The Penmen Profile: Irish Author Ethel Rohan

by Rebecca LeBoeuf

Irish author Ethel Rohan’s debut novel, “The Weight of Him,” follows the journey of an obese man attempting to turn his life around and finding support in his community after a loved one’s suicide. Rohan’s Irish roots shine through in the landscape for this book and in her memoir “Out of Dublin.”

Have you always written?
My earliest memories are of reading—those slim early readers with their colorful hard covers (so much red!) and that wonderful thick smell and feel of the pages. “See Jane run.” Is Jane still running in kindergarten books? I wish I could reach back through time and rewrite that sentence for myself and the countless girls who read those books in school: “See Jane take a stand.”

Before I remember myself writing, I was a performer. I loved to write songs, poems, speeches and even flash plays (I just made that genre up) – anything that brought to life the words, characters and plots from the fires of my imagination. My first memories of writing are from about the age of 12.

Instead of the required topical essay for a school English assignment I wrote a short story. My teacher gave me an ‘F’ and I had to write the assigned essay, but she said as a short story it was an ‘A.’ It was the first time I felt I was really good at something. More than her praise, though, it was how I felt during the process of writing, the magic that happens when you bring out of yourself and onto the page the characters, scenes and ultimately a complete story that you had no idea were living inside you. That’s the reward that has brought me back to the page ever since.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
Ass in the chair and write. I don’t outline, plot or wait for inspiration. I just show up and start writing and the process has never failed me.

For new projects – a story, essay, novel – there’s always a spark, and the more surprising the spark, the better. I’ll see or hear something – a person, an object, an odd turn of phrase or some startling vignette – and I’ll start writing. After that it’s word by word every time. I think it was (Ray) Bradbury, or maybe (John) Gardner, who recommended finishing the work each day when you know what happens next (even if it’s only in the next sentence), that way you can pick up where you left off and immediately fill in the white space. That works really well for me.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?
I tend not to suffer from writer’s block, but I do sometimes lose momentum in the work and feel like I’ve lost my way. That’s usually because I don’t know my characters or their dilemmas well enough.

I’ve found it really helpful to “interview” my characters. When I stall, I’ll ask my characters questions and I type their answers e.g. “Why’d you just say/do that? What’s going on with you and X character? What do you really want? What do you really need? What’s in your way?” That process helps me to get to know the character and his/her struggles even better and greatly opens up the story.

Self-doubt was a major challenge right up until recently and it deepened my ongoing struggle with depression and hampered my productivity. Now I swat doubt away. I read. I write. I study. I practice. I’m a good literary citizen and community player. I work really, really hard. All that is the reality, not what self-doubt hisses at me – especially at night, dammit.

What has the road to publication been like for you?
Long. Exhausting. Brutal. Sorry, but it’s true. SO many short story rejections from literary magazines—enough to build a paper house to loom over me and keep me in shadow. And two failed novel manuscripts that I put hundreds of thousands of words into. But I persisted. You have to be resilient and you have to persist.

My first sense of upward mobility came when my flash fiction started to be published online, and then in print. The publication of my first book, “Cut Through the Bone,” a collection of 30 flash fictions, also opened many doors within myself and within the writing community. With a book, I could participate in discussions and in events previously closed to me. Don’t force a book, though, just for publication’s sake. Don’t force anything. Do the work – read others, write yourself, revise, read aloud, revise, have others read the manuscript, revise, read aloud, revise – and when you’re sure it’s your best, send it out.

How do you market your work?
Oof. I hate the business side of writing. But marketing and promotion are a necessary evil. There are so many books. There is so much noise. We have to do our best to help our book rise to the surface and get read.

I use social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google+, my website, blog posts and a monthly newsletter) to try to reach readers, but all that only does so much. And there’s also the danger of overdoing “me, me, me,” which gets very annoying fast. There’s such a fine line.

Really, it’s best to promote others (see earlier reference to being a good literary citizen). Support other writers and they in turn will support you. Also, do interviews—live, online and in print. Moderate and/or participate on panels at conferences. Publish personal essays. Judge contests. Do book giveaways on Goodreads and book blogs etc. There are lots of ways to get our work out there. All the better if we raise others up while we’re at it.

The best way to market our work? Word of mouth. Write our best and it will find readers and they in turn will tell other readers. In this, I hope hard

What do you wish you knew when you first started writing?

  • Don’t try to perfect the first draft. A shitty finished work is far superior to a polished partial. Get the shitty first draft down as fast as I can and thereafter make it my best.
  • Don’t take rejection so personally.
  • Self-doubt (and rejection) can be crushing. Don’t let them win.
  • Most everyone (outside of writing) won’t get the writing life and all it takes to live it. Don’t let them win, either.
  • Isolation is a necessary part of the writing life, but don’t let it take over. Keep getting out in the world. Keep connecting with others. Keep writing my best while living my best.

Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
As a teen, Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights” was the first book to have a profound effect on me. I loved its sweep and wild imagination and the incredible sense of place and character. Also, its complexities of love, madness, sacrifice, evil, family, abuse, right/wrong, identity, class, land, ownership and on and on. And it was written by a woman in a time when women were prohibited from reading and writing, and I was reading it at a time when my exposure to writers and books was heavily white and male. And “Wuthering Heights” is still read and revered today. Staggering. Brilliant.

As a young adult, James Joyce was the first author I read where his short stories markedly highlighted for me the great and alluring mystery to the genre. His novel, “Ulysses,” underscored for me a level of impenetrability and self-indulgence that I never wanted to bring to my own work (yes, I am going on record with this).

I binge read John Irving as a teen and young-adult and I loved his heartfelt, gripping books. At some point in that process, though, I started to question why SO many books were written by men and why the dearth of women writers (later, when I traveled outside Ireland, I would also question where were all the books by writers of color?). Thereafter, I felt inspired to read with more inclusivity and to also someday publish my own books and add to women’s voices in literature.

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
“Wuthering Heights,” for all the reasons above.

Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive Kitteridge” because it is masterful, quirky characterization and storytelling (I love quirky, strange and unlikeable characters with substance).

“Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi tucked inside Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” because only three books is impossible and because they are both works of beauty, brutality, bravery and brilliance. Also, every library should include (women) writers of color.

Learn more about Rohan and follow her blog here.