Imagine More Deeply: A Conversation with Cai Emmons

By Aimee LiuOctober 12, 2022

Imagine More Deeply: A Conversation with Cai Emmons

Unleashed by Cai Emmons
Livid by Cai Emmons

THROUGHOUT HER LENGTHY writing career, Cai Emmons has returned again and again to the topic of catastrophe. Three of her most recent novels, including her 2022 groundbreaker Unleashed, have wrestled with the psychological, emotional, and physical impacts of the climate crisis. Her other novels, like Livid (also published in 2022), revolve around the persistence of danger in the wake of violence. It’s clear that trouble has long been on Cai’s mind, but catastrophe remained a largely fictional concept until 2021, when she was diagnosed with bulbar-onset ALS. The weakening of her vocal cords and facial muscles signaled the arrival of a disease that will eventually cause paralysis throughout Cai’s body. The catastrophe is now all too real. 

I’ve known Cai ever since we met as aspiring novelists in a writing class some 30 years ago. Despite the darkness of her fictional themes, she’s always been one of the most upbeat, energetic people I know — and somehow, ALS has not changed that. Even with the many constraints the disease has placed on her life, Cai remains as curious, engaged, and positive about this new darkness as she’s always been about the dark corners of human experience that her imagination draws her to.

Fortunately for all of us fans and readers, Cai’s voice is as strong as ever on the page, and with two novels coming out almost simultaneously this fall, she had a lot to tell me in our interview about living and writing through catastrophe.


AIMEE LIU: Unleashed is a book like no other. There’s a surprise at the heart of the plot that I cannot reveal, but I can honestly say that, as a response to the climate catastrophe we’re all experiencing, this twist felt to me as perfect and necessary as it is utterly wild. You’ve said that the story came to you unbidden — that it’s a book you never expected to write. How did that happen? Can you identify the source of this fiction?

CAI EMMONS: Yes. This novel poured out of me in a rush during the first year of the pandemic. It felt like a strange idea, perhaps not publishable for its oddity, but I felt a great urgency to get it down. And I seemed to be writing less from cognition than from some mandate of my body. At the time I began writing, I had just begun to lose my voice, which got worse and worse during the year or so it took me to write the novel. Coinciding almost exactly with the time I finished the writing, I was diagnosed with bulbar-onset ALS, the kind of ALS that attacks the vocal cords and tongue first, before it moves to the limbs. I am now unable to speak, and swallowing is difficult. At some point I looked at the novel and thought, Oh, this was dictated to me by a body attuned to the disease process that was underway. I do not mean to say that the novel is autobiographical. It isn’t in any discernible way, but a transformation that was becoming full-blown in my body expressed itself in the novel. I am being somewhat oblique so as not to give certain things away.

Anyone reading this will be stunned by what you’ve just told us. As your friend, I know that you have not just continued writing since your ALS diagnosis but — absolutely astonishingly — you’ve been producing new work with what seems almost volcanic energy: not just this book but also Livid, your other novel published this fall, plus weekly essays and more. On top of this creative energy, you have maintained a dazzlingly positive sense of excitement and curiosity about the physical changes and challenges you now face. Can you speak to the role that writing now plays in your journey through this mortal wilderness?

First, I love the term “mortal wilderness”! That is exactly what it is! It is a wilderness in part because I don’t know how or when it ends. I am having to invoke Keats’s idea of “negative capability” big-time!

I am so grateful to have been writing for most of my life, because writing provides me now, as it always has, with a way to ground myself in the world. Writing is a way to live your life twice. You may not reflect on events when they happen, but in writing, later, you can begin to make sense of them. Writing is a way to slow down and hold onto thoughts that would otherwise be fleeting. This is true even though I am not (mostly) writing memoir or autobiography, but fiction. My experience of the world, of course, creeps into everything I write.

Before I began to lose my voice, it never occurred to me to write personal essays. I once tried to blog for a while, but I couldn’t sustain it. Perhaps my life was not as interesting to me then as it is now. But losing my voice, and the concomitant sense of losing my agency, was very alarming, and so I began to try to record what was happening. I didn’t want to forget the progression of symptoms, and I knew I would if I didn’t write it down. After a very short time, I began to really enjoy the challenge of this different kind of writing, probing my personal experiences and memories as they relate to my physical weakening. And the proximity of death has made me feel as if there is no point in hiding things — there’s nothing to lose — so I’ve been more open and honest than I’ve ever been before about my personal life. I’m grateful to have expanded my idea of what I can write, and I doubt that would have happened had it not been for the disease.

Also, anything I “say” these days must in some ways be written on one of my two text-to-voice devices — one on my phone, one on a computer. Both are mediated through choosing letters and typing them. It’s a process that draws on a very different part of the brain than speaking does. Speaking is casual, even automatic, whereas these devices require close attention and concentration. If I make typos, the device speaks the typos. And my hands, particularly my weakening left hand, can become tired after a while.

So in a nutshell, writing has become my sole conduit to the world!

And Unleashed is an almost mystical expression of that grounding. So let’s talk about it! The three primary characters are college-bound Pippa, her devoted but rudderless mother Lu, and her earthbound father George. At the start of the novel, these three are emotionally fumbling and coming apart as a family while California’s fire season looms over them. Meanwhile, in the background, we keep hearing news stories of people disappearing without a trace from remote locations. Those disappearances are a leitmotif until they eventually leap to the forefront. Which of these story strands came first, and how did you go about weaving them together?

The very first image/scene that came to me as I thought about this story was that of Lu going into her fire-devastated neighborhood to discover that her family’s house was the only one left standing. I knew about the capricious behavior of fires, that it’s not unusual for a fire to carve a path that counterintuitively leaves certain things untouched. As I sat with that image of Lu in front of her house and wondered where to take it, I began to realize some crisis and longing had brought her to that point, and I felt that it had to do with her family having fractured in a way that made her aimless and existentially alone. So, Pippa and George began to take shape around Lu. I like working with a trio of characters more than a mere dyad. There is so much more relationship complexity to explore with trios. And I knew that Lu’s distress also had as much to do with the world at large as with her personal situation. The world is in such distress now that most of us are deeply affected by forces from the public sphere as well as from our own lives. So that was where the people disappearing came from — I wanted the reader to know that what is affecting Lu is affecting many of us. We don’t know exactly why those people are disappearing, but we can speculate.

I often find that two ideas or storylines or thematic ideas suddenly seem to fit together in a way that creates frisson.

Did the creative surprise of Unleashed signal a major shift in the way you generate new work? Is your subconscious still delivering story surprises to you?

I think the subconscious has always delivered my work to me. Images and characters rear up, and I don’t always know what they “mean,” but I trust that they carry significance, which I’ll find if I pay attention. In my early writing, back when I was writing plays, for example, I did not know how to massage these ideas and develop them to convey anything beyond their oddity. It has been a long learning process. Nevertheless, all my writing life I’ve found my stories that way, through the subconscious, and I’ve trusted I’ll find out why they’ve been served up to me.

I’d love to know more about how you “massage these ideas”! Trust is such a tricky aspect of writing. How do we know when we’re “onto something,” as opposed to just chasing a pointless tangent? We haven’t talked about your other forthcoming novel, Livid. Can you tell me about this story and how you managed to “massage” two novels into being simultaneously?

Although these two books are coming out simultaneously, I didn’t write them at the same time. Livid came first and was inspired by Brett Kavanaugh’s SCOTUS confirmation hearing. I was horrified to learn about his past antics and equally horrified by his current immaturity. He couldn’t keep his anger in check; he acted like a caged animal, and was condescending to those who were questioning him. It seemed like a terrible sign for our nation that there were so many who were willing to confirm a person with so little capacity for self-reflection and so little respect for women. And it made me, well — livid!

I needed to write something in response, not about him or Christine Blasey Ford, or the most egregious manifestations of sexism, such as rape and glaring power inequities, but addressing the more invisible ways sexism and misogyny operate in all of our lives in a day-to-day way. As a fiction writer, I needed a story, and one quickly arose.

The situation that launches the novel is that a woman, Sybil, finds herself on the jury of a murder trial with her ex-husband, from whom she is estranged. The defendant in the trial is a woman who is accused of murdering her husband. Exploring the relationships between these two couples as the trial unfolds gave me lots of juicy opportunities to mine the invisible toll misogyny takes.

One of the ways I began to “massage” this material was by attending a murder trial from start to finish, in order to immerse myself in what it means to sit on such a jury. I knew I had to educate myself from the get-go about the world of trials and the law. It turned out to be the kind of immersive, in situ research that sets my mind on fire. After that, I kept asking myself the question that is most productive for me: What if?

I use this question to figure out aspects of character and plot, as well as such things as location. What if this scene isn’t a phone call, but takes place in an empty auditorium? What if today happens to be her birthday? What if she knows some karate from back in high school? These questions become a conduit to possibilities, and I sit with them until they yield fruit.

What does this “What if?” stage look like for you, process-wise? Do you sketch scenes? Take notes? Or just cogitate around the corners of the characters and ideas? I’m thinking of a piece I read years ago about the notebooks that Michael Ondaatje uses to draft his novels before the first page is ever typewritten. They are part scrapbook, part journal, part research, part composition. I wish I could write like that — or that I even had a practice that was so clearly definable. Do you? What would your process look like to an observer?

It is so interesting for me to hear about Michael Ondaatje, whose work I love, because a few years ago I developed a practice that sounds similar to his and has turned out to be extremely useful. I have notebooks in which I ask myself lots of questions before I begin writing. Sometimes they are the “What if?” questions that help me figure out where things are going. Sometimes they’re questions about how the characters are responding to things, what they’re thinking. I often write: What is she feeling now? It’s easy to write a scene or exposition and realize that the feeling aspect of it is murky — it’s emotion, finally, that keeps a reader invested in the story. Sometimes I write: What does the reader really want to know now? Again, reminding myself that without a clear reason to keep reading, many readers will give up. If I see a scene that I intend to write, I sketch out the parameters of that. I include some research in these notebooks, and timelines. And I always include the date of my entries, which is useful when I’m retrieving ideas that have fallen by the wayside. The mere act of writing about the story, even the most mundane details, keeps me focused so that new ideas are born. These notes help me do what Michael Cunningham recommends writers do when they’re stuck: Imagine more deeply.

I love this process advice! So smart, and so engaging. So nonthreatening, as opposed to facing the blank page with the interior commandment: Now write. But about that imagining … One of the most basic commandments for fiction writers is to “throw rocks at your characters.” And it’s hard to imagine much bigger rocks than ALS is now throwing at you. I wonder how this real-life experience affects your feeling for your fictional characters. Do you want to shake them and tell them to toughen up? Or does it make you more tender toward them? Do you find yourself throwing bigger rocks at them than you used to?

Another great question. It isn’t entirely clear to me if/whether ALS has affected my fiction in a demonstrable way — except that I am now trying to write a character who has ALS (not a protagonist and not a woman). I’m not sure it’s the right choice, but it’s been interesting to experiment with it. I’ve never liked to use clearly autobiographical elements in my novels, but since I’ve been writing essays (or blog posts) that are more personal, I suppose I’m less afraid of that now.

It’s also probably true that my characters are thinking more frequently about the meaning of life and the experience of death — as I am now!


Aimee Liu’s work includes the novels Glorious Boy, Flash House, Cloud Mountain, and Face, and the memoirs Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders and Solitaire. More at

LARB Contributor

Aimee Liu is the author of Glorious Boy and Gaining: The Truth about Life after Eating Disorders. Her first book, Solitaire (1979), was the United States’ first anorexia memoir. Her novels include Flash House (2003), a tale of suspense and Cold War intrigue set in Central Asia; Cloud Mountain (1997), based on the true story of Liu’s American grandmother and Chinese revolutionary grandfather during the first Chinese Republic, the Warlord Era, and the Japanese invasion of China; and Face (1994), in which a young photographer raised in New York’s Chinatown exposes three generations of family secrets, dating back to Imperial China.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!