Ethel Rohan. Photo: Justin Yee.

Making connections as the 'queen of uncomfortable stories'

For a writer with one side of her family from Westmeath and who spent many summers around Rosemount, Castletown Geoghegan and Moate that it was as an emigrant to San Francisco that she met her Ballinahown-born husband has a certain narrative elegance to it.

Ethel Rohan has been living in the US since 1992 and is soon to publish her fourth book, a collection of short stories entitled ‘In the Event of Contact’.

“I think that was one of the things that immediately connected us. It came out very quickly in conversation that we had a shared background,” she says, in a Zoom call with the Westmeath Independent, of her early encounters with her future husband, Padraig Rohan.

“I had spent many nights in Silvers in Moate and just the idea that we would have possibly been there on the same night and never met until San Francisco, I think that certainly for me as a young woman and as a writer, that just really captured my imagination. This idea of missed connections and maybe fate circling back.”

It’s a thread that can be traced through her latest collection of short stories, where characters strive for human connections, often to find them elusive.

'Everywhere She Went' is centred on a woman still struggling with the disappearance of her childhood best friend, there's a missing brother at the core of 'Unwanted', while 'Blindsided' deals with the unlikely interaction between a school traffic warden struck by a vehicle and a local woman, first on the scene, who becomes his carer.

The book, which appears in Ireland and the UK on June 3, has already racked up a host of admirers, including Roddy Doyle, whose praise ‘A terrific collection. Gripping, powerful and very moving’ adorns the front cover.

It was named among The Irish Times most anticipated fiction list for 2021 and is being published by US press Dzanc Books as the winner of its Short Story Collection prize.

The stories straddle the faultlines of the lives of their characters and as a collection quietly and subtly accumulate a potency that by the end leaves the reader breathless.

The stories linger long after the reading, their impact described as ‘small electric shocks of discovery’ as Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author describes.

Most of the stories are peopled by Irish characters or are predominantly set in Ireland and Ethel makes no apologies for that, despite being almost 30 years in America.

“It’s home, it’s my beginnings. I think I am the story teller I am because of Ireland.

Ethel McDonnell grew up in Dublin, daughter of Kathleen (nee Geoghegan) of Carne, Castletown-Geoghegan.

As her mother was one of the few of eleven siblings who left Westmeath, Ethel’s childhood involved many trips to the area, including summers spent with her aunt, Claire O’Rourke in Suntown, Rosemount.

She remains connected with this country, making at least annual trips back to where both her own siblings and her husband’s siblings all reside.

'In the Event of Contact' contains fourteen stories, of survivors, of characters seeking to find ways to remain afloat in stormy waters.

“The collection didn’t come together until I hit on that title, ‘In the Event of Contact’, and then I kind of realised that was sort of the theme of the book, this idea of a crisis of consent and both invited and uninvited contact, trespasses all that sort of thing, which I could step back and say is sort of my central theme as a writer.”

Eerily, the title story of a young girl's phobia about touch, was written and titled before the appearance of COVID-19, although Ethel acknowledges that the pandemic adds new layers of nuance to the story.

Rohan’s craft is in sketching atmosphere and mood through the descriptive power of the prose.

“Dr McCormack loomed over Dave in his hospital bed and listed his injuries in a singsong litany: fractured skull, smashed patella, three cracked ribs and numerous hematomas. Dave could almost hear the rattle of his brokenness,” she writes, in Blindsided.

Or a child's unease at a sinister adult's ingratiation into her family dynamic, in 'In the Event of Contact': “My stomach fluttered worse than when I was in an elevator, falling through a building.”

Ethel’s relationship with writing dates to her teenage years, although it was not until later adulthood in the US that she focused on her writing.

She initially pursued a BA in English and Creative Writing, followed by a master’s in Creative Writing.

However, it was not until 13 years ago when the youngest of her two children was in kindergarten that she pursued her ambition to be a writer.

Since then, Ethel has published two other collections of short stories, Goodnight Nobody and Cut Through The Bone and a novel, The Weight of Him, in 2017.

It has taken Ethel some time to find her calling. A succession of apparently successful jobs on both sides of the Atlantic failed to provide the sense of connection she sought.

“Now I look back and I realise that I just wasn’t in the right place. I think that’s something that has kind of haunted me and I think pushed me in life.”

As a northside Dubliner from a working class background, she’s also had to battle societal expectation, a trend that continued Stateside for other reasons.

“I never sounded like I was from where I was from. It was just always ‘Where are you from?’ and I still get that to this day and comments about my accents and my voice.

“Finally embracing writing is sort of the ultimate pushback. I have full control over my voice and my stories.

“I’m at a point in my life where I feel at peace. I no longer feel like a failure, I just wasn’t in the right places and writing and motherhood are the two places where I get the strongest sense of ‘This is where I belong. This is what I am meant to do.’”

The book is dedicated simply to ‘survivors’ and Rohan herself is a survivor of sexual abuse as a child.

The abuse was carried out by a family friend of her parents and was ongoing over several years. She explains the perpetrator had limited access to her.

Ethel says: “That was something I kept hidden for decades. My parents passed away without ever knowing that was part of my history and I think that also ties into this thing of never feeling like I belonged.

“That has marked me and as much as it doesn’t define me it took me a long, long time - it actually took me having daughters - to fully even accept and look at just how devastating an impact it had on me as a person.

“I would look at my children, and I would think they always looked so happy and so innocent and I would think ‘How could he have done that?’ and second of all ‘Who would I have been had it not happened to me?’ and I would look at my children and think I would be happier, I would be better.

“There was always this alternate me that lived in the world who was never abused.”

Rohan believes in the power of stories to connect us in a shared understanding of humanity.

“Stories invite us into other people's lives and portray their struggles and triumphs, much of which we can see ourselves in, too - thereby connecting us. Stories have the power to inspire, elicit empathy, and even to change minds and hearts.”

She admits she is drawn to particular types of stories.

“I’m kind of a queen of uncomfortable stories if you will and I don’t want it any other way.”

In the Event of Contact, published by Dzanc Books, is available in Ireland from June 3.