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Flash Interview: Ethel Rohan Cuts Through the Bone

Ethel Rohan.jpgEthel Rohan now lives in San Fran­cisco. Her most recent work has appeared in Guer­nica, Fringe and 971 MENU. Her story col­lec­tion, Cut Through the Bone, is forth­com­ing from Dark Sky Books in Decem­ber. A sec­ond story col­lec­tion, Hard to Say, is forth­com­ing from PANK in Spring, 2011.

How did you go about arrang­ing the sto­ries in your col­lec­tion Cut Through the Bone (which comes out in Decem­ber)? Are they grouped in any cer­tain order? Are they grouped the­mat­i­cally?

I really strug­gled with the story order in Cut Through the Bone and rearranged the thirty sto­ries over and over. Ini­tially, I attempted to order the work the­mat­i­cally: loss, dis­place­ment, cou­ples, moth­ers, fam­ily, and more. Then I looked at story place­ment with regard to point of view and tried to vary first and third per­son sto­ries and to space out the few sto­ries in the col­lec­tion told from the male per­spec­tive. Next I looked at story length and again tried to bal­ance short short sto­ries with shorter shorter sto­ries. Ulti­mately, I believe I grouped the sto­ries emo­tion­ally. I reordered and reordered until the sto­ries felt right, until they flowed and fin­ished on just the right chords. 

My sec­ond story col­lec­tion, Hard to Say, which comes out in Spring 2011 from PANK, con­tains four­teen linked sto­ries that are ordered chrono­log­i­cally.

How has being born and raised in Dublin influ­enced your work? And how has leav­ing Ire­land influ­enced your work?

I love that I was born and raised in Dublin. My Irish-ness, my Dublin-ness is my essence. I wouldn’t be me with­out it. That Irish essence is present in every word I write, every story I tell, albeit for the most part sub­vert. The Irish cul­ture and her­itage is ridicu­lously rich in his­tory, music, art, lit­er­a­ture, tra­di­tion, folk­lore and on and on. I revel in all of it. That said, San Fran­cisco is home now. I have grown to love this city and my life here. 

As for your sec­ond ques­tion, at the risk of sound­ing melo­dra­matic, I think I escaped Ire­land more than left it. Per­haps it’s more accu­rate to say that I escaped my cir­cum­stances in Dublin. I have no doubt that if I remained in Dublin I would not have fared well men­tally or phys­i­cally. At the time I emi­grated from Dublin to San Fran­cisco I felt both trapped by my men­tally ill mother and an abu­sive boyfriend and, sad to say, needed to put an ocean between us so I wouldn’t keep going back to both for more. 

What’s your revi­sion process like? Are you a part of a writ­ers net­work or do you revise on your own?

I’m a dis­ci­ple of “sto­ries aren’t writ­ten they’re rewrit­ten.” For years, I toiled to that creed. I wrote slowly and care­fully and spent a decade rewrit­ing two novel man­u­scripts, a story col­lec­tion man­u­script, and myr­iad sto­ries and drafts over and over, pol­ish­ing every word. Despite all my work and revi­sion, I received rejec­tion after rejec­tion.

About two years ago, I attended a brunch with sev­eral of my fel­low class­mates from Mills Col­lege. Many, like Tan­ita Davis and Tara Weaver, were abuzz with their pub­lish­ing suc­cesses and talk of blogs, Face­book and Twit­ter. I felt clue­less about such plat­forms and net­work­ing tools. That very after­noon, I cre­ated my own blog. Face­book and Twit­ter didn’t suck me in until much more recently. Almost imme­di­ately out of the blog, I made new con­tacts, and ulti­mately new friends. I dis­cov­ered a fan­tas­tic, vibrant online com­mu­nity and pub­lish­ing world. I fell in love with so many writ­ers’ works and online lit­er­ary mag­a­zi­nes. Online mag­a­zi­nes that finally accepted my work. After almost a decade of dis­ap­point­ment and rejec­tion, I was finally receiv­ing accep­tances and oth­ers were finally read­ing my pub­lished sto­ries.

I quickly got caught up in the fast accep­tances and fast pub­li­ca­tion of my work. I started to write fast, too, and didn’t let the sto­ries sit and cool, didn’t revise and rewrite them nearly as dili­gently as I should have. I rushed the work, rushed to sub­mit, and rushed to pub­li­ca­tion. I’m a lot calmer and more dis­ci­plined now. I’ve learned to set the work aside, sit on it awhile and let some time pass before I revisit, rewrite, and revise. My work ethic is much stronger and health­ier now, and I believe my sto­ries are also much stronger. Every once in a while, I admit, I write a new story and am so excited by it and so hun­gry to place it some­where “great” that I relapse and send it out too soon. Thank­fully, these days that’s the excep­tion more than the rule. 

For the most part, I revise on my own. That said, I’m blessed to be part of an excel­lent online writ­ing group, Verve. We read and cri­tique each oth­ers’ work and the insight­ful feed­back I’ve received from those excel­lent writ­ers has proved instruc­tive and invalu­able, not just for each indi­vid­ual story, but for my work as a whole. 

About a year ago, I sub­mit­ted a short short story to Word Riot. Within hours, Kevin O’Cuinn rejected the story and returned it to me cov­ered in com­ments that included “boo” and “hiss.” That rejec­tion and his com­ments were a God-send. He broke the bad spell and “cured” me of rush­ing my work. He brought home to me what I’d known all along “sto­ries aren’t writ­ten they’re rewrit­ten.” When I com­pleted the “final” man­u­script for Cut Through the Bone, I con­tacted Kevin and asked if he’d be will­ing to look at it. He kindly agreed to do so and again it was a case where not only did my story col­lec­tion ben­e­fit from his excel­lent feed­back, but my work as a whole has ben­e­fit­ted.

It’s all a jour­ney and I’m a forever stu­dent. The great bless­ing out of my “rush­ing” my work is that I broke out of the prison of pol­ish­ing every word as I went. I’m much freer as a writer now. I rush all my first drafts. Just go, go, go and let what­ever comes out onto the page come out. Then I wait until much later in the revi­sion process to pol­ish word by word. I’m so much prouder and sat­is­fied now by the sto­ries that come to light. 

You men­tion the lovely Tina Fey and 30 Rock in a cou­ple sto­ries. Do you find inspi­ra­tion from any other unlikely places?

I rarely watch TV. I quit in 1998. That was the year I also quit my job to return to school and dis­cov­ered I was preg­nant with our first daugh­ter. I couldn’t afford to go to col­lege in Ire­land and had always wanted my BA. By 1998 I’d reached a point in my life where I gave myself per­mis­sion to real­ize that goal. I started Mills Col­lege preg­nant with our first daugh­ter and grad­u­ated four years later heav­ily preg­nant with our sec­ond daugh­ter. She was born ten days later on May 22nd. Three months after her arrival, I entered Mills College’s two year MFA pro­gram in fic­tion. Through­out those six years of col­lege, I attempted to be Super Mom and Super Stu­dent. Some­thing had to give. TV and pieces of my san­ity gave. 

What I’ve seen of Tina Fey, though, I love. She seems dynamic, and intel­li­gent and funny and savvy. I bet she’s fierce, too, and can arm-wrestle and remove a beer cap with her teeth. I sus­pect, like the best of us, she’s also soft and gen­tle in all the right places. 

Hon­estly, it’s the small things that inspire me most. I read a lot and the excel­lence of oth­ers’ work, more than its con­tents, inspires me to always strive to do bet­ter. It’s every­day­ness that dri­ves me to the page time after time. The over­heard dia­logue on the bus or some story or fact(s) my daugh­ters take home from school can prompt a story. It’s mem­o­ries, too, and the things I over­see in the store or on the street or in a restau­rant. It’s the con­ver­sa­tion that comes up when friends come over. It’s a smell some­times, an emo­tion, a pang, a pain (lit­eral and fig­u­ra­tive). I think my best work, though, comes from a source or sources I can’t account for or fathom. I truly believe that artists invoke an energy, a power, that can’t be quan­ti­fied or qual­i­fied. How great is that. How lucky are we. 

There are some amaz­ing sce­nar­ios in your flash pieces. “Next to the Gut­ter” (where a son and his mother use post-its to com­mu­ni­cate) and “Safe Sur­ren­der Site” (where a baby is left at a fire sta­tion) just to name a cou­ple. Is there any­thing that you do to gen­er­ate these great ideas?

I’m also a dis­ci­ple of “be inter­est­ing.” My imag­i­na­tion is one of my best friends and makes for great com­pany. I think “Next to the Gut­ter” came from a prompt from the fine folks at Zoetrope’s Vir­tual Studio’s Flash Fac­tory. “Safe Sur­ren­der Site” was sparked while I was out walk­ing one day. I passed a fire sta­tion and the “Safe Sur­ren­der Site” sign struck me in a pro­found way. I rushed back home to write. Invis­i­bil­ity, aban­don­ment, and lack of con­nec­tion are com­mon themes in my work. Although I never set out to write about such things, it seems my pre­oc­cu­pa­tions and obses­sions always get their say. I’ve spo­ken else­where about the thrill I feel when, on fin­ish­ing a story, I’m a lit­tle stunned by where it came from. Such won­der, magic, and sat­is­fac­tion are, for me, the ulti­mate rewards of writ­ing.

Your sto­ries have an authen­tic­ity that made me con­tem­plate them long after I’ve fin­ished them. What do you think gives your work this qual­ity?

Thank you, Gar­ret. My high­est hopes for my sto­ries are that they read as authen­tic and stay with the reader. I don’t quite know how to account for this qual­ity. Again it’s not some­thing I set out to do con­sciously as such. When I write I’m immersed in the char­ac­ters, in telling their story as best and as truth­fully as I can. I’m not think­ing about any­thing else. I’m work­ing out of some deep part of me that resides more in my chest, stom­ach and knees than my brain. A story feels fin­ished to me when it rings most true, when there’s an emo­tional res­o­nance that vibrates just “right.“

What do you look for in the flash fic­tion that you read of oth­ers’ work?

As we’d say in Ire­land, “not to give you a short answer” but every­thing I’ve dis­cussed here about the craft­ing of, and my high hopes for, my own sto­ries are also what I seek out and most admire in oth­ers’ work. 

About the Author

CIMG5084_edited.JPGGar­ret Gau­dens is an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing (Fic­tion) can­di­date at Rose­mont Col­lege. He enjoys play­writ­ing and is cur­rently nur­tur­ing a love affair with flash fic­tion.

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From Janel

Great inter­view! I really loved the glimpse at Ethel’s revi­sion process. Find­ing the sweet spot between rush­ing to sub­mit a story and revis­ing it to death is a con­stant bat­tle.

From Dawn.

That was a really inter­est­ing inter­view. Thank you Ethel and Gar­ret!

From tanita

It’s so funny to think that one brunch with Ethel was a turn­ing point for her — I never real­ized that. There’s a clar­ity and a qual­ity to her sto­ries that’s like a fine, aged wine — full of smoke and fla­vor and sur­prises. I’m so glad she’s get­ting her work out there.

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