by Jeff Von Ward
“We write about what matters most to us, about what we believe to be true of the world and of humankind, and that’s what shows up on the page…” – Ethel Rohan
Goodnight Nobody: Stories (Queen’s Ferry Press), by Ethel Rohan is a collection of short and short short fiction set in Dublin and San Francisco. I recently had the opportunity to talk about the book with the author. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our discussion.
Q: You’re a master of compression. I feel like you cover more ground in a few short pages than most writers do with much longer forms. What is it about the short-short story that attracts you? In other words, why have you gravitated toward this form?
ETHEL ROHAN: Less can be more. Storytelling is the art of selectivity and I enjoy whittling down my work to its bare essentials. I find it enormously satisfying to parse and rewrite my early, dense drafts until I’ve cast off the extraneous and brought forth the juice and heart of the work. I’m attracted to the short-short form because I believe in the potential brilliance of brevity and I delight in how contemporary writers are broadening and elevating just how much we can do with compression.
Q: When I was in an MFA program, we were told “the publishing industry” has no interest in short stories. They simply aren’t best sellers in the same way that novels are, so most debut collections are paired with to-be-written novels by enterprising agents. I suppose I find it a little ironic in an age that heralds the wit of 140 characters or less. Do you feel like there is anything afoot in contemporary life that might rekindle interest in the short story?
ETHEL ROHAN: I give the adage little credence. Thanks to a plethora of excellent independent publishers and literary magazines, both in print and online, the short story is flourishing. While agents and the big publishing houses might insist on keeping the flag at half-mast for the short story, don’t heed the pessimism. This is an exciting, opportunity-filled time to be writers and readers. We need to celebrate that more. Praise be for the Internet, editors, indie publishers and bookstores, literary magazines, savvy readers, and writers who are willing to repeatedly show up to make art of our stories.
Q: What, as readers, can we do to prevent the further marginalization of fiction in all of its forms? Or do you think that’s an issue?
ETHEL ROHAN: Support books and writing. Buy, read, and talk up books and literary magazines. Writing teachers, use stories from literary magazines in your classes and workshops. Everyone, support your local independent bookstore and writing communities, not just by buying books, but also offer to write reviews on index cards for display, volunteer to work events and the shop floor—anything you can do to share your enthusiasm for your favorite writers and books. Also, attend literary events and readings, they’re often free, fun, and can be excellent.
Q: What inspired you to write Goodnight Nobody? How did you know the individual stories would work so well as a collection?
ETHEL ROHAN:I didn’t write Goodnight Nobody so much as I wrote the individual stories and arrived at a point where I realized I had produced enough work to compile what I hoped would be a strong collection. I’m a serial writer and thankfully I had a lot of stories to choose from to include in Goodnight Nobody. The original manuscript Queen’s Ferry Press accepted for publication contained 40 stories and during the editorial process I decided to parse the collection down to 30 because, as with my individual stories, I wanted to cut away at the overall work until I felt only the best remained. I compiled the collection based on a number of criteria, largely choosing those stories I felt were strongest, those that contained themes of loneliness, and, ultimately, those stories that when put together inside a book hopefully delivered a sum greater than its parts.
Q: I noticed a series of repeating motifs in the stories (families (mothers and daughters), tattoos, adolescence, immigration, violence, drinking) and I enjoyed how the stories resonated and riffed off of one another. I wondered, from a craft perspective, how consciously were you surfacing these moments for the purposes of overall cohesion, say in the editorial phase? I guess I’m asking the age-old question: Does the writer choose the themes or do the themes choose the writer? If the latter, how do you modulate and control them with the sort of precision you’ve brought to bear here?
ETHEL ROHAN: We reveal ourselves in our writing. I never consciously set out to write on any particular theme or thing, but inevitably the same obsessions and preoccupations surface. We write about what matters most to us, about what we believe to be true of the world and of humankind, and that’s what shows up on the page. The repetition of motifs in my work has sometimes frustrated me. This again? I’ve thought, exasperated. I’ve found, though, that when I consciously try not to write about certain things, the work stalls. Now I allow the repetition to come out, particularly in the early drafts. In revision, I decide whether or not the repeating motifs best serve the story or if they’re born from habit and that same tired old tool box, and that’s what determines whether they stay or go.
Q: What is your revision process? How long will you typically work on one story? How many are you writing at the same time usually? How do you know when a piece is finished?
ETHEL ROHAN: Some of my stories begin as strong first drafts and those take less revision and time. I’ll usually focus exclusively on strong first drafts and complete the work over a matter of weeks. Most stories begin as meandering messes, though, and those take many rewrites and months, sometimes even years, of revision during which time I’ll work on a number of projects at once, leaving one for another and returning after time has lapsed and distance has been gained.
There’s a certain satisfaction the work has to deliver and a level it has to reach for me to feel a piece is finished. It’s always a bitter-sweet compromise, though, an admission that I’ve done my best and this is as good as I can get the work. For me it’s less about the work feeling finished as it is about letting the work go, confident that I’ve taken it as far as I can. I will say that I’ve learned the hard way to wait beyond the point of first feeling a piece is finished before I submit it for publication. I’ve been guilty of excitement and impulsiveness when I’ve “finished” a piece and too often I submitted work prematurely. I’m more disciplined now and I let the work sit when I think it’s finished for a week, two, three, and then return to it, always striving to do better.
Q: From your perspective, what is it that makes someone an Irish writer? Do you consider yourself one? Are these kinds of labels useful or instructive?
ETHEL ROHAN: I was born and raised in Ireland. I immigrated to San Francisco when I was 22. I’m Irish everything, so, yes, I consider myself an Irish writer. Labels are convenient in that they order things. Labels also have their limits because they box things. The label “Irish writer” explains my origins, my sense of identity, and my deep connections. It also encapsulates the great legacy to which I aspire.
Q: What is the SF Writer’s Grotto? How does it help to be a member?
ETHEL ROHAN:The San Francisco Writers’ Grotto is coming up on its 20th anniversary. The downtown office gathers narrative artists–writers, filmmakers and the like–who welcome structure in their work lives and the opportunity to interact with a community of peers. Residents rent private offices and communal corrals. The grotto has provided me with hallowed space to work amidst a collective charge and allowed me the opportunity to make some wonderful friends. I find it a warm, inviting, instructive, and inspiring place.
Q: What’s the one thing you’ve learned since Goodnight Nobody has come out that you wish someone had told you as you were preparing for its release?
ETHEL ROHAN: That Goodnight Nobody, no book, will ever matter as much to anyone else as it does to me, and the self-promotion needed to try to get the book into readers’ hands is exhausting, and often uncomfortable, and sometimes crushing.
Q: Do you have any advice for other writers?
ETHEL ROHAN: Write and read. Persevere. Network. Don’t get paranoid, bitter, or stuck in self-doubt. Be a good literary citizen. Write and read.
Q: What are you working on now?
ETHEL ROHAN: My tiny memoir, Out of Dublin , published on May 14, 2014. Out of Dublin is an ebook single from Shebooks, a publisher devoted to publishing women writers in fiction, memoir, and journalism. I’m also hard at work on what I hope is the final revision of my novel manuscript. We shall see…
by Kevin Ridgeway
the familiar whistle-rattling theme music
would play endlessly on our ancient television,
the lump-jawed visage and bulbous appendages
of my animated underdog hero and his
broken record chuckle, fighting bearded lummox
brutes in honor of his lank-legged brunette sweetheart
propelled by canned greens that helped him clean up
shop in a masterfully awkward dance that came to a
climax at the second of two reels
I worshipped this odd character, donned a secondhand
sailor suit, kept a plastic toy pipe tucked firmly in my
cherubic jowls and mumbled witticisms for the
kindergarten nerd girls that I fancied; I ate straight
out of aluminum cans and tried my hardest to flex
my arms until they swelled like balloons and chased
fools across schoolyards in the name of lunch pail
justice while they all laughed at my devotion to
I grew too big for the sailor suit, switched to
cigarettes and grew enough hair and flab to
resemble the mean old mad-eyed heavies that
my quirky idol detested; I even switched to organic
vegetables, no more strength out of the kitchen
dry goods pantry…and I’m too deranged to join
deep inside my sweet and salty exterior, beyond the
scars from the savage licks of adult life is that
strange boy in the sailor suit shadow boxing the
nightmares and evil goons away, squinting at the
bright lights of the old Technicolor cartoons that
are playing on the decaying television sets of
Kevin Ridgeway is from Southern California, where he resides in a shady bungalow with his girlfriend and their one-eyed cat. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Trailer Park Quarterly, My Favorite Bullet and Cadence Collective. His latest chapbook of poems, All the Rage, is now available from Electric Windmill Press.
photo by laap.mx
by Mitchell Grabois
She’s got an image of a vagina
tattooed on her finger
and invites all comers to ask about it
She wants to talk
about the rings in her nostrils
glittering gold and diamond
in the dark New York
She wants to talk about
fourth wave feminism
She wields the Oxford comma
like a weapon
It’s also called the Serial Comma
She’s a Serial Comma User
a serial grammarian
a serial monogamist
and lipstick user
and likes the idea of her central core
as being serial
She contemplates becoming a serial killer
just something to ponder as the subway
clickety-clacks her toward home
She already has a list
She adores my “high-low” take on life
so I think I’m safe
until I remember that
she also worships rain
and in the Borderline world
is the other side of worship
She has all the signs
of living on the Borderline
so I’d better watch my back
I’d better be careful
M. Krochmalnik Grabois’ poems have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines in the U.S. and abroad. He is a regular contributor to The Prague Revue, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, most recently for his story “Purple Heart” published in The Examined Life in 2012, and for his poem. “Birds,” published in The Blue Hour, 2013. His novel, Two-Headed Dog, based on his work as a clinical psychologist in a state hospital, is available for 99 cents from Kindle and Nook, or as a print edition
photo by AdobeofChaos
by Philip Kobylarz
“You’ve got to breathe,” I told her. “You’ve really got to breathe, afterwards. I don’t care how good it is.”
“Oh, you don’t care?” she asked from behind the black veil of hair that concealed her face. I couldn’t see her mouth moving.
“You know what I mean.”
Marie had a tendency to give her all, to go all out. She was really wild when we were together. But afterwards, she would stop breathing and lie there as still as a sleeping body. I would have to nudge her or watch her back to see it rise and sink, to see if her lungs were tenuously pulling on a thread of air. She could be so still. Sometimes she wouldn’t say a word for a half an hour. Sometimes it scared me.
We were at the Blufftop Motel somewhere in the arid zone of southeastern Colorado. Our bodies and minds were drained as we both rested quietly while staring at the red glare of a digital clock. There must have been a recent storm that knocked the power out. It’s common knowledge around here that you wake to sunny skies, clouds roll in late afternoon, it rains fiercely, then clears up. The rain stops you for a minute from whatever you’re doing to watch the sun light up the dust in the air and extinguish behind cloudbanks that look like another distant range. It’s been so long since I’ve been West I had to spot the scud and smell the cold dirty rain to remember what it was like. Most days it worked like clockwork.
The transparent white curtains were split open and in between them we could see a creme-colored plateau, streaked in green stripes of some kind of vegetation, maybe sage or juniper. I doubt pine, at least not yet. We hadn’t come far enough to see a forest. This city seemed to be surrounded by tableland that was fissured into a million canyons like hidden mazes leading somewhere way beyond our gaze. And in them, the bones of dinosaurs sequestered. We would never find them though. Maybe no one would. Anyhow, we were just passing through.
We were going to the ocean. What we were really doing, who knows? Perhaps eloping. Maybe leaving our lives behind in a city where we had decent jobs and happy lives but not enough ways to get out. Maybe just taking a few days of vacation in the dying weeks of summer knowing we would return to our old selves safe and locked behind the deadbolt of an apartment’s door.
The day after, we rose early and crossed Utah and the wretched desert of Nevada. The sun shone blindingly the whole morning of driving and our car hummed over the pavement like a well-oiled fan. She drove for hours with her eyes fixed on the unending slit, sometimes jagged, line of the horizon, switching the radio dial around to find any kind of music. Anything. A lot of rockabilly, low-budget classical, and whiny, excitable men talking about the divine tricks of Jesus. How Our Lord walked much the very same landscape as these wastelands speaking of fecundity and the God in man. How he could make wine out of water and fish out of nothing but stones in baskets.
I was seeing the illusions of Palestine myself come to life in the vapors of heat above the highway. A sidewinder was really only a streak of orange desert sand brought to life by a gust of air. The mountains in the rearview weren’t moving and the Santa Fe train line underlining them wasn’t moving backwards. The wooden sign marking the playa couldn’t have said “next exit 150 miles.”
There were tens of different brands of gas stations and hastily erected warehouses. Sometimes a Calder of a refinery lit up with circus lights. I thought of ranch houses on the moon. Cattle trails were ground into the land like directions cut for the single engine airplanes flying above us. The few cactuses were in bloom with feathered hats of yellow and orange-like red.
“Pull over!” Marie yelled, waking me from my road dream. A rooster tail of dust enveloped the car. She ran out, leaving the door open, onto the scrub and piñon of wilderness. Flinging her leather purse along, at full-sprint, into the dying light of the desert, where the only cover was bush and rock streams of arroyos. Her glasses were sitting on the dashboard, fingerprints about the edges of the lenses.
Fourteen minutes passed before she was back. Her hair in switches and her cheeks blushed by the wind.
“What’d you do?”
“I had to pee. It’s really beautiful out there. Everything’s alive. Even the dirt. I think I saw a scorpion. There was something out there. I mean I saw something moving on the ground.”
We guessed we were still in Nevada. Tumbleweeds and gray stone hills in rows like monuments to nothing. The gas stations petered out on the highway where only fence poles marked the highway’s direction and served as civilization’s minimalism. A mantle of cool air was descending. A naked hand on the windshield left a stain of condensation. I began, I believe, seeing cradles of fog here and there, ghosts of clouds for seconds under the brights. Seeing is believing.
Marie drove for the rest of the night. One arm on the door, the other changing the dial or adjusting the mirrors. I wondered: to see what? She found a station that was on the frequency of short wave, emitting only beeps of sound, static and eerie feedback “There,” she said “that’s it.”
When I woke, we had come all the way to Sacramento. The plains rolled at the same speed as us and buckled into a crease of hills behind. After them, the ocean. Further west, Asia. She pointed to a jack-knifed trailer. Four cars had piled up behind it. There was an ambulance and the few cars of traffic were slowed down at the scene. A man lying on a stretcher, tied to it, with a reflection of red in his eyes similar to that of a wolf’s I thought I saw once as a boy in the north woods. Two men were carrying him to the open doors. He could have been seeing angel wings. The Greek becoming visible in the blue writing on white background: PARAMEDIC.
We had miles to go before we would reach the Grapevine, then the unending patchwork of Los Angeles, if the city could be seen under the blanket of early morning fog to be replaced by the opaque grey of afternoon pollution. We had arranged a place to stay somewhere along the coastal highway. It was an abandoned shack on the beach that was formerly used as a summer house by Marie’s sister who worked from time to time as a writer for television. She was now in between jobs and wanted the consolation of company. We would stay there and visit her in her new place in the hills. She warned us that we might become enchanted by the larger than life billboards on the road to her house and would never want to leave the glorified brand of reality that Southern California breeds. She referred to the region as “So Cal.”
“You wanna drive now?” Marie yawned.
The suburbs began and never did they cease. There was so much visual stimuli that I could barely keep my eyes on the road. Road sign. Call box. Weeping willow. Little Saigon. Traffic light. Palm trees ruffling their feathers in the breeze. We had made it to the end of a continent. The odometer changed over. Warm air filtered through vents and smelled of pavement and ocean sand.
A sidewalk extended into the sea. On the concrete platform, the iron railing had rusted to a deep maroon. Blotches of deep blue paint remained like thumbprints of limpets. Wooden benches with mainly seagulls aligned on them. It smelled of the cheap seafood restaurants burdening the pier. The word crab in Chinese and an airbrushed watercolor of the bright orange spider on a poster fluttering on a false kiosk. Marie got out of the car. The ocean was just across its empty parking lot.
The Santa Monicas leaned into the water, green in the distance, a mist beginning around their base and the lip of the ocean. The arcade was lit up. There were the musical chords of a carnival.
The first thing Marie said was “Oh shit.”
“Look, it’s not that bad. There’s seagulls, a mist coming in, look at that, down there, those models. It looks like there doing a fashion shoot!”
There were women dressed to kill behind lights and some men in leather. One had a camera. Another was telling the women where to stand.
“My pants. They’re ruined.”
I looked over the top of the car. Marie had a dark halo around her lap. What she called her monthly curse had followed her. I remembered the cactuses in bloom.
“So what,” I said. “Put a long shirt on. We’re here.”
We walked along the pier breathing it all in. At a tall, wooden building that had the word “Sinbad’s” painted on it, we stopped. It was abandoned but once must have been an arcade or a bar. Its gabled roof with warped planks peeling apart from one another seemed really western even if it wasn’t. Truth was the only thing that wasn’t a commodity in this town, maybe even this era.
The continent lay behind us. If there is such a place, or feeling, or state of something called happiness, we had found its momentary location. But like a hungry seagull, it took off on the next ocean breeze.
Marie, with her eyes scanning the distance and the ends of her hair feeling for the salt in the air, said, “Well, we made it. We really made it.”
“Where’s that?” I asked.
“From there to here,” she whispered. We breathed in the iodine of coastal air.
Philip Koblarz’s most recent works appear or will appear in Connecticut Review, Basalt, Santa Fe Literary Review, New American Writing, Poetry Salzburg Review and has appeared in Best American Poetry. His book, Rues, was recently published by Blue Light Press of San Francisco. His collection of fiction, Now Leaving Nowheresville and his book length essay Nearest Istanbul are forthcoming.
photo by WouterKiel