Author Interview: Ethel Rohan

There are some books so subtle you can blink and miss something profound. Every sentence of In the Event of Contact felt like that, making it one of the most nuanced books I’ve read.

And yet, you wouldn’t say what Ethel Rohan has to say is meek or without fervor. The stories are powerful, as is Rohan herself. The stories and author command the space, not in an aggressive but self-assured way. Confidence without arrogance. It was refreshing to speak to her about her writing history and future goals.

(If you haven’t, you can read my full review of In the Event of Contact here.)

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland. I emigrated from Dublin to San Francisco, California, where I met my husband, who is also Irish. We have two daughters, and a terrier mutt named Rory.

I’ve loved reading and writing since my teens, and dreamed of being an actor. But somehow I never pursued acting. I chased writing instead. Although sometimes it feels like writing is the one coming after me! I can’t seem to ever switch off from writing. When I’m not actively reading and writing, I’m thinking about books, the craft, and my stories and characters.

Do you feel that being an immigrant and having lived in two different countries gives you a unique perspective when it comes to writing and the subject matter in your short story collection?

The upside to being an immigrant is that each culture gives me perspective on the other. For example, coming from a largely reticent Irish culture, I can appreciate how open and communicative Americans generally are. Most of the stories in the collection are set in Ireland, and I think that’s because time and distance have allowed me to depict Ireland and its people with a knowingness and honesty I might not have if I had never left there and was still fully immersed in it.

What is your favorite book, and has it inspired how you write?

It’s impossible to name one! I will say the book I return to often to reread is Elizabeth Strout’s short story collection Olive Kitteridge. The prose and tone are gorgeous, its characters rendered with such precision and generosity, and the collection as a whole is hypnotic. I also love unlikeable, complex characters, especially difficult women, and Strout’s protagonist Olive is truly an unforgettable and fascinating character. I’m inspired by this book to aspire to be that brilliant in my own stories.

Tell us about your short story collection, In the Event of Contact.

It’s fourteen short stories set in Ireland, England, and America that chronicle characters profoundly affected by physical connection, or its lack. Amid backgrounds of trespass and absence, these various men, women, and teens make memorable bids for recovery while seeking renewed belief in wholeness, humanity, and the remains of wonder.

What are some key takeaways you’re hoping readers get from your book?

I hope readers find the book an interesting, compelling read and that it’s feminist themes, particularly around toxic masculinity and the prevalence of control, trespass, and violence against women, will give them pause and perspective. Mostly, I want readers to finish the book feeling like their time in its worlds was well spent.

Do you anticipate or have you received any backlash in accepting and using the feminist label with your work?

No backlash, at least not yet. But there’s always someone coming for women and feminists, and it’s always those individuals and power systems threatened by equality, and justice.

What is different about In the Event of Contact?

Each of us is unique and every writer brings that originality to their work. No two people have the exact same set of experiences, values, or beliefs. I bring my particular understanding of storytelling, people, and the world to my writing and so my voice is inherently different to every other author. I’d also like to think the stories in this collection read as fresh and portray trauma survivors in thoughtful and empowered ways.

You mention that you try to portray trauma in “thoughtful and empowered ways.” How do you feel about the current conversations around trauma in literature? How would you like to see publishing evolve in the future in that regard?

Literature remains a staunchly patriarchal realm, but at last there’s a distinct shift toward inclusion. More than ever, women, the indigenous, and people of color are demanding control of their stories, and their bodies. Authors like Roxane Gay, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Carmen Maria Machando teach and write brilliantly about women’s, trans, and non-binary bodies and the trauma and power they hold. I’d like to see publishing build on this shift, and evolve in more meaningful and effective ways toward inclusivity, particularly with regard to who they hire and support, and what they publish and promote.

What are your plans for future work?

I have four completed novel manuscripts I’d love to see published. Meanwhile, I’ll keep on writing.

What inspires you to write?

People, and our wounds and states of wonder. I’m fascinated by relationships, belonging, recovery, missing parts, and the marvellous.

What do you enjoy about publishing, and what do you struggle with?

It’s wonderful validation to be published, and fantastic to connect with readers. I struggle with how much pressure is put on authors to market themselves and sell their books. The bar keeps getting raised higher and higher on what’s expected of us. We now need to be self-promotion sharks and it’s exhausting. I’m in this to tell the best stories I can and to move readers’ minds and hearts. I don’t want to be a salesperson, but more and more that’s what’s required.

What has been your greatest struggle writing, and how would you inspire other writers to overcome it?

Self-doubt is a beast. It largely stems from those negative voices in my head that like to hold me back and keep me small. To overcome doubt, I write through it, and revise, revise, revise my work, making it the best I can. I know how hard I work, how much I read and study, and how carefully I write and revise. Placing my trust in my practice, and how much I love storytelling, helps beat back the beast.

How can we purchase your book?

Please support your local independent bookshop by ordering In the Event of Contact there. Or if you prefer to purchase online, please go to bookshop.org here. Thank you so much!

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