Past Alumni News Stories
Tina Karelson (BA), advertising creative
May Lee-Yang (BA), playwright
Elizabeth Larsen (MFA), writer/editor
Angela Smith (PhD), professor
Jerr Boschee (BA), social entrepreneur
Reina del Cid (BA), bandleader
Dr. Arthur Schuhart (BA), CC professor
Amanda Coplin (MFA), novelist
David Wojahn (BA), poet
Dr. Sarah Wadsworth (PhD), professor
Mark Baumgarten (BA), writer/editor
Andrew Nath (BA), banker
Esther Porter (BA), editor
Dr. Gerald Jay Goldberg (PhD), writer
Peter Geye (BA), novelist
Sam Kean (BA), science writer
Dr. Joyce Sutphen (BA, MA, PhD), poet
Susan Taylor (MFA), CC professor
Sheila O'Connor (BA), novelist
Susan Niz (BA), YA novelist
Scott Burns (BA), screenwriter
Swati Avasthi (MFA), YA novelist
Dr. Marilyn Nelson (PhD), poet
Garrison Keillor (BA), radio show host
Dr. Carol Mason (PhD), professor
Amy Shearn (MFA), novelist
Dr. Virginia McDavid (BA, MA, PhD), prof
Tim Nolan (BA), poet
George Bowman (BA). business exec
Dr. Kevin Reilly (PhD), higher ed admin
Michael Tisserand (BA), journalist
This alumnus' stories range across countries and centuries to reflect on the present
When Ethan Rutherford (MFA 2009) visited campus this spring to talk with undergrad writers, he confessed that he’d written hundreds of pages about the fantasy hero swordsman Conan the Barbarian (Arnold Schwarzenegger played him)—to no good effect. “I do know a lot about sword forging though,” Rutherford notes, optimistically. His research in other areas (Arctic exploration, whaling, Brian Bosworth) has granted immediacy and depth to the diverse tales in his new debut collection The Peripatetic Coffin (Ecco), which is a summer Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers selection. The collection has been lauded not only for its masterful world-building but for its “compulsively readable plots” and “unforgettable cast of beleaguered, doomed characters.” Rutherford is currently touring the book across the coasts and the Midwest, with a big local blast May 30, with poet Matthew Rasmussen, at the Loft Literary Center.
1. When you agreed to that title for the book, did you imagine how many times you would have to a) explain what "peripatetic" means, b) hear a joke about the word, and/or c) cause others to constantly call up the memory prompts "periscope" and "pathetic" in order to spell it correctly?
Ha! No, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine how many times I’d have to explain the word, and why I chose it, and how many jokes I’d have to endure about the use of a “ten-dollar word.” The title “The Peripatetic Coffin” was the nickname given to the H.L. Hunley (the first confederate submarine and the star of the opening story in the collection), and when I first heard about that I was like: well, there’s no turning back now! While writing, I was wondering why the word “pathetic” kept running through my head. I’m happy now to finally understand it was just prompted by the title, and not, say, by some overarching internal critique. But I do like how it calls up “periscope,” which seems appropriate, given how deeply submerged—emotionally, physically—many of the characters in this collection are. On the other side of this, we [he and wife Maryhope] named our son Llewellyn, so perhaps I just have an affinity for making things difficult, word-wise, for everyone.
2. Fellow alum and novelist Matt Burgess interviews you for the Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers series. To Matt's question re: ordering the stories in the collection, you responded: "The process of putting the collection together, for me, was the process of deciding which stories to leave out." What were those decisions based on?
The stories are pretty far-flung in this collection—all over the map historically, and stylistically—but as the book began to come into focus I began thinking of each story as a tile in a larger mosaic. The stories aren’t explicitly linked by character, but they do orbit around similar themes (isolation, responsibility, environmental degradation, that hinge moment in a character's life after which Things Will Never Be The Same). It became important that each story get at these themes in a new way, in order to bring those larger themes into a more complicated relief. So the stories that were left out were the stories that served only to repeat the issues other stories had already brought up, and the stories that dealt with the central themes in similar ways. If you are writing the same story over and over, eventually someone will just go: OK, we get it, say something new. Also, there were some terrible stories, which, as was mercifully suggested by various early readers, should just be mothballed permanently.
3. These stories often feature groups of men/boys wielding sharp projectile things: bored/uneasy as they wait for the opportunity to use them, at once distressed and excited when use is required. Is it too much of a reduction to describe this collection as not only dealing with "human suffering" (per the Minneapolis Star Tribune) but a more specific masculine anxiety about violence and identity (during an era of war)?
I’m really happy to hear those themes came through, not from one particular story, but from the book as a whole. Those issues were certainly on my mind while writing, and while I don’t really think these stories should be read as one story leading to another, ideally each story collides with the other stories in the book in a way that gives some shape to the anxieties you mention. All of that is on my mind, constantly. Which doesn’t mean I have any answers. One thing that links these stories I think is that the characters all find themselves at what I’d call the Talking Heads Moment. In “Once in a Lifetime,” David Byrne sings, wonderfully, “And you may say to yourself: ‘My God, what have I done?’” That’s the moment I’m interested in: when someone comes to understand, sometimes to his or her horror or disbelief, just what it is they have been responsible for bringing about.
4. What's one thing you are learning about yourself as a writer with your current novel project?
Short stories are Swiss watches, and novels are tremendous earth moving machines. If you draft a novel as carefully, on the sentence and plot level, as you draft a short story, you will never go anywhere. The important thing, I’ve found, with larger projects, is simply to write your way into wherever you’re going, and remember that the real art comes after the draft is completed, in the editing. In writing short stories, I edit as I go, and cannot progress until each sentence is working the way I want it to. That’s the way I like to work on stories, but it’s a dreary way to write novels.
5. What was particularly helpful about attending the Creative Writing Program at the U?
Every minute at the program helped my writing an incredible amount, even those moments of doubt where you sort of go: can writing be taught? Of course it can be taught, and I feel really lucky to have come here, and had classes with Julie Schumacher, Charles Baxter, and Maria Fitzgerald (and Matt Burgess and [his Ecco Press editor] Libby Edelson). The heart of the experience for me was the workshops, but outside of all of the structured stuff, simply having three years in the program, where it was your job to read, and write, and talk about books—that is galvanizing for any young writer, and it was a lucky and productive period in my life. I’d go back in a second, if I could figure out how to get that OK’d.
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