Ethan Rutherford’s Minnesota book award-winning The Peripatetic Coffin is an intense and compelling short story collection filled with memorable characters struggling amidst frightening events and circumstances—a mugging, mental illness, settings that offer physical threat. Rutherford’s stories effectively focus on his complex and realistic characters, and through them Rutherford explores what it means to be human in the face of adversity. Rutherford and I originally met at the Minnesota Book Awards in 2014. This interview conversation for Sleet took place via email communication during January and February of 2015. ~PR
Paige Riehl: Of the eight stories in The Peripatetic Coffin, most have numerous links—struggling male protagonists, a sense of loneliness and isolation, and, quite frequently, water vessels. Let’s start with this repetition of water and watercraft and their connection with death. There are tipsy rowboats and canoes crafted out of rotten wood in “Camp Winnesaka,” a submarine death trap in “The Peripatetic Coffin,” a Russian vessel ice-trapped for months in the Arctic in “The Saint Anna,” a sailboat that leads a father and son into dangerous circumstances in “The Broken Group,” and in “Dirwhals!” a sort of fantasy shipper-tank named the Halcyon that traverses scorching sand dunes as if they’re the ocean’s waves. Two of these—The Hunley of “The Peripatetic Coffin” and the ship in “The Saint Anna”— are based on real vessels and historical events. Were those actual accounts what sparked your interest in ships and boats, or do you have some personal connection to sailing or the seas? There are so many instances of death in your stories as a result of these vessels’ inherent dangers and failures as well that I’d love to hear your thoughts about the connection.
Ethan Rutherford: Oh, yes—that’s a great question. Well, first: I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, close to the water (Puget Sound), and I grew up around boats. My dad is a sailor, and he somehow managed to pass the love of the ocean down to me, but if I had to characterize that love it would go something like this: I can think of nothing more beautiful, or more terrifying, than the open ocean. I’m drawn to it in a way that many others have been, it’s just that rather than shipping out, I return to it again and again in my stories. It’s a cheaper, less fraught, more immediate way to travel, I suppose. But it’s much more than that, of course. I think most writers have a landscape they inhabit imaginatively, and they find themselves returning to it again and again in their work. Maybe they know why, maybe they don’t. Perhaps there’s some element of nostalgia there for me. But as a writer you have to respond to the tug and pull of your imagination, to follow your instincts, and to write your way toward whatever has captivated your attention. I close my eyes, and water is all I see.
Because of this, I’m also drawn to books and stories about the sea, and one of the great things that happens if you read in a strange and targeted way is that occasionally you come across a particular story that seems unfinished, and you say: wait a minute, what? And that was the case with the C.S.S. Hunley (which was the first Confederate submarine) and the Saint Anna (which I read about in a wonderful book called In The Land Of White Death). I read accounts of those ships, and at the time no one really knew what had happened to either one of them, and it seemed like there was an opening for my imagination to slip in and retell those stories. But that’s sort of the whole story-telling impulse right there, right? Seeing something and activating that what if part of your brain. After reading various accounts, I began to wonder who the people were who’d been on these ships, and what had it been like to be aboard during their doomed expeditions, and before I knew it I was writing to find out.
The sea is dangerous, and pressurized situations make for good stories. But beyond that, I think what I find so compelling and rich about sea stories is the tension between unbounded space (the wide open ocean) and an unbelievably claustrophobic space (a small submarine, a whaling ship), as well as the tension between the individual and a group (or: crew). I also like stories where characters are forced into action, and the ways in which personal fault-lines are exposed when things begin to go wrong. The sea is unforgiving, and the smallest mistake can have bracing consequences. The unstable, and possibly tenuous, situation: it’s a good place for fiction, in general, to inhabit. That sounds bleak, doesn’t it? I try to make the stories funny too, if at all possible.
But this is something I’m very curious about when I talk to other writers. Do you have a landscape you return to, time and time again in your work? I know you grew up in South Dakota, which is a state that I love (in fact, there are parts of that state that remind me very much of the ocean, as far as conjuring up isolation, and space—it is certainly not an empty place, but it is open). Have you ever tried to break free of it, or do you embrace it? For a long time I sort of thought I should stay away from sea stories, but every time I tried, it came out flat and off-key.
PR: I do frequently return to the South Dakota landscape—small towns, augers, corn fields, hay bales—I can’t escape them, and I probably shouldn’t try. How can we stop writing what we know? I also harbor a deep fear of being cliché (you know, “Midwest” writer and yet another corn field), but honestly, our farm was surrounded by fields, so that is the landscape of my youth. It’s true that South Dakota has an ocean-like sense of isolation and beauty—and danger too. When a blizzard rages and I’m in my Saint Paul home, there’s little to worry about. In South Dakota, if the power lines go down and the roads are impassable, that isolation is a threat. I remembered as a kid being worried: will we freeze? starve? I would count the glass jars of food in the basement and estimate how long we could survive. Even now, I always know I’m getting close to home when my phone loses its signal.
Oceans appear in my poems as well; they are so enticing—at least viewing the Pacific from a beach or the Atlantic from a cliff—but they’re terrifying too, literally and with all of their metaphorical implications. For me, the ocean has always represented an escape from my landlocked childhood, but it’s a dangerous escape. So much lurks beneath. If I am by an ocean, I know I’m a long way from home.
Do you feel like your relationship with the ocean affects how you write other landscapes? In particular, I’m thinking about how you create those “unstable” and “tenuous” situations in common places too in The Peripatetic Coffin— in a basement, just outside the front door, during a walk to the car.
ER: I’ve driven on those Dakota roads mid-winter, and they are no joke. The wind squalls! It’s certainly as unstable, or tenuous, or threatening as any ocean. And that threat of isolation is very real—I’d imagine that if you pick up on that hovering threat as a kid, it would stay with you, and manifest in strange and interesting ways, particularly in writing. As for transposing the ocean into other landscapes, I think I do, in fact, do that (or I try to). But I think the way it comes across is that I’m interested in destabilizing certain modes or settings, just to see what happens. It’s that writerly impulse: you shake the snow-globe not to see the swirl, but to see how the snow will, finally, settle once the storm has passed. What has changed? What is the fallout from a particular, and specific, disruptive event? And you can do this in a big way—ships locked in ice, submarines exploding, futuristic whaling expeditions—or a small way: invisible shifts in a family’s dynamic, one friend pulling away from another. The entry point into a story for me is that moment of disruption, when chronic tension gives way to acute tension, and characters have to find a new way of doing things. And yes, I think that probably does come from thinking about the ocean.
PR: It might be strange to phrase it this way, but the danger and violence in your stories is often “quiet.” The fear really builds as a reader waits for what’s about to happen, as in “The Broken Group,” — or in finding out what did happen, as in “Summer Boys.” These characters experience terrible things, but you often write as if the violence is off-camera. Some of your stories make me think of M. Night Shyamalan’s best films and how he raises the intensity through what is unseen and unsaid. I see this in “John, for Christmas” as you have John traveling home, and his mental illness is revealed through phone conversations and flashbacks. The ending of that story—my God—it still haunts me. The focus is on your characters and how they handle and react to these terrible experiences. Is that something you cultivate intentionally? Or did it come automatically? Do you consciously consider a balance between plot and character?
ER: Well, on one level this is a craft issue—all writers need to be conscious of tension and the release from that tension, and how that works on the reader. And I certainly have drafted a lot of violent scenes—even in the stories that made it into the book, all the scenes that are not included, were at some point on the page—but I found out pretty quickly that as a writer I’m less interested in what happened than I am in how it felt to my characters, and how, as you eloquently put it above, they handle and react to upsetting events (which they most likely bear some responsibility for). In that sense, plot is very much in service of character. I also like how you phrase it above, the way that tension can be created sometimes more effectively by what is unseen or unsaid. In monster movies—in good monster movies, I should say—what you see for most of the film is the reaction shot. And I’m interested in how events are experienced by specific characters. One of the things you have to be aware of, if you are writing in a sort of pyrotechnic way (which I am—the death count in this book is high, boats are exploding all over the place) is the way that, say, a car-crash or an explosion can be distracting, and overwhelm the narrative—and the effect is a strange flattening of the entire story. And one of your responsibilities as a writer is to help your reader understand what your story has been about. In the story “John, For Christmas”—which leaves off at the moment before all of the characters will converge, when, possibly, everything they’ve been anxious about is going to come, explosively, to a head—I get a lot of questions about that story, people wanting to know what happens. And I always want to say: that’s the wrong question. It’s a story about parenting. And by not bringing all the narrative threads together in a plot way—in a culminating event—it’s my hope that I’ve redirected the reader, there at the end, to ask themselves: well, if it’s not about what happened next, then what has is it been about? And hopefully that pushes the story into more interesting territory. The story of a car crash is not the car crash. It lies with the mother who receives the phone call about her son, and the ways in which she negotiates the aftermath of this event, has to go on living, and find her way, emotionally, forward. The car crash itself is possibly the least interesting thing to happen in a story like that. I try to tell my students this. It doesn’t always work. But I try to place my stories either right before, or right after, what most people would call the “pivotal event.” And, failing that, I try to keep the action as quiet as possible, to keep it hidden, because I don’t want it to overwhelm the real work of the story, which lies in the realm of the emotional lives of its characters. Short stories don’t have the luxury of lingering—you don’t always have enough space to examine both cause and effect. Usually the story is served best by looking closely at either cause or effect. And often times with my stories, the question I have to ask myself is: in this particular case, which am I most interested in?
But all of this is getting at this idea of tension and release, which is something that cuts across all genres. I’m particularly interested in how this works in poetry, where you have to think of tension globally (how is my reader moving through the poem) but also hyper-locally (how is this word, when stacked next to that word, layering or complicating meaning). How do you negotiate that in your work? Do you think in those terms? Or have a different word for it?
PR: Yes, tension is important in poetry, and you say it so well—the tension in poetry being global and word by word, the “layering,” and in addition, there’s the tension (or release of tension) that can be created intentionally with line breaks and stanza breaks in order to insert a pause, a breath, a moment to contemplate. Poet Richard Hugo wrote that poets typically begin with the triggering subject—maybe a willow tree, a cobblestone street, a letter—but ultimately that poem, if it’s good, morphs into in deeper, more organic subject. There’s layering and tension in that movement. Perhaps by the end, it’s a poem about loss, about enduring love, about racial tension. Those sorts of moves in a poem help create that push and pull, and hopefully the reader will be surprised in ways that reveal an unexpected depth to the poem. I think all poets long for a poem that is “tight” in the way that the word choice is just right and that everything that’s included is necessary. Jim Moore, one of Minnesota’s great poets, reminded me once that “the middle stanza needs an elephant.” A poem shouldn’t lose its tension or meaning in the middle any more than it should at the exit.
ER: I’m also very interested in endings—endings, for me, is where a story either sinks or swims. How do you know when you’re poem has arrived? When do you know it’s done? And what are you hoping that your best endings might do for your poem?
PR: Oh, that’s such a great question! I think I know more clearly when a poem isn’t finished, doesn’t have the right ending. At poetry readings when a poet reads a poem that ends just right, there’s this sound that the crowd makes—a cross between an exhale, a sigh, and a moan—and that’s one way to know the reader, or listener in this case, thinks the poem has a great ending. If only that crowd was readily available when I’m writing and revising! Earlier you mentioned that there were scenes that you cut from your stories because, essentially, they weren’t in service to the characters. Revision in poetry is similar because, for me, often a long poem, maybe one that’s two pages in a first draft, will become one stanza in the final draft. During revision, I’ve attempted to winnow away the “extra” that just wasn’t in service to the poem—get rid of those stanzas lacking “elephants.” I began my MFA in fiction, so the story-telling prose writer in me struggles with the poet, and in early drafts I typically have a lot that isn’t necessary. I begin with the narrative and strive for the lyric. Sometimes the exit in a poem occurs in the middle of an early draft. Frequently, that means I cut everything that comes after that line, or I move that line to the end and reconsider how to reach that point in a way that builds, layers, pushes the reader forward. Ultimately, though, I want to retain some of that tension at the poem’s exit rather than completely releasing it. No one wants an ending that’s a deflated balloon.
The best endings in poetry, I think, are really similar to the best endings in literary fiction. Much like you don’t want completely to “resolve” the plot in literary fiction because it isn’t really about plot, great poems don’t attempt to offer neat solutions to life’s struggles. I’d rather enter and exit a poem that has raised important questions rather than attempted to give me pat answers. Sometimes the exit feels just right because I’m left pondering. At other times, the poet has invited me in so that I can experience a different perspective. Great poetry, I think, creates an encounter, a method of making connections between poet and reader, between reader and the world, adding to our collective experience, and ultimately, those truly great poems can be transformative because they end with an opening rather than a closing. This isn’t to say that the poem hasn’t ended; of course, it has in the literal sense. Great poems, though, allow a reader to walk through an opening they’ve created, that “encounter” I mentioned, and hopefully he or she will keep carrying that poem around in pocket, head, or heart.
What are those works of prose that you still carry around, those novels, stories, or poems that have perhaps inspired how or why you write? What authors do you find yourself returning to for inspiration?
ER: You know, I really love thinking about the final lines of a piece that way—that they ought to strive to open up what’s come before, rather than shut it down (or, worst of all: summarize). I’ve been struggling with the idea of a story as a house – that what you are trying to do is frame up an experience, locate it – and the ending is the final touch: you hang and shut the door, but open one of the windows. That needs some work, I’m afraid. I haven’t exactly mapped it out. But it helps me when I’m writing my own endings: I have to make sure the door is closed, but that weather can still get in.
As for the novels I carry around with me: I’m never very far from Lolita or Moby Dick. The work of Jim Shepard, Charles Baxter, and Amy Hempel. The short stories of Daphne du Maurier have had a major impact on my work that I’m still trying to figure out. I admire the strangeness of A High Wind in Jamaica. I read James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” for the ending alone roughly four or five times a year. I find, though, that my real inspiration tends to come from music and photography, and recently I’ve become fascinated with the music of The Dirty Three (“Ocean Songs” in particular) and the photography of Renate Aller. Walton Ford’s bizarre nature portraits. And a book by Matthew Barney, “Drawing Restraint,” which I believe is just like a catalog of a movie he made, but I’ve only got the book, and I don’t want to see or know any more about it. I’ve been collecting pictures of space travel from the 80s, and pulp posters of the same. I don’t know how it all adds up, but there is something for me in certain colors, or images, or sounds that, when mixed properly, creates a mood that allows me to write into something interesting.
PR: Oh, Lolita is my favorite novel! Nabokov is such a master of language, of the unreliable narrator—just brilliant. The fact that you’ve found inspiration from so many art forms—writing, music, photograph—maybe is part of the reason your stories feel so balanced; they’re visual, intense, human. Congratulations on the great success of The Peripatetic Coffin. It won the Minnesota Book Award for fiction, received honorable mention for the PEN / Hemingway Award, and was a finalist for the John Leonard Prize (sponsored by the National Book Critics Circle) as well as the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Prize. Is it inspiring, stressful, or something else to follow up on a successful debut collection?
ER: Oh, I couldn’t be happier with how Coffin made its way out into the world. And is it stressful to try to follow it up? Absolutely. But that stress has less to do with trying to outdo, or live up to, Coffin, and more to do, simply, with writing itself. Every day there’s a blank page in front of you, and every day you are stuck in a new and different way. And that can be daunting, but the trick is to see it as a challenge you are up for, rather than seeing it for what it really is: an impossible jump, into undefined territory, with no headlamp to light the way.
Ethan Rutherford’s fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, American Short Fiction, 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 at Creative Writing at Trinty College. He lives in Hartford, Connecticut with his wife and two sons.
For more information on Ethan Rutherford, please see www.ethanrutherford.net.
Paige Riehl is the author of Blood Ties, a poetry chapbook published by Finishing Line Press. Her poetry has appeared in Meridian, South Dakota Review, Nimrod International Journal, and more. She won the 2012-2013 Loft Mentor Series in Poetry and the 2011 Literal Latte Prize for Poetry. Read more at paigeriehl.com .