Flash Fiction: for writers, readers, editors, publishers, & fans


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.

Flash Fiction Symbol

For further reading, check out FlashFiction.Net's suggested readings of flash fiction and prose poetry collections, anthologies, and craft books, by clicking here.

Subscribe to FlashFiction.Net by Email


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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *