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Ethan Rutherford's short stories about long trips

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Ethan Rutherford
In "The Peripatetic Coffin" Twin Cities author Ethan Rutherford delves into life changing moments in his character's lives. Rutherford writes short stories, while also teaching and playing guitar in the local band, Pennyroyal.
Image courtesy ECCO Books/Heather Kraft

Twin Cities writer Ethan Rutherford's tales range from the voyage of a Confederate submarine, to a science fiction saga about hunting for whales in the middle of a desert.

The short stories in Rutherford's collection "The Peripatetic Coffin" involve journeys and they seldom end well. The book is heralded as a debut from a fine new literary talent.

"The Peripatetic Coffin" is an eye-catching book title, and as Rutherford admits, somewhat provocative.

"I get a lot of flak for that title." he said. "People are like 'Oh it's a fancy $10 word here.'"

But it is fun to say.

"And suddenly you see it everywhere," Rutherford said.

The title comes from the first story in the collection which is about the H.L. Hunley, the submarine commissioned by the Confederate States during the Civil War in an attempt to break the Union blockade of Charleston.

Rutherford came across the so-called "fish boat" as it was known when he lived in Charleston, where the boat is now preserved.

"And it's tiny," he said. "I mean it really is this thing that is just cobbled together and I read the plaque, and I found myself thinking, 'Who in their right mind would ever, ever, ever, get aboard a ship like this?'"

A crew member nicknamed the Hunley the "Peripatetic Coffin." Two complete crews of eight men died during test runs. Rutherford decided to write about the third crew who volunteered despite this dismal record. As a fiction writer, Rutherford goes to wherever makes him feel uncomfortable, he said.

"I am interested in the characters who do the things that I would never in a hundred years do," Rutherford said. "And in some ways that's what makes writing interesting for me; is plunging yourself into that sort of scenario and then you are writing your way out of it."

Rutherford placed himself in the mind of real life crew member Ward Lumpkin who knows the situation is desperate.

An excerpt from the book, "The Peripetetic Coffin" by Ethan Rutherford

"Conventional wisdom around Battery Marshall has the survival rate aboard the Hunley hovering near zero, and that's without ever having engaged an enemy ship. Cannon probability Augustus calls it, as in, stuff yourself inside a cannon and see what happens. But there's probability and certainty. Antietam was a washout. Gettysburg was worse. Crescent City folded like the house of cards it was and we lost the Mississippi."

- Ward Lumpkin

The multifaceted Rutherford has taught writing at Macalester College, the University of Minnesota and the Loft Literary Center, and plays guitar with the local band, Pennyroyal.

There is also a remarkable diversity in Rutherford's writing. In "The Peripatetic Coffin" readers will find a domestic drama involving a couple regretting their decision to raise alpacas; a story about sailors whose ship is trapped in Arctic ice; a hilarious description of a summer camp director who decides the easy way to solve his problems is to declare war on another camp across the lake. Lastly, a futuristic science fiction piece about hunting dirwhals -- huge worms that swim through the sand of a planet where the water is long gone.

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In each of them Rutherford is seeking one thing, he said.

"You are trying to find the one moment in your characters life where everything changes," he said. "I mean that's the moment you are interested in as a short-story writer."

Whenever short-story writers admit to their craft in public, Rutherford says the almost inevitable follow-up question is 'So when are you doing a novel?' He's writing one now, but doesn't sound entirely convinced he will finish.

"I may get about 30 pages further into it and say 'You know what? Maybe this makes a very good short story' and leave it like that." 

It's not that Rutherford is opposed to novels. Rutherford just prefers the shorter form. He likes them because of the freedom it gives him as a writer.

"You can say' Let's write a short story and  we are going to make it science fiction,' and I am going to spend four months in this science fiction universe, knowing that I am going to wrap it up and move on to the next thing."

And as a reader, Rutherford also likes short stories.

"I feel like short stories are more gut punches," he said. "You read a short story and you stop and I feel like you have to put it down and kind of take a couple of breaths. I like the gut punch that a short story offers you." 

Including gut punches thrown from a Peripatetic Coffin of a cobbled together submarine under the waters of Charleston Harbor.

Rutherford will be reading Thursday evening at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Edina with Northfield novelist Ben Percy.