Author Sarah Rose Etter Keeps It Surreal

“I think at this point, the only way to really get a reader to feel anything is to create a new place for them to feel it,” says Sarah Rose Etter, author of Tongue Party, a collection of stories that won the prestigious Caketrain Chapbook Competition in May.

“All the stories about ‘my mom died and she left me this spaghetti recipe and when I make spaghetti, it makes me cry’—all of that’s been done already, and done by really fantastic people.”

Etter doesn’t make readers kneel down and squint through a keyhole into characters’ private lives. Instead, the 28-year-old crafts sharply drawn prose that amputates the every day ache out of the human heart and then transplants that ache into characters dropped into surreal situations that, like deep-sleep dreams, make sense despite all the weird.

“I try to create world within each story where surreal things happen, but they all lead up to real emotion,” explains Etter. “Usually [I’m inspired by] something that makes me feel passionately, and I’m trying to create something that makes people reading my stories feel the same way, but under a different set of events.”

By the time the story ends, a reader gets the feeling that the stories are whirligigs Etter set up just to demonstrate how much the whole business of loss and desire doesn’t ever change, no matter what the circumstances.

The book opens with Koala Tide. The butterflies in a young girl’s belly almost take over her beach vacation as she anticipates the day when, as she heard adults discussing, koala bears will wash ashore. The girl fantasizes about digging her feet in the wet sand, grabbing as many koalas as she can, keeping them as pets, loving them all. But it doesn’t end well.

In Cake, a woman’s boyfriend pulls baker’s string bow in quivering anticipation of his secret desires. In perhaps the collection’s most disturbing story, Chicken Father, a young girl coping with her mother’s death also struggles to deal with her father’s decision to peer at the rest of his life through the hot rubbery stink of a plastic chicken mask.

It’s fitting that Etter’s beat, as a cub reporter out of college, was prisons because that’s what her fiction seems about, too—investigating the ways people both build and sledgehammer personal cells.

“Where a lesser writer might present mere candidacy for martyrdom, [Etter] finds humanity, relatability, humor and strength,” says Joseph Reed, co-founder and editor of Caketrain Journal and Press.

If these stories were films, they’d be early Hal Hartley meets John Waters. But actually, Etter thinks of paintings as she writes.

“I think a lot of about visual art, about paintings,” she says. “I would hope that the climax to every single one of the stories in that book, if they were painted they would make paintings that no ever saw before.”

Meanwhile, Etter’s gone through the looking glass herself this year. Publication in Caketrain has transformed Etter from a struggling writer with a day job carving out time to write into a struggling writer with a day job carving out time to write while traveling all over the place for readings and seemingly nonstop literary events—including Tire Fire Readings, a new series held at Tattooed Mom’s that Etter curates with Christian TeBordo. She also serves as a board member of the venerable Painted Bride Quarterly.

“The last three months has been all interviews and readings,” she says. The hustle is working—with the first edition having sold out in June, Caketrain is printing a second edition to hit shelves this fall. “People say, ‘you should write a page a day’ and I’m like, ‘nope.’” Instead of trying to hold to writer-magazine maxims, Etter is still getting work done by adhering to what she calls no-joke Fridays—the rule is that you either have to write a story or send a story out every Friday.

“Maybe a story a week, something a week,” says Etter. “If it’s not a story, it’s something. Words. Just get words out.”

Friday, Sept. 23, 7pm. The Dive, 947 E. Passyunk

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