The Sweetest Debut: Ethel Rohan on Her Irish Inspiration for ‘The Weight of Him’


Welcome to The Sweetest Debut, a regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.

Today we hear from Ethel Rohan, whose novel about family and loss set in Ireland, The Weight of Him arrives on shelves today (trailer below).

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

Set in Ireland, The Weight of Him is about a 400lb man who loses his teenage son to suicide and sets out to stop the epidemic, by shedding half of himself.

What do you tell your relatives it’s about?

I tell them to read the book to find out what it’s about. My withholding, and their (paranoid) curiosity, might make them actually buy the book. “We have to buy the book?” they splutter. “But we’re family.” Yes they have to buy the book. How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

[Face blazes red-purple]. About eight years from seed to deal, and two years from deal to publication. I’m slaying my next novel, though. Honest.

Name a canonical book you think is totally overrated.

Finnegan’s Wake. Drinks on me for those masochists who managed to finish it (tell the truth, now).

What’s a book you’ve read more than two times?

There are several. Most recently, Irish author Donal Ryan’s story collection, A Slanting of the Sun. Ryan’s work can be savage, full of hard-hitting truths, but also tender, full of ache. He’s expert at unlikeable characters and original, gorgeous prose. Always a rich read.

Is there a book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project?

It’s tempting to lie. Here’s the truth: I’m always reading, always inspired by other art forms (plays, film, music, paintings, musical theatre), but the largest influence on my writing for this particular project was the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty. That simple but devastating rhyme captured so much of what’s at the center of The Weight of Him—loss, brokenness, and the burning compulsion to put things back together.

What’s your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

God, so many. TV has gotten exceptional. Here’s a few I binge watch(ed) and highly recommend: The OA, River, Dicte, Medici, Broadchurch, Scandal, Happy Valley, The Fall, Stranger Things, House of Cards, How to Get Away With Murder. I could go on. Yes, I’m a suspense junkie.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

Passengers. I had low expectations (despite Jennifer Lawrence) and I wasn’t disappointed. Made me want to dance tethered to my ship in outer space, though, so there’s that.

Days before Passengers, I saw Loving, which did deliver. Overall, it was slow and underwhelming, but that was part of its strength—less Hollywood and more real life in all its dullness and occasional brilliance. A measured account of racism and segregation, and human nature, while also an inspiring story of courage and resistance. And love. Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?

I write in silence a lot. I also often listen to instrumental/meditation music. I do sometimes play songs. I blasted lots of Irish artists during my almost decade with this book: Phil Lynott, Glen Hansard, Sinead O’Connor, Gavin James, Imelda May, HamSandwicH, Aoife O’Donovan. Also Adele, and Cynthia Erivo. From these shores, Beyoncé, One Republic, Tracy Chapman, Sara Bareilles, Bruno Mars, and a young singer-songwriter right here in San Francisco, Ryan Doyle (his song Fall!).

Who is your fashion icon?

I love dressing fancy. Most days, though, I’m in sweatpants, but whenever I have social events, I favor open-toe heels, big earrings, noisy bracelets, good hair, and a funky but tailored look. I don’t wear nearly enough dresses. I need to wear more dresses. JLo, Adele, Beyoncé, Halle Berry, Rebel Wilson, Naomi Campbell, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Lawrence, Scarlett Johanssen. Those women can style.

What did you initially want to be when you grew up?

I’m greedy. I wanted to be so much. I really wanted to be an actor. I still want to be an actor. I also really wanted to be a dancer. I’m never going to be a dancer. From my earliest memories, I was telling stories. I’ll always be telling stories.

Did you have a New Years resolution for 2017? If so, what?

I hate New Year resolutions. Just do your best every day, whatever that is, and keep trying to raise the bar.

What freaks you out the most about four years of Trump as US President?

Everything. (Pukes in mouth).

Do you write at a desk, bed or couch?

Glass desk. This somehow brings to mind Cinderella. Useless trivia: the first novel I wrote and which remains in a drawer (not in my glass desk but in my wooden file cabinet) was titled Cinderella Met a Fella. Of fairy tale lore, I am most like Goldilocks. I prefer most everything down the middle. End of useless trivia.

Is morning writing or late-night writing your go-to-time?

Morning. Always.

Do you tend towards writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

Something in between. See Goldilocks reference above. But I’ve gotten better at stopping myself from trying to perfect as I go and I strongly recommend writing it all out in one big messy draft. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and effort, and the work will be more organic and ultimately stronger. One big messy draft written as fast as possible will also be much easier to revise, rewrite, and delete where needed because you won’t be blinded by too deep an attachment to the work.

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

My husband (mostly).

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?

Doing the above doesn’t take up ALL that much time.

If you could write fanfiction about any pop culture character, real or imagined, who would it be?

Ryan Gosling.

Care to give us a few sentences of micro-fiction about that character?