Ethel Rohan on the Replenishing Beauty of Ireland and Eschewing Likable Characters
The Author of In the Event of Contact in Conversation with Jane Ciabattari
Born and raised in Dublin, based in San Francisco for nearly 30 years, Ethel Rohan is the author of the novel The Weight of Him, winner of the Northern California Publishers and Authors’ Award and the Nautilus Book Award. She also is a master of the short story. She recently told Ireland’s Westmeath Independent that she considered herself to be “a queen of uncomfortable stories.” I asked her to elaborate.
My storytelling isn’t concerned with the widespread dictum that characters, especially women characters, should be likable and stories comfortable. The lack of appetite for such characters and stories is in large part rooted in patriarchy. We’ve been conditioned to uphold tropes of nice girls, virtuous women, and violent men, and to turn away from inconvenient truths regarding oppression and complicity. Instead, I’m open to portraying the full range of human emotions and experiences as they arise in my stories, and to witnessing the full truth of the society and culture therein. That can make for the depiction of uncomfortable realities like misogyny, toxic masculinity, and the legitimacy of women’s oppression and rage. But to do less denies story, all art, its full purpose, and power. Too often our culture and power structures deflect and deny, and that perfectly serves patriarchy and capitalism because we can’t even begin to end what’s not acknowledged. In my work, my particular kingdoms, I have the power to invite readers into stories and situations they might ordinarily want to pull away from, but that hopefully they stay inside, are stirred by, and recognize the truth within.
Our conversation took place by email in Pacific time.
Jane Ciabattari: How has the past pandemic year or so been for you? Where have you been living? What have you missed most? How has the pandemic and social justice reckoning affected you and your work?
Ethel Rohan: Aside from a largely blank calendar and wearing a mask whenever I venture outside, overall my daily routine has changed little in the past year. I’m a solitary person and writer, with only odd bursts of sociability. I have grieved with the world, for sure. The loss of life and wellbeing wrought by the pandemic and social injustices continue to be appalling and enraging.
I live in San Francisco, my home of almost 30 years, and for the most part, people here are committed to staying safe and acting responsibly to control this global virus. Our rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in the Bay Area and beyond, though, is horrific and needs to be addressed at community and government levels. As for what I miss most, I’m going to betray how boring I am: bookstores, cinemas, theatre, eating out, dinner parties, long walks without a mask, and seeing my daughters enjoying life to the fullest.
It’s too soon for me to have distilled the pandemic and its ongoing impact. I don’t expect to see its affect on my writing for some time. Much of its themes are already constant in my stories: fear, disease, isolation, grief, hope, resilience, and the longing for connection.
As for the social justice reckoning, there isn’t yet nearly enough of it. The end of our last presidency is reason to rejoice, at least, as are the extraordinary grassroots efforts and individual power that made it happen, especially from women of color. That call to resistance and agitation, to be and do better, stirs with greater urgency within me, and my stories.
JC: Tell us about your Irish childhood? What brought you to San Francisco?
ER: I suffered that cliché of a dysfunctional Irish childhood. My mother was wrecked by degenerative blindness and paranoid psychosis, and that in turn took chunks out of my dad. My five siblings and I bore the brunt of their various fractures. From girlhood to young adulthood, I suffered various forms of abuse—emotional, physical, sexual, and workplace harassment.
Determined to break the pattern, I followed my best friend from Dublin to San Francisco. She came here at 16 to nanny for a family in the Oakland hills. There are 5,000 miles between Dublin and the Bay Area. Thankfully, it proved to be enough of a leap and I have never since suffered abuse.
JC: Which writers have influenced your work?
ER: Here’s a few: James Joyce, because (with the exception of Dubliners) he taught me early on the style in which I never want to write; Emily Brontë, because she was the first woman literary writer’s work I loved, and still do, but I came to loathe how she romanticized male toxicity and violence in Wuthering Heights; Edna O’Brien, because she was the first radical woman writer I read; Flannery O’Connor, because of her stories’ piercing details and unsettling strangeness; Elizabeth Strout because her prose is precise and her characterization extraordinary; and Yiyun Li, because her brilliance breathes through every page.
JC: What do you miss about Ireland? What keeps you here?
ER: I miss Ireland’s bracing air and lush beauty. Its people and the rhythms in its patterns of speech, pace of life, and sense of humor. Its ancient and extraordinarily rich history that’s ever-present, whispering through everything there.
I’ve lived in San Francisco longer than I lived in Ireland, and am married here with two young adult children. We’re well-rooted. We’ve fantastic friends and communities, a beautiful home and neighborhood, and a landscape rich with glorious spaces like Golden Gate Park, Crissy Field, Land’s End, and Ocean and Baker beaches. While even after all this time there remains within me a sense of the immigrant’s divided self, this is home now.
JC: Many of the stories in your new collection, In the Event of Contact, are set in Ireland. Living in San Francisco, is it difficult to conjure up stories set in Ireland?
ER: It’s not difficult at all. My imagination most often carries me to the realm of my beginnings. It’s also a country I return to at least once a year, and for weeks, sometimes months, at a time, which further keeps the place and people large in my mind.
JC: What comes first for you in a story—the location or setting? The characters? Lines of dialogue? Of scenery? Do you know where you’re going when you begin a story?
ER: My story sparks are typically scraps of oddity that stick in my mind, be it a phrase, interesting detail, or character peculiarity. It’s rarely a location or setting. For example, In the Event of Contact’s title and its theme of crises of contact were in part sparked by my longtime fascination with phobias, and in particular haphephobia, the fear of being touched.
That fascination has roots in such early oddities as how my parents couldn’t bear restrictive clothing. Dad cut the sleeves off his shirts and cardigans and scissored the cuffs of his socks. Mam couldn’t tolerate clothes that touched her throat and jewelry caused her skin to break out in a fiery rash. All great fodder for my ongoing obsession with intolerance, imprinting, claustrophobia, fear, and wanting to be free of discomfort and that which cinches.
My imagination most often carries me to the realm of my beginnings.
For most of my writing career, I never knew where I was going in a story. Outlining seemed too analytical and didn’t appeal to me. Instead, I followed the starting spark sentence by sentence, scene by scene, and delighted in the many surprises that ensued.
More recently, my writing process has evolved to more of a dream-like conjuring where I imagine each scene in my mind before I write it out—which brings more flow and charge to the storytelling.
However, last year, I co-wrote a screenplay with my oldest daughter and it exposed me to the potential and power of outlining. Going forward, I plan to outline my next novel and am eager to see its effects in my process and storytelling.
JC: Your title story is narrated by a triplet whose sister develops a “real and rare phobia” against touch. When she is 12, the family engages Mr. Doherty, a “special needs” tutor, to help. He calls Ruth “sacred” and says of her, “Poor Ruth… To be beyond touch. It’s almost impossible to imagine. She’s like the sun.” Your narrator’s combination of protectiveness and envy toward Ruth create an intriguing perspective on sibling rivalry. What was your inspiration?
ER: I’m one of six children, three boys and three girls, and have twin sisters three years my junior. My mother, as best she could with blindness and mental illness, doted on my oldest brother, the firstborn. I could never measure up to him, or to my beautiful, olive-skinned sisters, who were my mother’s second favorites.
I can still feel that sharp pain of being overlooked and made to feel inferior. I inserted that knowingness into this titular story on favoritism and rejection, extrapolated the twin relationship to triplets, and followed the resulting tension and shifting alliances. Beyond the overarching theme of the absence and trespass of contact, the story also captures the pain of not being as close to family as we wish and hope for.
JC: In “Before Storms Have Names,” your setting is a guesthouse in Ballinshere, where Rory, a teenager, meets Ashling, a thirtysomething visitor, “the most striking woman he’d ever encountered in reality,” and learns for the first time about sexual abandon. Are the choices individuals make the most telling aspect of the contrast between village and urban life?
ER: Yes—in that place and its people inform and shape us, particularly during our formative years. Pastoral and urban places are markedly different, so the belief systems and worldview of their people will be distinctly various. In “Before Storms Have Names” the protagonist feels trapped by the inescapable inheritance of his family’s farm. Land ownership is an especially charged issue for rural and colonized people, as is autonomy and free will. In this story, those driving forces collide in various and startling ways.
JC: In several stories, your protagonist returns to Ireland. In “Rare, But Not Impossible,” Margo returns to Dublin from New York City for a wedding, stays with her traditional Catholic parents, and hides the news of her recent abortion. Is part of Margo’s dilemma the freedom she finds away from home?
ER: Yes. Inside Ireland, like elsewhere, there are major markers that reveal core information about a person: where they live, what they work at, and how they speak. The thing I loved most about my early experiences in America was my anonymity. Beyond my (always slight) Irish accent, people knew nothing of my class or background. My story. In Ireland, I was routinely defined by my working-class neighborhood, and often called out for not acting and sounding like who I was “supposed” to be. In America there was no such judgment, at least at first, and it felt incredibly liberating.
Much of my Irish past haunts me, and yet the country continually calls me back.
Similarly, Margo enjoys a sense of freedom from judgment in New York that she never could at home—curtailment that’s exacerbated by her particular family circumstances. Ireland has taken positive leaps in recent years, but it remains a prescriptive culture where women in particular are policed and scapegoated. I’ve learned that’s also true of America, as is systemic and institutionalized racism, and that any reprieve from society’s ills and judgment is short-lived. In my imagination, in the aftermath of “Rare, But Not Impossible” Margo will also learn the same. But we resist on.
JC: In “Wilde” your protagonist, a woman returns to Dublin after immigrating to Chicago 27 years before. In the first paragraph she has a memory of her Da, who hallucinated an imaginary friend, Mary, years before. She visits the life-size statue of Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square Park, and finds herself accompanied by Oscar Wilde himself through the rest of the story. What inspired the story? Do memories of Ireland haunt you?
ER: “Wilde” was sparked during my last solo visit to Ireland, in early 2020, immediately before the global spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. I spent a somewhat melancholy and wholly uneventful day in Merrion Square Park and its environs, swept up by my first sighting of Wilde’s hulking statue there. I’m fascinated by Wilde, his anguish and his brilliance.
The short story itself is wild, forgive the pun, a bit madness, a bit magical realism. I worried about including it in the collection, concerned it might make the work seem incohesive, but decided to risk it.
“Wilde” centers on the terrible fear that ruled much of my life: That I would go mad like my mother. And also on one of my great hopes: That magic and higher benevolent powers are possible.
Much of my Irish past haunts me, and yet the country continually calls me back. Short term, the island feeds my soul. Beyond that, it starts to feed on me. I hope at some point I can fully make peace with it all—my trauma, Ireland, and my lingering demons.
JC: What are you working on now?
ER: I spoke earlier about how storytelling sparks typically take me to Ireland, but my more recent work has all been set in America, and I’ve finished a novel that takes place in the Bay Area. It seems that almost three decades of life here has at last given me enough perspective on the place and its people to mine those scraps of strangeness and the startling that I’ve gathered from here.
SING I is set in Half Moon Bay and in the novel’s incarnation, it’s a sparkling coastal town populated with equally picture-perfect residents. And then there’s everyone else, including Ester Prynn. Ester struggles with work, money, monotony, a video game-addicted son, and a dad with Alzheimer’s.
Problems that come into sharp perspective when a masked gunman robs the convenience store where Ester works, and also steals life as she knows it. Ester becomes obsessed with him, and infatuated with her new boss. Through this fresh trauma, same-sex romantic interest, new and deepening friendships, and membership in an empowering women’s choir, Ester’s entire understanding of herself and her world is disrupted in ways woeful and wonderful.
I also returned to an old novel manuscript. The Fortune Peddler’s Assistant is a historical novel set in Coney Island and I’m enjoying polishing it. I’m excited for either of these two to be my next book, but in this business there are no certainties.