A Conversation With Cai Emmons About Her Novel, Sinking Islands

Authors Aimee Liu and Cai Emmons sit down for an intimate and wide-ranging conversation, from writing her new novel Sinking Islands, to finding inspiration during the pandemic and life in the throes of an incurable disease.
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Cai Emmons’s bio leaves me breathless. Holding two MFA’s—one in film from New York University, one in fiction from the University of Oregon—and a bachelor’s from Yale, she’s written plays staged in New York, scripts produced in Hollywood, and five works of fiction that have collected a raft of awards and starred reviews. Her short fiction has appeared in a wide range of publications, from Ms. Magazine to Triquarterly. And she taught fiction and screenwriting at the University of Oregon for more than 15 years. Although I’ve known Cai ever since we attended the same writing class back in 1989, I’ll confess that I lost track of a few of these accomplishments as we moved geographically apart and her career soared.

Then, a couple of years ago, we realized we both had novels coming out with Red Hen Press. In Weather Woman, and its sequel, Sinking Islands, Cai was taking on climate change, while I was writing about World War II. But we both had young female protagonists who were scientists at heart. We looked forward to promoting each other's books.

It wasn’t only the pandemic that turned those plans sideways. Cai was putting the finishing touches on Sinking Islands when she began to lose her voice. Nine months later, she received a devastating diagnosis: bulbar-onset ALS. The weakening of her vocal cords and facial muscles signaled the onset of a disease that will eventually cause paralysis throughout her body. Launching her exquisite new book was now the least of Cai’s worries.

A Conversation With Cai Emmons About Her Novel, Sinking Islands

Aimee Liu: Cai, we’re conducting this interview in writing, in part because it’s become so difficult for you to speak. ALS is now a major part of your daily life. Before we get into the particulars about Sinking Islands, how are you feeling?

Cai Emmons: Thank you for asking, Aimee. I have definitely entered a new, somewhat surreal world with my ALS diagnosis. But counterintuitively I may be feeling happier than I’ve ever felt in my life. There is certainly a great challenge in learning how to navigate the world with a deeply compromised voice, but having a fatal diagnosis has brought me closer to what I think of as the marrow of life. I am savoring what I have—a loving partner and family and friends, a comfortable home with a flourishing garden, my continuing ability to write, a new book on the horizon—and I am finding much deeper connections with people. When people know you’re dying, they are much freer to say what is on their minds. I don’t mean to sound Pollyannaish about this—it is truly how my life is these days.

Aimee: I think what you describe epitomizes wisdom, Cai. I’m in awe of you. And I also must say that I feel that wisdom pulsing throughout Sinking Islands, which extends the story of your protagonist Bronwyn, from Weather Woman, to encompass a group of other accidental climate activists from around the globe. Almost every line in this exquisite book resonates with such profound love for the beauty and life of our planet. That passion was also present in Weather Woman, but it seems to blossom in a whole new way in this sequel. I know you wrote most of Sinking Islands before your diagnosis, but I wonder if you see any possible connection between the changes in your body and the radiance on the page?

Cai: I am a big believer in the body knowing things that the conscious mind does not always see. And for writers I think the body often “delivers” material to us. I see my protagonist Bronwyn as a person with very permeable bodily boundaries. She feels her physical being to be seamless with the atoms around her to such a degree that whenever she performs one of her actions to help restore nature’s balance, she’s in danger of losing herself. She’s aware that her body is a small part of all the energy coursing around the world—energy that is always in flux. It may be that my body was prescient about what was happening to me long before any symptoms appeared, and therefore, as I wrote Sinking Islands, I was working out some question about human energy and where it goes when you die.

Aimee: I completely agree about body consciousness. There’s so much knowledge that we lump under the umbrella term “sixth sense.” I’ve done some writing about the ability of indigenous peoples to communicate with nature far more seamlessly and silently than we “civilized” people can. But I’ve never read another novel that drills down to the atomic nature of this exchange the way that Sinking Islands does. Did you research the physics of all this as you were originally developing Bronwyn’s character for Weather Woman?

A Conversation With Cai Emmons About Her Novel, Sinking Islands

Sinking Islands by Cai Emmons

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Cai: Yes. When I began writing Weather Woman, I had the misplaced idea that I would find something in physics to completely validate Bronwyn’s ability to change natural forces. I was reading a lot about how physicists think of energy, and I came upon an entrancing, though sadly apocryphal, quote from Richard Feynman saying that the energy in a cubic foot of air was enough to boil all the oceans in the world. That turns out to be incorrect; however, there is a LOT of energy in a cubic foot of air, and Feynman said what all physicists now believe: that a given amount of energy will always be conserved, even as it changes form. We can neither create nor destroy energy, but we can transform it into something different. That became the catalyst for how I think of Bronwyn doing her work—just as we use water as hydropower to activate electricity, she uses mental energy to activate or deactivate weather events. (Yes, I know there is a huge leap of thinking here, but this is fiction!)

Aimee: This all seems an extraordinary vortex for literary fiction. I’ve heard you talk about your books as having elements of magic realism and Bronwyn as a kind of literary superhero. But I almost feel as if you’ve invented a whole new genre in Weather Woman and Sinking Islands. As you say, Bronwyn performs not magic but something akin to plausible physics, and a reader seeking epic battles or wizardry would be sorely disappointed, since the action in these stories walks a fine and often subtle line between “natural” and “supernatural.” Did you feel like you were venturing into a brave new world with these books? If not, what were some of your fictional role models?

Cai: I have always thought of myself as a writer of realistic fiction, but I was aware, when writing both Weather Woman and Sinking Islands, that I was veering outside of that description, yet not entirely, as my characters behave like people we all know, according to psychological principles we understand. As you say, Bronwyn is not a superheroine—I hope she is more complex than that. Weather Woman was once included on a Book Riot list of “low fantasy” books and that description seemed apt to me. The list included books by Haruki Murakami and Neil Gaiman, among others, books that take a small step away from strict realism. I think some of my recent work has an affinity with Aimee Bender’s work. Her novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, is about a girl who senses people’s moods through the tasting of food they have made, a sensitivity akin to Bronwyn’s sensitivity to the Earth.

But I trace the origins of these two recent novels most directly to books I read as a child, one book in particular, The Trouble with Jenny’s Ear, by Oliver Butterworth. It was about a girl who, after a brief illness, found that she could read the thoughts of the adults around her. This skill enabled her to win a TV quiz show, and it also revealed to her that the thoughts of adults were surprisingly trivial. But for her skill, the novel was completely realistic. When I was writing Weather Woman, I thought a lot about that book. Though it was written for kids, it was the closest model I had for what I was trying to achieve.

Aimee: I love those models! And I’m not at all sure they’re even speculative. One of my best friends lived with cancer for many years and had experiences akin to Butterworth’s Jenny. Especially when she was on high-dose chemo, my friend could recognize untrustworthy strangers, almost as if they radiated black light. She also had bouts of telepathy, once warning a woman she’d just met that her husband was leaving her—before anyone knew that was true. So I don’t find anything at all far-fetched in your premise for Bronwyn and her tribe.

But let’s talk about that tribe. I adore the structure of Sinking Islands, which reminds me of Richard Powers’s The Overstory. Like Powers, you launch your book with separate chapters about the characters who will ultimately come together with the common goal of protecting the natural world. Also like Powers, you pull us deeply into the minds, hearts, and situations of each character in ways that make them both unique and authentic. But you’ve given yourself the added challenge of making them global. Analu and his daughter Penina come from the South Pacific by way of Australia, Patty from Kansas by way of Venice, California, and Felipe from São Paulo, by way of Venice. And Diane meets Aka and Edel in Greenland! How did you decide where your characters came from, and did Powers inspire you to use this weblike structure?

(Appease the Spirit)

Cai: I wrote Sinking Islands before I read The Overstory, and when I got to The Overstory I was also struck by some of the similarities. I have been interested for a while in “emergence,” the situation in which an entity has characteristics that are not contained in its component parts. A human brain, for example, does things that individual brain cells would not be able to do independently. A city is another example of emergence, as is an ant colony and flocks of birds flying in a V shape. There are other examples of emergence in art, business, and philosophy that are too complex for me to fully comprehend or explain.

Aimee: Ah! We are greater than the sum of our parts! I’ve never heard this called “emergence” before, but I certainly see the truth in it.

Cai: I was thinking of this idea as I imagined these disparate individuals coming together from different places around the globe—the idea being that they might achieve together something greater than any of them could do individually. I was also focused on the potentially far-reaching effects of teaching people who can then go forth and teach other people, and so on.

In my research for Weather Woman I had read a lot about places where climate change was having extreme impacts. One of those places was the South Pacific, where the existence of entire island nations has been threatened by rising sea levels, so I invented an unnamed island that Analu and Penina hail from. Also in my reading I had come across reports about the water shortages that were affecting Sao Paulo in Brazil, which was particularly notable as Brazil contains 12 percent of the world’s fresh water. Water is so fundamental to human survival that I wanted to include a character who was confronting this; that character became Felipe. Then I included some characters from Greenland, Aka and Edel, as I had been there on a trip and was riveted by its beauty and by the difficulty of surviving there. Finally, I wanted to include at least one character who was facing difficulty right here in the United States, and that character, Patty, was from Kansas. She had lost both her husband and her minister to tornadoes. She was a minor character in Weather Woman, but not a person anyone would necessarily remember. The places I had to research most intensively were the South Pacific and Sao Paulo and, to a lesser degree, Greenland, since I had some on-the-ground experience there.

Aimee: Let’s talk about that research process. One of the most impressive aspects of this novel is the range of detail you marshal, much the same way that Bronwyn marshals a range of characters to help restore nature’s balance. You immerse us in each of these far-flung landscapes, complete with the particular colors, tastes, smells, and textures of each place. But even more astonishing to me were the language and thought patterns of each character, which reflected not only their distinct personalities but also their specific cultural backgrounds. How did you manage to inhabit these diverse characters so deeply?

Cai: Incorporating people from across the globe was probably the trickiest part of the novel. Because I was writing about people from some places I had never visited and lives unlike mine, I knew I was in danger of getting things wrong. But this is the curse and blessing of being a writer: We must imagine our way into other people’s lives based on the best information we can find.

Hopefully the act of imagination emerges not only from accurate information, but also from empathy. I wanted to get a sense of what it feels like to be in those places: the way the air feels, what people eat, what people hear on the streets. I was also thinking about how a person from a small tropical island or a huge South American city feels about where they fit into the cosmos, and what makes them proud about their home. I searched for personal accounts that gave me insights into these things and read as much as I could about daily life, as well as climate catastrophe. I am also a big lover of maps, so I purchased hard copy maps, which I studied endlessly. The South Pacific island that Analu and Penina hail from is an invented place, with composite characteristics of a few different islands. The Greenland character Aka was based on someone I had met, and the place she lives is a place I had been, so that was somewhat easier to depict authentically. But at some point, one must take that leap of imagination into a character, hoping for the best. I think what finally grounds me, and enables me to take that imaginative leap, is thinking about the characters in terms of universal human needs, needs for love and family and companionship and activity that provides meaning.

A Conversation With Cai Emmons About Her Novel, Sinking Islands

Aimee: Those core yearnings not only come through, but they’re broadened by the fact that your cast is multi-generational. Edel and Penina are teenagers with all the angst and itches of teens in any era, but they also have an acute awareness of the threat that climate change poses to their future and planet. This is a new dimension of adolescence that seems to me very tricky to manage. It’s somewhat analogous to the nuclear threat that hung over our childhoods (sorry, I’m dating us!), but it’s also bigger and more complicated. For one thing, it’s not a threat that might happen but, rather, a crisis already well underway. For another, it’s a disaster that we can all do something about. So there’s this strange tension between futility and agency as we consider climate change. Of course, this tension is absolutely central to your entire book! But I’m really curious how you processed it through these two young girls, especially headstrong Penina. Without giving anything away, could you talk about the role and development of these kids in the story and, more generally, in your thinking about our politics around climate change?

Cai: What an excellent question! I see the two teenagers as the heart and soul of the book, especially outspoken Penina who readily speaks her mind, and is poised to act on her beliefs. To some degree Penina and Edel each embody different Millennial and Gen Z responses to the climate crisis, some responding with despair, some responding with fervent action. Edel’s friend, who was despairing about the state of the world, died by suicide, and that has imprinted Edel strongly, such that Edel is unsure how things can ever be set right. She translates her despair into music and hopes that it might have some impact on the world, but she doubts herself. Penina, still mostly a child at the outset of the book, is aware of climate devastation only vaguely through the deaths of her sisters. But by the end of the book, she’s begun to take responsibility for trying to fix what is happening, chiding her father for dragging his feet and turning her own impulsivity to productive action. She has the “now or never” feeling that I see in many young climate activists these days.

Aimee:  That’s a wonderful, hopeful place to land, but before I let you go, I want to ask about your pandemic novel. It sounds magical in a different way. Could you tell us how it emerged and how you feel about it?

Cai: I began writing a new novel just before the pandemic began, a little after I had begun to notice changes in my voice. The novel, Unleashed, tells the story of a woman who lives in the wine country of Northern California. Her life begins to unravel when her youngest daughter goes to college, her husband thinks about having an affair, and fires devastate her neighborhood. Driven to the edge, she undergoes a major transformation. I know this is vague, but to say more would be a huge spoiler. By the time I finished the novel, my voice was quite compromised; whatever was happening to me was clearly getting worse. At the time I got my diagnosis, I was rewriting the novel, and it suddenly became clear that the book, while not being autobiographical in any discernible way, is a perfect metaphorical expression of my journey into illness. To refer back to what we were saying at the beginning of our conversation, my body seemed to have sent this novel to me. It was my body speaking. 

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