Exploring the art of prose


Conversations Between Friends: Dominic Lim and Ethel Rohan

Image is the book cover for SING, I by Ethel Rohan; title card for the new interview between Dominic Lim and Ethel Rohan.


I was first introduced to Ethel Rohan’s writing at a reading sponsored by The Writers Grotto, a community of working writers in San Francisco. After hearing an excerpt from her award-winning collection of short stories, I rushed to read the rest of In the Event of Contact. These literary gems sparkled, revealing sensitivity and uncanny insight, with lyrical, gorgeous writing, as well as an impressive talent for being able to dive into a character and discover the layers that lie beneath.

So, I was thrilled to be able to read an advance copy of Ethel’s second novel, Sing, I. The main character is Ester Prynn, whose ordinary world is upended when the convenience store where she works is robbed at gunpoint. In the fallout of this violent act, Ester begins to reexamine her life and embrace new passions, including music and the possibility of a same-sex romance.

Sing, I had me hooked from the first page. Containing elements of crime thriller and romance, it crackles with the energy of both genres while refusing to fit neatly into either category. Its themes of music and queer love buoy the reader through Ester’s toughest moments.

In this interview, I ask Ethel about the power of music. We also discuss writing about working-class women and their relationships, and if there was a real-life event that inspired Sing, I.

—Dominic Lim


Dominic Lim: I often tell people the sign of an excellent writer is that their words will feel like music in one’s mind, which is exactly what your writing feels like to me. It was a joy to read about Ester Prynn, particularly her experiences in the new choir she joins. Can you tell us a little bit more about your connection to music and its importance in Ester’s personal journey?

Ethel Rohan: Thank you, Dominic. So much of writing is forging into the unknown, and not just in terms of discovering the story and the who and why of its characters. There’s mystery and alchemy to the writing process itself and what it is exactly that goes into creating a book from blankness—it’s far more instinctive than definitive.

My ultimate test for my work arriving at “finished” is if it meets rhythms and a musicality that read to me as complete and satisfying. There’s a certain build and release the story must sound in my head and to my ear when I read the manuscript aloud. I recognized that same symphony in your poignant and ultimately delightful novel, All the Right Notes, which also celebrates the transformative power of song and music.

I should confess that I cannot sing or play an instrument. I think I marvel all the more at song and music because I’m so woefully lacking in those particular gifts. Despite being tone-deaf, music is in my blood. The Irish love a singsong and among my happiest childhood memories are scenes of family, friends, and the wider community singing together. The ideal trifecta was singing, dancing, and live music, and in the decades since my passion for the three has only flourished.

The magic of music can’t be quantified or qualified, but it is staggering. Music can enliven us, connect us, transport us, and dramatically affect our moods, our decisions—our entire lives. I credit a single line from The Pogues’ iconic “Fairytale of New York” with helping to bolster my resolve as a young adult to leave an abusive relationship and ensure that Christmas was our last one together as a couple. (It was.) In Sing, I, Ester is similarly, profoundly affected by song. Her joining a local choir returns her to past delights she had allowed to deaden, cements life-changing friendships, and dramatically shapes her future.


DM: Another big influence on Ester’s post robbery life is her relationship with Allie, the manager of the restaurant where she works after leaving her job at the convenience store. What is it about Allie that Ester finds so attractive? Was there a reason why you wanted this possible romantic relationship to be queer?

ER: Beyond the initial spark for my stories, in this case the store holdup, I never know where I’m going in my writing. I was as surprised as Ester by the electricity between her and Allie in the scene where they first meet, but I immediately knew to trust and follow their magnetism. I should also note that I’m never quite sure in writing if the characters are following my choices or if it’s the other way around! I do know that the writing will eventually show me if I’ve misstepped and need to return to a certain point in the story and make different decisions. The surety that Ester and Allie’s chemistry was the throughline of this novel only climbed as I wrote on. Allie makes Ester feel seen, known, and alive in a way she’s never before experienced.

It’s a hesitant, conflicted romance, though. Ester, like me, identifies as straight and is married to the father of her two children. Her angst, confusion, and guilt felt true to her character even as they created frustrating barriers between her and Allie. But my reluctance is there on the page, too. I worried about writing a transgender woman and queer characters. I made peace with doing so by telling this story with a great sense of care and responsibility, and by reaffirming and empowering its marginalized characters. Raised in Catholic Ireland, with its then much more oppressive restrictions and prescribed roles, I was shaped into who I was told I should be and never once considered my authentic self. It felt fantastic in Sing, I to write characters who had or are trying to break free of conformity and embrace their true selves.


DM: Ester found herself having to care for several men in her life, including a difficult teenage son, a husband she might not be in love with anymore, and a sick father. These are circumstances that many women will be able to relate to. Can you tell us a little more about what draws you to writing about working-class women and the responsibilities forced onto them by society?

ER: As I touched on earlier, one of the great rewards of writing is getting to reframe punitive narratives and center devalued lives. Working-class women are all too often maligned or overlooked in life and in literature. I grew up working class and the women in my family and neighborhood—despite or perhaps in spite of their daily struggles and limited choices—were among the fiercest, funniest, and most resourceful I’ve ever known. They were also, without exception, caregivers, and too often victims. They tended in exhausting, near-impossible ways never tasked to men. And to this day it is overwhelmingly men who enforce these domestic roles and continue to exploit and benefit from women’s unpaid and unsung labor. Writing working-class women not only honors my lived past and my forebears, but also affords me the opportunity to depict these particularly burdened women with grace, and to show them making gains despite relentless obstacles. What’s more, I find working-class women and their situations really interesting, and I only ever write about what grips me.


DM: The convenience store holdup and Ester’s reaction to it, both immediately after and then later throughout the course of the novel, feel so sincere and keenly realized. Did you ever experience a similar traumatic incident in real life? If so, why did you choose to write about it this way, instead of as, say, a more straightforward crime novel?

ER: Given my history of abuse in childhood and beyond, the holdup I witnessed as a ten-year-old could be considered a relatively minor incident, and yet it has enormous sticking power. I arrived at the off-license at the bottom of our Dublin street right as three young men emerged. They raced off, laughing, their hands choking the necks of bulging garbage bags. I continued into the shop with a chilling sense of dread and compulsion, and discovered myself alone with sharp alcohol fumes and the dazed salesclerk. He was standing behind the counter amid emptied shelves and a wet tiled floor littered with cigarette cartons and broken bottles—his eyes glazed, his mouth opening and closing, his head gouged by jagged glass, and the left side of his face and neck soaked in blood.

I dashed outside and flagged down a passing driver who went to the salesclerk’s aid. I continued home where no one there or elsewhere ever asked if I was okay. I have never been able to forget the salesclerk’s vacant terror or his assailants’ adrenalized laughter. I wrote about the holdup in a short story, “On the Loose,” which was included in my first book, Cut Through the Bone (Dark Sky Books, 2010). But that incident as story spark clearly wasn’t done with me and it resurfaced again in Sing, I. Despite the series of crimes that thread the novel, it felt important to not write within the traditions of the crime genre itself. People have become ever more desensitized and uncaring and I wanted to show how traumatic even supposedly minor crimes can be. Sing, I is my effort at a recalibration of our dwindling empathy levels and increasing lack of sympathy for human suffering.


DM: Were there any other influences that inspired you to write Sing, I? Were any of the characters inspired by people you know?

ER: Another surprise while writing Sing, I was how many ghosts showed up beyond the salesclerk from the holdup mentioned above. The least expected ghost was my long-ago friend, Noelle, who died at age twenty-one. I was nineteen at the time and no stranger to death—inevitable when you’re from a large Irish family and close-knit community—but Noelle’s dying so young and from something as preventable as an asthma attack crushed me. It took me a long time to accept her death, and it wasn’t until writing Sing, I that I better grieved her.

I’m an adult orphan and that theme also plays out in Sing, I, but it’s Nicole McRory’s larger-than-life spirit that infuses every page of the novel. Nicole, a transgender woman, giddy friend, and beloved Bay Area singer and musician, died in 2011. In early drafts of the manuscript, a secondary character, Lily, was a thinly veiled version of Nicole, until Lily blossomed into her own person in need of her own telling. See what I mean about my characters seeming to have more power over me than I do them?! I contented myself with dedicating Sing, I to Nicole, a hilarious, big-hearted woman and bawdy entertainer-extraordinaire. It’s my way of keeping her in the glow of the spotlight, where she belongs.


DM: You’re a prolific writer in so many different forms—short stories, reviews, personal essays, memoir, and novels. What advice do you have for someone who wants to try various forms yet not lose focus or forward momentum in their writing career?

ER: Writing is such an individual sport. We have to find the ways and forms that work best for us. I’m constantly surrounded by possible project starts, but only a few work their way into me—splinters that I can’t ignore. That demand to be sculpted into full form. That kind of needling guides our focus and will drive forward momentum. More often than not, I know immediately what form the writing will take, be it essay, short story, or novel. If I get incurably stuck in the work, I’ll reevaluate whether or not I’m telling it in the right way, including its vessel, or if I should be telling it at all. It’s rare, but a splinter can trick me into thinking it needs to be built upon when really it requires elimination. I suggest following your inspiration and instincts, that certain pull and knowingness. Trust wherever those palpable moments lead.


ETHEL ROHAN is 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 (2017) was an Amazon, Bustlekobo, and San Francisco Chronicle Best Book. Sing, I, is her second novel. She can be found on Instagram @ethelrohan.

DOMINIC LIM’s debut novel, All the Right Notes, has been named a 2023 Best Book by USA Today, Harper’s Bazaar, Goodreads, Book Riot, Library Journal, Booklist, and Entertainment Weekly, who called it “a swoony, joyful rom-com to take readers into a love story worthy of a Broadway stage.” He is a member of The Writers Grotto and is a cohost of the long-running Babylon Salon reading and performance series in San Francisco. Dominic holds a Master of Music from Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, is an alumnus of Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music, and has sung with numerous professional early music and choral ensembles. As a proud member of the Actors’ Equity Association, he has performed Off-Broadway and in regional productions throughout the US. He works as a paralegal for a biotech company in the Bay Area and lives in Oakland with his loving and supportive husband, Peter, and their whiny cat, Phoebe. Find him on Instagram @jdominiclim.