The 5-Question Interview: Cai Emmons

The writer talks of translating curiosity about human behavior onto the page, the best time to write, and the magic of obsession in the early stages of creation.
Cai Emmons is the author of several books, including the award-winning His Mother’s Son (Harcourt), a Booksense selection, as well as a Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club selection and The Stylist, (HarperCollins), of which Booklist said: “… Emmons’ potent novel features magnetic characters and complex and compelling secrets.” Cai studied playwriting at Yale, later earned an M.F.A. in filmmaking and subsequently worked in film in New York and Los Angeles.
THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: Does your creative process come from a place of something that scares you or from a familiar place of strength?
: Neither fear nor strength is a seminal place for my creativity in any way that I’m conscious of. For me the urge to write has its genesis in curiosity, particularly curiosity about human behavior. How would I react if——? It is like the question that children love to pose to one another: Would you rather freeze to death or burn to death? Even to adults that question is fascinating because it asks us to imagine what each of those endings (death experiences) would be like. In freezing to death, when would you lose consciousness? What would it feel like to have your eyes burn? All my stories seem to originate in this kind of curiosity and questioning. What would you do if your brother murdered your parents? If, after that, you bore a son, how would you raise that boy? What is it like for a woman to transition to manhood? How do you relate to that person as a friend? What would it be like if you learned your father had a family which you knew nothing about? When such questions have been brewing in me for a while and they won’t go away, I know I have the germ/s of a story.

THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: Taking the stance that creativity is a natural state, why do we get stuck?
: I think that everyone, during early childhood, is deeply creative. As children we’re naturally curious, experimental; we are more comfortable with uncertainty then than at any other point in our lives. Eventually, our superegos develop, along with our desires to be and think like everyone else in order to fit in, to get ahead. With the development of social awareness it becomes more difficult to express oneself freely. What gets us stuck is the entrance of that social awareness—some think of it as the rational left brain that tells us someone will see our work and judge it. The challenge for a writer, or any artist, is to keep that social self, and the judgmental left brain (an aspect of the social self), at bay during the process of generating work.

It is essential for me to write a rough draft with the feeling that that draft will never, ever, be seen by any other human being (unless I say so). As long as I know that, the creative juices will usually flow. While I’m writing a first draft I try to maintain the sense that I’m playing and it doesn’t much matter what I write. After I’ve finished that “spewing” draft—which I try to write as quickly as possible, in part to maintain an almost trance-like state—I begin to allow my left brain to participate. Is this any good? asks my left brain. Will anyone read it if I don’t eliminate all the descriptive passages, or all the sections in italics, or all the wife’s back story? Etc. etc.

I think one of the tasks of becoming a regular writer is learning how to minimize the talkback of the social self and the left brain. For me one way to do this is to write as soon as possible after awakening, before the day has interposed itself with all its noise of obligation. I write in bed. I have a coffee maker in the bedroom and it is set to go off at a certain hour. I awake and drink one cup of coffee lying there in bed, thinking about what I will be working on. Then, with my second cup of coffee I prop myself up and begin to work. I write longhand. I write on the heels of my dreams. That doesn’t mean the dreams themselves have anything to do with the writing, but the associative aspect of dreams is still present. Dreams are notorious for juxtaposing unlikely elements and exposing psychological truths, and they can sometimes impart those aspects of their process to my own process of writing. Sometimes, of course, not always. There are writers who prefer to write late at night because they are alone then, undisturbed, but the vast majority of writers I know find the early morning hours to be the most productive.

When I do get stuck, for whatever reason, I find that [juicy tip alert] reading is the best way to get unstuck. It isn’t long after I begin reading the work of a favorite writer that I’m stricken with the urge to write again myself. Often after reading a few pages, or even a few paragraphs, I’m up and running again.

THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: Does inspiration come to you in words, images, a sensation, a sound? Was it always this way for you or has it changed over the years?
: The question of inspiration is complicated. There is the inspiration that has to do with getting an idea to write about, and then there is the inspiration that has to do with the day-to-day process of committing sentences to paper. Much of writing is simply showing up, doing work that is possibly only yeomanly and not particularly inspired, and then gradually moving towards moments, almost trance-like moments, that are unexpected gifts. In those moments everything is authentic, not overly-managed by me, a deep flow is achieved, and I feel deeply grateful. But it is the just showing up and writing woodenly for a while that leads to those special moments.

As far as the bigger ideas (for projects) are concerned, many things serve as inspiration. Most often there is an oddity in something I see or hear or read about, something that keeps me wondering: How weird. How interesting that a person out there said or did this thing. How interesting that the world works this way. And from those musings the why questions begin to emerge.

Words often figure prominently in the formation of my ideas—an odd line of dialogue I hear someone speak in a cafe, a few words that come together in a phrase that I need to write down. These things will often suggest a situation or a character. Once I have an idea that I’m working on, every aspect of everything I encounter in my life serves as inspiration. The work becomes the lens through which I view and interpret the world and ideas arrive at odd moments. I try to get down the specific words and phrases that come as I go about my life, because the words themselves are important, not the idea of the words recalled later. I have come to understand that specific words embody a specific idea, and that when you use a different word the idea is different. I carry a small notebook in my purse, but often I find myself scribbling words on a napkin, a ticket stub, a shopping list. [here’s-a-great-idea tip alert:] Sometimes, if I’m out running or on a walk and have nothing on which to write, I create a memorable mantra of the words and phrases that have come to me, hoping I can hold onto them until I get to pen and paper.

THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: How and when do you know in your gut that an idea is viable and worth creating? Was there a telling, pivotal, or aha moment when you were first working on your books? Can you describe how you know when, creatively you must pursue something?
: I know an idea is worth pursuing when it has obsessed me for some time, often years. Something gets stuck in my head. I mull it over for a while without knowing I’m doing so. It surfaces at odd hours of the day. It accrues questions like moss. At some point I realize there could be a character and/or a narrative attached to this thought and it goes from there. I suppose I would describe it as a very attenuated aha experience. I know that the idea has claimed me in some way, that we belong to each other. The test of time here is an essential element, along with the obsessive thought. If I don’t feel quite obsessed by an idea it probably won’t bear up over the time it takes to write a novel.

THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: When it comes to writing would you describe your mind as a friend or foe?
: This is somewhat difficult to answer as writing comes from the mind and all its various parts, both brain hemispheres, memories, values, socialization, all the senses that are absorbing perceptions even as we write. In fact, when I think of the joy of reading the work of many different writers I think it has to do with entering the landscapes of other minds that are both similar and different from mine. Everyone sees the world a little differently and we crave to see that difference, but we also love to see that another writer has experienced what we’ve experienced and encapsulated it beautifully in words. Mind and body are completely entangled in my view. I’m reminded of that so often when I exercise and find that moving my body in a regular way prompts the release of ideas. I have no idea biologically why that’s true, but it seems to be the case for me on a fairly regular basis—an example of “mind” and “body” being inseparable. Both are the writer’s only real tools, the source of all our material.

Cai lives in Oregon with the playwright Paul Calandrino. Visit her at (The brief gallery of her growing-up photos is wonderful.)