The opening title of San Francisco-based author Ethel Rohan’s new collection of short stories, “In the Event of Contact” (Dzanc Books, $ 16.95, 180 pages), revolves around identical Irish triplets, one of whom can’t stand anyone to be touched other person. One of her sisters seething with jealousy and resentment when she sees someone she believes is an intruder who can break through this barrier.
In “F Is For Something” a Catholic priest with a weak memory and a mysterious flaw in his past tries to outmaneuver his over-controlling housekeeper and deal with a dreaded impending encounter with his lead bishop.
In this remarkable anthology, the third by Rohan, who is also the author of the well-received 2017 novel “The Weight of Him,” we meet other commonplace people who are somehow wandering around or looking for a solution or connection.
These nifty, character-driven stories are delivered in a prose that is sparse but sharp, steely, and interspersed with eerily apt images that are occasionally registered with delicious little recognition shocks for the reader. None of the 14 stories contain a banal phrase or a wasted word, none of them are longer than 18 pages. However, you shouldn’t dip into several at the same time, but allow yourself enough time to let each one marinate.
Rohan, born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, immigrated to San Francisco at the age of 22 and now lives with her husband and two daughters in the West Portal district. She recently took the time to answer a few questions about her craft.
These stories all contain Irish or Irish-American characters. Is there anything about the Irish personality or experience that draws you as a protagonist?
Rohan: This collection of short stories, my fourth full-length book, continues a certain pattern of fixations in my storytelling, with Ireland and its people remaining at the center. I am most shaped and fixed by my beginnings and the crucial experiences of my early years. That tends to be true across the board. I also remain close to Ireland and to my family and friends there. I return every year, sometimes for a long time. This rugged island and its extraordinary people are ingrained in me, and it is not surprising that my writing reflects that.
How did you come up with the title and would you argue that it is a unifying theme for the entire book?
Rohan: Yeah. The unifying theme for the entire book is the absence and violation of contacts – be it phobia, loneliness, isolation, emigration, missing persons, being run over by a truck or physical abuse. The collection focuses on characters who, in one way or another, experience border crossings, and is evidence of how they respond to these various breaks.
Many of these stories have clever, abrupt endings that involve sudden revelations. Is that something that we can call your style hallmark?
Rohan: My style is to get on and off as quickly as possible and only stay in the story for as long as is absolutely necessary and not a word longer. Story endings are extremely difficult, and this is especially true of the short story, because of course there is much less room to work and no room for missteps. I am not thinking of character enlightenments, but of moments of grace, i.e. those external and internal influences that have an impact on the character in the course of the story and that culminate in even the smallest shift in the protagonist and his world, but absolutely necessary. Otherwise the story is not a story to my liking.
You seem to be an expert exponent of the perfectly fitting simile, which is used here much more generously than a darker metaphor! Do these come to you easily or are you constantly tinkering with getting just the right thing with the right tone?
Rohan: It’s a mix of both. When the gods are benevolent, prose and imagery can flow, and at other times reaching a specific, nuanced, and evocative language can be like releasing a splinter buried deep under your skin. However, I’m not satisfied until I can at least sprinkle the prose, every scene, with the stuff that shines.
How extensively do you work yourself, and what are you most likely to throw overboard when you consider it a second time, if at all?
Rohan: I’m a serial reviewer. Beginnings and ends in early drafts are most often murdered, as are flowery and imprecise prose. In early drafts, the engines get warmed up a lot and driven past the finish line, letting everything in and crapping the writing. When it comes to revising, the responsibility rests with me to be ruthless – what remains can only be what best serves the story. It is the rewriting, not the writing, that leads us to our best work.
I don’t dare ask if you have a favorite, but what story did you sweat about the most and why?
Rohan: Hmm. A lot of sweat was lost in the manufacture of this collection. You were referring to “F is for Something,” a story that took me a year to make. I was annoyed in previous drafts by a dismissive interior critic who told me I would lose readers once they realized the protagonist was an elderly Catholic priest with dementia and that I should give up the story and invest elsewhere. But I loved the characters, the location, and the premise of the story, and none of that left me alone. I’m so glad I persevered and the story is now being published as part of this collection.
How could an individual story sprout in your head? Please explain!
Rohan: I’m most interested in character and relationships – and especially relationship tensions and missed connections, I’m also interested in places. So the sparks for my stories are more of a character in a certain place and in a moment of disruption. I then let go of the characters to do, think and say for multiple scenes as I figure out how and why they became what they are when we meet them. I often interview my characters mentally or on the side and ask what shaped their lives (wrongly) and why I am now entering their world. What is your story that I have to tell the most? What to lose and what to win and why is it important? Why should we care?
What’s next on the agenda for Ethel Rohan, the author?
Rohan: I have two completed novel manuscripts that I would like to see published. One of them is historical fiction that takes place in New York City, particularly in vaudeville and on Coney Island. The other is contemporary fiction set in the Bay Area (Half Moon Bay). Both novels continue my fascination with disruption as a catalyst and wounded characters wavering on the edges of things, places, people and themselves.
Upcoming virtual authoring events
7 pm June 7th: Ethel Rohan, Yang Huang and Adrian Ernesto Cepeda for the “Odd Monday Reading Series” on Zoom via Folio Books in San Francisco. RSVP required for login link: https://www.yanghuang.com/events/2021/5/13/odd-monday-reading-series
2 p.m. June 27: Ethel Rohan, Jenny Bitner and Maw Shein Win, in a virtual conversation hosted by Alibi Bookshop in virtual. RSVP required for login link: [email protected]
3 p.m. June 30: Ethel Rohan and Jeannine Ouellette via Zoom, hosted by the Maryland Writers Center in Bethesda, Maryland. RSVP required for login link: https://www.writer.org/event/rohan-ouellette
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Copyright © 2021 Bay City News, Inc. Publication, distribution, or other reuse is prohibited without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc.