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Ethan Rutherford’s short stories go where most people wouldn’t

“I like stories where things happen; where characters find themselves under a great deal of pressure, where things aren’t going as planned,” says Ethan Rutherford.

"I like stories where things happen; where characters find themselves under a great deal of pressure, where things aren’t going as planned."
Photo by Heather Kraft

Ethan Rutherford likes to make his readers squirm. His new collection of stories, “The Peripatetic Coffin” (Ecco), follows characters into ridiculously uncomfortable situations, and once they’re in, there’s no turning back. And that goes for readers, too. You may suspect, a few paragraphs or pages in, that this is not going to end well, but you can’t stop reading — these smart, psychologically complex, and sometimes even funny stories are too good to put down.

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“I like stories where things happen; where characters find themselves under a great deal of pressure, where things aren’t going as planned. Characters are their most combustible — they are more likely to do things, to lunge after a desired object, to reveal themselves — when they are at their most emotionally uncomfortable,” says Rutherford, who moved to the Twin Cities from Seattle a few years ago to study creative writing at the University of Minnesota. (A certain amount of homesickness is revealed in his preoccupation with the sea, in nearly every story; we are a bit landlocked here.) His stories have done very well, finding homes in literary magazines like Ploughshares and One Story; the title story from “The Peripatetic Coffin” appears in “The Best American Short Stories 2009.”

In that story, he follows a group of Civil War soldiers who have accepted a mission to go into the deep in a primitive submarine that killed every member of its first two crews. That would be a flat-out deterrent to most people right there, but someone always says yes to the mission impossible, and that’s the kind of person Rutherford delights in — ridiculous and also very real. (This story is based on the exploits of an actual crummy Confederate vessel, the H.L. Hunley.) Another story in the book follows an early, unprepared arctic expedition onto the ice (it’s also based on historical events). Foolhardy isn’t just for adults, either. In another story, a group of campers at the worst summer camp ever try to rescue a missing mascot from the glorious neighboring camp.

peripatetic coffin

If drawn-out discomfort and unease is a hallmark of our post-millennial, post-9/11, disaster-obsessed pop culture, as a quick scan of popular film and television might suggest, then Rutherford’s stories are perfect for these times. At this moment in history, we aren’t just comfortable with discomfort, we enjoy it. (Or, more accurately, we enjoy witnessing the discomfort of others.) His timing is good in another way, too: The short story is enjoying a revival, especially in the Twin Cities.

“Short story writers, we’re sort of like that weird uncle you never see at the beach until you invite him to that one family picnic: spindly legs, farmer tan, sun block smeared all over our face, squinting because we forgot our sunglasses. I don’t know why it’s happening, necessarily, but it’s nice to see all these new people on the beach, getting the sun they deserve,” he says. “I’ve heard people say that short stories are popular now because everyone’s attention span has been zapped by the Internet.  Part of me wonders what people mean by popular and another part of me goes: Short stories, if done right, require more attention from their readers than novels do. So your guess is as good as mine, but what sort of rude person would turn down an invitation to a family picnic on a beach?”  

Working on a novel, set in Alaska

As someone who is fascinated with characters who go off the rails or into the unknown, it makes sense that Rutherford wouldn’t stick with what’s working for him. So he’s heading into new territory by working on a novel, set in Alaska. He also writes under pressure now, with a toddler son and a band vying for his attention. Last year, Chris Riemenschneider called the indie rock band, Pennyroyal, “one of the best new local bands you’ve probably never heard,” and Rutherford is its lead guitarist. He says playing music, with its different sort of creative energy, actually balances his writing life.

“With writing, it’s so easy to get locked inside yourself — it’s painstaking work, and slow; you’re all alone, responsible for making sure every piece fits (and you’re the only one to blame when it doesn’t work, which is most of the time).  For me, music is the opposite of that: You are in a room, with other people, working together to make something.  And that creative camaraderie, when things are working the way they should, when everyone is locked in, well, it’s the greatest feeling, and works, for me, like a bit of a pressure valve.  I can get lost in sound in a way I cannot get lost in literature.  It all comes from the same place — that desire to get something across to another person without making it explicit — but the process is different, and I’ve found that each recharges the other: When I’m going through a fallow period in writing, music takes over; when music becomes too chaotic, and I want nothing more than to be left alone, I return to writing.”