Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Q&A with Ethel Rohan



Photo by Justin Yee


Ethel Rohan is the author of the new story collection In the Event of Contact. Her other books include the novel The Weight of Him. Born in Dublin, Ireland, she lives in San Francisco.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in your new collection?


A: The most recent stories in the collection are “Wilde” and “Rare, But Not Impossible.” They were written over the course of a few months. Several of the stories are much older, and most took longer to write.


For example, I started writing “F Is for Something” over a decade ago and worked on it on and off over many years. “Collisions” and “Before Storms Had Names” are also older stories.


In short, I would say the 14 stories are representative of my short story writing over a period of about 12 years. 


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book calls it "a striking collection about loners...Rohan makes the most of situations in which her protagonists grapple with what it feels like to be different and unable to be close with others." What do you think of that description, and how was the book's title (also the title of the first story) chosen?


A: In the Event of Contact is a collection of misfits and the above description aptly alludes to the characters' alienation in these stories, but I admit I didn’t love the overall review.


My measure of a review is if it makes me want to read the book and I’m not sure how many would read this review and be curious, let alone excited, to check out this short story collection. Thankfully, there are other reviews that I think do that.


As for the title of the collection, I named the titular story first and felt its title captured the overall theme of contact--its absence, trespass, and necessity--that is central to every story in the collection. 


Q: Do you usually know how your stories will end, or do you make many changes along the way?


A: I never know how the story will end. In fact I know very little beyond the initial spark that sets each story off. I know many writers do know their ending, and do outline.


In an interview with Caroline Leavitt, John Irving said that before he commits the first sentence to the page, he knows how every one of his novels will end. As for me, I love the mystery and surprise of not knowing.


However, I co-wrote a screenplay with my daughter last year and saw how effective and efficient outlining is. I intend to outline my next novel and am curious and excited to see where it leads and how it changes my process and the work.


Q: The stories are set in Ireland, the U.S., and England. How important is setting to you in your writing?


A: I love to bring place alive in every story, every scene. Place is essentially another character in my writing. It informs and affects everything and in that way it’s critical.


A character’s mood will also affect setting. Someone who’s angry isn’t going to see their surroundings in the same way someone who is frightened will. So characters work on place as much as place works on characters.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have two completed novel manuscripts I would love to find an agent and publisher(s) for. The first is a contemporary story set in the Bay Area where I live, and the second is a historical novel set in Coney Island.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thank you, Deborah, for your interest in and support of my writing. I’m also deeply grateful to the readers and fellow writers who’ve supported me along the way, and particularly for the early enthusiasm for In the Event of Contact. I’m similarly forever grateful to my publisher, Dzanc Books, and my excellent editor, Michelle Dotter.  


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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