Writing toward Meaning: A Conversation with Ethel Rohan


In the Event of Contact is my mother’s fourth full-length book and the first book of hers that I’ve read. Her debut short story collection, Cut Through the Bone, was published when I was ten years old. I remember her telling me that I could read her stories “when I grew up,” and it caused several raised eyebrows among the faculty and parents at my Catholic elementary school when I informed them my mom wrote books that were “for adults only.”

I could have read my mom’s writing long before this, but I think I was afraid of what I would find in her stories. What if I didn’t like them, or what they revealed? What if I recognized people I knew, especially our family, and myself? Mostly, knowing how much my mother has overcome in life, I was afraid of the pain I might find in her work, and that it would hurt me to read it. I wanted her to remain what she’s always been for me: my mom, the brightest light.

As daunted as I was by the idea of reading In the Event of Contact, I’m at a point in my life and my own art where I want to know my mom and her work more fully. The fourteen short stories in Ethel Rohan’s In the Event of Contact, published by Dzanc Books yesterday, center on crises of contact, various forms of injury, and characters making surprising attempts to recover.

We spoke recently on the deck of our home, while the sun shone through cobwebs like kaleidoscopes, about inflicting pain, dysfunctional families, generational patterns, and the power of no.


The Rumpus: Staying with the subject of pain, there are stories in the collection that must have been especially difficult for you to conjure and write. I’m thinking of such stories as “Everywhere She Went,” “Blue Hot,” and “Any Wonder Left.” How do you protect yourself when writing so empathetically about your characters’ suffering?

Ethel Rohan: I’m a highly sensitive person, but I feel an odd detachment while writing. Of course I care deeply about my characters and their desires and struggles, but I’m like a puppeteer working the story and its world from a height. I’ve never consciously considered that this also serves to protect myself. It’s much more a case of my needing to keep a certain level of distance between the work and me, so as to attain the clarity and sadism that storytelling demands. Suffering comes to everyone at various times and in various ways, and so it is with characters. In order for me to inflict pain on my characters, and to depict the realities and fullness of their suffering, I have to immerse myself and bear witness, but not share the experience. It’s a delicate balance of going deep enough to get the job done, but not so deep that I’m hurting myself.

Rumpus: These stories are highly imaginative and I loved that I didn’t know where you were taking me in each one. I was repeatedly surprised by plot and the characters’ choices. Have you always had a rich imagination? If so, how did you express it early on, and how do you sustain and nourish your creativity and storytelling range?

Rohan: From my earliest memories, I adored dress-up and make-believe. I also longed to be an actor and to take on other identities. Through writing, I get to do it all, and with my imagination running wild, at least in early drafts. In revision, I’ll wrangle those flights of fancy into restraints as needs be according to what’s urgent and startling yet believable within the context of the characters and their world.

And art begets art. I sustain and nourish my imagination by enjoying others’ creativity: stories, poetry, music, television, film, plays, musicals, art, sculpture, and on and on. That, and daily meditation. Play, fun, exercise, and generally living well are also essential. I just don’t do nearly enough of the things on the latter list.

Rumpus: In each story it’s not only the protagonist but often several other characters who make various bids for recovery. I also love your one-sentence summary for the collection which describes the work as “stories of survivors going rogue and turning trauma into power.” Can you elaborate on that?

Rohan: I write about the strange and toward meaning, and am most fascinated by characters’ contradictions and mixed attempts at agency. I’m hyper-attuned to the surprising and quirky, and love that a common thread in these stories proved to be characters taking peculiar approaches to recover from their injuries. Their efforts are often flawed, even self-defeating, but they are always acting amid high-stakes and toward transcendence. The roguishness lies in the characters consistently confounding expectations, and they’re empowered by taking charge and exerting influence and change.

Rumpus: You raised me to be outspoken and to live consciously—to think, do, and speak up according to what I believe in. How conscious are you of the personal being inherently political when you write? Do you think writers have a responsibility to create change through storytelling?

Rohan: We’re all inherently political, and biased. We each have our particular way of seeing people and the world, a viewpoint that’s filtered through our experiences and belief systems—much of which are thrust on us as children. Unfortunately, we don’t all live consciously or morally, or examine who we are and what we believe, and why. Too many are selfish, willfully ignorant, and complicit in society’s various systemic ills. Then there are those who are intentionally bigoted, individualist, capitalist, and inhumane.

I’m not overtly conscious of the above when I write. Stories depict life, making them organically political, but I don’t write with an agenda or intended message. My only goal is to tell my most interesting, surprising, and honest stories. Overall, I’m wary of putting too much on stories, and on storytellers. The role of both is to render people and life as specifically and truthfully as possible. Let readers do with that what they will.

Rumpus: There are several similarities between your life experiences and those of many of the characters in the collection. Do you worry about people thinking the characters contain facets that together make up a telltale composite of you?

Rohan: All writing reveals its author. I was first introduced to that idea almost twenty years ago as a college student. Initially, I balked at the suggestion. I believed I conjured my characters and stories solely from my imagination, and that they weren’t drawn from my life and weren’t about anyone I knew, least of all myself. Therefore how could they show anything about me?

But it gets back to our previous exchange: the personal is political and everything about us is colored by our individual worldview. That’s why all stories are unique; there’s only one of each of us. As for how much of my stories are autobiographical and how much are invention, I don’t concern myself with that at any point in the process. Not while writing, and not after publication. I let everything in while creating, and whatever best serves the story stays in the final version—whether there are autobiographical elements or not. When I lay down stories, I’m only concerned with following the sparks, the electricity, of each character and their world. I’m not worried about what the reader will think of me. That’s none of my business.

Rumpus: You’re a wonderful mom, but there isn’t much model parenting or functional families in these stories, especially in “In the Event of Contact,” “UNWANTED,” and “Before Storms Had Names.”

Rohan: [Laughs] Guilty as charged. Model characters and functional families are boring, and unrealistic. I also have several lifetimes worth of experience with negligent parenting and family dysfunction. I loved my parents, but I had a miserable childhood. Why not turn as much of that as I can into art? Make beauty of the bad. 

Rumpus: I’ll always appreciate that you taught me the power of saying no, and to never prioritize anyone else’s comfort over my own.

Rohan: The world would be so much better if every girl was taught that. I was determined that you and your sister wouldn’t ever feel voiceless and subservient, or that you had to be “nice.” I was raised to be “nice,” which is so damaging. The dictum to “be a good girl” grooms women to be compliant pleasers, and to allow life prescriptions and unwanted touch, talk, and all kinds of trespasses.

Rumpus: You also taught me that secrets, silence, and shame are poisonous. Can you talk more about that?

Rohan: Secrets, silence, and shame perpetuate familial and societal patterns of abuse, and cause tremendous and preventable trauma. Too many look away from perpetrators’ crimes and victims’ suffering rather than face their own discomfort and society’s horrific failings. That’s a large part of why systemic and generational wrongs repeat and remain rife.

It’s only by addressing the unspoken and “unseen” that we will ever beat back individual and institutionalized abuse and its horrors. I’m appalled by how many find those who speak out and act up against wrong more problematic than the atrocities under protest e.g. Colin Kaepernick taking a knee against police brutality and white supremacy.

Rumpus: In the Event of Contact has nothing to do with the COVID-19 pandemic and yet I kept thinking about it as I read; in particular, the collection’s themes of loneliness and trauma, and its conflicts around contact and personal boundaries. Its hope, too, and the characters stubborn insistence on overcoming adversity and wounds. Yet these stories were all written pre-pandemic. How do you account for the striking coincidence?

Rohan: There’s definitely an uncanniness to the collection’s title and themes given the pandemic’s ongoing toll and the current chaotic state of the world. The synchronicity appeals to my imagination and bolsters my hope that this is the right book at the right time. The collection’s stories are a lot of things, including an always timely invitation to look harder at ourselves and our world—the collective magnificence, resilience, fragility, failings, brutalities, and atrocities. These stories portray the timely and urgent need to take care of ourselves and each other. It’s the only way forward, and that is going to be especially true post-pandemic. Most of us will emerge from this global trauma feeling, at the least, dazed and ragged. I’m worried for us, but also hopeful. We’re designed to survive, and to be in community and care for each other, and we’re driven to thrive.

Rumpus: When I was a child, you often read to my sister and me from the Complete Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde. You’ve quoted him over the years, too, and have several of his books on your shelves, so I knew you were a fan, but I was still surprised to find him in your story, “Wilde.” Maybe it’s more accurate to say that the story itself is surprising—speculative and sometimes funny, but also complicated and gritty. You packed a lot into it, including the narrator’s confusion about Wilde’s quote “Every man kills the thing he loves.” What do you think those words mean?

Rohan: Like the narrator in “Wilde,” I’m both fascinated and confused by the declaration. Some scholars attribute it to Wilde’s homosexuality—law and society mandated that he “destroy” it. But it’s such a blanket statement, a lack of specificity that is surprising from Wilde, and begs exploration of its wider meanings, at least one of which you’ll find in “Wilde.”

Rumpus: Read the story, is what you’re saying.

Rohan: [Laughs] Read the whole collection, please.

Rumpus: Blurb is such a strange word for the advance praise a book receives from fellow authors. I say it and immediately want to laugh, but many of the blurbs the collection received are themselves tiny pieces of art. I especially love the blurb from Diane Cook: “Spare, haunting and mesmerizing, the stories in In the Event of Contact somehow capture the ungraspable essence of being human. This book, these characters, put a spell on me.” What happens when the responses to a book aren’t as glowing? Is it a case where the higher some praise is, the more the harsher critiques hurt? What’s most difficult to receive: disappointing responses from industry reviewers, readers, or those close to you?

Rohan: By the time most, if not every, writer has published their work, they’ve already received critiques and rejections many times over, and it’s rarely painless and often brutal. As hard as those let downs are, I decided early on not to let them crush me, and I’ve found the disappointment lessens over time, but it’s something I’ll never become immune to, and some criticism and rejections definitely cut more than others.

I’m not sure I can classify which ones hurt most. It’s a case-by-case basis. For example, I was disappointed by the review of my first novel in The Irish Times. Not even a glowing review for the same novel in the San Francisco Chronicle could soften that sting. One- and two-star reviews will always slice. And I don’t think I’ll ever get over a loved one saying of my first book, Cut Through the Bone, “Would you not write about something, anything, else?”

Ultimately, though, I have no sway over how critics and readers will respond to my work. The only control I have in this entire roller-coaster business is over the words I put on the page and the stories I surrender to the world.

Rumpus: You grew up in a working-class family and neighborhood in Dublin, Ireland and that knowledge of lack and strife—and of the 1980s!—really comes through in several of these stories. Did you rely solely on your memories for the many specific and telling details throughout, or did you need to do additional research to make those stories and characters so alive and authentic?

Rohan: I mostly relied on memory, and the internet. My five siblings still live in Ireland and I sometimes texted with them, too, to question or confirm details. Like, What’s the real name of the park that we called Tolka because of the river? And, Do you remember the creepy guy who owned the shop and made toy trains, or was it toy soldiers? Or am I just imagining all that?

The first half of my life in Dublin is often surreal to me. I’m constantly questioning if much of it really happened, mostly because of how terrible life often was. Several of my friends also had a brutal time of it—abuse, neglect, addiction, struggling at school, teen pregnancies—but we found humor in even the horrible and made the most of things. And of course life could be wonderful, too. I loved the ‘80s in particular: the music, bold bursts of new fashion, and going dancing in the local disco halls, and later the nightclubs in town, invariably dressed in lace mittens, stiletto heels, short balloon skirts, and the glitteriest, scariest blue eye shadow going.

Television became a whole new thing in that decade, too. We got a color telly in our house, and one with five channels instead of two. 1980s shows like Dallas, MacGyver and Strumpet City were also a welcome change from the usual tame, censored fare viewers were previously offered. The outlandish, otherworldly stuff that happened back then, too, like the exorcism carried out in a supposedly haunted house on the street where I lived, which was named Munster Street.

All of that awful wonderfulness has stuck to my insides and I doubt much of it will ever stop showing up in my stories in one form or another.

Rumpus: Again, I’m struck by how much darkness you’ve known and how you continue to be a great source of light.

Rohan: Everyone’s known light and dark. Everyone is light and dark. I try as hard as I can to starve the dark and feed the light.

Rumpus: Now that you’ve introduced me to short story collections, what writers and collections do you recommend?

Rohan: I don’t know where to end. Immediate favorites who come to mind are Danielle McLaughlin, Louise Kennedy, Wendy Erskine, May-Lan Tan, Yiyun Li, Elizabeth Strout, Lori Ostlund, Carmen Maria Machado, Danielle Evans, Brandon Taylor, and Bryan Washington. Come back to me when you’re done with those. I’ve thousands more to recommend.

Rumpus: Is there anything I haven’t covered that you’d like to add?

Rohan: What are you making for dinner?

Rumpus: [Laughs] I love you.

Rohan: Thanks, but I can’t eat that.


Photograph of Ethel Rohan by Teaghan Rohan.

Mackenzie Rohan graduated from Syracuse University’s Department of Drama (BFA). A singer, actor, and screenwriter, she has performed in Carnegie Hall and worked with numerous regional theaters and companies across the Bay Area and beyond. She is continuing her education in Screenwriting and Film and TV Development through the UCLA Extension. More from this author →