I meet Ethel Rohan outside the Book Exchange in Bolinas, a bookstore where no one works and you pay what you consider a fair price for the books. Pretty good books are a dollar; good ones are two bucks; excellent ones, you shell out five. It’s one of my favorite uncapitalistic places on earth. There’s a piano. There are stuffed animals for the kids. And, of course, there are books, thousands of books, not just on tables and shelves inside the store, but also outside, where they are stacked rain or shine. I’ve been in Bolinas working on a new book, and Rohan was kind enough to drive up here from her home in San Francisco’s West Portal district so that we can talk a little about herself and her own new collection.
Actually, she tells me, her husband drove her here. She’s nervous around highways. I look up and down the block. Downtown Bolinas isn’t that big. “Where is he?”
Rohan shrugs and laughs. “Must be around here somewhere.” Husband vanishes in a postage-stamp town: It could be a moment out of Rohan’s own stories—funny, unexpected, a little bit mysterious.
Though we’ve never met in person, I’ve been reading Rohan’s compressed, poignant, exquisitely beautiful stories for years. As we walk toward the beach, we talk about the waves and the light, but, literary geeks that we are, soon it is all writing. We both have great affection for, and often write, very short stories. We agree that, done right, there’s enormous power in brevity. Think Jorge Luis Borges, Grace Paley, Emily Dickinson. If you can say it in fewer words, do it. Kafka, also a master of brevity, once wrote that a book should be an ice pick to break the frozen sea inside us. Lots of times while reading Rohan’s new book, Goodnight Nobody, I felt that icy jab—when the pain endured by fictional characters is so real that it becomes my own.
Here’s one example, out of literally hundreds that I could give. There’s a story, called “Out of the Ashes,” about a little girl named Esther whose grandfather spontaneously combusts. The story is funny—and then isn’t. One night in Dublin, Esther’s grandfather catches fire and burns to death while watching television. Rohan’s narratives are often like this: On the one hand, they are hilarious and irreverent, even fantastical. The next moment, the consequences come home to roost. Here is Esther’s mother, pleading with Esther’s father to stop asking how and why it happened. “Let him rest in peace, can’t you? Everyone making him out to be some kind of freak when the poor auld man got an ending, a frying, you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.”
Vintage Rohan: You laugh, you suffer. All in very small spaces. Goodnight Nobody contains 30 stories, each with an average length of about 1,500 words (by comparison, this piece is about 800). But Rohan doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as a writer of brief stories. “I love writing short short stories, but I don’t limit myself.” She’s finished one manuscript for a novel and is hard at work on a second one.
We continue our walk along the shore, touching on Rohan’s Irish childhood in Dublin and her move to San Francisco 20 years ago. She remains deeply connected to Ireland, returning at least once a year, but this is home to her now. “I think every immigrant has two hearts, one for her country of birth and one for her adopted country. I write out of my Irish heart.”
This gets us talking about loneliness. Rohan tosses off a sandal and digs her foot in the sand. It makes no sense, she says, that she should feel lonely. She’s happily married, has two wonderful daughters and many great friends—hell, she even likes her own company. And yet she searches for the loneliness in others: “It’s a writer’s way of looking out for people,” she says. “You know what I mean?” I say I think I do.
We walk back up from the beach and end our conversation where it began, on the rickety bench outside the Book Exchange. Still no sign of the husband. (Later, I do meet him. His name is Padraig, he’s also Irish, and, like Rohan, he is full of laughter and energy.)
“Know why else I write?” Rohan asks with sudden intensity, perhaps brought on by all the books looming around us. “It’s like pinning down these ghosts that float around in my head. Nothing holds my attention like writing does, nothing gives me that sense of stillness, of rightness. Isn’t that awful?”
Peter Orner is the author of Love and Shame and Love and the newly reissued Esther Stories. His next book, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, will be published in August by Little, Brown.
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Originally published in the June 2013 issue of San Francisco.