As a female reader, I find your short stories intimately rewarding because of a dual ferocity of vulnerability and strength that comes across in many of your main characters. Discussing your short story, “Gone” (published here on The Fertile Source) in a recent Lit Pub dialogue (view full conversation here), you write, “I’ve never had cancer or a mastectomy or hysterectomy — so why would I tell this story? Once I realized I was telling this story because I “knew” the body butchered of its sexuality, I became convinced this was a story personally worth telling.” Can you talk more about your writing process—specifically, taking on the storyline of something you haven’t directly experienced, but certainly had enough parallel experience to ignite your writer’s will to formulate the finished story (as was the case with “Gone”)?
What a great question, thank you. I’m so glad you see both the vulnerability and strength of my main characters. My stories want to be about women who struggle and suffer. It’s an honor and privilege to give such women a voice and center-stage. Victims and survivors deserve to have their stories told. Unfortunately, there’s a pervasive sense that stories around women’s struggles and suffering are done to death and are irrelevant. I couldn’t disagree more. The challenge is to tell women’s stories in new and compelling ways so that readers cannot look away. The impulse to look away from suffering and the disturbing in life and in literature frustrates me. If we keep looking away, how can we ever hope to alleviate suffering, end abuse, persecution, and inequalities, and bring about positive change.
Frankly, I try not to over-think my process. My stories are always character-driven and can be ignited by even the tiniest of phrases or observations. I’ll overhear a conversation on the bus or see something on the street and for reasons both known and unknown the words or image stay and give birth to another story. I don’t plot or plan my stories, ever, and I’m always so surprised and grateful to arrive at the finished work—something out of nothing, if you will.
I no longer concern myself with worries regarding what stories I can or can’t tell. If I find a character and his or her story compelling I trust that sense of purpose and meaning and write down the words. Many of my stories, my earlier stories in particular, have male protagonists. This is also true of the novel manuscript I just finished. I think such writing impulses are for me an attempt, above all else, to better understand the opposite gender. As strange as it might sound, I also think my fascination with male protagonists ties into my devotion to women’s issues. I read and write fiction to know myself and others ever better and in that greater understanding of, and empathy for, what it is to be woman, man, and humankind lies the potential to end suffering.
Along equally ferocious and illuminating leylines, your work dials deep into the heart of male/female relationships. Where do you see your writer’s obsessions/interests in this area, and which of the stories you’ve written surprised you the most (for where they arrived)? Any areas of that relationship (male/female) you see drawing your interest in the future?
My parents’ marriage is the male/female relationship that has had the most profound affect on me, that and a five-year relationship with an abusive boyfriend. Thus far, my writing obsessions around male/female relationships center on bad marriages and domestic realism. My attempts at telling stories around abusive relationships have thus far been unsuccessful. I don’t seem to have the perspective yet to tell these stories well, but I will someday. Again, every story surprises me for where it arrives. I’m constantly amazed by the stories that come out of me and ever eager to know what other stories I have inside me waiting to get out.
Can you talk to us about The Good Men Project , how you became involved with them, and how you see your work in the context of their mission ?
Matt Salesses is the fiction editor of The Good Men Project Magazine. Matt and I have a couple of things in common: We’re both winners of PANK’s 2010 Little Books contest and both have the same literary agent, Terra Chalberg. Matt was kind enough to blurb my PANK Little Book, Hard to Say, and thereafter invited me to submit a story for The Good Men Project. Matt rejected the first story I submitted saying, “I miss the rawness of the stories in Hard to Say.” The second story I submitted, Matt cut much of the writing and murdered many of my ‘darlings.’ The story is better for his editing though and I’m deeply grateful. As a writer, I’m a forever student.
I’ve read and enjoyed many of the articles and stories in The Good Men Project Magazine since its inception and love the writers and work it publishes. I’m honored to contribute to the magazine and look forward to my story, “Out of the Wreckage,” which is now live on the site: http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/out-of-the-wreckage/.
This excerpt is taken direct from The Good Men Project site and gives a good sense of who and what they are:
“Recognizing changing roles in work and family life—and the absence of thoughtful media aimed at men—the Good Men Project Magazine set out to revolutionize what a men’s magazine can be. When we launched in June 2010 the response was immediate: “The Good Men Project Magazine will make you rethink the idea of a men’s magazine,” the press raved. Finally, “a cerebral, new media alternative” to glossy men’s magazines was born, offering a glimpse of “what enlightened masculinity might look like in the 21st century.”
The Good Men Project began in 2009 as an anthology and documentary film featuring men’s stories about the defining moments in their lives. The goal was to foster a much-needed cultural conversation about manhood, and to support organizations that help at-risk boys. The Good Men Project has since grown into a thriving cross-platform media company, with the Good Men Project Magazine as its flagship and online hub.”
You can read more about The Good Men Project here.
Because we love to explore the topics of fertility, birth and pregnancy here at The Fertile Source, I wondered if you could talk to us about your relationship to writing before motherhood, as affected by pregnancy, and how your writing changes or has changed in the aftermath ensuing motherhood?
I had just resigned from my job as personal assistant to a billionaire partner in a mergers and acquisitions firm and entered Mills College to at last gain a degree in English and Creative Writing when I discovered I was pregnant on our first daughter. After a moment’s pang of ‘oophs,’ my husband and I rejoiced in the news. My pregnancy wasn’t an obstacle to my writing and BA, but the realization of two dreams at once. It was also a time of two terrible and similar fears: What if I would fail as a writer? What if I would fail as a mother?
Pregnancy and giving birth to my daughter made me very aware of mortality and the passage of time. I realized I needed to stop procrastinating and just ‘do.’ It was difficult, almost impossible, to juggle motherhood, my studies and writing stories, but I never felt so motivated and rewarded. I had birthed a daughter and finally knew beyond all doubts and misgivings that I wanted to dedicate my life to her and to birthing stories.
The beauty now of having two daughters and knowing that my family stops here is a deepening of my commitment to women’s issues both in my life and in my work. I’m a better person and a better writer because of my daughters. Because of them, I’ve come to know a depth and intensity of love I’d never experienced before. My daughters fill me with gladness and joy.
Any words of advice to other mother writers?
My writing life only became routine and truly manageable when my youngest daughter started kindergarten. Since then, I dedicate at least six solid hours of my day to writing and the writing life and I’ve a lot of work both published and unpublished to show for that time. There are days I become overwhelmed and I admit I lose sight of what’s important and real. My daughters are all too familiar with the term “deadlines.” However, they also know they are my number one priority always and that the writing is secondary. The years pass quickly. Our daughters are already twelve and nine. I would say to other mother writers to simply do your best at both. Show up every day as a mother and a writer, but prioritize. At the end of my days, in a decision between holding my favorite books and holding my children, I know what I’d choose.
How does the mother/daughter dynamic figure into your work (forwards and backwards in time, with one’s own mother, and one’s daughters extending before one)? Are there further psychological aspects of that relationship you wish to explore as a writer?
The thrust of my work centers on loss and absences and harks back to my mother. When I was a girl, I lost my mother to mental illness and she never fully recovered. My mother both fuels and haunts my imagination and much of my grief and sense of abandonment around her comes out in my stories. For a long time, I resisted mother/daughter stories, largely because they were painful, seemed repetitive and I didn’t have enough perspective to tell them well. Now I trust my voice and writing urges more and tell the stories that compel me and that I believe I can write well, regardless of content. If I’m condemned to tell mother/daughter stories for the rest of my days so be it, as long as they are stories that readers find worthwhile and meaningful.
And for fun, can you talk to us about your cultural heritage—when you came to the states, how your writing life has been affected/blessed/challenged by your international lifestyle?
I have lived in San Francisco for almost two decades and love my life here. America gave me a new beginning and a second chance at life and I’m deeply grateful. That said, I remain Irish at my core and love my homeland. My husband is also Irish and we return to Ireland every summer to visit family and friends. Our daughters love Ireland and beg us to move back there to live. It’s difficult for them to understand how different it is to visit a country versus live there. I’m sometimes sad for our daughters because they have no family here, none whatsoever. But we have terrific friends and a great neighborhood and community. I’m glad to have been born and raised in Ireland and glad to have moved to San Francisco where I can reap and enjoy the best of both cultures.
Finally, any works in process—ie., your novel, etc., you’d like to tantalize us with a bit?
I’m about to send my novel manuscript to my agent, Terra Chalberg. The novel is tentatively titled KISSES WITH TEETH and is set in Ireland in 1980 and centers on the Flynn family and in particular Gavin Flynn, a middle-aged, working-class Dublin City bus driver and his various demons.
Ethel Rohan is the author of Hard to Say, PANK, 2011 and Cut Through the Bone, Dark Sky Books, 2010, the latter named a 2010 Notable Story Collection by The Story Prize. Her work has or will appear in The Good Men Project, The Chattahoochee Review, Los Angeles Review, Potomac Review and Southeast Review Online among many others. She earned her MFA in fiction from Mills College, California. Raised in Dublin, Ireland, Ethel Rohan is now a resident of San Francisco, California. Visit her at ethelrohan.com to read her most recent work.