Tag Archives: Ethan Rutherford

An Interview with Ethan Rutherford

26 Sep
Ethan Rutherford's story collection The Peripatetic Coffin was X

Ethan Rutherford’s story collection The Peripatetic Coffin was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize and was called “a revelation” by National Book Critics Circle Award Winner Ben Fountain.

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.)

Michael Noll

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?

Ethan Rutherford

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.

Michael Noll

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.

Ethan Rutherford

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.

If you've never read Moby Dick, you can check out the entire text online at The Literature Network. The book's known for its length and lengthy discourses about knot tying, but the first chapter is an old-fashioned adventure yarn.

If you’ve never read Moby Dick, you can check out the entire text online at The Literature Network. The book’s known for its length and lengthy discourses about knot tying, but the first chapter is an old-fashioned adventure yarn.

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.

Michael Noll

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?

Ethan Rutherford

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.

Michael Noll

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?

Ethan Rutherford

Ethan Rutherford is a member of Pennyroyal, a 4-piece rock band based in Minneapolis. The band's latest album is Baby I'm Against It.

Ethan Rutherford is a member of Pennyroyal, a 4-piece rock band based in Minneapolis. The band’s latest album is Baby I’m Against It.

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.

September 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

How to Put the Gun on the Wall

24 Sep
Ethan Rutherford's story "Dirwhals!" was published at FiveChapters and included in his debut collection The Peripatetic Coffin.

Ethan Rutherford’s story “Dirwhals!” was published at FiveChapters and included in his debut collection The Peripatetic Coffin.

By now, everyone knows the Russian story writer Anton Chekhov’s suggestion, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” In workshop, if a story needs more tension, it’s not uncommon for someone to say, “Put a gun on the wall.” Students tend to take this advice literally and hang up not only guns but knives, axes, chain saws, and mean dogs.

So, what if you want to set up plot without literally hanging something on your story’s wall? The writer Ethan Rutherford demonstrates another method in his futuristic whaling story, “Dirwhals!” It’s included in his debut collection The Peripatetic Coffin, and you can read it now at FiveChapters.

How the Story Works

The story is about a whaling ship in the Gulf of Mexico–except that the Gulf has been drained of water, and the whales are large whale-like beasts that burrow through the sand. Most of the dirwhals have already been killed, and so the ships hunting them must travel into unknown areas. In this scene, a ship’s captain is speaking to his crew, and what he says will set up a plot point as neatly as putting a gun on the wall:

“But what he had come to tell us was now that we were moving further and further into the basin, those on watch were to be spotting for two things: dirwhals, and other shipper-tanks, which, given our current location, would most likely belong to the Firsties. A collective groan, followed by hissing, went up among the crew. Protection kooks, someone explained to me when I asked who the Firsties were. Bushard added: kamikaze environmentalists; degenerates; cultists; criminals. Capt. Tonker held up his hand for silence.

Their aim, he said, is to put us out of a job.”

The captain’s speech neatly lays out the stakes, not only the crew versus the Firsties but also the forces that are pushing them into a confrontation. Now watch how Rutherford uses these stakes to set the crew on a course that will determine the plot for the rest of the story:

“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. He asked us if we understood. We answered: yes, of course.”

As savvy readers, we know that the crew will run into the Firsties and things will not go according to plan. The certainty of that encounter is the gun on the wall. The decisions that lead the crew into that inevitable encounter is the story’s plot.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s use the captain’s speech in “Dirwhals!” as a model for how to set up plot:

  1. Choose a resource that can be exhausted. In “Dirwhals!” that resource is the whale-like creatures. But most things in the world exist in limited quantities: time, money, and jobs but also less tangible things like patience and endurance.
  2. For most resources, there is one side that wants to deplete the resource and another side that wants to conserve it. For the resource that you chose, what are those sides?
  3. Let a spokesperson for one of the sides explain the situation that will lead to an inevitable confrontation with the other side. So, if the story is about a woman who works 50 hours a week and in her off-hours takes care of her kids and maintains the integrity of the house and family, she will feel that her time is limited. If her brother calls and says that their mom can’t take care of herself and so should move in with the woman, the woman will obviously not feel that such an arrangement is possible. But, let’s say her brother is in the army and about to be deployed overseas. Now, you have two sides: one (the brother) pushing to deplete an already limited resource (the woman’s time), and another (the woman) trying to conserve what little time she has left to herself. Imagine the rant she might deliver to her husband or kids about the situation–imagine if that rant ends with “One of these days, my brother and I are going to have it out, and that will be the end of things.” What follows–the events that lead to that confrontation–is the story’s plot.
  4. If you want, you can outline those events.

Good luck with this exercise. You may find that a plot outline is not necessary. Knowing where the story is headed can sometimes guide you as much as any outline.

How to Set the Rules Your Characters Must Live By

13 Aug
Shannon Thompson's novel "Minutes Before Sunset" was a Goodreads Book of the Month in July.

Shannon A. Thompson’s novel Minutes Before Sunset was a Goodreads Book of the Month in July and tells the story of two young adults trying to balance their supernatural gifts with a desire to live in the human world.

Every story has rules. In comic books, the superheroes have certain powers and not others. In horror stories, monsters can be killed only with silver bullets or certain chants. In romances, the heroine falls for certain kinds of men and not others. Pam Houston wrote a novel titled Cowboys are My Weakness. The rules of the novel are announced before you even open the book. Every story ever written or told must announce the rules it will play by.

The trick, as a writer, is to show those rules without disrupting the narrative. Shannon A. Thompson sets the rules clearly and quickly in her Young Adult/Paranormal novel Minutes Before Sunset. You can read the first chapter here. 

How the Story Works

Once you’re aware of how stories set the rules that their characters must live by, you can’t avoid seeing it’s done. Whether the fiction is genre or literary, the need to impose boundaries and limitations on characters is the same.

Here’s an example from the title story of Ethan Rutherford’s excellent new collection The Peripatetic Coffin. The story’s about the crew of a Confederate submarine trying to break the Union blockade of the port of Charleston:

“On deck, we had an unobstructed view of what Augustus had dubbed our Tableau of Lessening Odds. The Federal blockade was stupefyingly effective. Union canonships patrolled the mouth of the harbor, just out of range, and sank anything we tried to send through with the insouciance of a bull swatting blackflies. At night, they resumed the bombardment of the city. High, arching incendiaries, numbering in the thousands, painted the sky. You felt the concussion in your chest.”

The world is imposing clear boundaries on the characters: literally, a blockade with cannon balls and bombs. At no point in the story will the characters be able to act as if these impediments do not exist.

But the boundaries and rules can be mental as well as physical. To see how, read these two excerpts from Shannon A. Thompson’s novel, Minutes Before Sunset:

“It was Independence Day, and I stood with my family on Willow Tree Mountain. They called it Willow Tree Mountain, but, in reality, it was Willow Tree Hill, and the town denied that reality.”

Here’s the second excerpt:

“I moved my foot closer to the edge of the hill. I wanted to ride the wind down to the crowd. I wanted to dance and smile. I wanted to throw my arms in the air and listen to the exploding fireworks. I wanted to run around in endless circles until I fell down from exhaustion. I wanted to enjoy everything.

But that couldn’t happen. It was impossible.”

In these two passages, we learn the fundamentals of the story: the town has an Ignorance-is-bliss attitude. The narrator would like to join the smiling townspeople, but, for a reason that will be revealed later, he’s prevented from doing so. This mental and physical limitation defines his character and determines how the story will move forward.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s practice setting the rules, using Minutes Before Sunset as a model:

  1. Choose a character and a world for that character to inhabit.
  2. Define the world with a single adjective: happy, sad, fearful, proud, bored, etc.
  3. Free write about that adjective. Your goal is to find an image of the world or the people in it that demonstrates the adjective, if possible without actually stating it. The image will set the rules for the world. Future descriptions of the world should adhere to this early image in some way. So, in Minutes Before Sunset, the town’s denial of the supernatural elements in its midst is suggested by the fact that it calls a hill a mountain. In Gone in 60 Seconds, the stovetop burns out of control to suggest Kip’s lack of control.
  4. Now, free write about the character. How does he/she feel about the image you just created? Try to find an action that suggests the character’s attitude toward the world. For instance, in The Hunger Games, the fact that Katniss sneaks through the fence in order to hunt suggests that she’s willing to break the rules to protect her family. Thus, the big event at the end of the first chapter—volunteering for the Games in place of her sister—feels like a natural extension of her character, of the attitude that we’ve already witnessed.

Good luck and have fun.

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