Ethan Rutherford’s debut collection, The Peripatetic Coffin, is a funny, cutting, clever look at seclusion, often on the high seas. The title story, concerning the first Confederate submarine, was anthologized in the 2009 edition of The Best American Short Stories, while other stories originally appeared in One Story, Ploughshares, and Five Chapters. Though less than two months have passed since its publication, Rutherford’s collection has quickly gathered praise, from a longlist nomination for the Frank O’Connor award, to inclusion on several summer “must read” lists.
Though I eventually met up with the author at a reading in Providence, RI, the following interview was conducted during a long chain of emails, sometime between late May and mid-June.
Benjamin Woodard (BW): There’s a strong theme of isolation—both physical and emotional—that runs throughout the book. Did you aim for this theme, or did the thread organically appear as you assembled the collection?
Ethan Rutherford (ER): I’d like to say the thread appeared organically as I was putting the collection together—that I sat down with, say, twenty stories, and it became clear that what connected these eight particular stories was that they all orbited around the theme of what you’ve nicely identified as physical and emotional isolation (that “and” is important). But for whatever reason, isolation is a bit of an idée fixe for me as a writer. I can’t get away from it, and the result is that almost all of my stories hinge on, and address to varying degrees, the deleterious effects of spiritual, emotional, or physical isolation. If I were the sort of person who looked inward, rather than pushed these things outward, I’d be tempted to look for reasons: either that’s a sensation I’m familiar with, or the condition I fear most, or some fraught combination thereof. Or, most simply—and less all about me—I think that when a character finds herself in an isolated state, she is at her most combustible, which is an interesting place to be as a reader. And those are the sorts of moments I hustle towards, as a writer.
As for the stories that made the cut and appear in the book: the hope, with a collection, is that each story pulls its weight in order to make the whole somehow greater than the sum of its parts. You want thematic riffing between stories, but you don’t want repetition. The stories need to be in conversation with each other, even if that conversation is submerged, but you don’t want to bang the same pots and pans over and over again. The ocean; the theme of isolation; the ways in which all the characters, at some point, confront what I’ve taken to calling the Talking Heads question—David Byrne, in “Once In A Lifetime,” saying in the turn around: “You may say to yourself, My God, what have I done?” After many cuts and substitutions—giving different stories a shot in the lineup—the stories you see here were the last ones standing.
BW: Staying on the theme of isolation, you often achieve this effect by employing large vessels to quarantine your characters. Of these, two—the Hunley and the Saint Anna—are real, and one—the Halcyon—exists in a sort of alternative Earth. I’m curious as to what drew you to write historical narratives around the Hunley and the Saint Anna, and also what spurred you to create an alternative universe in which the Halcyon exists.
ER: Ah, “quarantine” is a great way to put it. Well, the easiest answer is simply that I love boats, and the ocean, and one of the great things about writing fiction is that you can sit down and ask yourself: where do I want to go today? The answer for me is always: out to sea. But the challenge, of course, comes when you begin to interrogate what you’re doing, and ask: well, what’s interesting about this, and what makes it a story? What drew me to the historical stories—“The Peripatetic Coffin,” which is set aboard the H.L. Hunley, the first Confederate submarine, and “The Saint Anna,” a story that swims and dips into the True Arctic Disaster genre—was that the real circumstances and events of those stories were so bracing, and end in such calamity, that I was interested in trying to pull those events back down to the human scale. We know how the stories end—catastrophically—but as I read about the fate of those ships, I began to wonder what it felt like to be aboard, embarking on what anyone would eventually recognize as The End of the Line. How do you wrap your mind around something like that? How do you square up, and to what extent does your emotional response meet or fall short of the ways in which you would’ve hoped and expected? Both of those stories end, to some degree, in failure—the ship is sunk, the crew, nevermore.
With “Dirwhals!” I was hoping to flip the scenario—it’s a successful voyage, in that they finally get what they came for, but at what cost? They’ve hunted a species to extinction, and here we are, the David Byrne question ringing out once more, but this time in a slightly different key, perhaps a more horrified register. “Dirwhals!” was supposed to be a novel—a sequel to Moby Dick—set during the waning days of the American Whaling Industry, when, after the discovery that petroleum could be distilled into kerosene, whaling seemed even more pointless. The voyages were longer, the returns diminished, the hunt increasingly senseless. But, you know, who can go up against Moby Dick? That book is a masterpiece. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like the concerns of that imagined story—the rolling wheel of capitalism, the senseless degradation of the environment, the squeezing of natural resources until there is simply nothing left—were still resonant, maybe even more so, today. It’s not too hard to see the way we are going with the environment, and the decision to put the story a few years in the future had to do with wanting those issues to be even starker than they are right now. So there’s the heavy thematic answer for you. On a more basic level, I just love sci-fi, and was excited to write in that genre, and build whatever world I wanted.
BW: “The Peripatetic Coffin” quickly builds a rhythm off of a series of narrative lists. “Summer, Boys” flows thanks to a strong use of parallel construction. And “Camp Winnesaka” bounces along with a steady combination of high and low (even casual) vocabulary. How do you approach the language of your narratives?
ER: Well, for me, the challenge of a particular story, the fun part, is sitting down and wondering: who is the best, most interesting person to tell this story? And then you’re faced with the question of how are they going to tell it. I wanted each story to be distinct, and the way I chose to do that was to vary the formal approach—the narrative nuts-n-bolts—of each story. You don’t want stylistic repetition. There may be no new stories under the sun, but there are always new ways to tell them. But the trick is trying to marry form and function. In a story about friends who view themselves as somewhat indistinguishable from one another, a parallel construction and a blurring of narrative POV is in some ways appropriate (“Summer, Boys”). In “Camp Winnesaka,” which is what Charles Baxter would call a dysfunctional narrative in that it is a story in which absolutely no one is willing to take responsibility for what has happened, a monologue that falls all over itself trying to avoid culpability, complete with sentence fragments, etc., seemed like a good mode to work in. You know, that camp counselor has a hard job, trying to convince the reader that the accidental deaths of like, 70 campers, is emblematic something other than a total debacle. The trick is in finding a way of telling that augments the themes contained within a story—brings them into sharper relief, makes the stories sail a little further than they would have otherwise. But narrative tricks, or formal experimentation for experimentation’s sake—where form is the dominant characteristic—that falls flat for me as a reader.
BW: In a story like “Saint Anna,” how do you balance the level of humor and horror in a narrative that essentially revolves around impending death?
ER: Well, I don’t know how it’s done, necessarily, and I couldn’t write a story that says [insert joke here], but I do know that tragedy without comedy isn’t tragedy at all. The characters I love, as a reader, are the ones who take the time to say: wait a second guys, did you see that? That is ridiculous. It’s about seeing. And if all you see is doom and gloom, you don’t have your eyes open very wide at all, and it comes off, on the page, as seeming less than human. Or maybe I should just say this. In every story I write, Bill Murray, who is my hero in every possible way, is sort of sitting on my shoulder, saying: sure, the ship is about to be crushed by ice, but have you tried this amazing hardtack? I like the dissonance created when someone who should be taking something seriously does not; it’s a refusal I find stubbornly humane. Here’s a quote I love, but even as it’s guided my approach to writing about bracing things, I’m not sure I fully understand: “To joke in the face of danger is the supreme politeness, a delicate refusal to cast oneself as a tragic hero.” Edmond Rostand wrote that. And I guess I have an issue with the idea of bland, tragic heroism. The world is so much more complicated than that. At a reading, someone said that the characters in “The Peripatetic Coffin,” as I’d written them, behaved heroically. And that hadn’t been my intention, at all.
BW: Your stories, while containing dialogue, do not rely on long character conversations to relay a narrative. When you write, do you construct longer passages of dialogue that get edited down, or is this sparseness there from the start?
ER: It got hammered into me pretty early that dialogue should only be used sparingly. The sparseness is there from the start, and I tend to think of dialogue more as a form of emotional punctuation in a story than anything else. Every time a character speaks, it should be in the service of revealing how that character feels about a situation, and I’ve found that if that’s your intention, you don’t need a page of conversation to get to the point. I’m happiest when exposition does most the work of moving a story forward, and dialogue daggers in either to veer the emotional content in a new direction, or reveal something about how the events feel to a character. Obviously, there’s a spectrum here, and the ratio of exposition to dialogue will change depending on the formal choices you’ve made—if the story is told in the first person, there is less dialogue than if it were, say, told in close third. But for the most part I try to keep the dialogue sparse. Action speaks louder than words, and all of that. I’m sure I’ll regret saying this, and my next story will consist of nothing but dialogue, but that’s how I felt when putting these stories together.
BW: At the beginning of “A Mugging,” your omniscient narrator pulls a very brief metafictional trick by speaking directly to the reader and admitting that he (or she) cannot do anything to stop the story from happening. What played into your decision to have the narrator make this statement, as it is the only time he (or she) makes such a move?
ER: In the original draft of that story, the narrator swoops in again at the end, to bemoan the inevitability of the fallout from the mugging and to provide a bookend for that initial meta-commentary. But it never sat right, that ending, and felt largely unnecessary, and too directive (really, it was one of those: “What you’ve just read is…” kind of things, just mortifying in retrospect). I went to chop the beginning, though, and found that I could not. And I think it has something to do with the initial invocation of the “you,” the direct address to the reader, making him/her complicit to some degree with the events that follow. One of the unsettling things for me about being a reader is that you are fundamentally passive, and though you are engaged with whatever story you’re reading, you are helpless to stop the locomotive as it rounds the bend. Making that explicit, in this particular story—I’m not sure what the effect is for other readers—but for me, in writing it, it made me care more about the dissolution about this particular marriage. The story is also told in the future tense, which also hopefully compounds the reader’s sense that something could have been done, if only someone could have cut the red-wire on the ticking bomb in time, stepped in, said “stop.” I think the characters are aware of this as well—aware that their actions are destructive to one another even as they are doing them, but they can’t bring themselves to act differently. The characters are passively watching as they unravel their own marriage. It seems only fair to spread some of that blame around.
BW: I read “Camp Winnesaka” as an allegory for the Iraq War. Is that a fair assessment? How do you react to these kinds of interpretations of your work?
ER: Oh, yes, absolutely, and in this case, you’ve found the nerve. This story originated after I’d been reading about Pat Tillman, and the events that followed his death due to friendly fire (more specifically: the way that narrative was spun by those invested in the war effort, until the truth came out). But the hope is that the story succeeds on its own, even if the parallels aren’t picked up. People have read that story without registering the Iraq/Afghanistan/Endless War analog, and have been properly horrified, which makes me happy, because if seeing the “real world” parallel is required for the story to have any emotional heft, then it’s a failure. Just this morning, I was in the car, and “Space Oddity” by David Bowie came on the radio. For years and years I’d thought that was just a weird and beautiful song about an actual spaceman, in actual space, whose final missive, as he’s heading out of range, is to tell his wife he loves her very much (“she knoooooows!”). Then someone told me: you know that’s about drugs, right? And I was strangely flattened by that news. You can’t unhear it, and I liked the song better when I understood it literally, rather than as an elaborate junkie metaphor. Which is a long way of saying: I’m happy to hear that anyone has enjoyed that story, on any level. These stories—they’re not yours once you send them out into the world, and it doesn’t matter what your intention was as you were writing them. What matters is how they’re received. “Camp Winnesaka,” though, was the happiest I’ve ever been writing a story, though, for whatever that’s worth. It just came right out. Pure joy to write that one.
BW: In addition to writing, you play guitar in the band Pennyroyal. Do you find that your work in one medium influences the other? Have you written songs that become stories, and vice versa?
ER: The crossover has only happened once, between the story “The Saint Anna” and a song called “Captain,” which opens: “Captain, the ice it won’t break on its own / and we can’t brook the expanse all alone. / By your brow I can see you’re unhappy now. / The leads have stitched and there’s no going home.” What a chart-topper! Other than that, music and writing rarely intersect for me. I find when I write fiction, the pleasure comes from inhabiting the lives of others, and trying to bring color to experiences I’ve never had. When writing music, it tends to be more confessional, more personal, more of a direct unburdening. What I love about writing—that you are responsible for creating your own tiny universe—is the exact opposite of what I love about playing music, which is that when things are moving well, and everyone is playing and really listening to each other, what is created is always a bit of a happy surprise. You know immediately if something is working or not; whereas with writing, it might take you months to figure out you’ve hit a sour note, or were playing in the wrong key all along.
BW: Several small narrative elements in “Summer, Boys”—the Boz poster, Spokey Dokes, Garbage Pail Kids, Bambi vs. Godzilla—firmly and genuinely plant the story in the late 1980s. I’m guessing you were a kid during this time. Do you have fond memories of these knickknacks, and, if so, is it difficult to inject real elements of your childhood into a fictional story?
ER: I was a kid during the 80’s, though the references invoked in that story are a combination of the things I loved and what I understood Older Kids to love (i.e. the things I knew I should love too, but my parents either wouldn’t get for me, or wouldn’t let me watch). And it was a pleasure to allow myself to go back in time like that, remembering this or that cherished and fetishized, and now forgotten, object of childhood. Just a pleasure. All of it came right back. When you’re a kid, you love stuff. The few things that are yours are extremely important to you, emotionally and imaginatively; they link you to the world. Who am I? I’m a kid who lives for a new pack of Garbage Pail Kids. There’s always a concern out there—someone always brings it up—that if you include pop-culture touchstones in a story you are unnecessarily dating a piece of writing, ensuring that it won’t have resonance outside of the few people who cherished the exact same things you did, and therefore Won’t Become Literature. I get where that idea is coming from, but with respect, that theory of literature can go sink itself. It’s the most reductive way to think about fiction, that there are certain things you can and should be writing about. And for “Summer, Boys” in particular—a story that is about a fleeting moment in childhood, when meaning is attached to, and in many ways originates from, very specific pop-cultural flotsam—how could you not include the names? They’re not toy robots. They’re Transformers. That these things ascend as treasured objects, and then are promptly forgotten, or replaced—that’s the point of the story. And as far as that emotional sentiment also characterizes the friendship between the two boys, is where its sadness comes from.
BW: Perhaps this is a cruel question to ask someone on the week that his debut collection is released, but what are you working on now?
ER: Oh boy, you are cruel! I’m working on a novel, which is in its infancy at the moment, and may thrive, or may not. I mean: I think it’s a good idea for a book. But I’m also the guy who spent seven years trying to write a story narrated by Conan the Barbarian, so I don’t always have the best perspective on these things.
BW: Finally, what’s the best advice you received from a literary mentor?
ER: Paraphrasing here, but from Jim Shepard—take what you’re interested in seriously, push it until you find what’s weird about that, and then keep digging until you find the emotional heart of your story. More directly, from an interview he did: “Quirky without pain? Then you’re just performing.” And from Charles Baxter, who said to me once: “Nothing’s happening here. Something has to happen.” He’s also the guy who pulled the plug, finally, on the Conan story, and the world can thank him for that forever.
— Ethan Rutherford & Benjamin Woodard
Ethan Rutherford was born in Seattle, and now lives in the Midwest. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, One Story, American Short Fiction, New York Tyrant, Esopus, Five Chapters, and The Best American Short Stories. His work has received special mention in the 2009, 2010 and 2013 editions of the Pushcart Prize, and received awards from the McKnight Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board. He received his MFA from the University of Minnesota, and has taught creative writing at Macalester College, the University of Minnesota, and the Loft Literary Center. He is the guitarist for the band Pennyroyal, which has been assaulting the ears of its listeners with songs of the ocean and long lost love since 2010. He is currently at work on a novel set in the Alaskan wilderness.
Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His writing has been featured in, or is forthcoming from, Numéro Cinq, Drunken Boat, Cleaver Magazine, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com.
Terrific interview. Love the insights, the honesty, the music too! Great stuff!