Our Interviews Editor Esteban Rodríguez speaks with Ethan Rutherford about the role of mystery in storytelling, the importance and influence of family, and the making of his newest short story collection, Farthest South & Other Stories (A Strange Object, 2021).
Tell us how Farthest South & Other Stories came to be.
This collection began as I was deep into work on another book—a novel. The novel was historical, and I was having a lot of fun writing it, but during the research and drafting of that book we had our second child, and I began to drift into parent mode. And the questions that were on my mind— how do you raise children in a world like this, how do you protect them from harm, how do you prepare them for what’s coming—didn’t have much of a place in the novel. So, I began to write stories as a way to give shape to the questions and anxieties and fever dreams about parenting that I had. And to my surprise, I found relief in this new material, and strangeness, and sadness, and a . . . heightened awareness. The first story that really hit was “Ghost Story”— the first story in the collection, which is a story about the sorts of stories a father tells his sons, and how they slip from his telling to haunt him. When I finished, I thought: I’m glad I worked that out, it’s nice to be done so I can go back to the novel. But it turns out I was nowhere near done! Once the manuscript had been accepted, I asked an artist I admire, Anders Nilsen, if he’d consider adding illustrations. I was hoping that the book itself would resemble the books I remember reading as a kid—Treasure Island, in particular—and the illustrations he came up with just . . . somehow made the book for me. It’s as though the book were written to the illustrations, rather than the other way around. This is a long way of saying: the way this book came to be is a bit of a mystery, even to me. One story lead to another, on a hunch I got in touch with Anders, and then, somehow, this thing got made. It doesn’t even feel like it’s mine anymore. And I like that feeling.
There is plenty of mystery within the stories as well. In “Ghost Story,” as you had mentioned, a father tells his children what appears to be a biographical ghost story, but his reluctance to reveal the full details creates moments of uncertainty that we as readers get to experience as well. How did you approach creating mystery from story to story?
One thing that becoming a parent has taught me is that, at least in my experience, certainty is out the window. You think you know what you need to teach your child about the world in order to keep him or her safe, but somehow, as you begin to try to explain things, everything just becomes more and more mysterious, complicated, full of joy, and pain and discomfort—which is to say you begin to understand that many of the stories we tell our children for comfort do just the opposite: they demonstrate just how vulnerable the whole experiment is, how dependent on love, and luck, and timing. And my hope, with this collection, is that these stories would enact that growing uncertainty rather than simply describing it. The stories began to open side-doors through “plot,” and I noticed that the ones that captured this uncertain feeling moved intuitively and via association rather than causally from one event to another. But each story is driven by a character’s dawning understanding that the world is darker than he or she has the language for. And larger. And it cannot be fully described, perhaps only glimpsed and gaped at fleetingly. And then one goes on, as one must.
Many of your stories bring to the forefront familial relationships. Can you describe how important the inclusion of family—as characters and perhaps in relation to your own—is to your writing.
That’s a great question and I’m glad you’ve picked up on how central the idea of “family” is in these stories. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more concerned with questions of what it means to care for someone, how hard it can be to show strength and vulnerability, to model kindness for someone who is new to this world. Having children knocked me flat. I’ve found it almost completely overwhelming—there is so much to show them, and try to teach them, and expose them to, and protect them from. And the only way I know to think through difficulty is to write about it and write through it. These stories came from questions that kept me up at night—they are simply the strange way I have of getting them out of my mind and into a shape I can see.
In what ways does Farthest South differ from your first book, The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories, and in what do you find it similar?
In my first book, I felt like I had found answers to the question of “how to be” and I was working to dramatize that certainty. In this book, I’ve become more comfortable with the fact that I know very little about the world, and as a result the stories, though they move off the grid now and then, feel more “realistic” to me. They stage the act of investigation more than anything else.
I want to focus on the title story, “Farthest South.” The narrator’s grandfather leads an expedition of children and a penguin named Franklin to the south pole. Although optimistic at first, the journey begins to lose stability the longer they travel and the colder it gets. Toward the end of the story, the narrator reflects on what leaving home has possibly amounted to:
Above them, the dark sky is pricked with starlight. It unfurls like a sail and covers them completely. It feels as though they have truly found the end of the world. “It’s beautiful,” Franklin says. As they watch, a curtain of light, green and blue, is drawn across the southern sky. It shimmers, and bends; it points to some larger mystery; it moves as though responding to music neither of them can hear. To the questions of why one leaves the comfort of home to traverse such an inhospitable landscape, one answer might be this, the very thing they are witnessing.
The old saying goes that it’s not about the destination but the journey. Can you speak more about “Farthest South” and the importance of experiencing a journey to the characters in your work.
Yes, of course, and just generally, if a story isn’t transportive, if it doesn’t take you along, what good is it? Journeys are wonderful for fiction. “Farthest South” is a story I’d hoped would find traction as a piece of historical fiction about the race to the South Pole, similar to other stories I’d written before (for some reason I keep going back to ice, and starvation, and long, decimating expeditions—I’m fun at parties, as you might imagine!). But as I was writing it, I could never quite settle into the narrative groove—it kept bending on me and feeling very false. Sometimes this is fatal to a story and the thing to do is just scrap the work and pull it for parts. But I kept returning to this one to mess around for some reason, there was something to it that felt almost right, and so I began adjusting the levers and volume knobs to see if anything stuck. Pretty soon we left the realm of realism (talking penguin), and upped the stakes a bit (the crew he’s essentially walking into this bleakness, and trying to comfort as he does so, became a crew of children he is in fact quite frightened of). And once the crew became children, I saw that what I was truly interested in had less to do with representing a historical expedition and more to do with externalizing and giving physical shape to parental anxiety, joy, and regret. Do we all bring our children to the frozen sub-continent and tell them stories about how heroic they are being in the face of our own personal failings? Probably not. But don’t we all realize, perhaps a little too late, that it can be damaging to insist that the stuff you care about is the stuff everyone in your orbit has to care about and sacrifice for? And even when we do realize that, is there still some part of us that pushes back and wants to say: well, yes, but what I am doing is more important than what you are doing, and therefore the pain I’ve caused is worth it? And “Farthest South” is the story of a character rounding the bend on those negotiations with himself and his family, in a fever-dream sort of way, and his journey is, to some degree, coming to glimpse what he’s done and where it’s left him.
What projects are you currently working on or do you have planned for the future?
I’m in the final stages of revision on a historical novel set at the end of the 19th century. It’s been an exhausting, wonderful process (and my wife jokes that if she sees one more book titled Men, Ice, & Whales she’s going to scream) and I am almost done. And my next project, once that is wrapped up, will be music related, I hope. Music is the great palate-cleanser for me; for some reason, writing and recording music helps me move from one writing project to the next.
What writing advice would you give your younger self?
Read everything you can get your hands on and finish only the work that brings you joy. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to figure that out.