Author: Ethel Ronan
Publisher: St Martins's Press
Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest Ethel Rohan author of The Weight of Him.
Norm: Good day Ethel and thanks for participating in our interview. Please tell our readers a little bit about your personal and professional background.
Ethel: Thanks so much for hosting me, Norm. I was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland and emigrated to San Francisco in 1992. From my earliest memories I’ve loved to read and write, but I didn’t start to write professionally until 10 years ago, when my youngest daughter started kindergarten. Since then I’ve published short stories and personal essays. The Weight of Him is my first novel.
Norm: In your opinion, what is the most difficult part of the writing process?
Ethel: For me, it’s how to persevere in the face of self-doubt and rejection. I’m fortunate in that I’m disciplined and have no problem in showing up at my desk—almost every day—to write. I also have a rich imagination so the common fears around blocks and running out of story ideas aren’t an issue, either. An avid reader and forever student, I also know my craft.
Despite all of the above the fear that I’m not good enough nips. Rejection feeds into that fear and acceptances alleviate it all too briefly. The more I can tap into self-belief and trust in my abilities and the writing process the less angst I feel and the better I can work. Throughout it all, I persist.
Norm: What do you think
most characterizes your writing? As a follow up, do you write more by
logic or intuition, or some combination of the two? Summarize your
Ethel: A vivid sense of character, rhythm and place most characterize my writing. I also insist on looking directly at the difficult stuff people would prefer to bury. I don’t plot my stories in advance, one sentence leads organically to the next. So my writing process is a combination of logic and intuition.
Once I have the initial spark for my story—the anecdote, phrase, object, place, or character that called to my imagination—I sit down to write. In the first draft I try to write as quickly as possible, just getting it all down. If I feel stuck or take a wrong turn in the work, I’ll switch from my desktop to pen and paper and write longhand. I’ve also written using my non-dominant hand (automatic writing) which always brings interesting and sometimes rich results. The first draft is finding the story.
In later drafts, I carve and polish, bringing forth the best of the story. In final drafts, I read the work aloud for pacing, rhythm, and integrity. I consider the manuscript finished once I can believe I’ve done my utmost and then I let the story go.
Norm: What did you find most useful in learning to write? What was least useful or most destructive?
Ethel: Most useful:
Only trouble is interesting.
Less is more (with regard to restraint as well as word count).
Engage all the senses.
Read widely and inclusively.
Write what you know.
Conflict, conflict and more conflict.
I found the first least useful because initially I took it literally. I now follow my own, more specific dictum: Write what I know to be true emotionally. I found the second least useful because I also took it too literally and my early work was rife with melodrama. I now try to practice the power and honesty of restraint and to find the tension and trouble in the small conflicts—like being thirsty—as well as the story’s high stakes but measured central struggle.
Norm: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?
Ethel: I’m loathe to add lore to the now clichéd trope of the miserable Irish childhood, but my upbringing was largely unhappy. It didn’t help that I was and remain sensitive and feel things deeply—it’s both a curse and a gift.
The themes of brokenness, rescue, loss, and the urgent search for safety all color my writing. I put my pain, fear, desire, empathy, and hope—all those things I feel deeply—into my stories. I think every writer does.
Norm: How did you become involved with the subject or theme of The Weight of Him and how did you come up with the title?
Ethel: The spark for The Weight of Him was a snippet of conversation I overheard, two men talking about an obese woman in mourning: “Her grief might just kill her before her weight does.” I couldn’t get that sentence out of my head. What if, I wondered, this woman’s grief or weight didn’t kill her but instead propelled her to do something extraordinary?
When I went to write the story, however, the novel’s protagonist, 400lb Billy Brennan, immediately appeared on the page rather than the mysterious woman the two men were talking about. Sub-consciously I may have given this story to a man because I didn’t want to write yet again about my mother (she inevitably finds her way into a lot of my work).
I also didn’t want to write yet again about my own history of body shame, eating disorder and disconnection from my body (I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse—perpetrated by a family friend). Maybe I also avoided the female protagonist because the woman’s body is already so politicized. Mostly, though, there’s a mystery to how and why story and characters come to us. Billy Brennan wouldn’t let me be no matter how hard I resisted him and I finally gave myself over entirely to the man and his story.
Norm: As this is your debut novel, how did you enjoy the experience and how did it compare from writing your other works?
Ethel: Perhaps what I most enjoyed about writing this novel, and moving on from the short form, was how long I got to live with these characters and their imagined world. I loved being with them, and getting to know their minds and hearts and the why of them. I miss them.
Norm: It is said that writers should write what they know. Were there any elements of the book that forced you to step out of your comfort zone, and if so, how did you approach this part of the writing?
Ethel: I no longer limit my stories to writing about what I “know” through my actual experiences but rather I write about what I know to be true of ourselves and our world. My goal with this book, and all my writing, is to answer a central question as fully and honestly as I can. My novel’s central question is how do the Brennan family, and in particular Billy Brennan, go on in the wake of their teenage son’s suicide. Every sentence in the novel served to answer that question.
I expected it to be difficult to bring Billy’s son, Michael, to life on the page so the reader could know him and connect with him. He died five weeks before the novel begins. In fact it felt very rewarding to bring Michael to the page. I grew to love him, just as his family, friends and community did. The hard part was, of course, that I also keenly felt his loss.
What was difficult was inhabiting Billy’s 400lb body and living with his grief and his demons. There was so much to get wrong when depicting all that. Like everything else in the novel, I approached this part of the writing by going deeply and fully into the heart and mind of my main character and letting him live fully and honestly on the page—flaws, fears, hopes, pain, struggles, failings, triumphs and all.
Norm: Is there a message in your novel that you want your readers to grasp in other words, what were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?
Ethel: I’m wary of any work of fiction that claims to have a message. I don’t think that’s the fiction writer’s job. Readers grasp the messages and meaning for themselves. The fiction writer’s only job is to know the characters and story she’s telling and to render everything honestly and to the best of her ability. This I achieved.
Norm: What was the most difficult part of writing this book?
Ethel: I felt an enormous responsibility to render faithfully my 400lb male protagonist and the difficult topics of suicide and food disorder. I was writing into the overall void of such a book and against my fears around whether or not I, as a 140lb woman who has not lost a child to suicide, had the authority to tell this story.
I was also concerned that the theme of suicide would be too painful a topic for several of my friends and family who have lost loved ones to the epidemic. It was a lot of angst to stare down and overcome, but I did. Because I believed the story needed to be told and that I could do it mindfully and with compassion and good intentions.
Norm: Do you agree that to have good drama there must be an emotional charge that usually comes from the individual squaring off against antagonists either out in the world or within himself or herself? If so, please elaborate and how does it fit into you novel?
Ethel: The best stories have at their center a main character with a burning desire who is repeatedly thwarted by obstacles. The more all the characters struggle, the more they are obstructed and challenged, the more universal and sympathetic their wants and needs, then the more moving, high stakes, and successful the story will be. Ultimately, we read for selfish reasons: To see ourselves in all our wants and needs and losses and wins. We’re reading to better understand and connect with ourselves, others and our world. In finding the truth in fiction, we find the truth in life.
Norm: Can you tell us how you found representation for your book? Did you pitch it to an agent, or query publishers who would most likely publish this type of book? Any rejections?
Ethel: I queried agents, not publishers. For my first (failed) novel manuscript, I received several agent rejections and quickly set the manuscript aside as practice. I gave up on that manuscript not because of the rejections, but because I couldn’t justify in my own mind and heart why I’d written the story I did (about essentially a pedophile). With The Weight of Him I queried a shortlist of agents recommended by other writers and received several requests for the full manuscript. I signed with Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management who read the manuscript over a weekend and offered representation by phone on Sunday afternoon. It was a wonderful whirlwind.
Norm: Are you working on any books/projects that you would like to share with us? (We would love to hear all about them!)
Ethel: I am working on my second novel. It’s historical fiction with a female protagonist this time and begins in 1935 Ireland, but quickly moves to New York. That’s all I’ll say for now, other than I’m absolutely loving writing it.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your work?
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.
Ethel: Thank you, Norm, for this and for all you do for books and writers.