Sing, I

by Ethel Rohan

Interview by Ellen Birkett Morris

In Ethel Rohan’s Sing, I, Ester Prynn, tired by the challenges of money, marriage and motherhood is upended when a masked gunman robs the convenience store where she works. As Ester navigates the aftermath of the attack she is drawn to new pursuits, singing, and an unexpected same-sex infatuation. Following her desires and seeking justice, Esther is forced to reckon with the past and make choices about her future.

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a creative writer. Did you have a mentor who offered advice that you can share with us?

 ROHAN: Books are constant mentors. Victor LaValle (The Changeling) was the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Mills College while I was in their Creative Writing program and he championed a golden writing rule: “Be interesting.” That has served as excellent advice for my writing, reading tastes, and life.

AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. His job was to get the man off the mountain. Where do story ideas come from for you?

“I never know what will spark a story but I’m always open and alert to inspiration.”

ROHAN: I never know what will spark a story but I’m always open and alert to inspiration. My first novel, The Weight of Him, started from a scrap of overhead conversation. My second novel, Sing, I, started from my memories of a store holdup that I had witnessed as a child and hadn’t processed. Certain moments work their way into me like splinters until I write them out.

AUTHORLINK: Sing, I is an intriguing story of self-discovery through trauma. What research did you do to depict those experiences so vividly?

 ROHAN: To paraphrase the Farmers Insurance ad, I know some things because I’ve lived some things. I’m a survivor of trauma in childhood and young adulthood and because we write out of our whole selves, consciously and subconsciously, those psychic scars inevitably show up in my stories. But more than that, varying degrees of suffering doesn’t pass any of us by, so our characters are always going to be hurting. Through character development and causing trouble, I instinctually write my way into making my characters’ strife and story arc as individual and true to them as possible.

AUTHORLINK: Your main female character has an evocative name, Ester Prynn. How did that name play into your development of her character and the challenges she faces?

“I find names fascinating, in particular their power to shape and misshape us.”

 ROHAN: I find names fascinating, in particular their power to shape and misshape us. Like I firmly believe if you’re named Dick v Bruce, or Rose v Petunia, you’re going to live a very different life. Namesakes add yet more layers to the hold our names can have over us. Like I was named after my Great-Great aunt Ethel and received messages real and inferred that I should be poised and classy and affected—which put me outside my working-class peers and community who considered me other and a snob. Giving Ester Prynn the near-namesake of the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter amped-up tension on a number of levels and played into the novel’s theme of patriarchy’s inherent condemnation of women.   

AUTHORLINK: Sing, I has a lot to say about the modern justice system’s failings and limitations. Did you set out to comment on that or did it just emerge from the narrative?

ROHAN: I never set out to write political or cultural commentary in my fiction. My intention is always to tell the most personal-to-the-character story possible. Because the personal inevitably holds up a mirror to society, the story is going to organically reflect the characters’ surroundings and our wider world and the various forces that impact us. In Sing, I, I followed the story and the characters, and my police procedural research, and they led to a theme of broken policing that is true to life.

AUTHORLINK: This book hums with the tension that Ester experiences on multiple fronts. Can you offer advice to other writers on how to depict bodily tension effectively?

“We have to inhabit our characters; drop into their bodies, minds, and hearts.”

ROHAN: We have to inhabit our characters; drop into their bodies, minds, and hearts. I write as someone who both sees my story play out scene by scene on the big screen of my imagination and as someone who shapeshifts into my characters so that I’m sensing and thinking entirely through them.

AUTHORLINK: What was your greatest challenge in developing Sing, I?

ROHAN: As a straight woman, I most worried about getting my queer characters and the story’s LGBTQ+ themes right. I wrote with a great sense of care and responsibility, and again by zeroing-in on the individual characters v the whole, and can only hope that I did right by all concerned.

AUTHORLINK: This is your fifth book. How has your writing evolved over time?

” I’ve stop self-censoring and polishing sentences as I go in early drafts…”

ROHAN: I’ve stop self-censoring and polishing sentences as I go in early drafts, and instead I focus on finding the story and getting to know the characters. I also use self-hypnosis and automatic writing (writing freestyle with my non-dominant hand) more frequently to get into creative flow. I like to think I’ve gotten better at writing, too, both in terms of craft and on the business side.

AUTHORLINK: I’m wondering what advice you offer to apprentice writers about either craft or staying encouraged in the face of rejection or both.

ROHAN: Read, read, read; write the first draft fast and freely; drill deep on every level of the story; give the reader nothing less than your best; be kind to yourself and others; and keep going.

AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.

ROHAN: I’m close to completing my third novel, which centers two Irish characters and is set in 1930s Coney Island, in particular its vaudeville scene with its fascination around “freaks” and the grotesque. I hope people will love reading it as much as I’ve loved writing it.

About the Author

Ethel Rohan’s second novel, SING, I, is published by TriQuarterly Books. She is also the author of In the Event of Contact (2021), winner of the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Prize, the Gold IPPY Award for Best European Fiction, and the Eric Hoffer Short Story Collection Award.

Her debut novel The Weight of Him (St. Martin’s Press and Atlantic Books, 2017) was an Amazon, Bustle, KOBO, and San Francisco Chronicle Best Book. The novel won a Plumeri Fellowship, Silver Nautilus Award, the Northern California Publishers and Authors’ Award. She is also the author of two short story collections, Goodnight Nobody and Cut Through the Bone.