Interview with Shannon Cain
Apr 12, 2011
Nicholas Maistros: “Juniper Beach” is the story of a woman who spontaneously purchases an RV and embarks on a journey across the country. As a reader, I appreciated the detail with which you narrated Charlie’s road trip; I felt as though I were seeing those sights and taking those exits right along with her. It made me curious about your own journey as a writer. Did you know where Charlie was going to go when you began to write this story, or did you feel you were tagging along on this road trip as well? What process of discovery did this story take you through?
Shannon Cain: First, let me say that the new issue just arrived in my mailbox and hot damn, it is beautiful. What a pleasure to see my work in this volume. Congratulations to the CR staff on another stellar job.
So to your question. I wrote this story with a map in front of me, of course, and at one point I really started enjoying the way that place names were working, how they were taking on all sorts of new weight and making lovely rhythmic sentences. When Charlie began her journey I didn’t know where she would ultimately end up. This story went through many, many drafts—but that’s how it always goes with me. I do need to write my way toward discovery, toward a destination. It takes a maddening amount of revision for me to unearth my characters’ motivations. It wasn’t until the third draft of this story that Charlie’s destination emerged. And when it did, it was so obviously the right ending that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it sooner. But I guess I’m glad I didn’t, otherwise I might not have let her wander quite so much. I had a lot of fun with the wandering.
After “Juniper Beach” I continued to spend discovery time with Charlie; I was still interested in her so I made her character in the novel I’m working on. The novel takes place ten years later, Charlie having ended up living in Tucson, the place where her parents died.
NM: Along her journey, Charlie stops at various sites of fatal car accidents that she has researched and collected. Were any of these incidents based on actual events? What kind of research, if any, do you take on as a writer?
SC: I do a lot of research. Once I spent an entire day on the website of the American Dry Cleaning Association, tracking environmental disasters caused by improper disposal of perchlorethelyne. I ended up using like one sentence from that research. But in this case, the accidents in “Juniper Beach” weren’t based on actual events. That’s just me, indulging my unhealthy obsession with auto fatalities.
NM: Another aspect of “Juniper Beach” that I really enjoyed was watching Charlie at work—that is, performing and sabotaging her job as a TripTik designer for AAA. Was this a job that you or someone close to you held? What about this particular occupation attracted you?
SC: How’d you guess? Yes, in my youth I was in fact an auto travel counselor with Triple-A. I made the TripTiks. Also I grew up with road-tripping parents like Charlie’s, and a fascination with maps. And there’s that unhealthy preoccupation with car accidents. I like journey stories a lot. For one thing they have an inherent tension to them, the anticipation of arrival. But as my mother used to say in response to our whining from the back seat of the station wagon about whether we were there yet: it’s not about the destination, kids, it’s about the journey. Those road trips gave me an appreciation for America in all its diversity. By the age of 13 I’d been to 49 states: all those connected by interstate, Alaska included. (At 47 years old, I have yet to visit Hawaii.) I’d fill those long hours in the car by reading books, arguing with my siblings, and staring out the window. I saw a whole lot of America that way.
NM: In addition to writing and teaching, you are also the fiction editor for Kore Press, founded in 1993 and designed “to publish and distribute excellent works of literary and artistic value by a diversity of women.…” How does your work in literary publishing influence your writing, and vice versa?
SC: Well, for one thing I write really nice rejection letters. I try to make them helpful, with feedback that’s gentle and yet rigorous. I think all writers should volunteer for an indie press at some point in their career. As a writer, it’s eye opening to see the publishing side of things—to experience how much hard work it takes to put out a literary magazine, or a book of poems. How depressingly little it has to do with literature and language and how much to do with fundraising and accounting and volunteer management and marketing and tussling with printers. You sort of stop resenting editors for the power they wield; there’s so much shitwork involved in publishing that you begin to see they’ve earned their power. Besides all that, being in the literary publishing world has been incredibly useful for me as a writer, a teacher, and a person building an integrated literary career. The community of indie publishers is full of interesting, smart, warm people. My work in literary publishing has led me to editing and teaching and coaching, which allowed me to leave behind the world of nonprofit management, where I was employed for a really long time. For this I am extremely grateful.
NM: In so many of your endeavors (writing, teaching, editing) there appears a devotion to the idea of literature as a platform for political and social change. Your novel-in-progress, Tucson, which you are writing and reading publicly in installments over the course of six years, fascinates me—this direct interaction between your work as a writer and the literal, physical world around you. Can you speak a bit more about this project and the concept of “literary flagpole-sitting,” as you’ve termed it on your blog? What exactly is literature’s place today, and what potential does it have in terms of real social activism?
SC: I think literature has already proven potential to change the world. It’s been doing so as long as stories have been told. Storytellers have big power: they interpret events; they reflect their version of reality. As an social change activist, perhaps I’ve finally turned to writing (I didn’t start writing fiction until age 35) because I think I can get the message out to more people this way. Plus, the message is really complicated. Since literature values—even requires—complexity, it’s a good vehicle for me. Another is that it’s beautiful, and beauty opens hearts.
Writing, teaching, and editing are the latest in a long line of social change platforms I’ve stood upon. With varying degrees of success and personal satisfaction I’ve done street activism, mainstream politics, civil disobedience, community organizing, and nonprofit management. So now I’m doing it this way. So it’s this impulse towards activism that brings me every Tuesday to the Tucson City Council podium to read my novel in progress; this oral serialization via public testimony. When I conceived of the project I just knew it was all somehow related to civil discourse. How I would explore the connection was still fuzzy in my mind, but ultimately I hoped the story I was reading would spark dialogue, would get people to think a little deeper, to wonder, to look beyond their preconceptions. That sounded like the beginnings of civil discourse to me. Anyway the whole thing was an experiment; I wasn’t sure what to expect. And then about seven months into the project, the shootings happened here, and the civil discourse piece snapped sharply into focus. Now I’m spending a good chunk of my allotted three minutes at the podium each week reflecting on questions of civility in the public sphere.
Which really cuts into my novel reading time. I’m coming up on the one-year anniversary of the project and I’ve just begun Chapter Two. So my six-year estimate was way off. At this rate I’m looking at roughly a decade before these readings are done. But my escape clause is that I’ve said I’ll stop reading once the book is in stores. So the plan is to get this manuscript finished, and then to pray like hell that someone wants to publish it. Here I am on my flagpole, my latest platform for social change a teensy weensy square fifty feet in the air. The project is equal parts freak show endurance and stupid artistic risk. Roughly 30,000 people a week watch those broadcasts on public access TV. Why am I reading a work in progress aloud to a televised audience? Am I so anxious to tell this story that I can’t wait until it’s published, or even finished? It’s a little late to be asking these questions, I know. And the Arizona Commission on the Arts has gone and given me a grant for the project, so I really can’t back out now.
NM: Your debut short story collection, The Necessity of Certain Behaviors, will be coming out October 2011 from the University of Pittsburgh Press. Are there any thematic threads or writerly concerns, intentional or otherwise, that you see working throughout the collection? What other kinds of stories can we look forward to reading?
SC: Like Charlie, most of the characters in the collection find themselves engaging in unconventional or illicit behavior. There’s an element of the absurd to pretty much all of my stories. I try to keep the situations just on the edge of plausibility; I guess I’m inspired by taking things to the extreme. I tend to place my characters into a very screwed-up situation and then let them make choices that screw things up a little bit worse. The stories are mostly about parenting, road trips, drugs, and sex. I’m totally stoked about this collection, and about working with the fabulous Pitt Press.
They’re political stories. I guess. I spent a lot of time in grad school at Warren Wilson thinking about fiction and social change. I studied James Baldwin and Sandra Cisneros and Nadine Gordimer and Grace Paley and Kurt Vonnegut. I wrote a lot of bad political stories. I think what I’m finally figuring out is the best way to write a political story is to forget you’re writing a political story. Your worldview will seep in sideways, it just will. In “Juniper Beach” I didn’t set out to write a story about America. I set out to write about a young woman who makes TripTiks that send people on the vacations she thinks they ought to be taking. I ended up with a story about a lot of things, and also a story about America. I find this alchemy to be beautiful, and since beauty opens hearts, I’m making social change. Yay for me.