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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.


“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.”


“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: "The Big Top"


I used to tell a lie. It wasn’t a particularly harmful lie. It wasn’t to cover up another lie, or something that I thought would hurt someone or implicate me in some crime or misadventure. It was simply a lie about why I am afraid of clowns. It went like this:

When I was 5 or 6, my mom took my brother and me to the circus, despite my insistence on not going. The circus was a dirty and sad place to me, and I wanted nothing of it. Naturally, a clown, seeing a stubborn and cranky kid, thought he would try to creep a smile on my face. He jumped up to me, his movements comically exaggerated. He crouched low, getting in my face, asking stupid clown questions like, “Why so glum, chum?” in a voice like Disney’s Goofy. Without thinking, I cocked my arm and loaded it right into the clown’s big, bright nose, which let out a screeching honk-honk as the clown toppled to his ass, his scowl made terrifyingly preposterous with his clown makeup.

It’s not even that great of a story. I can usually make it work when hammed up on beer and silly, but seeing it on paper reveals its lack luster. I don’t even know why I started telling that story. I’m not even afraid of clowns.

I don’t trust people who say they’re afraid of clowns. Clowns are one of those things I feel 90% of people say they’re afraid of, but maybe only 20% of people really are, if that. Unnerved seems a better, more honest term for the feeling I get from clowns, but it’s funnier to be afraid of them, to exaggerate the feeling to fear, the irony being that a clown is the very epitome of an exaggeration for comic affect. So to say you’re afraid of clowns when what you really mean is unnerved is to act a clown yourself.

The other irony that exists is that there really aren’t any clowns in Rohan’s story, “The Big Top,” which unfortunately doesn’t appear online for me to link you to, so I’ll just excerpt the intro here:

I spotted the poster in the supermarket window, a large glossy sheet with a bright splash of words and colorful snapshots of the clowns, trapeze artists, and the Big Top. That evening over dinner, I suggested to my husband we’d go.

He sprinkled too much parmesan over his spaghetti. “What would bring us to the circus?”

“What wouldn’t?”

He let the obvious hang in the silence.

We’d never managed to have children.

They appear on a poster in the first sentence, but not after that. Reading is funny, man. There is so much loaded into this story, so much that is not about the lies we invent for ourselves to tell between pints and shots, but my mind latched on to this idea as soon as I read the first sentence, it steel-gripped the theme and wouldn’t let me read the story in any other way. In 5 years, I’ll read this story again and respond to it in a completely different way. Perhaps Britt and I will have decided, however unlikely, that we want kids. Perhaps we’ll have been having a hard time of it, something or other in one of us not functioning properly despite all the wanting.

This is how I respond to reading. I rarely read with what one might call a “critical eye,” at least beyond whether I enjoy what I’m reading. I don’t get much satisfaction looking at a piece of writing and asking, “What does it mean?” as though it were some riddle to be unlocked. I was happy to leave that behind when I graduated from Ball State.

Asking “What does it mean?” is a much different question than “What does it mean to me?” If I was still at BSU responding to this story for my comp class, I would write about the longing of wanting a child and not having one. I would write about the themes apparent, what the color blue means searching for why Ethel chose that color for the monkey, possibly about the crisp sparse language.

But that’s not what it means to me. To me, it means lying, it means finding a void to explain a feeling in my life and creating a simple silly fiction to explain it. It means telling that fiction over and over throughout my life until it becomes a part of my story. It means my friends who might have heard this story reading this blog post and what their reactions might be.

What does this story mean to you? How do you respond to reading–more analytically or more personally responsive? Have I told you this story as though it were true? Are you afraid of clowns?

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  1. Ethel Rohan said on 06/13/11 at 3:03 pm Reply

    I’m decidedly in the ‘What Does this Story Mean to Me,” camp. Reading and writing are and should be subjective. What we each bring to our reading and our writing is unique and hence, thankfully, there’s room for all of us.

    I’m ambivalent about clowns, but tormented and haunted by lies. As a child, I excelled at lies. Lies proved to be a great way to cope with the real, but they’re so damaging to the teller. As an adult, I try to be as honest as I can as often as I can. All too often, it’s hard to be honest. Courage comes to me in waves and ebbs often.

    When my daughters were younger they had such a hunger for stories from my husband and me about our childhoods. While my husband waxed about his boyhood on the farm, our daughters listened rapt. I had a harder time drumming up happy and honest stories to share and so I made up lies to entertain them. Those lies became part of their truth of who I was and what it was like for me as a girl. I mislead them.

    You’re right, the lies we weave, the stories we tell of ourselves, make up out narrative and misconstruct and misrepresent us. They’re damaging. Hence, in part, my fascination in my stories with lies, theft, and the misshapen.

    Thanks, Chris, for another thought-provoking post.

    Often when I type your name, I type ‘Christ.’ 🙂


    Chris Newgent said on 06/14/11 at 8:59 am

    I think I’ve a number of stories that have woven themselves into the overall story of myself. I’m sure that if I had kids, I’d become the father from Big Fish, with my children having no idea what parts of my life are fact or fiction or both.

    I actually have a group of pals who call me X, because in a message board where we all communicate (we’re all spread across the country) my buddy Timothy accidentally typed “Christ” so often, it became a nickname. But, I was kind of uncomfortable with it for obvious reasons, so it morphed into my nickname being X, like in Xmas.

  2. Doug Paul Case said on 06/13/11 at 6:13 pm Reply

    I just reread the story and I think I’m caught up—as I think I was the first time?—in the ending. This narrator seems stubborn and purposeful enough to go after what she wants, as evidenced by her determination to go to the circus even when her desire wanes, and yet she doesn’t press her husband to expand on their connection over the monkey. It’s clear (to me, at least) that she’s interested in adoption, so I don’t understand why she lets it drop with her husband’s quick “freaky.” I think he’s interested too, and it kills me to see them stalled when they both want the same thing but are too…something…to say something.


    Chris Newgent said on 06/14/11 at 9:01 am

    I read that ending as an evidence of sorts that she no longer thinks they connect, that somewhere in their attempts to have a child they lost something between them.

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/14/11 at 10:53 am

    Thanks for taking the time to revisit this story, Doug. The end is about disconnection. This couple has grown increasingly apart and out of love and in those final moments of the story when the husband fails to have any empathy for and connection to the blue monkey and ultimately fails to have any understanding of his wife’s needs and sadness, the wife feels the heartwrench of loss–loss of him, loss of a marriage, loss of the children they will never have together. And I promise you she does get unstuck and act after this story closes.

  3. DK said on 06/13/11 at 6:47 pm Reply

    I’m revising my novel, which is about clowns, this summer, so this is a timely post. It almost annoys me when people say they’re afraid of clowns because a) clowns are really cool from an anthropological perspective, and b) it’s one of those culturally-accepted lies that people tell to make them sound quirky and interesting. Not to say that clown phobias don’t exist, just that my generation isn’t terribly genuine about them.

    Which touches on lying a bit – storytelling has always blossomed from exaggeration of the truth. “Tell all the truth/but let it slant” and all that. People need to tell stories, both to release and absorb information and for the semi-dramatic reenactment of ritual, and also to entertain each other. So it only makes sense that a culture with a huge entertainment industry that has heightened (perhaps unrealistically) our collective understanding of what’s interesting would produce people who lie about themselves in social situations. And it’s only going to continue as modernity embraces the quirky and non-threateningly strange.


    Chris Newgent said on 06/14/11 at 9:05 am

    A phobia of clowns doesn’t really exist? That seems strange considering how many quirky phobias exists.

    What’s the anthropological tidbits about clowns? That sounds like a discussion about clowns I can get behind. While I’ve come out and said in this post that I’m not afraid of clowns, I’m still unnerved by them, and would prefer my life to exist without them around me. But, you just piqued my interest with bullet point A.

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/14/11 at 10:58 am

    Best of luck with your novel, DK. Our fears and phobias are also subjective and very personal. I don’t much care either way about clowns, but see me almost die of fright around a mouse, see my daughter almost go into convulsions around insects, see my oldest daughter turn hysterical at even a HINT of violence or creepiness in movies. There are infinite ways to be afraid.

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/14/11 at 10:59 am

    Ethel, I’ve got a lot in common with you and your girls!

    DK said on 06/14/11 at 2:40 pm

    @Chris: Clown phobias totally exist. I’m just saying people claim it when they don’t really have it, for a myriad of reasons. But yes, clowns are present in a lot of cultures, and they’re often meant to reinforce cultural/social mores through structured displays of grotesque and anti-social behavior, i.e. “see that guy dressed in rags, eating his own poop? Don’t be him.” Zuni culture treats clowns in this way, and traditionally held them in high esteem, almost like priests.

    And, of course, in European culture they were the only people allowed to make fun of nobility. That one’s pretty well-known, but the idea of clowns as living exaggerations of how not to behave isn’t talked about much, which is weird, because we do it all the time; American media both creates and supports those roles in the name of celebrity gossip.

    @Ethel: Thanks! I need all the luck I can get with this thing. And yeah, phobias are really weird, but I think they’re supposed to be. Irrational responses to stimuli and all that.

    Chris Newgent said on 06/14/11 at 3:00 pm

    After I wrote my comment, I went immediately to Wiki to research clowns. I never really knew they were so interesting a subject, but reading about the different histories and roles and characters of clowns–I lost about 30-45 minutes worth of work on that article. That’s kind of fascinating.

  4. GBoyer said on 06/13/11 at 9:05 pm Reply

    I have always had a thing about lying, and that fear that perhaps I am lying unbeknownst to myself. Somehow clowns seem to be tied up in this sort of lie. Not the literal untruth of a grifter making his mark, but the lie of misrepresentation, the lie of an inhuman face painted on a very human subject. Thank you for the post, Chris. I thoroughly enjoyed it.


    Chris Newgent said on 06/14/11 at 9:06 am

    “…the lie of an inhuman face painted on a very human subject.”

    I love this? Are you a writer? If you are, you need to use this somewhere.

    Chris Newgent said on 06/14/11 at 9:07 am

    Did some link clickery, and found you are a writer, and yes, you need to use this line somewhere.

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/14/11 at 11:03 am

    GBoyer, I share that exact same illogical and constant fear–that I’m going to be caught out in some terrible falsity of which I’m not even aware of and will be uncovered. The fear of falsity populates my nightmares and my daymares.

    Yes I also love what you’ve written about the painted masks on clowns and the lie of misrepresentation. For me, the terror around falsity, that I’m misrepresenting myself and am at heart a cheat, comes from a sense of unworthiness. That’s something I’m hard at work on healing from.

    GBoyer said on 06/14/11 at 4:49 pm

    That is exactly it. This sense of unworthiness. Children starving in the periphery while you go about your daily life sort of thing? Or could it just be a more mysterious feeling, like something within you is being cheated from being itself? Not sure. A combination? Like that the deepest portions of ourselves are those we discover when helping others? I need to step back from this before I become overtly mystical.

    And Chris, I think I will use that line somewhere. Right now in fact in what I’m working on this very moment.

    GBoyer said on 06/14/11 at 5:00 pm

    I tried it. Didn’t work. Honestly that line only works with clowns. Outside of clowns it just feels wrong to me. If you want to use it in a clown story, you go right ahead. I don’t write about clowns.

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/14/11 at 5:05 pm

    It does only work with clowns. But tell me, would you never write about commedia dell’arte? I’ve wanted to, off and on, for years.

    GBoyer said on 06/14/11 at 5:30 pm

    I have honestly never thought of doing this, Molly. But I like the challenge. I was just thinking of using the line to describe a character’s extreme use of cosmetics. You should do it. Makes me think of The Magus by John Fowles for some reason. A book I tried to read long ago, and just remember as being too creepy for my young mind to handle.

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/14/11 at 5:39 pm

    I think you should consider yourself challenged!

  5. Richard Thomas said on 06/13/11 at 11:19 pm Reply

    I loved this story. The whole circus atmosphere has that eternally sad, and yet, hopeful environment. Dreams one minute, nightmares the next.


    Ethel Rohan said on 06/14/11 at 11:05 am

    You’re so right, Richard, regarding the duality of the circus and the circus experience. I think the circus captures our imagination so because it both entertains and troubles us–it’s inherently problematic, rife with contradictions and dilemmas, and is a microcosm of life.

  6. Jordan Blum said on 06/14/11 at 1:53 pm Reply

    No, I’m not afraid of clowns. They annoy me, but they don’t scare me. The only time a clown ever scared me was when I was 5 years old and my mother, using her best parental judgment, showed me “Poltergeist.” Actually, that damn clown doll under the bed would probably still creep me out all these years later.

    What I respond to more than the clown idea with this post is the idea of critical reading vs “my” reading. I HATE over-analysis, discussing unrelated lenses of reading, and trying to [mis]interpret what the author meant. I love “The Great Gatsby,” and I enjoy discussing it with friends and classmates; however, I totally reject the idea of writing a feminist, psychoanalytic, or Marxist interpretation. It’s a waste of time to me. I suppose my real objection to it is that ANY and EVERY interpretation is merely opinion, yet professors act as if it’s fact. I had to finally read “Moby Dick” back in February for class. We discussed what we thought of it and what it meant, and that was interesting because it was a bunch of writers sharing our interpretations as opinions. That was fun. However, reading about how “Dr. _____ sees Ahab’s leg as male castration” is a waste of my time because it’s not fact and it’s screams “look at me. I’m smart! I’ve come up with this wild view that you should all read!”

    I know, I just went on a rant. I’m sorry. I think I’m so passionate about this because I know it’s expected of me if I want to be a professor. I love writing, reading, and talking about both. I would love sharing thoughts and techniques with students and engaging in an open, fun forum for discussion However, I do not want to be an academic.


    Molly Gaudry said on 06/14/11 at 1:59 pm

    Just a word of warning here — I think, if you want to become a professor, you’re potentially damaging your chances by publicly voicing opinions like these. You’re only a Google-search away from not getting a job, you know? Especially when the next candidate over is willing to talk theory, and at length.

    The thing is — you do not have to bring theory into your classroom, especially if you’re a creative writing instructor, but you should at least be open to discussions about it, particularly if any of your students want guidance in those areas.

  7. Jordan Blum said on 06/14/11 at 5:25 pm Reply

    I’m willing to discuss theory if it’s part of the curriculum. I just personally don’t like it. I’ve spoken to several professors who share this view; they’re simply following the syllabus and adhering to the norm in order to be able to teach what they want.


  8. Ethel Rohan said on 06/15/11 at 7:47 pm Reply

    And the winner of the following books:

    Norman Lock’s Grim Tales, mud luscious press

    Marcy Dermansky’s novel, Bad Marie, Harper Perennial

    My Hard to Say, PANK (signed).


    Jordan Blum!

    Congratulations, Jordan. Please visit my contacts page at ethelrohan.com and leave your address. I’ll get your books out to you soonest. Thanks so much for your many contributions to the various discussion threads here.



    Jordan Blum said on 06/15/11 at 10:28 pm


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