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NEPM brings you interviews with New England authors to add to your summer reading list.

Ethan Rutherford Shares 'Bedtime Stories For The End Of The World'

West Hartford, Connecticut, author Ethan Rutherford.
Lou Russo
Courtesy of the author
West Hartford, Connecticut, author Ethan Rutherford.

West Hartford, Connecticut, author Ethan Rutherford says his latest collection of short stories, “Farthest South,” is about “the fever dream of parenthood,” in the form of “bedtime stories for the end of the world.”

Rutherford said the differences between this collection and those of his first, “The Peripatetic Coffin,” are the result of some major life events.

Ethan Rutherford, author: The difference between this collection and my first collection is fairly simple and stark, which is that I had children between writing that first collection and writing this collection, and so my interests just naturally shifted to thinking about parenthood — and what does it mean to be a parent? And how do you both sort of prepare your child for the world but also protect them from it? And those were the issues that I was thinking about as I was writing these stories.

And I was trying really hard not to write about parenthood. For some reason, I just sort of felt that that was my life outside of my work, and then those boundaries just started to blur. And I really, I found that I really enjoyed writing about the experience of being a young parent with two young kids, and that actually the process of writing these stories helped me articulate how I wanted to be a parent in the world.

I think anyone who tells stories can appreciate the glimpses you give the reader into how narrators are paying attention to their audience and navigating all of that as they're in the process of telling a story. And I wonder if you'd read a section from the final story in the collection, "The Diver," which illustrates that. The narrator has been telling a scary story to his sons. And one of the scariest aspects is that the two children in the story, who are brothers, have witnessed a catastrophe and appear to have been abandoned by everyone they've ever known, including their parents. So could you read that for us?

Yes, absolutely. So that's right. So this story is picking up when they're in the room and they're deep into the story and it's deep into the night and the story is taken the boys well past their normal bedtime.

I have to go to the bathroom, the older boy said, and jumped off the bed. Soren moved his knees to let him by. In the low light of the bedroom, his younger son hugged then flattened, then hugged his pillow again. He looked so much like Hanna that people stopped them on the street to comment on it. For this reason, Soren loved him just a little bit more. Though he would never say so. "What's on your mind?" Soren asked.
"Nothing," he said, hesitating.
"We can talk," Soren said. It was late. The traffic sounds outside the window had gone almost completely away.
"Where are their parents?"
"Oh," Soren said, "Right." He clasped his hands together and he looked to the window. He'd moved the parents offstage and hadn't really thought about it. But of course it mattered. "Give me a second," he said. He felt the answer coming, and he didn't want to lie. But before he could respond, he heard the toilet flush and the older boy returned. "We will get there," he said. He wiped at his nose. "Now, where was I?"

I should say that you mention Hanna in that reading. Hanna is the boy's mother.

These stories are pretty scary. There's lots of tenderness. There's also hard things going on. In the first story in the book, also being told to the same two boys that are talked to in the last story in the book, the mother says they want a scary story. And the narrator is sort of like, I don't know if I feel like doing a scary story. But the narrator proceeds to tell a very scary story.

And the sense I get is that sort of looking at things that are scary can somehow be helpful.

Yes. No, I agree with that, and I love that reading. It's why the stories are framed in the way that they're framed, where it's a father telling these scary stories. And part of that is because at the end, they can look at sort of the things that scare them and they can talk about the things that scare them.

But at the end of the story, they're not going to be left in that sort of very sort of scary zone. Something will have shifted over the course of the story, the act of telling the story will have brought some things up to the surface for them to look at. But it's still sort of ends on that moment of sort of tenderness and safety that the story is closed down for now. There's a moment of rest and a moment of tenderness.

And all that stuff will come again and these these kids will confront it on their own. Soren will confront it on his own, and it's impossible to say how things are going to turn out. But the act of telling the story kind of diffuses its true terror.

Tema Silk is the editor for NEPM's award-winning commentaries, which she’s been involved with since 2010. She's also a contributing reporter.
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