Introducing 2013 Literary Debutante: Ethan Rutherford

On June 6th, at our 4th Annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating seven One Story authors who have published their debut books over the past year. As a lead-up to the event, we have been introducing our Debs through a series of interviews about their debut book experiences.P.Coffin

This week we’re chatting with Ethan Rutherford, author of the collection The Peripatetic Coffin, which was just released by Ecco. Ethan made his One Story debut in 2011 with “Summer, Boys.”

In The Peripatetic Coffin, the stories are thematically linked with a kind of claustrophobia, that makes the reader feel as though they can barely breathe—in the best way possible. All of the stories seem to follow the idea of closeness, be it physical (in a submarine, or a huge ship trapped in ice) or emotional (two boys as a separate, however deeply entangled, main character). Somehow, Rutherford manages to tie it all together. Another One Story author, Paul Yoon, described The Peripatetic Coffin as: “Moving seamlessly from one world to another, from oceans to a snow-covered meadow to the rooms of childhood, each story is a vessel of longing and possibility . . . . this book is a revelatory feat of the imagination, and The Peripatetic Coffin is an incomparable, vital debut.” We’re grateful that Ethan took the time to answer a few questions with us.

Where were you when you heard that your book had been accepted for publication?
I was at work, sitting at my desk, trying to get through as many work-related emails as possible, trying to ignore the phone. It was December, right before the holidays. This being Minneapolis, in winter, it was like the Ice Planet Hoth outside. The phone kept ringing, and finally I answered it, and it was Sarah Burnes, my agent, with the good news, and my day was just happily obliterated. All of my work emails, for the rest of the day, were full of cheer and exclamation points, which, I’m sure, was confusing to people on the receiving end, who were probably mad at me about something.

Which of your stories in The Peripatetic Coffin was the most interesting to write?
Well, each story has its own problems to wrangle (the settings in these stories are varied, some historical, some contemporary, some sci-fi), and figuring out how to approach the particular challenge a story presents is always interesting for me. It’s not that a story is a puzzle you are trying to solve, but you are trying very hard to make a story specific, and true to the world and characters you’ve put down. I had the most fun writing “Camp Winnesaka,” a story in which the narrator, a camp counselor, is struggling to issue a mea culpa without actually taking any responsibility for his role in the summer’s massive camper casualty rate. The blend of earnestness, incompetence, limp metaphor, and self-deception required on his part was pure pleasure to put down on paper.

A common theme in these stories that I found to be consistently apparent was a slow and steady suffocation—for instance the men aboard the Saint Anna, and even in Summer, Boys—we find the characters in a situation in which they feel either a physical or emotional claustrophobia. What was your fascination with this theme?
Well, I may be the worst person to try to answer that question (maybe a therapist could, if, since Arrested Development, I didn’t have a fear of therapists). Broadly speaking, though, characters tend to reveal themselves in interesting ways—they begin to understand what they either are or are not capable of—when they are under the kind of pressure you mention above. When the walls are closing in, and the normal exits are blocked, the question becomes: what am I going to do now? And what a character does at that moment, or what he or she feels—as the physical or emotional claustrophobia (ideally both) sets in and takes hold—is revealing. That’s the moment I’m interested in, both as a reader, and as a writer. Sometimes this comes as the submarine is sinking, or as the Arctic ice is swallowing your ship; other times, as in “Summer, Boys,” it comes as a character begins to understand how fragile and fleeting a particular kind of immersive friendship can be.

You’ve said that the characters in your stories end in your mind as their time on the page does, but do you feel the story itself is ever truly finished?
For me, yes, the story is done when it’s out in the world. The hope, of course, is that people will read it, and like it, and that in some small way the story will produce an emotional churn in the reader. But all of that is out of my hands. I wish the stories well, but I’m done with them, and they’re done with me. It’s a fond farewell, though. And always a bit of a relief.

Are you working on anything new now?
I am! A novel! Which, well, the less said about it, probably the better. I have no idea how it’s going to turn out. Right now it’s about eco-terrorism. But tomorrow, it might be about the Seattle Super Sonics. I’ve got more clarity than that on the project, I suppose, but right now, in these early days, it does feel like thematic swoops and veers are still very much in play.

Why did you choose the title The Peripatetic Coffin? Does the word peripatetic not only relate to the story about the submarine (as that connection is obvious) but speaking towards your collection as a whole, sort of how the stories fall apart and come together and are still swimming around together in a literary fishbowl?
Ha! Yes, it does—or should—work for the collection as a whole. I’m interested in endings. In the title story, the end for the characters is contrasted with the improbability and determination and cheerful fatalism demonstrated by that small Civil War submarine (which was called “The Peripatetic Coffin” by the people who operated it) as it wrote its way into history—and the story then hopefully becomes about the ways in which characters confront the “claustrophobia” you mention earlier, and their attempt to transfer the whole experience into something more personally recognizable. And I think in that sense, the phrase could apply to all the stories in the collection. But I like how you said it better, and am happy to have that be the official word.

What are you looking forward to the most about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on June 6th?
Well, the amazing writer Manuel Gonzales answered this question by saying he was looking forward to buying a kick-ass ball gown, and so I’m looking forward to talking to him about that, to make sure we don’t show up with the same gown, which would be embarrassing. Other than that: I’m looking forward to being there with my editor, Libby Edelson; I’m looking forward to the music; I’m looking forward to seeing everyone and saying hello to the One Story folks, whom I’ve long admired, but never met.

Most of all, though, I’m looking forward to celebrating One Story itself—the real belle of the ball here. I will be raising many glasses to them, and will have to be carried out at the end of the night.

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