Writers Chat 35: Ethel Rohan on “In The Event of Contact” ( Dzanc Books: Michigan, 2021)

Ethel, welcome back to my Writers Chat Series. This time we’re here to discuss your short story collection In The Event of Contact.

ER: I’m delighted to be back, thank you, Shauna. This is my first interview for In the Event of Contact and I’m so grateful for your enthusiastic response.

Cover of “In The Event of Contact” by Ethel Rohan

I’m honoured to learn that this is your first interview about this collection, which won the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Prize and is due to be published in Spring 2021. We’ll therefore skate around plot spoilers as this really is a collection of tight-knit page-turning stories.

SG: The title of this collection and the opening story “In The Event of Contact” place the reader in a liminal space where instinct rules and also confuses. ‘The caged bird knew’ we are told after a series of startling events involving Ruth–who can’t bear any form of touch–her family, and the mysterious and dangerous Mr Doherty. Can you speak a little about this theme of gut and instinct in the collection and why you chose this title.

ER: These are stories of primal fears and urges, and of fight or flight responses. In the title story, menace and danger are intuited by the most attuned of the story’s characters, its narrator Elizabeth and the cockatoo, Jimmy–I’m fascinated by animals’ keen senses and highly intuitive intelligence–while other characters are not so much confused by their gut and instinct but dulled to its messages and guidance.

Our gut and instincts can keep us safe and help us make our best choices, yet too often we under-utilise this capability. I’ve found my body often knows more than my mind. When I need to make major decisions–will I emigrate? Marry? Jump careers? Keep writing?–I tune into my gut for the answers. That involves getting quiet and still and feeling out whether my dread and confusion are coming from my mind or my gut. There’s a calm that settles inside me when I listen to the knowingness of my heart and not the angst of my head.

I have strong memories as a child of intuiting tension and the sinister. I can feel threat and danger in my gut, and remember being perplexed and appalled by how adults often appeared oblivious of the same. I wish my sensitivity and instincts were duller, it makes for a lot of anxiety, but like every curse there’s an element of gift, too, and I don’t think I would be a storyteller, or nearly as empathetic, without that ability to feel deeply and see into people.

As for the title, I worked on the titular short story over years and could never get it quite right until I hit on its final title and then everything else offered itself up. The collection was also created and compiled over many years and again it didn’t come together until I fixed on the title and that gave the stories their beating heart. The title is a twist on our expectations of the familiar phrase: ‘in the event of [my death, fire, other emergency]’ and I love turning the familiar in my stories into the strange and surprising. Once I decided on the collection’s title, I knew what did and didn’t belong in the final manuscript. It’s at the centre of everything, really, isn’t it? What and who do and do not touch us. And how. These are largely stories of crises of consent.

SG: You’ve said it perfectly, Ethel. Crises of Consent. Well, I very much enjoyed how the collection explores connection and disconnection by way of the families we marry into and the countries we move to. Much of what is explored is identity and compartmentalizing – being present in body but not in mind and showing different parts of ourselves to different groups. Was this something that emerged when you gathered these stories into a collection or was it present as you wrote these stories?

ER: In storytelling we’re creating and revealing characters and worlds, but we’re also revealing ourselves, whether we like it or not. I’m guilty of serial compartmentalization–mostly as a daydreamer and sometimes as a coping tool, like I’m physically present but my mind has checked out–and clearly that tendency bleeds into the plots and characters of my stories and was very much present as I wrote each of the stories in this collection.

As an emigrant, I’m also familiar with fracture, that sense of being divided between places and people. That splitness is exacerbated by the pressure to present different versions of myself to meet various expectations (like being Dublin enough, Irish enough, good enough, humble enough, nice enough, smart enough, cool enough, and not too American). Unfortunately, our tendency is to bend ourselves in order to be accepted. Until, that is, we free ourselves of that oppression. So, yeah, these are intrinsic themes that show up repeatedly in my stories. Even before I immigrated to San Francisco, as far back as my earliest memories, I’ve suffered a feeling of never quite fitting in and belonging–always at the edge of things, looking on. So while it’s never my intention as I set out to write–I’m eager to be open to each character’s unique journey–the coerced and marginalized inevitably show up in my stories.

SG: Thank you for such an open and honest answer, Ethel. The collection is also concerned with what is known and what is hidden, and we realise how powerful the unsaid is. Your characters communicate a great deal through what they are silent about. Can you talk a little bit about how dialogue serves to reveal and hide character motivation and narrative truth?

ER:  I love dialogue, and in the past year have at last written a feature script. Something I really have to work on in revision, though, is dialogue that’s too direct. As much as I hate confrontation in real life, I do tend to tell it straight, but that’s the exception rather than the rule and is therefore rarely true of my characters. Subtlety and nuance are much more truthful and powerful in storytelling, anyway, not least because they align with the universal experience of how much is left unsaid, and how much suffering these absences of aired feelings can cause. Despite our singular gift of language, we humans tend to be reticent, uncommunicative, and passive-aggressive–largely because of toxic messaging around being tender and revealing pain. That hiding, that inability to thaw and talk from deep within, causes so much damage, including the cover-up of a multitude of personal and systemic wrongs.

SG: In “Blue Hot” – with its pitch-perfect title – the narrator tells us “Boys are attracted to girls who look like they’re loads of fun, or who seem especially tragic. I’d read that in a glossy magazine. Or maybe I’d heard it on the radio, TV, or bus.” And this troubling message echoes the signals she receives from her family and friends about relationships and physicality, and with dire consequences.

When you’re creating characters, do you find yourself following character archetypes based around the era in which the story is set, or do you base them on what or who you know emotionally?

ER: Typically, I know very little going into each story. I start with some spark that urges me to the page and go word by word from there, filling in the blanks. That spark is always centred around a particular character and my process is to follow the character from scene to scene and see what they reveal about themselves and their world. So, while I don’t think of myself as writing archetypes around era, every character is affected by their who, what, when, where, how, and in particular why. Those internal and external factors colour everything about the character and their perspective. Messaging, particularly early in life, shapes us, and too often misshapes us. A central thread in “Blue Hot” is pervasive patriarchal messaging that devalues women and promotes toxic masculinity.

SG: And you tackle that central thread so well. It truly had a physical impact on me.

Place and space also feature heavily in the collection – in particular Dublin, your hometown – as well as parks. In “Wilde”, the Merrion Square park is used to springboard us into the encounter the narrator has with Oscar Wilde. In the final story in the collection, “The Great Blue Open,” we begin down on the ground in the park and finish with the narrator seeing herself from above. How important was the sense of place – and space – to you as you wrote these stories, and during the editing process with the team at Dzanc Books.

ER: Place and space get back to what shapes us and leaves its mark–imprinting, if you will. Place affects people. Enormously. Particularly our birth place, and those places we call home. As does space. I was just talking with women friends the other day about how I spent decades taking up as little space as possible, be it on buses, planes, in buildings, and on the street. I was always making way for others (particularly men) and giving them the right of way and more than their fair share of space while denying myself the space I needed and which was my due. Now I’m like, Move Over! As for parks, I love trees and woods and open spaces–anywhere with Mother Nature and all her glory. I think if we studied, valued, and emulated her more, this world would be a far better place and we humans would be a far superior and happier race.  

SG: Move over, folks, and welcome Nature. I like it! So let’s finish, Ethel, with some brief questions:

  • What book is on your nightstand now? Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart.
  • I have it on my nightstand too (waiting!) So, mountains or Sea? Sea.
  • Wine or Whiskey? Both.
  • But not together! Do you have a favourite book of 2020? Cleanness by Garth Greenwell.
  • I must look that one up. Finally, what is your one writing wish for 2021? Money.

Ethel, I wish you much success with In The Event of Contact. Thank you for your generous answers and with gratitude to Dzanc Books for providing me with a copy of your stunning collection.  The official publication date for Ireland and the UK is June 3, 2021, and elsewhere May 18, 2021.

Photo Credit: Justin Yee (Photograph also on Ethel Rohan’s website)

Keep up with Ethel by visiting her website.

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