In her latest interview for The Masters Review, Courtney Harler speaks with Ethel Rohan about winning publishing prizes, emigrating from Ireland, and honoring one’s truest voice on the page. In the Event of Contact, Ethel Rohan’s award-winning short story collection, publishes today.
Congratulations on winning the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Prize! Many of our readers may be submitting to similar contests, or aspiring to do so in the near future. Will you tell us about your experience? Did you (or your agent) submit to multiple short story contests, or have you had your eye focused on Dzanc? If you will, tell us a little about the book’s production process too. (Your blurbs are gorgeous, by the way!) What’s the behind-the-scenes process like, from book prize to book publication?
I submitted In the Event of Contact directly to Dzanc Books for their 2019 annual contest. Previously, I had queried Irish and UK independent publishers—both because big publishers typically prefer novels to short story collections, and because the bulk of my stories are set in Ireland. I received only one request for the full manuscript, from renowned Dublin publisher the Lilliput Press. They passed on it, but their generous feedback and encouragement boosted my belief in the stories and reenergized me for the needed manuscript overhaul.
I then removed a couple of stories from the collection, polished others, and penned three entirely new stories. I submitted to Dzanc, a dream US indie press, and hoped hard—albeit worried that such an Irish-centered collection wouldn’t be a good fit. When I received the phone call telling me I’d won the Prize, I was thrilled. I had simultaneously entered the manuscript for the Juniper Prize and immediately withdrew it from consideration. To those looking to publish, there are many excellent indie and university presses that champion short story collections. Entropy Magazine and Poets & Writers are two sites that offer free and extensive databases of such publishing opportunities.
From book prize to book publication, the two-year journey has been wholly positive (the ongoing global pandemic aside!). Throughout, I worked closely with publisher and editor Michelle Dotter on further story revision, and the cover, blurbs, and marketing plan. This is my fourth full-length book, so I’ve a good understanding of what it takes to put a title into the world, and to reach readers. In short, it’s an enormous effort, and an undertaking that has become increasingly more difficult and demanding.
I’ve always been a hard worker (ever since my first job at 13 in my local hair salon as a shampooist and girl-of-all-trades) but I’ve never worked as diligently as I have these past two years. More than ever, authors are required to be DIY super marketers, and it’s exhausting. I really appreciate how Michelle Dotter allowed me to set my own pace and goals, and how much control she gave me over the entire process. Yet beyond Dzanc the business side of publishing can be a mercenary beast and it’s getting harder to draw wellbeing boundaries, and all too easy to deplete and commodify ourselves. Overall, I worry about the current publishing landscape and the lengths authors now have to take to promote our books. The publishing model as a whole is a brutal taskmaster and something has to give. That something shouldn’t be the author’s financial and personal health.
All that said, the current community support systems in place, particularly among groups of women, trans, and non-binary authors, are extraordinary. I’ve never before felt so much a part of a village of fellow authors who are this wonderfully savvy, enthusiastic, and generous. That type of camaraderie and cheerleading, the endless sharing of resources and opportunities, is vital to sustaining ourselves in this bottom-line driven culture. The connections, even despite the pandemic and being online, are meaningful and energizing. It’s thanks to such outpourings of mutual aid from my fellow authors, especially members of the Writers Grotto, that I received the blurbs, marketing strategies, and advice and encouragement I did. I’m forever grateful, and I will always pay back and forward.
So many of your characters struggle with a sense of (dis)placement or (un)belonging, even in their own skins. In the title story, “In the Event of Contact,” “Ruth claimed she couldn’t stand to be touched, not by anyone, not ever” (5). Ruth’s phobia sets the overall tone for the collection. We see characters who feel compelled to leave “home,” only to then long for all they’ve left behind: “How her face lit up when she realized he was Irish, too” (20), recalls the conflicted narrator in “Into the West.” Loss of one’s place in the world engenders isolation, indecision, and depression. Characters may seek solace with “fellow immigrant[s]” (57), but never quite feel settled again.
Yet, in your collection, the persistent cognitive dissonance of home/not-home is not limited to depictions of the immigrant experience. Even established in their hometowns, individuals feel, well, too individual, too unique to be truly understood. Like many others during the pandemic, I’ve thought a lot about my role in society, my place in the world. Like many of your characters, I left “home” in early adulthood and have since felt somewhat unmoored in the wider world. What drives us to leave is often what drives us to stay: family, friends, safety, security…love? I’ve set up simple dichotomies here, but the actuality is much more complex, as you well know. How did you come to broach these fraught concepts with your characters? I know you grew up in Ireland but immigrated to San Francisco. As writers of fiction, we build upon our experiences but eventually push beyond them into unknown territory. For you, what propels the short stories in this collection, which seem, to me, very much a meditation on boundaries and/or limitations?
Creatives can’t but reveal ourselves in our art. We inherently show what fascinates, obsesses, angers, and enthralls us, especially over a body of work. I don’t enter the work musing on any of my compulsions, or deciding which drive(s) I’ll draw on. Rather, the work organically appears. As you point out, two obsessions that repeat in my writing are displacement and not belonging, “even in our own skin.” Maybe especially in our own skin. One of my tools to escape the trauma of childhood sexual and physical abuse, both during the repeated trespasses and in the decades that followed, was to disassociate. My mind and spirit vacated my numbed, broken body.
But there’s more at the root of my forever feeling unmoored and disconnected. I love your insightful observations on individuals who feel too unique to be truly understood and connected. I’ve always felt that way, but never before considered it to be related to my uniqueness. I considered it a flaw that I needed to fix. It also occurs to me now that perhaps an artist’s lot, our individualism, is by necessity to be outside of things and people, so as to record and bear best witness.
The displacement of emigration in my early twenties both relieved and exacerbated my sense of being asunder and partitioned. Leaving Ireland was a form of escape from my dark experiences and toxic relationships there, and a form of sealing my apartness. As you point out, immigrants typically seek to connect with their compatriots to soothe homesickness, the unfamiliar, the culture clash, and that sense that you and your new place don’t fully click together. In time, most acclimate and settle in. For some of us, there remains a sense of something missing. A fracture that never quite heals.
There are many reasons then for my particular struggle with “home/not home” in literal and figurative terms. In the past decade, and the past few years in particular, I’ve finally succeeded in recovering most of myself—essentially getting back inside my body and grounding myself spiritually—but there’s still a trace of incompleteness. A whisper of some essential part lost. Stolen. It’s that ache that connects me to the stories and characters I create. And you’re absolutely right: stories are acts of discovery, for the writer and the reader. If I didn’t push beyond my experiences and into unknown territory in storytelling, unearthing what I do and don’t know in a myriad of ways, writing would hold none of its magic and wonder.
I can’t help but identify immediately with the “runt of a lad” (63) in the story, “UNWANTED.” The boy lives in his books: “Those dizzying shelves of colorful books never failed to lather my already voracious appetite into a near frothing frenzy” (64). In fact, this character is so steeped in literary worlds, he longs to make fiction fact. A social misfit, he fancies himself a true detective. As I read, I kept thinking of the simple phrase, “books made real,” and that is exactly what we do, as writers, and readers. How did your love of books begin? Do you still admire any particular Irish writers from your youth—the ones who made you want to read, and eventually, to write? Which writers or books or styles fuel your writing best these days?
Ha! This will be a short answer. In many ways, I was that boy in “UNWANTED.” I lived in books. I longed to make fiction fact. I was a misfit. I spent my pittance pocket money on used books, mostly mysteries by Enid Blyton. I don’t know why or when my love of books began. I have no memories of being read to as a child, or of the first book I read. My parents weren’t readers and we weren’t a household with books, aside from the Penguin Classics assigned to us six children by our schools (like Great Expectations, Far From the Madding Crowd, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights).
Once I discovered the extraordinary transportive power of reading, and later writing, I was hooked. I still have a healthy appetite for the classics, and enjoy historical fiction, but my reading tastes are overwhelmingly contemporary. There’s an exhilarating outpouring of brilliant Irish writing right now, especially from women. I read widely, though, and am becoming more eclectic. It’s beyond time to push past the white and heterosexual works and aesthetics that are still held up as the central literary canon. Next on my nightstand’s reading tower is Te-Ping Chen’s short story collection Land of Big Numbers, and I’m salivating.
Readers often ask writers about the “seeds” of their stories, their inspirations. Other writers will say that story ideas are everywhere, but it seems, to me, they mostly originate from within. I also read your absolutely stunning memoir, Out of Dublin, and I did discover “seeds” of these stories in that chapbook. I enjoyed the intertextuality, but I think my question here is less about what is often termed “autofiction” and more about craft, and courage—how the inside world collides with the outside world, much like the two moons in “Collisions” (76). How to reveal yourself in the fiction, so that the fiction feels “real,” as your soft interior meets the exterior? And, how to stand by your stories, as they are yours to tell, and to weather that vulnerability?
Thank you so much for reading Out of Dublin. My stories are seeded in any number of ways, but it’s typically whatever strangeness I encounter that sticks as inspiration. For example, as someone who suffers from anxiety, claustrophobia, and a terror of driving on freeways and unfamiliar routes, I’m fascinated by extreme fears. Add that to my personal history of suffering repeated molestation as a girl and teen; my fixation on haphephobia, the fear of human touch; and the surfacing of a random memory of my mother snickering at her sister for fussing with triangular sandwiches and sprigs of parsley for afternoon tea, and hey presto I find myself writing a tense living room scene and meeting characters and a story that I had no idea existed within me. All of which eventually brought me to what is now the titular story in my collection that you quoted from earlier, “In the Event of Contact.”
When I write I give myself over to the storytelling and my subconscious—whatever channel(s) it is that allows the invisible to take form. I don’t concern myself with where the writing is coming from i.e. whether it’s sourced from experience, emotion, memory, or imagination. I write, and revise, solely intent on serving the story and telling it to the best of my abilities. It’s a singular, liberating state where I feel fearless. Entranced.
I come fully out of that spellbinding haze once the work is published and in the world. Then a certain anxiety sets in, mostly around how the work will be perceived by my nuclear family, but as with claustrophobia I can talk myself through the fear and let it go. Any memoir or autofiction that I write is my getting seen and heard, and telling my truth. It’s never about telling anyone else’s story. They can do that for themselves.
It’s almost funny. I can be frightened by ridiculous things, like mice, and whether a friend might be angry with me, but when it comes to storytelling, I can be fierce. That’s a huge payoff in this solitary, challenging, and sometimes excruciating career. I get to be bigger than myself. Art itself is bigger than its creator. I can only hope that as long as I tell my stories with honesty and compassion I’m karmically protected post-publication from those worst-case fallouts that I fear. If not, so be it. No one will ever again rob me of my voice. My self.
In “Wilde,” you write, “There was a time when there was a world of difference between Ireland and America, but with each passing year, I saw more of the sameness creeping in” (136). In this story, you not only tap into the traditions of culture and literature, but also, the traditions of the self. Your character earlier surmises, “The imperative was to douse my fear of inheritance” (135). How do we break free—from our upbringings, from our families, especially if dysfunctional—without forever feeling broken?
I don’t watch or read horror (did I mention my anxiety and PTSD?) but I’m familiar enough with the genre to know a standard story structure requires the central character(s) to face the monster. Breaking free of our pain, healing from our scars, requires the same faceoff, and is as full of terror, and risks.
In my case, I exhausted myself trying to outrun my demons. I was past empty and breaking down. So afraid that if I faced my wounds, the pain would destroy me. The irony was, I became suicidal. It was the denial of my wounds—the refusal to acknowledge them, and to at least try to heal them—that was killing me. In The Cost of Living Arundhati Roy wrote:
“…To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places…To never look away…To love. To be loved.”
That’s my gospel. That’s how I keep putting myself back together again. That’s how I’ll eventually break free.
| Interviewed by Courtney Harler