Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Ethel Rohan A Question and Answer Session with the author of Hard to Say and Cut Trough the Bone

March 1 to March 31
A Question and Answer Session with
Ethel Rohan

I am  very happy and honored  to be able to share with readers of my a blog a Q & A session with Ethel Rohan, a writer I first read last year during Irish Short Story Week Year Two last year.  I have been following her work ever since then and will continue to do so permanently.  She is an immensely talented writer.

Last year I read a story, "Beast and the Bear" by Ethel Rohan, a totally new to me at the time  writer.    I read it during Emerging Irish Women Writers Week.   I never expected to read a story during this week that I would end up regarding as belonging with the greatest short stories of all time.  I read it four times in a row I was so amazed.   Since I read that story for the first time, I have read, I estimate, at least 1000 other short stories including most of the consensus best short stories in the world.  After reading "Beast and the Bear"  again yesterday and this morning I am completely convinced it should already be counted among the world's greatest short stories.  I was in fact so shocked by the power of this story that I wanted to be sure I was not overreacting.  I sent a fellow book blogger whose taste I know to be exquisite and educated through decades of reading short stories and she said only the very best short stories she had ever read, she is an authority on Virginia Woolf, could compare to it.   I know this sounds hyperbolic but it is how I feel.  I do not lightly say a short story written by an author I had never heard of the day before I read it belongs with the work of the greatest of short story writers but that is my opinion.  In a way I felt a sense of satisfaction in that I am open enough in my perceptions and judgments to be able to make such an assertion.

Since then I have followed the work of Rohan.  I have posted on a few of her short stories and on her very haunting collection Hard to Say and on her Cut Through the Bone was the first work I posted on for ISSM3  She also wrote a guest post on my blog last year about an emerging Irish writer she, and now I admire, Danielle McLaughlin

Q and A with Ethel Rohan

1. Who are some of the contemporary short story writers you admire? If you had to say, who do you regard as the three best ever short story writers?

How to even qualify the three best ever short story writers? It’s impossible. As for contemporary writers, I’m besotted with Karen Russell’s stellar writing skills and stunning imagination, in particular her new story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Bonnie Jo Campbell’s story collection American Salvage lives on in my head and heart, as has Mary Costello’s The China Factory.

2.  I have read lots of Indian and American short stories in addition to Irish, and alcohol plays a much bigger part in the Irish stories. How should an outsider take this and what does it say about Irish culture?

There’s truth to every stereotype. Stories are mirrors to ourselves, our society, and our relationships and that’s why alcohol plays such a large part in Irish lore. As writers we put down what we know and Irish writers know alcohol. The best stories contain characters not stereotypes, of course, and search beyond the surface and the obvious.

3. Declan Kilberd has said the dominant theme of modern Irish literature is that of the weak or missing father?  Do you think he is right and how does this, if it does, reveal itself in your work? It seems present in several of your stories, especially those in Hard to Say.

The weak or missing father is one of the dominant themes in modern Irish literature. Perhaps it’s more encompassing to say abandonment is the dominant theme of modern Irish literature and harkens back to our psychic scars from colonization and the Great Famine—that sense of the world spinning out of control and ourselves as endangered, victimized, and helpless—and is further exacerbated by the current economic and social chaos in Ireland.

It’s true, the weak or missing father appears in many of my stories, and so does the absent mother. This isn’t intentional, but what writes its way out of me. Again we write what we know and as a child I didn’t feel safe or protected and had to rescue myself. I suppose, in the end, we all have to become our own father and mother. 

4.  When did you start writing?

I remember writing poetry and songs from about age seven onwards and subjecting my best friend and her brother to my endless, no doubt painful, performances in the hall in my house while they sat on the bottom steps of our stairs. The first story I remember writing, I was fourteen. It was about an old man and the migration of swallows. I can remember nothing more about the story. I love writing about elderly characters, and male characters too. I also love swallows. Myriad the reasons why.

5.  How do you view Aosdána?  Is it a great aid to the arts in Ireland or does it perpetuate closed elitism?

Aosdána recognizes “artists whose work has made an outstanding contribution to the arts in Ireland, and to encourage and assist members in devoting their energies fully to their art.” What’s not to love? Sign me up.

6.  I sometimes wonder why such a disproportionate amount of literature of the world, that is regarded as great, is written in the colder temperate zones rather than in the tropics. How big a factor do you think the Irish weather is in shaping the literary output of its writers? I cannot imagine The Brothers Karamazov being written on a tropical island, for example.

Well there’s the problem of the lack of recognition and accessibility to literature of “the tropics.” So much writing and books remain US-and-Euro-centric. But you’re right, place and climate deeply affect and shape us and thus deeply affect and shape our writing and art. Suffering a cold, wet, and relentless climate is its own special kind of misery and cultivates a malaise and desperation for all things beyond that experience. You’re going to get great stories out of people suffering a gnawing yearning for all things beyond.  

7. A character in an Ali Smith short story asks in a conversation on the merits of short stories versus novels "‘Is the short story a goddess and nymph and is the novel an old whore?’" Does this make a bit of sense to you?

I’m all for championing the short story, but not to the detriment of the novel. The idea that there’s any hierarchy—poetry, “flash” fiction, short story, nouvella, novel—irks. Good writing is good writing—it doesn’t matter the genre. Of course the opposite is also true.

8.   Who do you regard as the first modern Irish short story writer?

Honestly, this question makes less sense to me than the previous. How to define “first” or “modern”? I googled “Modern Ireland” and found this Irish Times article: It defines “Modern Ireland” as dating from 2000. I’ve a feeling you intended earlier, Mel? I’m going to say Edna O’Brien, she’s been writing for a long time but her work is always ahead of the curve and her stories remain current. Her impressive body of work will rightly be included in the Irish literary canon.

9.  Why have the Irish produced such a disproportionate to their population number of great writers?

For all its wants and lacks, Ireland does a great job of promoting its writers and literature—in the past Ireland has likely made more of its writers famous by condemning rather than championing them, but contemporary Ireland seems to have fastened onto its writers and artists, recognizing the gifts they possess, legacy they continue, and the mystery and hope they represent.  

10. (Ok this may seem like a silly question but I pose it anyway-do you believe in Fairies?-this quote from Declan Kilberd sort of explains why I am asking this:
"One 1916 veteran recalled, in old age, his youthful conviction that the rebellion would “put an end to the rule of the fairies in Ireland”. In this it was notably unsuccessful: during the 1920s, a young student named Samuel Beckett reported seeing a fairy-man in the New Square of Trinity College Dublin; and two decades later a Galway woman, when asked by an American anthropologist whether she really believed in the “little people”, replied with terse sophistication: “I do not, sir – but they’re there."

I believe in higher powers, yes, and in the magic each of us can make every day in our lives.

11.  Do you think the very large amount of remains from neolithic periods (the highest in the world) in Ireland has shaped in the literature and psyche of the country?

We channel our ancient history and our ghosts.

12.  How important are the famines to the modern Irish psyche?

The memories and the scars remain in the collective psyche, as does in many ways the hunger. A fierce pride and spirit also remains. We were not destroyed, not crushed, not erased. We survived.

13.  Does the character of the "stage Irishman" live on still in the heavy drinking, violent, on the dole characters one finds in many contemporary Irish novels?: Again from Declan Kilbred: "The Irish writer has always been confronted with a choice. This is the dilemma of whether to write for the native audience–a risky, often thankless task–or to produce texts for consumption in Britain and North America. Through most of the nineteenth century, artists tended to exploit far more of Ireland than they expressed. Cruder performers resorted to stage-Irish effects, to the rollicking note and to “paddy-whackery”, but even those who sought a subtler portraiture often failed, not so much through want of talent as through lack of a native audience. Most of these writers came, inevitably, from the upper classes and their commerce with the full range of Irish society was very limited.”

This is really interesting: “Through most of the nineteenth century, artists tended to exploit far more of Ireland than they expressed … Most of these writers came, inevitably, from the upper classes and their commerce with the full range of Irish society was very limited.”

Again, I think this gets back to my earlier response and speaks to the truth in every stereotype. The onus on the writer, on all of us, is to see the humanity beyond the stereotype and shine a light on why the “stage Irishman” persists and what continues to keep him down and all afog.

14.  William Butler Yeats said in "The Literary Movement"-- "‘The popular poetry of England celebrates her victories, but the popular poetry of Ireland remembers only defeats and defeated persons.’” I see a similarity to this in the heroes of the Philippines. American heroes were all victors, they won wars and achieved independence. The national heroes of the Philippines were almost all ultimately failures, most executed by the Spanish or American rulers. How do you think the fact Yeats is alluding too, assuming you agree, has shaped Irish literature?

Again, I find this fascinating, thank you. As a colonized people, stripped of land, culture, language, and more, it’s arguable the Irish are encoded with defeatism and brokenness—there’s the sense that we haven’t won, yet, that we’re ultimately losers because we did not achieve full independence and hence we can only celebrate in our arts and culture the heroes of the fight and the effort, but ultimately not the victory. That’s heartbreaking and perhaps can only be healed by an evolution of the Irish and the collective consciousness where we recognize that the stuff most of us fight and die for doesn’t matter. It’s stuff. 

15.  Do you think poets have a social role to play in contemporary Ireland or are they pure artists writing for themselves and a few peers?

This touches on the hierarchy bias I mentioned earlier. Poets have as much or as little social responsibility as any other writer or artist. Ultimately, we have to do our best. That’s our collective responsibility.

16.  Do you think Irish Travelers should be granted the status of a distinct ethnic group and be given special rights to make up for past mistreatment? Are the Travelers to the Irish what the Irish were once to the English?  I became interested in this question partially through reading the short stories of Desmond Hogan.

I doubt restitution would accomplish much. Travelers need to be humanized and accepted, and unbiased portraits in Irish media, journalism, stories, and art could go a long way toward that. I support equality and human rights and lament the terrible bigotry of so many Irish toward Travelers and foreign nationals. The best of Travelers’ culture should be honored and preserved, but that will necessitate extensive dialogue and understanding and the end of Travelers’ internalized bigotry.

17.  Do you prefer e-reading or traditional books?

I swing both ways, but at heart I’m a trad girl.

18.  What do you miss most about Ireland since you moved to California?  What are you glad to be away from?

I miss family and friends; the unique sense of humor; the slower pace of life; the terrible delicious food; the clothes shopping; the English-Irish chocolate; and warming by an open fire when outside is astir and miserable.

I’m glad to be away from the personal sadness, bad memories, and people’s often small-mindedness and begrudgery (which again I think stems from a consciousness that’s terrified there isn’t enough for everyone and which also, out of a sense of abandonment, feels frantic about having to look out for oneself).

19.  If you could time travel for 30 days (and be rich and safe) where would you go and why?

Nottingham, Maid Marion, double-life, wearing big dresses and boys clothes, riding horses and shooting arrows, sleeping in a castle and Sherwood Forest, escaping and winning, helping the poor, and doing Robin Hood.

20.   Best Literary Festival you have so far attended?

The Cork International Short Story Festival. Amen.

21.   Flash Fiction - how driven is the popularity of this form by social media like Twitter and its word limits?

Again, I see no distinction in story length or value. Social media does a hell of a job driving the popularity of great writers and stories, of all lengths, and largely ignores bad writing.

22.  How important in shaping the literature of Ireland is its proximity to the sea?

Again this gets back to the importance of place and how its mood, geography, and culture is ingrained in the writer and hence the writing. I love the sea and to walk the beach. Ireland is an island, cut off from everything and surrounded by a salty force that’s both glorious and consuming—more, ever-present elements to fuel wild imaginations, maddening wants, and soulful spirits.

End of Q & A Session

I give my great thanks to Ethel Rohan for taking the time from her very busy schedule to respond to my questions in such an interesting and entirely illuminating fashion.

I look forward to reading her forthcoming collection of short stories, Goodnight Nobody.

You can learn more about her work at her very well done blog.

She recently published a very good article in The New York Times  on the need to change the abortion laws of Ireland.

I sometimes imagine twenty five or fifty years from now someone will do a Google search on Ethel Rohan and find my first posts on her and wonder "who was this Mel u who saw so long ago the immense talent of Ethel Rohan?"

1 comment:

Nancy said...

I like her no. 18 answer! This is indeed a great Q & A. Thanks for sharing, Mel! :)