a fishing show on TV. I can understand that kind of forgetting, I guess.

I still remember the first time Grandma ever forgot my name. I was slicing apples on Thanksgiving, helping in the kitchen as I’ve done for years. I’ve always been handy with a knife and a spatula. Grandma was standing there, talking to my step-mother and me, and I kept hearing her say, “Clint. Clint.” Eyes on my knife, I had no idea she was talking to me until she tapped me on the shoulder. She looked into my face, and laughed in her soft old lady laugh, and said, “Oh you’re not Clint. Oh. What’s your name again?”

I’ve never asked my dad if he knows who Clint might be.

{I will ask you a series of questions in hopes you will leave answers in the comments section.}

Are you terrified of forgetting? What do you want to forget? What don’t you want to forget? Do you take photos or write down things you are afraid to forget, or do you live by the phrase, “Why write down what one is to remember forever?” Do you remember that time we walked through the snow, that we found the space beneath the brush of the fallen pine tree where the city seemed to disappear, where we made believe we were rabbits hiding in the underbrush, careful of the foxes and the wolves and hunters?

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39 Comments

  1. Molly Gaudry said on 06/15/11 at 2:02 pm Reply

    This post is great — and I can’t help but think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude. Who’s with me? The insomnia plague . . .

    Reply

    ydde said on 06/15/11 at 2:07 pm

    Oh man, remembering that now is scaring me. A lot.

    Chris Newgent said on 06/15/11 at 2:15 pm

    I need to read this. I’ve always loved Garcia Marquez, but somehow have never actually read his magnum opus.

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/15/11 at 2:18 pm

    Technically, I wonder . . . is Love in the Time of Cholera his magnum opus? I feel like either people will say, “No way” or “Yeah, totally.” I’m just curious (not really sure why).

    Anyway, it’s another great book. But 100 Years should be everyone’s introduction to Garcia Marquez. That man changed words for me, made me rethink what words could do.

    Chris Newgent said on 06/15/11 at 2:24 pm

    A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings was my intro to Garcia Marquez, and what’s the story about the general marrying the young girl? I just remember an image in it where the General folds up a paper bird or butterfly or something, and it sails out of the room and becomes a painting on a wall. Dammit. What’s that story?

    ydde said on 06/15/11 at 2:30 pm

    I know what you’re talking about, but I can’t think of it even a little bit. My introduction to him was The Most Handsomest Drowned Man [maybe the right title?] and then 100 Years of Solitude, which is what I’ve always thought of as his magnum opus, but I’ve somehow not read Love in the Time of Cholera yet, though I have it here all kindled up and ready to go. Maybe soon. But, yes, definitely one of my favorite all time writers.

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/16/11 at 11:00 am

    See now I’ve read and loved lots of GGM, including both novels mentioned, but can I remember much of it. Gulp, no! My memory is terrible. At a recent reading, I was asked who are my favorite authors and I drew a blank! So bad with names. Sigh. But I always remember whether or not i loved a story or book and can never forget the the passion, imagination, language and beauty of GGM’s work.

  2. ydde said on 06/15/11 at 2:03 pm Reply

    Memory’s such a strange thing, especially because it’s almost completely creatively reconstructed and forever transient, affected by our moods, our current life situation and global outlook. Everything we tell ourselves about ourselves is just a constantly rewritten narrative where the narrator is constantly changing but unaware of the fact. It boggles my mind often, even the fact that this body is the same body I was born in. These hands have always been my hands and this heart has always been my heart.

    I’ve a terrible memory and no concept of time, so my life is constantly drifting from me and it does terrify me at times, the way I forget so many things, or the way I remember dreams I have better than wakinglife memories.

    But the important things remain, just all the details get lost. Like where I was this morning, who I was with, what his or her name is, how I know him or her, and so on. It’s the little things, though, that I remember. Like the way someone smiles or a certain way she tilts her head when she looks at me or how my dog always knows when I’m sad and is always there whimpering next to me at 4am.

    But to lose that, to lose the things that make you who you are, that’s worse than anything imaginable. Because that’s the other oddity of memory. It might all be creative reconstruction, but it’s true and it’s fundamental. Without it, you’re no one. Without the past, there’s no future, just a constantly fleeting present.

    Reply

    Chris Newgent said on 06/15/11 at 3:22 pm

    I think that’s what terrifies me the most about losing my memory. I know it’ll happen. I’ll either go from cancer, or I’ll live long enough to forget myself. That’s how it goes for pretty much all Newgent’s.

    To think of losing these memories, however constructed they may be by mood or time or morals, is to think of losing myself. I think this is always the fear when it comes to this.

    Of course, the idea of living in a constant present seems wonderful. But, really, I can’t think of much else that’s more terrifying.

    ydde said on 06/15/11 at 4:21 pm

    Yeah, it’s definitely one of those things that sounds great, but would be just terrifying or just terrible. And there are some people who do suffer from such a condition, such as Clive Wearing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vwigmktix2Y whose memory lasts between 30 seconds and five minutes.

    There’s a fundamental fear of losing oneself for very good reason. For some reason this is making me think of that Beckett quote, Words are all we have. Memories, really, are all that we are.

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/16/11 at 11:02 am

    We have a lot in common, YDDE. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one! Thanks for visiting and commenting.

    ydde said on 06/17/11 at 3:10 pm

    Ha, always good to find fellow memorialists [should be a word, yes?].

    But, yeah, memory’s an obsession of mine and something I’ve spent my short life trying to understand and make sense of. And it never stops being fascinating.

  3. Ashley C Ford said on 06/15/11 at 3:04 pm Reply

    I met my father in prison when I was 12 years-old. We’d been writing one another letters since I learned to write. When I didn’t have anything to say, he’d tell me to make up stories for him. Any story. So I did. A lot. When I met him, I worried he’d be disappointed that I didn’t look or act like any of the characters I wrote to him about. They were all so pretty, and brave, and had beautiful hand-writing like his. Some were even artists like him. I didn’t think of myself possessing any of those characteristics and I hoped he knew these stories were just hopes, dreams, not real. But he just held me for so long and kept whispering, “I love you, I love you, I love you”. And then I felt beautiful. All over. It was the first time I HEARD my father say that he loved me, and it made everything right in the world for a long time.

    Reply

    Chris Newgent said on 06/16/11 at 8:49 am

    I hope you keep hold of that one always.

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/16/11 at 11:08 am

    Thank you for writing and sharing this, Ashley. It’s beautifully written. I love letters and regret that letter-writing is a dying art. When I first emigrated to America, I wrote to my parents a lot and still have the few notes and cards they sent me in a treasure box.

    I’m glad you and your father could connect through letters and stories. I can only imagine the power and heartbreak of hearing your father utter those words for the first time.

    You have my best wishes.

    Dawn. said on 06/16/11 at 11:41 pm

    That was really beautiful, Ashley. Thanks for sharing. I can totally empathize with the letter-writing. My father spent about two years in a medium-security prison when I was a preteen and we wrote letters and exchanged cards the entire time. When I turned 12 he sent me a thesaurus and a card he made himself. I still have the card and most of the letters but I lost the thesaurus a couple years ago.

  4. yrfriendliz said on 06/15/11 at 3:19 pm Reply

    You all ever read “I remember” by Joe Brainard? Lots of wonderful moments stuck I’m his memory. It’s also an awesome writing prompt when you’re working with kids!

    Reply

    Chris Newgent said on 06/16/11 at 8:49 am

    I haven’t. I’ll have to put that on my ever growing list of things to read.

  5. Kenny said on 06/15/11 at 4:03 pm Reply

    My memory is pretty bad. Particularly for names, oddly enough, mostly actors names. I’ll be talking to someone about a film and will say something like “Yeah it stars…uhm..whathisname? You know…thingy…he was awesome.”

    “Thingy” is pretty awesome in almost everything I’ve seen him/her in.

    On a serious note, I am scared of forgetting – memory is what makes us, it’s our experiences, it makes us who we are, defines us. I want to remember everything, even the bad stuff. As a writer, all that is pretty important, to be able to call on memory to fuel stories. I’m not so concerned about remembering things exactly as they happened, but to forget them completely…that would frighten me.

    Reply

    Chris Newgent said on 06/16/11 at 8:51 am

    I’m with you, man. Of course I’ve never suffered PTSD, which those drugs are meant to alleviate. If I had, I’d likely be much more inclined to see the positives in forgetting. I’ve dealt with some pretty traumatic stuff in my life, but I’d never consider wanting to forget all that. Like you said, as a writer, it fuels my stories. But even deeper than that, as a human, they provide the basis of who I am and who I want to be.

    Kenny said on 06/16/11 at 9:26 am

    My ex-girlfriend suffers with PTSD as a result of being raped, becoming pregnant and then having a termination. We spent 8 years together so I’m well aware of the pain and trauma something like that causes, and the effects of a condition like PTSD. If I were in her shoes would I want to forget? Very likely. That’s not to say I’ve not experienced or been through very bad stuff, I have, but nothing quite on that scale, and I’ve always been able to somehow just deal with the bad things. I’ve always really been a believer in that Nietzschian philosophy that you can’t have the good without the bad, that the good is only good because we know what it’s like to sink so low, to be hurt, to be unhappy. Light and dark, and all that. However, when I see the pain and hurt in the people I care about, the suffering that memories can cause…maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing to forget some things.

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/16/11 at 11:13 am

    Ha! Regular phrases thrown about our house:

    “Thing-a-mi-gig.”
    “Whose-e, what’s it?”
    “Thing-a-me Bob.”
    “You know, the thing.”
    “You know, HIM/HER.”
    “What-do-you-me-call it?”
    “Where-z, what-z?”

    And there’s more 🙂

  6. Ethel Rohan said on 06/15/11 at 8:05 pm Reply

    This post goes deep for me, Christopher, thank you for writing. My mother, and her mother before her, both suffered Alzheimer’s. My mother is in her twelfth year of Alzheimer’s and is skeletal and mindless, worse than dead or a ghost. I worry Alzheimer’s will also be my fate. By then, I pray there’s euthanasia.

    Memory for me is a slippery slope. I have erased years of my childhood and have often been tempted in adulthood to undergo hypnosis to try to regain some of that time, but I’m too afraid of what I might remember.

    I think there’s a lot to be said for living in the present, as in I don’t worry as much any more about whether or not I get Alzheimer’s and instead I stay in the ‘now’ and take one day at a time. Likewise I’m less concerned with regaining my past and instead focus on living my best life today and every day.

    Reply

  7. Jordan Blum said on 06/15/11 at 10:27 pm Reply

    I’m not terrified of forgetting. I guess that’s because I’m still so young. I remember how my grandmother regressed to mental infancy before she passed away. THAT scares me, and I’d like to forget it. I’d also like to forget most of my teenage years because they concerned a shy, ugly kid with few friends who was afraid to talk to girls and afraid of how his mother would crush his heart again. If you’ve read my other recent posts, you’ll know why. I want to forget all the times Jen and I hurt each other, and I want to remember those innocent times when we were two people who hated themselves but somehow love each other. I want to remember the first time we kissed, hugged, laughed, made love, and held each other. I want to remember the first time I saw her cry and realized how beautiful a person can be. I want to remember how I was needed, and forget being told I was not. I suppose I want to remember and forget the same kinds of things we all do. And as cliched as it sounds, everything I can remember makes me what I am today.

    Reply

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/16/11 at 10:55 am

    A beautiful post, Jordan. Thanks for writing.

  8. Nettie said on 06/16/11 at 1:22 pm Reply

    My Mam had alzheimers/dementia. My Father is now in the throes of dementia and says he has no children – he has 9 – only lots of brothers and sisters. One day I gave my Mam a cup of tea and a biscuit from a pack half eaten by her. She looked at the biscuit and said Oh she had never tried these before and exclaimed how delicious they were. Long story short wouldn’t it be nice to experience such little pleasures over and over again. My Mam is gone 3 years now and my Father is still looking for her, expecting her to return from work at any moment. I think we obsess too much about forgetting or not remembering – my Dad is happy in his little world he does not remember the pain and grief of my Mam’s passing. Its our loved ones who will suffer when our memories are all gone – we wont remember that we have forgotten 🙂

    Reply

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/17/11 at 2:50 pm

    Nettie, thanks so much for visiting and commenting. I know we felt very conflicted as a family–on one hand the literature told us to keep correcting Mam and not play along with the dementia and on the other hand the more we insisted on the ‘truth’ the more upset and agitated she would become.

    You’re right, it gets to the point where it’s hardest on those left behind, but dementia is heartbreaking all round. We can only make the best of things and live well while we can.

    Chris Newgent said on 06/17/11 at 8:23 pm

    I always try to keep it in mind that those doing the forgetting are the least hurt by their forgetting. I think the worst stage of Alzheimer’s is the early onset, when the person is somewhat aware of their deterioration, when they stare at the buttons of their shirt knowing they once knew how to fasten them, but completely unable to remember how. I think it’s that early frustration that’s the hardest to witness. But like you say, when they get to a certain point, there’s an obliviousness that is almost comforting to accept.

  9. Jordan Blum said on 06/16/11 at 2:12 pm Reply

    No problem. Maybe I should rework that a bit and turn it into a real piece.

    Reply

  10. GBoyer said on 06/16/11 at 3:36 pm Reply

    First of all, I love Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and also love (although I sometimes suspect I’m the only one) Synecdoche, New York.

    Second thought I got from the posts and comments: I love how sentimental these posts and comments are, and wish I could be more so myself, but unfortunately, I am Swiss, and treat my brain like an elaborate piece of clockery. Of course, being also Sicilian, I treat my brain like an elaborate piece of clockery that occasionally erupts into disconcerting laughter.

    But, to answer your questions, Chris. I long to forget everything, but I also couldn’t let go of even the most embarrassing or tragic memory, because these memories are more mine than the contours of my face. I do not take photos or keep a journal on account of this seems a way to forget to me. I want the past to exist only in the murky material of my mind.

    (Which isn’t to say, I’ll remember forever. But remembering something again after years of not remembering is one of my favorite experiences. I think of it all as just part of the deadly game of life.)

    Reply

    Kristina said on 06/16/11 at 8:32 pm

    Untrue! I absolutely loved Synecdoche, New York. The problem is with everyone else, not with us.

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/17/11 at 2:38 pm

    I liked Synecdoche, New York, too. It felt long, but I liked it.

    GBoyer said on 06/17/11 at 3:59 pm

    I just loved how dreamlike it was and how it dwelt on the last years of a person’s life in a way I’ve rarely seen, but many have shook their heads in dismay over this film, and it is nice to hear that there are others out there who appreciate it. It’s one of those things I’ve had to defend to others, my appreciation of this fine film.

    Chris Newgent said on 06/17/11 at 8:26 pm

    I keep meaning to see Synedoche and for whatever reason, just haven’t gotten around to it. It needs to be on Netflix Instant. That’s where I consumer pretty much all of my movies these days.

    I’m the same way about journaling and taking photos: I rarely do. My journals consist mostly of quick thoughts I’ve jotted down and lines that pop into my head that I want to work into or start a story/poem/whatever with. They’re not filled with daily happenings or memories, really. Just notes.

  11. Dawn. said on 06/16/11 at 11:49 pm Reply

    Love this post, Chris. Especially the last paragraph. More Than Gone was one of my favorite stories in CTTB. That protagonist stayed with me. That balloon. Oh man. My heart twinges now just thinking about it.

    When I heard about those drugs to help you forget I immediately thought of Eternal Sunshine too. It makes me incredibly uneasy to consider taking something like that, or to consider someone else taking it. Our brains do enough forgetting on their own, IMO. Personally, I wish I could remember more.

    Reply

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/17/11 at 9:08 am

    I agree, Dawn, I wish I could remember more. I feel like I’ve lost so much because of ‘forgetting’ — I have this real sense of loss and erasure of my girlhood that i grieve.

    Thanks for the kind words re “More Than Gone.” The story remains one of my favorite from the collection also.

    Even the idea of ‘drugs to forget’ makes my skin turn cold.

    Chris Newgent said on 06/17/11 at 8:28 pm

    Thanks, Dawn. It’s funny–that last paragraph (the last sentence, mainly) is the most personal and pointed thing in the piece; I thought it might be a bit alienating, but it seems to resonate the most with people.

  12. Ethel Rohan said on 06/17/11 at 4:16 pm Reply

    And the winner of the following books:

    Kim Chinquee’s OH BABY, Flash Fictions & Prose Poems, Ravenna Press

    David Mamet’s, Glengarry Glen Ross, A Play, Grove Press (Winner of the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Drama)

    My just released, Hard to Say (signed), PANK

    IS:

    GBoyer!

    Congratulations. Please email me your address via my contact page at ethelrohan.com and I’ll get your books out to you.

    Cheers.

    Reply

  13. Richard Thomas said on 06/21/11 at 5:13 pm Reply

    Not only do we get a sense of the focus and tone that Ethel brings to her work, but we also get a hint at the magic, the surreal touches that she sprinkles throughout this collection. We are left with the touching sentiment of an old woman refusing to get rid of an armchair, this comfort and presence, but also the image of her falling into the space left by this potential absence, literally, and figuratively. It’s the first haunting image of many to come. Loved this one.

    Reply

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