Ethan Rutherford’s stories draw out, wind, zing; in truth, I would go so far as to explain his range as chameleonic. In The Peripatetic Coffin, his debut collection, aptly named Ward Lumpkin waxes poetic as he finds his short-stick life coming to rest, inevitably, in the nadir of the sea and history; then, two boys in their middle-childhood years code switch one summer between brouhaha and desperation as they find their lives, suddenly, never again the same. Over the course of The Peripatetic Coffin, the reader dives into alternative histories, period pieces, dramas, and epistolary tales. That each story—with altogether different, keenly rendered characters married to their different, uniquely furnished environments—delivers the reader to a head space of empathy speaks to Rutherford’s ability to see we humans as we are here, there, and everywhere.
Out this spring from A Strange Object is Rutherford’s sophomore collection, Farthest South. True to form, Rutherford spins yarns which emphasize who we are here and now: yearning, traumatized, lonely creatures. A father imparts to his boys at bedtime the wisdom from a summer under the scrutiny of something not unlike a curse; later, two parents, stuck in the hospital with their ailing baby, max-out and can’t believe, literally, their eyes. Domesticity is the foundation of this collection, but it wouldn’t be a Rutherford story without the eldritch—a baby, for example, grows scales. I cannot recommend this book enough, for behind any great story a writer has committed to manifesting our fears and in the same breath the exit ramp.
We corresponded via email to talk shop, his new book, and provenance.
B. Nathanial Steelman: What a fascinating, compelling new book. Repeatedly, your characters follow their fears, nuances (neuroses?), and volitions into settings which have a way of embodying so much as exacerbating conflict. For your first book, David Byrne’s line “My god, what have I done” was a unifying question. Any unifying question for your Farthest South?
Ethan Rutherford: What a great question. The characters who ring out for me, as they appear in the stories that open and close the collection, are Hana and Soren. In many ways, this book is theirs, and I came to feel, as I was writing, that their anxiety and concerns about being parents, raising children in a difficult world etcetera, guided the movement of each story in the book. And I think the difference between my first book, which was unified by that wonderful David Byrne line, and this one is that this book is concerned primarily with the idea of family. So that question has moved from my god, what have I done, which is backwards looking,to something more collective and forward-facing, along the lines of: how do we get through this, and what comes next? I know that doesn’t necessarily make for the most grabbing pull-quote, perhaps, but I actually think it is a more productive way to think about story-making, it’s how I felt writing this book, and it’s how I have felt as a dad: this is a problem, let’s zig, here’s something we didn’t expect, OK, zag, there’s the finish line, let’s see if we can get there intact. It invites stranger things to the table, but also promises that there will be some sort of arrival. And I liked that. I don’t like anymore stories that explore certainty, or that feel certain in their endings and what they’ve accomplished. I like stories that dramatize uncertainty while acknowledging that the real resolution, time and therefore time’s end, is probably hustling toward you a little more quickly than you’d liked or hoped. But before that happens, you get to play a bit. You hope to have some courage, and even if you don’t, you try to model that for your kids. I’ve left the area code of your question at this point. But while I’m out here, let me loop back for a minute to music. That Talking Heads song (and I hope it’s in your head now!) was on loop for me as I wrote that first book. One of the epigraphs in this book is from a song called “We Can’t Be Beat” by The Walkmen, and lyrics go: “Oh golden dreams / golden dreams all lose their glow / I don’t need perfection, I love the whole. / Oh give me a life that needs correction. / Nobody loves, loves perfection. / Loneliness, loneliness will run you through. / All the kids are laughing, I’m laughing too.” It’s a beautiful song. And it says something about early parenthood that I think Hana and Soren are coming to understand for themselves as they come to accept both the strangeness and banality of their lives.
(The second epigraph is from Mrs. Caliban, the great, wild novel by Rachel Ingalls. So, you know, things aren’t fully domesticated just yet.)
BNS: The idea of being beat, and the attendant idea of resilience, makes me think of any number of stories in Farthest South. “The Baby” comes to mind most quickly. I read that story and immediately felt I was being shown an example of exorbitant stress becoming trauma becoming change. Do you find that you wrench up tension to such levels in your stories? Or that you find this tension—how to say—more organically?
ER: I’m so pleased to hear about the way you are experiencing these stories. As for tension, sometimes, when dreaming up a story, you go, oh, I know what’ll get them: I’ll kick the door down and turn the volume up to 11! And not let go! But those stories have sort of stopped feeling interesting to me; I can’t make them work anymore, or, at least, can’t do so with a straight face. A frame helps—a number of the stories in this collection are frame stories—and that formal element, to me, felt like an authentic way to both access and leaven the stranger and darker eddies in this book. It also adds a third, mostly quiet but deeply powerful, narrative space, which is where I think some of the tension is thrumming. These frames felt destabilizing as I was writing. They produced what I can only describe as an unspoken and almost unintended energy, something that was interesting and unsettling to me.
One way I’ve come to think about the creation of tension in a piece of writing has less to do with what happensand more to do with the when and how frequently it happens. Patterning, breaking of the pattern, etcetera down to the sentence level. And “The Baby”—which is of course a story of care, love, parental attention, and worry—is a story that, I think, finds its energy and tension via interruption and intrusion: parents, in a hospital with their sick child, cannot find a moment of privacy to gather their thoughts on what is happening to their family, they are being bombarded by information they don’t understand from health professionals they never recognize. The worry becomes that all the important decisions are being made elsewhere, without their consent or consultation. But you are right: a hospitalized child, it is exorbitant stress. The volume begins at 11. There is no stress that I have encountered quite like it. I wrote about it when it happened, in an essay called “Impossible Rooms,” and I’d hoped writing would help me shake the feeling. Clearly, I’m not free of it! And that experience of parental helplessness I felt at that moment was, I think, the birth zone of a lot of the stories in this collection.
BNS: Two of your thoughts put a stop to my clocks: “[These frames] produced what I can only describe as an unspoken and almost unintended energy, something that was interesting and unsettling to me”; and “… that experience of parental helplessness I felt at that moment was, I think, the birth zone of a lot of the stories in this collection.” It seems that you are posturing yourself along the outskirts, or the warning track, of the age-old compulsion we refer to by why I write.
ER: Yep, that’s true! I suppose it is. It is why I write, to look again at certain experiences, transform them, hold them up to the light, say: what was that about, why has that stuck with me? But that feeling, or glimpse, of true, abject helplessness is fairly fleeting, hopefully rare. You can’t live there long; you’d go nuts. In my experience of parenthood, there’s always so much to do, just maintenance, cleaning up, thinking about this or that, getting on with life and getting everyone including yourself through the day and out the door that you don’t have time to do much more than say, yes, there’s a Nether Portal right over there, and we could easily fall through it… and you still have to practice piano and call your grandparents. (That’s a, um, Minecraft reference. I’ll leave it in! Perhaps, one day, my kids will read this and go: oh, he was paying attention to the things we like.)
But a frame on a story: it’s a constructed thing, built to shuttle the reader from one narrative space to another very quickly. I feel like it stabilizes a story and also knocks things a little off kilter by layering tensions rather than schematically setting down action / reaction. And the energy created—well, it feels more Gravitron than roller-coaster to me, and I like that. I suppose I should say here that only three of the stories—“Ghost Story,” “Fable” and “The Diver”—are frame stories. The others have more traditional structures and move in more traditional ways.
BNS: It’s common for a lot of writers to come to love their characters. Do you love them? Have a hard time of letting them go?
ER: I do come to love my characters. Not all of them equally, though, and I find, once the story is over, that almost everything sort of drifts away from me to make room for the next piece of work. I’ve heard other writers say they frequently wonder what their old characters are up to now, and that’s always baffled me a bit; I’ve just never had that experience. Which isn’t to say I don’t now and then remember the ways in which they flashed to life. I’ll always think fondly of Hana and Soren, their children, the Seal Lady and the Diver. Angus and Annabel. In this collection, the character I think of most is Emily, from “Pools, I Am A Hawk.” I think that’s the closest I’ve ever felt to a character. This feels so silly to say, but it’s true.
BNS: What I loved about “Pools” were the degrees of estrangement, it seemed to me, the protagonist, Emily, was finding herself in: daughter, oldest child, someone accused of abuse (because the onlookers didn’t think Emily & Sean were related let alone horsing around), and—lo & behold—a person thought to be a ghost. If you’re comfortable speaking to your affinity for Emily in “Pools,” as you know, I’m all ears.
ER: My fondness for her comes from, I think, the ease with which she moved through the various spaces in that story. I mean this to some degree in a technical, and very simple, sense—unwatched by her mother, she was free to inhabit and engage with the settings in that story: car, club, changing room, pool, forest, home, and, later, near the end, her neighbor’s above ground pool, late at night and after sneaking out of her small apartment, when the encounters of the day—with her younger brother, with the rich kids, with another family and the darkness that sort of belongs in and to the adult world, finally land with her. I liked how she made her entrances and exits. And you are right, what is being dramatized is the degree of estrangement she feels in each of these spheres, and the degree to which she begins to code this as a part of growing up.
BNS: In this vein—thinking of the most pivotal setting in “Pools,” the forest—I noticed the setting of the forest was thematic throughout Farthest South, whereas bodies of water were replete in The Peripatetic Coffin (and wonderfully contrasted/defined by the very absence of water in “Dirwhals!”). Did the settings in Farthest South allow you to illustrate something you were trying to get at? Or did your imagination just step into the woods, then loiter?
ER: Forests are everywhere in this collection, you’re right! So is the ocean, and the last story, “The Diver,” is all ocean and loneliness (that’s my wheelhouse!)—but I suppose this time I also managed to grow a few trees. What I found, when writing, was that I simply began to pay more attention to what was going on the page when things were set near the dark woods. It has everything to do, I think, with a character’s sightlines. These are stories of disruption, or the threat of disruption; of the relationship between the domestic sphere and the weird, thrumming, zone of imagination and desire. The forest is a natural barrier. But you never know what you will find there, if you go walking. You never know what might, one day, step from that tree-line and into the light.
BNS: Loneliness is your wheelhouse. Have you gravitated toward books, in your own reading, which engage with this experience, which embrace it, and examine it?
ER: Loneliness is my wheelhouse, though it’s a strange thing to say out loud, as I feel I’ve been truly blessed by friendship and family life. It’s something I can’t quite explain. Perhaps, when I sit down to write, loneliness is the territory I tread because it’s something I fear, and think about quite a lot. What if all of these wonderful people I’ve made my life with weren’t here? What if, due to some strange personality flaw, I drove them away? The first book I can remember reading that dealt with this, the one that made an impact on me, was Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. The kid in that book didn’t drive anyone away, of course, but he did have to survive in the wilderness, alone.
BNS: We are, as writers, conceived by books, in a way; it’s common enough that one or two books, or writers, once upon a time, convinced us that this is what we want to do with our days we’re allowed. I was seventeen when I read Walden—it more or less defined for me what I consider(ed) beautiful and necessary; then, I was twenty-two when I read for the first time Marilynne Robinson and James Baldwin. From which books would you say you’re born?
ER: I love that Walden was that book for you, which then, perhaps, paved the way for Robinson and Baldwin (Giovanni’s Room is a book of his I read early and it’s lingered, even as I’ve read and loved his other work). Each project I work on has different touch points. So, I’d say a book like The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje has been incredibly important, but only now, in the project I’m working on, am I seeing what that book taught me (and it’s not visible, I don’t think, in the stories in Farthest South, except, perhaps, in the inclusion of illustrations). The books from which I’d say I was born are all the books I spent my time with before I even knew that writing was something you could do: an abbreviated, and illustrated, edition of The Hobbit; Treasure Island; The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Any and all comic books; endless, open afternoons of reading. And a little later, a few of the writers who I remember meeting on the page with astonishment: Herman Melville, Edward P. Jones, Yoko Tawada, Joy Williams, Richard Hughes, Jim Shepard, Joan Didion, Helen Oyeyemi, Kelly Link, Yasunari Kawabata, Victor Pelevin, Alessandro Baricco, Toni Morrison, Marguerite Duras, Vladimir Nabokov, Stanislaw Lem. I’m leaving hundreds of people out.
BNS: Speaking of author’s, you dedicated Farthest South to Paul Yoon. I understand you two are not only best friends, but that you two send work back and forth. How has that connection influenced your writing?
ER: My friendship with Paul has been a piece of great luck in my life. I think he’s brilliant, and I love his work, and we do send work back and forth. Writing can be isolating. You sit at your desk and you go: why am I just sitting here? It helps to know that someone else in the world is also spending time that way: sitting, dreaming, trying to make stuff. And I know that’s what Paul’s doing, because we talk about it. Not many people think writing is important, or think the work and energy you pour into a sentence is a good use of time, or is even visible at all. But some people do, and if you are lucky you meet them, and if you are even luckier, they become friends.
BNS: What did stories do for you as a kid? Did you thirst for them? Need them?
ER: As a kid, what stories did was purely transportive. It always felt like I could just plug in and be anywhere else in the world; time disappeared; I emerged slightly shaken but always like something I’d read about had actually happened to me. Those were the stories I looked for: the ones where the characters were as far from who I was as I could possibly imagine, who did things I never could.
Ethan Rutherford’s fiction has appeared in BOMB, Tin House, Ploughshares, One Story, American Short Fiction, Post Road, Esopus, Conjunctions, and The Best American Short Stories. His first book, The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, a finalist for the John Leonard Award, received honorable mention for the PEN/Hemingway Award, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and was the winner of a Minnesota Book Award. Born in Seattle, Washington, he received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota and now teaches Creative Writing at Trinity College. He lives in Hartford, Connecticut with his wife and two children.
His second collection, Farthest South, was published by A Strange Object in April 2021.