A Conversation with Ethel Rohan
Ethel Rohan’s debut novel, The Weight of Him, was named an Amazon Best Book of the month. Rohan is also the author of three story collections, Goodnight Nobody (long-listed for The Edge Hill Prize), Cut Through the Bone (long-listed for The Story Prize) and Hard to Say, as well as an e-memoir, Out of Dublin. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, World Literature Today, PEN America, BREVITY Magazine, Guernica Magazine, and many other publications. A member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, Rohan has an MFA from Mills College. She was raised in Dublin, Ireland, and now lives in San Francisco with her husband and two daughters. In a conversation with Lisa L. Lewis, Rohan describes her journey as a writer, the importance of community, and why she’s stopped keeping family secrets.
Lisa L. Lewis: You’ve shared that The Weight of Him was inspired by a conversation you overheard: two women in a pub in Ireland talking about an obese woman whose brother had recently committed suicide. The specific phrase that stayed with you was, “The grief might just kill her before her weight does, but either way, she won’t be long for this world.” Can you elaborate?
Ethel Rohan: That snatch of conversation I overheard was 20 years ago, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I couldn’t get beyond the questions, “What if neither happens? What if her grief and weight lead her to do something remarkable?”
For me, story is always about character, and I started thinking about the character as a man. The name came to me that night was Big Billy Brennan. Once it became about Billy, the actual catalyst receded.
LLL: Along those lines, many of your previous protagonists have been women, and you’re the mother of two teenage daughters. What was it like for you to write from a male point of view and, specifically, from a father’s perspective?
ER: As writers, we can resist all we want, but whatever’s going to bubble up is going to bubble up. There is a part of myself – and my wounds – that I find in my stories. I’m very much trying to recover from my own relationship with my mother, and that trope, that pain, keeps coming up again and again. With this story, I intentionally resisted. I thought: “I do not want this to be another story about me and my mother.”
Also, I’m equally fixated on my relationship with my father. I think this idea of a father being somewhat distant and having to be strong is universal. In thinking about my own father, I know that I loved him and he loved me and my siblings, but, at the same time, there was a distance. He was emotionally absent, and I really wanted to explore that: What is a father’s love? What does that look like? My own dad’s love was messy and imperfect, and, yet, I know he loved me.
LLL: A strong theme of loss runs through your writing, and you’ve written quite a bit about issues related to the body, as well. You’ve also been forthcoming in revealing how much of your own past is present in your stories: After your second story collection, you even created a chart showing the percentage of each story’s elements that are autobiographical. At the time, were you conscious of how much of your own life was reflected in your stories? To what extent did telling these stories help release their hold on you?
ER: Earlier, I think, if anything, I resisted all of that. In an ideal world, I would love to be like Elena Ferrante and let my work stand alone, to fly or fall as it will, but it’s really difficult because of the demands of the industry and readers’ curiosity. I’d been asked and had a choice to make.
I think I’ve become a stronger person as I’ve recovered in my own journey. Both of my parents passed away in 2013, which brought grief, but also a strange freedom. I kept so many secrets for so many years around my abuse, my mother’s mental illness, and my own body shame. I’m just at a point in my life where I’m ready to cast all that off. The writing and the stories have refused to be silenced.
I hope that my being more public and more honest can help others or just give them that sense which reading has allowed me to feel, and that is that I am not alone.
LLL: Although The Weight of Him is your debut novel, you’ve previously published three acclaimed story collections of flash fiction. What made you gravitate toward the novel form?
ER: It took so long to go from that seed of a snatched conversation to the novel! Originally it was a short story called “Seconds.” I sent it at one point to the Davy Byrnes Short Story Award competition, where it was long-listed by Richard Ford. I kept sending it out and occasionally got some nice rejection notes, and I was really frustrated and confused about why it wasn’t working. Then I joined this great writers’ group, and, straightaway, one of the members pointed out that it was too big for the form and that it was actually a novel.
It took me about five years from that point to finish it, due in large part to fear. I didn’t pick easy themes or an easy story to tell. I thought, as a woman, can I write a male protagonist? And I’ve never lost a child or been obese. Even so, I understood to some degree and could honestly portray this character and his family. I had to keep pouring what I knew to be true about the body and body shame and understanding loss into the novel.
LLL: Your story collections and e-memoir were all published during the time frame when you were writing your novel. What was it like to shift between flash fiction, memoir, and the novel, and how did the novel evolve as part of this?
ER: There is this perception that you write short-shorts and then you “advance” to the short story and then “advance” to the novel, but I don’t agree with that. It’s not that simple. I came to the short-short form the long way. I’d written short stories and a novel and then started reading short-shorts, or flash fiction. I found that I loved the brevity; short-shorts are very often brutally beautiful. You have a small space to make an impact.
The short-shorts were the first writing of mine that really gained momentum, so, for me, they were a springboard. But I would be loath to give any credence to the fact that you start there and then progress to a novel.
I already had two novel manuscripts in a drawer, so I knew I could do it. The danger, and I was guilty of it, was not finishing work. When we lose momentum it can be great to shift to something else, to recalibrate and bring new energy to new work. For me, it’s so easy to start a project! My imagination is fertile. We all know that excitement, that spark – the challenge is sustaining it and making it something worth sharing with readers.
LLL: In the acknowledgments section of your novel, you thank several writers who “reached back and offered a hand,” which is a wonderful testament to the importance of community. Can you elaborate on your own experiences?
ER: Community is so important! My intention has always been to be a good literary citizen and support my fellow writers. I think it’s karmic: be a good person, show up for others, and be interested in other people’s work. I’ve found that if you put that out there, it’s returned. With every reading I’ve gone to and every interview I’ve done, it’s led to something else, and I’ve been very grateful. Just a couple of weeks ago, I got a call from another author asking me to fill in as an interviewer at City Lights. From that, I got an email inviting me to an author gala because the program director was in the audience that night.
LLL: What advice would you offer to emerging writers?
ER: Go to readings, and have the courage to go up afterwards and say hi. It can be terrifying and awkward and weird, but show up and be engaged in the moment. Look at authors you admire and find out who their agent is and what else they’re doing besides the book. Where are they publishing their personal essays? What blogs are they on? What interviews have they done? Try to replicate that for your own career. Often another writer’s journey has rich information for those not there yet.
LLL: Your earlier publishing experiences have been with small, independent presses and an e-publisher. How has your current experience been different?
ER: One major difference for me is that I had less control. With the independent presses, there’s often little to no editing, but I had more control on font, cover, layout, and who would get the galleys. But St. Martin’s Press has a finely tuned machine that works well. I feel like I’m in really good hands.
LLL: What are you working on now?
ER: I’m about halfway through a third draft on a historical novel set in the 1930s. It has a female protagonist who’s 19 when the novel opens. She starts in Ireland, and she’s sold into servitude and heads to New York, and the rest of the novel is set in America.
LLL: Do you see yourself continuing to write flash fiction?
ER: For quite some time, flash fiction is what emerged when I put pen to paper, but it’s been a while since a flash story has come calling. The stories that have been pulling me now are longer. I’m going deeper with the characters, and they’re asking more of me.