The stories collected in Ethan Rutherford’s debut book The Peripatetic Coffin aren’t afraid to tackle big, novelistic premises. The title story is about the crew of a Confederate submarine during the Civil War. In “Dirwhals!” a whaling ship in the future sails about the sands of an emptied-out Gulf of Mexico, hunting a new kind of whale. And in “The Santa Anna,” the crew members of a Russian ship trapped in Arctic ice slowly succumbs to the inevitability of their situation. The fact that Rutherford pulls off such ambitious stories is a testament to his talent. It’s no surprise that The Peripatetic Coffin was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize.
In this interview, Rutherford discusses his approach to plot, the horrible allure of whaling, and rock and roll as the antidote to the isolation of being a writer.
(To read Rutherford’s story “Dirwhals!” and an exercise based on plot development, click here.)
I really admire how you up the major plot elements in “Dirwhals!” For instance, when Capt. Tonker warns the crew about the Firsties, you write this: “So, his order: spot the Firsties, and report them, but under no circumstances were we to engage, even if provoked. They had cameras, they wanted us to fire on them, and they would stop at nothing to manufacture an incident, even if it came at great cost to their organization.” This is the proverbial gun on the wall. We know there will be an encounter with the Firsties, and the crew will not follow orders. Some writers are afraid to be so direct, but when I read that scene above, I got excited. It gave me confidence that there would be a payoff for reading to the end. There’s nothing worse than finishing a story and thinking, “Well, what was that all about?” Were you always so direct in the early drafts (and did you always know about the encounter with the Firsties) or was this was the result of revision?
That’s a great question. I always knew that there would be a confrontation with the Firsties at the end of the story; things always pulled strong in that direction when I stepped back to think about what should—or had to—happen in order to put pressure on the narrator’s sense of who he was, and what he was supposed to be doing out there in the sand. John Gardner has written that in order for an ending to be successful it ought to be both “surprising and inevitable.” That seems like a straightforward assertion, but I’ve spent many a sleepless night, tossing and turning, thinking: what exactly does that mean? The truth is, I always know where a story is headed—I have to know that, or I cannot write it. And so in a story about people who are trying to hunt an endangered, but commercially lucrative, species and the organization trying to save that species, a confrontation struck me as inevitable, and was always the moment I was writing toward. And that, as you point out, was telegraphed from the beginning of the story (the “gun on the wall”). So then what to do about the surprise? I’ve come to understand “surprise” in a story as having less to do with What Happens than with a character’s emotional response to the role he/she has played in bringing these events about. And the surprising part, to me, is that the narrator of this story—who over the course of their hunting voyage has come to glimpse the full, devastating effect of what they are doing—accepts and even embraces his role in this one-sided confrontation, rather than rejecting it. He’s horrified by what he’s doing, but not horrified enough to stop, an emotional shift that should hit him harder than it does.
You don’t want to telegraph too much, but the “gun on the wall” is a great way to create tension, and plot-tension is one way to keep people reading. In the first paragraph of Lolita, we’re told that you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style, and you go: wait, there’s going to be a murder! And so you keep reading just long enough for that book to cast its complete linguistic spell, and you don’t care how sucker-hooked you were from the start (in fact, that’s one of the pleasures of that book).
So, finally, to your question: I tried to hide the moving pieces in this story a little more in the early drafts, but it wasn’t working. Finally I just said: well, I’m not pulling this off. What happens if the stakes are laid out directly, and then I can get on with the more interesting work in the story? And in this particular case, in this story, that happened to work best. I always forget just how long that story is. And since most of the story is just this futuristic sand-mobile cruising around in a desert, not seeing anything at all, it seemed important to let the reader know that if they hung in there until the end, that patience would be rewarded in a devastating way.
I’ve read stories about the experience of sailing across the ocean and feeling hopelessly lost, but while reading “DIRWHALS!” it was as if I finally understood what it must have been like for the crew of a whaling ship to see a whale leap out of the water. Perhaps it’s an effect of the strangeness of ocean being replaced with sand—that’s what science fiction is all about, right? The defamiliarizing of the familiar? I’m curious if you started out with the premise intact (the futuristic world) or if you wanted to write about whaling but needed a fresh entry to the story.
I’d wanted to write about “actual” whaling, originally. I spent a summer doing nothing but research on the American whaling industry, and I had two Great Ideas for my Big Novel. The first was that it would be Moby Dick II, picking up where that book stopped, an historical novel that continued the story of the whaling industry, and followed it through to its death-rattle at the end of the 19th century. The second idea was that I’d write a Moby Dick-ish story, but replace the great white whale with a huge giant squid, who was opposed to the laying of the Trans-Atlantic telegraph cable (1854-58) and made his displeasure known. I have a poster depicting such a scenario, and I thought: Ding! Both of those ideas bottomed out on the shoals for one reason or another—mostly, though, because I re-read Moby Dick and thought: well, there’s no topping this.
But what had always interested/horrified me about whaling, though, was the ruthlessness of the enterprise, the shortsightedness of it: that people either didn’t see or didn’t care that what they were doing—or, more specifically, the way they were doing it—all of it only moves one way, and that’s toward extinction. Add to that, near the end of the nineteenth century, if you are a whaler, you are going on expeditions that begin to take years at a time, push you into some seriously forbidding territory—and somewhere in your head you begin to realize your only purpose on the water is the depletion of an increasingly devalued (commercially speaking) natural resource, for which you won’t even be compensated fairly, since all of the money that is to be made is done so by the wealthy people ashore who have financed the expedition. And then, you know, petroleum enters the picture, and renders the entire industry obsolete. Meanwhile, the ocean is just awash in blood, and for what?
Whaling, drilling, fracking, etc. It’s not all the same, but there’s some thematic rhyming going on there, and things are getting much worse, as far as what we are willing to put up with in order to keep things running in a way we find convenient. And science fiction isn’t only about rendering the familiar less so (as you so nicely say above), it’s also about taking the social/economic/theoretical problems inherent in the way we live now and running them, logically—with a little extra juice added, a little exaggeration—to the end of the line. So, long and drifting answer to your question: yes, I wanted to write about whaling, and I think, in the end, I did (the basics of the hunt are the same, the terminology is largely the same). But shifting the story into the future allowed me skew the setting, and allowed me to wrap the story around the themes I found interesting, rather than the other way around. Lighter note? Writing science fiction, the world building that occurs, is just really, really fun. And you are right, this was, at least at first, just a way to write about whaling without having to get too far into the ring with Melville.
The story is written as a journal-in-letters–a form that is nearly extinct in our social media age. We have personal blogs, of course, but they are written with the knowledge that each post will be read immediately. But the letters in this story won’t be read for months, if ever. As a result, the narrator’s voice sounds almost pre-modern. The sentences are long and carefully phrased, as if the narrator has plenty of time to think before putting the words to paper. For instance, here’s a description of the first Dirwhal sighing: “This creature was enormousness itself, more viscerally alive and mobile than I’d thought possible. We watched as it surfaced again: a dark stain against the sand, winding its rounded bulk across the basin floor, rolling sideways rather than cutting in a straight line as I had always imagined it would move.” This is not a description that was scribbled quickly. It’s deliberative. Did you think consciously about the voice–about how someone in this situation might sound in a letter? Or did the voice simply occur to you?
I did think about the voice, a lot. In the first draft of the story, it was written more traditionally: linear narrative, first person, present tense. But those choices eventually presented a huge problem for the story I wanted to tell, which was a story that spans a number of years. Time management in short stories can be really difficult—or, I should say, I find it difficult—and I found that each paragraph would open with something like “Five weeks later…”. You can do that once, or twice, three times in a story, perhaps. But in “Dirwhals!” it was getting repetitive, and it became clear that the narrative choices I’d made—the way I was telling the story—was getting in the way of the story I wanted to tell. It wasn’t coming out right at all. Form was determining content, in a bad, bad way.
I’d read a lot of ship’s logs while researching the afore-mentioned Moby Dick II, and it seemed, in many ways, like the perfect way to solve the time issues in the story. I don’t know how many ship’s logs you’ve read, but they’re really wonderful and harrowing in the way they compress time, and lay the mundane next to the extraordinary. You know, one entry will read: “August 14: Good wind today. Corrected course. Everyone in high spirits.” And two entries later it’s something like: “October 2: Ship now fully encased in ice. Four men lost overboard in rough crossing. Polar bears becoming a problem. Cabin lamps performing well.” So I took a week, and put the whole thing into a ship’s log of sorts, and was thrilled by that. It solved all of my time problems, and also moved a lot of drama that was necessary to the story off-stage, and into exposition (another way to compress your story). The story still wasn’t working, though.
Then my editor at Ecco, Libby Edelson, read the story and said: you know, it’s a fine ship’s log, but who cares? His relationship with his sister is the emotional heart of the thing for me, and you’re ignoring it. Why don’t you see if you can make this log, somehow, into letters for her? And that snapped the entire story into shape for me. I’ll never be able to thank her enough. That suggestion also gave the voice a chance to stretch out a little: to formalize, to set scenes, to become baroque and self-conscious. A ship’s log is exclusively detail. When you are writing a letter—to someone you miss, and feel, perhaps, you’ve wronged—you try, a little harder, to bring scenes to life, you chose your words a little more carefully; you try to explain your actions—to yourself, to another person—and ask for love and forgiveness in return.
Every writer I know secretly wishes they were a musician. I guess the experience of playing music live, of watching the audience absorb and react to your art, sounds good when you’re locked away by yourself, writing. There’s no comparable experience for a writer. At live readings, you have to pay attention to the words that you’re reading. You can’t look up and watch the audience for more than a few seconds. But you get to do both! (I’ll include a link to Pennyroyal’s website.) How does the life of a writer mesh with the writing life? Do they feed each other? Compete?
Ha! Right. And when you do look up at a reading, it’s not like you’re not making anyone dance, no matter how much they might be enjoying your version of a “radio voice” (unless, of course, they’ve put the podium directly in front of the bathroom, which I have seen with my own eyes). To a certain degree, though, performance is performance, you’re trying to get something across, and it’s wonderful and thrilling and scary to get up in front of any size crowd and share something you’ve worked hard on. I get the flop-sweats to exactly the same degree before readings and concerts. The difference for me comes, I suppose, in the composition. When you’re writing a song, or ironing out the kinks, you are doing it with three other people, in real time, and you just know if it’s working or not. You know the sour notes as you hit them. When writing, I’ve found that it can take me years to figure out where the sour notes are. What I like about the process of creating music is exactly the opposite of what I like about writing. Being in a band, for me, is about camaraderie, compromise (in a good way! Perhaps teamwork is a better way to put it), and immediacy. Writing requires a great deal of patience, determination, and the weird desire to project a world of your own making. Writing also requires a particular and pleasurable kind of solitude that can veer, quickly, into loneliness. So you can see how the writing/music split is, in some ways, self-medication. When I’ve spent too much time alone, music can pull me out of that. And when I’ve had enough of being around other people, I know it’s time to go back to the writing desk. I’m a recent father, though, so this last year has really put that creative theory to the test, in the best way possible. My time isn’t my own anymore, not the way it once was. So I’m getting better at doing a little bit here, and a little bit there, and seeing where it all lands at the end of the week.
Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.