An Interview with Ethan Rutherford

Author of "The Peripatetic Coffin"

Apr. 17, 2010
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I took a gamble and dropped Ethan Rutherford and email to see if I could squeeze some questions from him, and whadda ya you? He's a downright nice guy! If you haven't read his short story "The Peripatetic Coffin," click here to check it out. It's a really good historical fiction piece, and that's not an easy thing to write.

So for those of you out there who enjoy writing, I present to you an interview that might just help you when you finally decide to write your first historical fiction endeavor.

1. So at some point you sat down and decided to write about this band of misfits who piloted one of the first subs during the Civil War. What inspired you to write this?

ER: I was visiting a friend in Charleston SC, and on a walk one day, we passed a replica of the Hunley.Id never seenor heard ofthe thing before, but down there, everyone knows the story.And you look at the size of it, you see the crude design (I mean, it doesnt even look water-tight), you read a little about it (they just attached explosives to a stick, basically, and then rammed the stick into enemy shipsor, I should say, one ship) and you go: what in the world could possibly get someone aboard a contraption like that?What depth of emotional despair does one have to sink down to before this starts to seem like a reasonable idea?As far as I knowor anyone knows, I guessthese guys werent the misfits and cripples I made them out to be in the story.They may have been, but there isnt much known about them.They had to be invented to some degree.So I invented them.

2. What about the characters? How did you decide to approach them? Did you have a reason in mind for making the main character something of a cast-aside?

ER:Well, I needed a narrator that a reader would respond to and say: well, sure, I see where this anger is coming from, and how maybe he could confuse and conflate his opportunity aboard the Hunley with a larger gesture of aggression against everyone whod tormented him, who might see, in true demonstrative and destructive action, the possibility for grace and transcendence, etc.I needed a character who would climb aboard the Hunley for his own private reasons that were wholly apart from heroism, or martyrdom, or taking one for the team."It just seemed more interesting to me.So: make him practically immobile, laughed at, a perpetual victim, and then give him a chance, through the Hunley, to become a nightmare of agency.Thats why he gets aboard.Who wouldnt jump at that opportunity?

3. How much research goes into a story of this magnitude? Was there any moment where you found yourself taking liberties with the history in order for the story to feel more like a story?

ER: Not as much research as it appears, Im afraid.I read one bookConfederates Courageous by Gerald Teaster.Apparently its a book for children, but it was wonderfully done.There were pictures, and diagrams, and dimensions, a glimpse of the bigger picture: everything and all you need to rev up the imagination, but not enough to bog you down.After I had a draft of the story, I read a few books about the Civil War (thats where the Balloon Corps. came from, actually), and another book about submarines, but all that was just to make sure I hadnt messed any facts up too royally.I think of the entire story as taking one huge liberty with history.All the facts in the story are correct, the basic information contained in the story hew as close to actual events as I could make them.At the same time, none of what happens in my story is true.Its made up.

4. How do you approach starting a short story? Do you create an outline first, or do you find yourself "winging it" to a certain extent just to see where your imagination will take you?

ER: Oh, man.Its different every time.But it generally seems that I cant get anywhere with a story until Ive got the first sentence in my head, and then a second sentence that, in some way, commits the story to a certain direction.I always know, after a day or two, where I want the story to end up, and then the writing becomes more of a bargaining with what Ive committed to: how can I get myself from point A to point B in a graceful, pleasing, and interesting way?It never really works. Im jealous of people who can just wing it, and have enough confidence in their own ability that they trust the writing itself will lead them somewhere.I have no confidence in my own ability to lead anyone anywhere, let alone myself.So I have to know where Im going in my stories.This can work, but more often than not I find that it sort of kills the pleasure of writing for writings sake, since Im always writing toward a goal.I abandon a lot of stories before I give them a fighting chance.Im working on loosening up.Something suggested to me by people in all quarters of my life.

5. What advice would you give to writers interested in trying their hands at a short story based on something historical?

ER: Read, read, read until you hit that moment where you stop and go: wait, they did what?!Generally, I find that those moments I find myself going I would never, never do anything like that are exactly the historical moments that prove fertile for a fictive imagination.Because you are essentially saying: I dont understand the character who was able to do X or Y, but Im going to write about this until I do.

To visit Ethan Rutherford's Web site, click here.  Hope you enjoyed the interview, and be sure bookmark his site if you like his writing ... there'll be plenty more to come, I think.


Ken Brosky


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