Monday, August 30, 2021

Cai Emmons talks about Sinking Islands, weather, living with ALS, writing, and so much more

I met and befriended Cai the way I do almost every new friend: a book comes in the mail and I love it so much, I have to know the author! In Cai's case that was Weather Woman, followed by Sinking Islands. I'm thrilled to have Cai here, and I thank her for her patience with me for taking so, so long to get this up.

Cai Emmons is the author of the novels His Mother’s Son (Harcourt), The Stylist (HarperCollins), and Weather Woman (Red Hen Press). A sequel to Weather Woman, is called Sinking Islands. Her story collection Vanishingwinner of the 2018 Leapfrog Fiction Contest came out in March 2020. His Mother’s Son received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, was a Booksense and Literary Guild selection, was translated into French and German, was reviewed by O Magazine and The Economist, and won an Oregon Book Award (the Ken Kesey Award) for fiction. About The Stylist, one of the earliest novels featuring a transgender character, Booklist said: “With family relations as twisted as a French braid and language as vivid as a platinum dye job, Emmons’ potent novel features magnetic characters and complex and compelling secrets.” Weather Woman, Emmons’s most recent novel, about a meteorologist who discovers she has the power to change the weather, has been featured in such places as LitHub, The Rumpus, Book Riot, Montana Public Radio, Aspen Public Radio, The CCNY Grad Center, among others (see more coverage under “News”). The novel won a Nautilus Book Award and has been shortlisted for the Eric Hoffer Grand Prize.

What was haunting you into writing your latest book?

I love that you speak about this idea of being haunted into writing a book. I’ve never heard anyone speak about writing this way, but that’s exactly how it operates for me. Something begins poking at me such that I can’t stop thinking about it. The thinking becomes a bit obsessive.  Questions begin to form and maybe a what-if develops, and pretty soon a novel is taking shape. In terms of Sinking Islands, I was haunted by the idea that people might read Weather Woman and think that I was putting forth the idea that a single person with superpowers might be the solution to our climate crisis. I don’t believe that at all. So I wanted to think about human beings collaborating and teaching each other. Having spent my entire adult life teaching in some form or other, and having benefitted so much from my own teachers, I wanted to write about that. Teaching is such a powerful tool. I think we all have a bit of the teacher in us. Good parenting is really all about teaching. There are so many doom-and-gloom dystopian books out there about our climate crisis; I like to think that I’ve written one of the few climate books that offers a modicum of hope—or at least it doesn’t wallow in despair! 

Do you feel like your writing grown with each book?

This is another superb question. I always, just after I’ve finished a book, feel that it is the best thing I’ve ever written, but of course that feeling fades quickly and I begin to ask, “Is this really any good?” It is impossible to answer that myself. My agent says she thinks my most recent novel, Unleashed (out from Dutton in 2022) is the best thing I’ve ever written, and I tend to agree with her. But I also feel as if I can never really be the judge of my own work. I can only weigh in on how the process has changed for me over the years. 

When I step back and think about each book I’ve written I think that I’ve become more ambitious. When I began writing novels I only dared write from one character’s perspective. Then I began incorporating a number of characters’ perspectives in the same novel. Then I began to stretch my imagination to write about things that are not entirely “real” though they are metaphorically and psychologically real. And most recently I wrote a first-person novel which I have never done before. So I think there has been some growth in terms of what I’ve dared to take on. And there is another kind of growth too—I’m sure you’ve experienced this—which is that you trust the process more and even when you’re stuck you know you can find a way through to the end. Along with that comes an ease with sentence-making and knowing what material is superfluous and can be cut. There is greater facility with manipulating what you have written so that seems like a kind of growth. 

I think my biggest fear is that I might begin repeating myself in subsequent novels. In a way I think we’re always writing around the same themes again and again, packaged somewhat differently. But I still feel, despite that fear, amazingly driven to keep writing, to keep exploring what it means to be human. 

What’s your writing life like now?

Three years ago I gave up my teaching job in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Oregon. At the time I had two books scheduled for publication, and I didn’t see how I was going to be able to publicize them and keep writing while also teaching. I was a bit frightened to no longer have the cushion of academia, but my husband has a good job that could support us both. I am so glad I decided to prioritize my writing when I did. I had no idea then that I would be diagnosed with ALS (I was diagnosed in February of this year), but something was telling me back then that it was time to go for broke and pay exclusive attention to my own work. I feel a great urgency to write every story that is still in me while I can. So far ALS has stolen my ability to speak, but I am so grateful that I am still able to move around and write and type. The 2020 pandemic year was extremely productive for me, and I now have two books that are scheduled to come out in 2022, and I’m working on a new novel that I hope to complete sometime early next year. Fingers crossed.

My writing days are still much as they have always been, writing first thing in the morning (longhand, with coffee, propped up in bed), and staying there for several hours until I am called upon to participate in the larger world. My afternoons are occupied with typing up what I’ve written or doing the “business” of being a writer. I guess my biggest challenge of late has been figuring out how to publicize my books without being able to speak. I have a high-tech computer that speaks what I type, which is extremely useful, but it necessitates slowing down, for me and for whoever I’m talking to. In social situations I am trying to adjust to being a listener instead of the talker I’ve always been!

What was it like writing a sequel?

Since I never intended to write a sequel to Weather Woman I was figuring things out as I went along. I knew that in Sinking Islands I had to remain true to what I’d set up in Weather Woman and build on that. I couldn’t change backstory events, or names, or rules I’d set up about how Bronwyn employs her power, etc. I was particularly brought up short when one character in Weather Woman, Earl, who I wanted to include in Sinking Islands was off-limits because he was already dead. I considered, very briefly, bringing him back to life, but that would have been violating the world I’d set up. So I ended up having another character, Patty, talk to Earl as if he was still alive. I also debated with myself about whether it would be okay to have Bronwyn have lost a pinkie to frostbite in Siberia, even though I had not mentioned that in Weather Woman (I decided that would be okay since it could have happened after the book ended). I spent a lot of time searching through the pages of Weather Woman for specific details I’d already laid down. It was kind of like doing continuity for a film—I didn’t want readers to discover inconsistencies. So far, no one has, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility!

What question haven’t I asked that I should have? 

I am always intrigued by the question of why people write in the first place, and that question has been more on my mind of late since I know that I will be dead in the next few years. Why do I still want to spend my remaining time writing instead of traveling or doing any of the other things human beings find rewarding? I think part of the answer to that is that when I am writing I am in some kind of flow state and at my happiest. Also, since talking has become so hard there is a great deal I don’t say aloud, so writing has become an even more essential vehicle for expression. And over the years writing has become a habit that isn’t easily broken—it is my way of processing the world around me. But there is that other ineffable thing that keeps me—and other writers—writing. Some pressing desire to document what it feels like to be a particular human being, living in a particular place at a particular time in history. I don’t feel as if my experience is particularly important on its own, but I feel as if I’m part of a chorus of writers all saying, this, and this, and this, and it adds up to an amazing cantata of voices, all of which are neces