It's the new black.
Ethan Rutherford’s fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, American Short Fiction, and The Best American Short Stories. Born in Seattle, he now lives in Minneapolis with his wife and son.
Gaudy: Confined spaces play an important role in many of your stories: a submarine, a basement, a ship lost in ice, a house that is no longer a home. What’s the attraction? What does it enable you to do narratively?
ER: The attraction for me in isolating my characters stems, to some degree, from a piece of writing advice I heard long ago, which, rather than that old, over-trotted aphorism “write what you know” was “write what you fear most.” It was something I overheard, not intended, I don’t think, as some sort of Hard and Fast Rule of Writing, but it completely broke me open in terms of the sort of stories I came to write.
And for me, it’s not the claustrophobia or discomfort of some of these settings that makes me anxious—a small submarine, sure to sink; a ship caught in ice; etc—it’s the feeling of being adrift, cut off from what you know, and being forced to reckon with that heightened state of unease: what happens now? As far as narrative goes, what you are trying to do at all times in a story is put enough pressure on your characters so they are forced, in one way or another, to act—to do something he or she may not have otherwise done, had the circumstances been different. Action is character, as they say (that’s one over-trotted aphorism I do believe in). The fewer doors you leave open for an easy exit, the more directly your characters will have to come face to face with the situation they have, to varying degrees, brought about.
The stories I like to read are, essentially, pressure-cookers—and one of the great things about writing fiction is that you can mobilize setting in the same way that you’d mobilize character or plot. As Charles Baxter has said, bad news for your character is good news for your story. Sometimes it’s enough to have a stranger come to town, and stir things up. But why not also place them aboard a sinking ship, as well? It raises the stakes, and is a form of bad news that I find harrowing to read. The more desperate a character is, the combustible the scenario, the more interesting it is, for me, to watch her navigate the story, and come to terms with the themes in play.
Gaudy: In “The Peripatetic Coffin,” the protagonist challenges the idea that “Immolation is a form of confrontation,” instead arguing that the reverse is true. This seems to be a motif throughout the collection, as characters choose to confront each other or not with varying degrees of self-sacrifice and self-defense. What interests you in the relationship between immolation and confrontation, and do you see this as a larger question throughout your work?
ER: Oh my lord, this is the smartest, and hardest question I’ve received about the stories so far. I’m going to duck it a little, and simply say that what I’m trying to do, always, with my stories is get my characters to a place where they see, clearly, and often times with horror, the emotional impact of what they’ve proven themselves to be capable of. It’s a question of responsibility—when things go wrong, where is the line where you say: my god, what have I done?
I think it’s safe to say that all of us move through life with the best intentions—trying to be the best people we can be, to ourselves, and to others—and the sort of inadvertent havoc that can wreak is just staggering. And if that’s the sort of confrontation at play, what we’re talking about are the ways in which one’s sense of self—the story we’ve told ourselves about the kind of person we are—is altered (or: obliterated) as you begin to lift the curtain on what you’ve done, and see the gulf between your intentions and what you’ve brought about.
Gaudy: “Camp Winnesaka” has drawn praise for its depiction of an Iraq War situation at “the world’s worst summer camp.” I found it equal parts hilarious and horrifying, and classified it as a parable or parody to keep the horror a little further removed from reality. Do you consider it a parable, a parody, or something else?
ER: If the story is really working, ideally you can have it both ways: a story about a summer camp, where Mistakes Were Made (as they say), and around like, what, 70 campers, died for reasons that are questionable, at best; and also see it with a bit of a wider lens, that it’s informed, to some degree, by this awful Endless War we seem to be engaged in. But if you can enjoy the story only if you understand it as parody/parable, the story is sunk.
I had a great time writing that story, and it’s not supposed to be Serious All The Time, I’m glad to hear you found it funny. My wife went to a summer camp like that, when she was a kid. I mean, from her stories, it sounds exactly like the movie Meatballs. Just no rules. The kids cooked for each other. They shot arrows straight up in the air and dodged them as they came down. Zero adult supervision. It’s a straight-up miracle that no one died. But those are her favorite stories; she tells them all the time. I’d never been to camp growing up, and listening to these stories, you sort of go: wait, what happened? So that’s where the story started, and then the parallels to what was happening with our involvement in the Middle East at the time just sort of worked their way in. It gave the story a framework through which I could vent some of my frustration and horror at the ways in which we were all sort of unquestioningly entering into what has now become way worse than anything we could have imagined.
Gaudy: More broadly on the genre: Do you think that the changes in the ways that we read—from Twitter to Kindles— have a particular effect on the short story genre, or your practice of the short story?
ER: I hope not. I really, really hope not. What I love about reading is that it’s immersive, and a deep experience: you get to swim in someone else’s life, and the fictive world becomes just as vivid, if not more so, than your own. It takes time, and energy, to reach that imaginative space.
One of the things I’ve noticed about myself recently is that my attention span has become so shortened that I have a hard time reading without getting impatient, and I think that has to do with the amount of time I spend on the internet—or, more specifically, the way I’ve learned to read on the internet, which is: skim, jump, skim, jump, skim. You end up skimming on the surface, on just about everything. I don’t tweet, or keep a blog, but still: I can feel myself, occasionally, writing stories where there is no downward, or inward, movement, just one episode after another, with no emotional heft, or connective tissue, as if I’m just closing and opening tabs. That’s no good, and I find it terrifying, and I’m doing my best to not write like that. I find it hard to be on the internet for very long without feeling simultaneously over-stimulated and depressed (which doesn’t mean I don’t watch YouTube videos until five in the morning, because, oh boy, I do), and no matter how much time I spend online I very rarely, if ever, feel transported.
If you think of Good Fiction as an extended exercise in empathy, and imagining the lives of others, the internet, at its worst, is all shimmering surface, below which is narcissism in its most pure, seething state. Now, this doesn’t mean that good and amazing work isn’t appearing online—because it surely is, all over the place; nor does it mean that I think twitter, facebook, etc. is bad, or evil. But I am worried about the way the internet has trained me to read, and the effect that will necessarily have on the way I write. I used to consider myself a patient person. But these days I just want everything—news, email, information—now, now, now.
Gaudy: What’s next for you?
ER: Oh boy, a novel! About the internet! Just kidding. It’s about eco-terrorism, and is set in the Alaskan wilderness. But any more than that, and your guess is as good as mine.
Our thanks to Ethan for participating in the interview—and for giving us the best compliments we have yet received.