Deciding Which Stories to Leave Out: Ethan Rutherford and Matt Burgess in Conversation

Dear Reader,

Each of Ethan Rutherford’s cleverly conceived stories — which range from suburban childhoods and summer camp to the Civil War and a dystopian future — yields up a bracing shock of recognition. Caught in physical or emotional isolation, the lives of his characters pulse and hum with irresistible life.  Rutherford discusses the overlap between writing and music, getting readers in the door, and throwing out “the Second Great American Whaling Novel, among other things, with with Matt Burgess, author of Dogfight: A Love Story (Discover, Holiday 2010).

Matt Burgess: So The Peripatetic Coffin is pretty much my Platonic ideal of a short story collection. (Although, full disclosure, I had to look up what peripatetic means.) There’s a wonderful range of subject matter here—with stories about a civil war submarine, behemoths that live under the sand, contemporary couples under stress, and the aching summertime friendship between young boys—and yet it’s obvious reading them that they’ve all come from the same heart and mind. There’s a question here, I promise. So you’re a musician. And the experience of reading these stories as a collection, from the first story all the way through to the last, is like listening to the kind of record where you can just put it on and press play. So are there similarities there, between structuring an album and putting together a collection? How do you order the stories? Did you ever lay them all out and realize you needed to write a certain kind of story to fill a gap or provide some kind of glue?

Ethan Rutherford: Well, that’s really nice of you, and you’ll be happy to know you’re in good company with “peripatetic” (heck: I had to look it up). I promise, though: it’s not just me being fancy. “The Peripatetic Coffin” was the nickname given to the H.L Hunley, the first Confederate submarine, during the Civil War. The first story in the collection is set aboard that ill-fated and unlucky (though ultimately successful?) submarine, and when it came time to name that story, as a writer you sort of go: well, the title is sitting right there in front of you isn’t it? And when it came time to title the collection—which is very very hard, by the way, or at least, I found it to be so—after many terrible ideas, someone pointed out that “the peripatetic coffin” in many ways works for a lot of the stories, as sort of a catch-all caption, a thematic umbrella, if you will. And so: voila!

As for the overlap between writing and music—nothing makes me happier than imagining people approaching this book like an album, because I think you’re right: the concerns in putting a collection of stories and an album together are similar. Ideally you want to end up with a whole that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts—an album is more than just a bunch of songs thrown together, and the same goes for a collection of stories—and the magic, if there is any, is in the arrangement. The point is to keep people interested in moving from one story to the next, and to build toward something without repeating yourself. So you know you have to start with a hook, an ear-bug, to get the whole thing off the ground with some momentum. You know that there’s some weird mystical pressure on track 3 and track 7. You know you have some room at the end to do something like “Moonlight Mile,” a longer, weirder song than all the rest, but also, secretly, your favorite—because if people have stuck with you till the end, they’ll follow you a little further afield. As for organization, there are three “boat” stories in this book—one set aboard the first Confederate submarine, one set aboard a ship locked in Arctic ice, and one that takes the shape of a futuristic whaling expedition—and it seemed important to keep those stories away from each other. So they go first, middle, last, and I think of them as sort of propping up the collection. The process of putting the collection together, for me, was the process of deciding which stories to leave out.

MB: I know we’re both Raymond Carver fans, and he always said he wanted to keep things moving in his stories. “Get in, get out,” he said. “Don’t linger. Go on.” Now obviously I don’t really agree with that don’t linger business—it seems to me that so many writers lately are abandoning scenes just as things are getting dangerous—but I am interested in this idea of getting in and getting out of stories efficiently. The Peripatetic Coffin is full of killer beginnings and endings. One of the real pleasures of reading a story collection like this is how all the last lines made the hairs on my arms stand up, which can only happen once in a novel. How do you get readers in the door? And then once you got them inside, how long do you want to hold onto them? When and how do you toss them out the window?

ER: That’s an interesting question, and not one I think I can really answer, though I’m glad you liked the last lines. I am, somewhat shamefully, a last line reader. If I’m unsure about whether I’m going to read a book or not, I’ll take a look at the last page, and if that’s interesting enough, I know I’ll go ahead and read the whole thing. One of the things that Carver often did was end his stories mid-gesture, and it had a way of opening up his stories right there at the end, just as they should be winding down. The result is that each story feels larger than it, in fact, is: suddenly in looking at one small and definitive moment, you understand that you are looking at many moments in this character’s life, and the result is that as a reader you feel as if you’ve arrived at some sort of revelation, or, less heavily, some sort of understanding regarding what the story has been about all along. Endings like this—that end with action, with characters doing something—simultaneously herald finality and cling to the hope that perhaps this time, this time things will end differently. So, if and when I pull back on a scene, that’s the idea there. To let some light in. To give a sense of finality without being final about it.

MB: There’s a great balance in the collection between contemporary and historical stories. What sort of research did you for both?

ER: Oh the research! I’d say the research was equivalent for the historical and contemporary stories, which is to say that for as much time as I spent researching Civil War submersibles I spent even more time reading up on Brian Bosworth’s football career. Reading is the real pleasure for me. But research tends to work slantwise in my stories. I think I’m writing a story about one thing, then I do some research, and that new information grabs the wheel for a bit, and then the story comes out very differently than I’d expected. I spent a summer reading nothing but the logbooks of whaling ships directly following the golden age of American whaling, thinking I’d write the Second Great American Whaling Novel, but rather than a white whale, the monster would be a giant squid. I really thought that was going to happen, and that I was the guy to do it. That project was thankfully scrapped, but later on, all that research found it’s way into the science-fiction story that closes this collection. All of this is just a long way of saying: all of my ideas and stories come from reading and research like this, but it’s often hard to tell at the time how it will all shake out.

MB: One of my favorite things about the book is your careful attention to plot. These stories are simultaneously character-driven and page-turners, and in that way harken back to the roots of the American short story with Hawthorne and Poe. But despite the crazy things that are happening—behemoths under the sand!—there’s a real restraint in the way you present the material. I want to get better at that in my own work. I want things to be exciting in my fiction, but fiction is most exciting for me when it’s telling the truth. Otherwise, why bother? How do you strike that balance? How do you know when to pull back in a scene? There are so many moments in this collection where I thought, ‘I would’ve plucked the wings off the fly here, but Rutherford doesn’t, and it’s a better story because of it.’

ER: Can we just talk about plot for a second, since one of the things I admired most about your novel Dogfight was the propulsion that novel had? I’ve always loved eventful books—my first favorite book was The Twelve Labors of Hercules, and I loved comic books, and movies, and choose your own adventure stuff—and so that’s the farm team for me, if you know what I mean? I learned to love reading because that’s where you went when nothing was really going on in your life—that’s where things were happening. So when I sit down to write my attention immediately drifts toward action and causality (which is to say: plot).
But the danger there for me is that it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the plot—getting all the gears to turn, the pieces to fall, the action to rise—that at the end a reader will go: well, I know what happened in the story, but what’s it about? It’s taken me a long time to understand the ways in which plot can be used as a delivery mechanism for the real work of fiction, which you call “truth” in your question. For me, it’s even more simple than that: all I’m trying to do is evoke an emotional state that might resonate with a reader. But you can’t just say to someone: here, feel this way. You have to build a world for the reader to enter, before he or she will be receptive to whatever emotional information you’re trying to pass on. So, to your question: I pull back in a scene is when I feel like the plot is in danger overwhelming the story, and obscuring what the story is about—to signal to the reader that there is important stuff happening underneath the plot, that what I’m trying to get across is more than just: this happened, then this, then this. Which is not to devalue the fun stuff. And all the fun stuff—characters going on adventures, finding themselves in untenable and dangerous situations, wondering whether to stay with the boat or walk across the ice—it shouldn’t be overlooked.

MB: One of the major life changes for you between the writing of these stories and the publication of them is that you’re a dad now. Looking forward, how do you see that influencing your work? Your approach to fiction? What’s next after this? What do you want to get better at?

ER: Well, I’m deep into a novel now, which—perhaps not coincidentally—has to do with the anxiety of losing a child to a cause that you yourself don’t understand. As for the way becoming a dad has influenced my work, it’s hard to say. Maybe ask me in a few years? I can tell you that the long days of uninterrupted writing are gone. More interesting to me, though, is that I seem to have lost my taste for violence, and it happened almost overnight. For years I’ve operated under the assumption that tension in a story came exclusively from the threat of violence, but here I am, a dad now, and I no longer find the thought of dying terrifying in an interesting way, I just find it terrifying in a terrifying-and-what-a-waste sort of way. My goal now is to live forever, and to just be able to watch my son as he grows up and encounters all the things that will come his way in life. As for what I’d like to get better at as a writer, I’d like to be able to write a story where nothing unpleasant, really, happens, but still be able to make it riveting, and resonant. And if that doesn’t quite pan out, then I guess I’ll just throw in a giant squid, for good measure, and for plot’s sake.

MB: Who have you discovered lately?

ER: Looking backward: Richard Hughes, who wrote In Hazard and A High Wind in Jamaica. NYRB Classics has reissued them, with wonderful forewords. Go read them; they’re great. Looking forward, I’m excited to read Necessary Errors, a novel by Caleb Crain, which will be out in August. I’ve admired Crain’s criticism for a while now, and I’m excited to see what the novel will be like.

Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.