Shannon Cain is a fiction writer and a writing coach. Her collection of short stories, The Necessity of Certain Behaviors,
was awarded the Drue Heinz Literature Prize for 2011 and is published
by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Her work has been awarded a
fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, an Individual
Artist Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, the O. Henry
Prize and the Pushcart Prize. She has taught creative writing at the
University of Arizona, Gotham Writers Workshop, UCLA Extension and
Arizona State University. Beginning in late April 2011 she will be the
Picador Guest Professor in Literature at the University of Leipzig, in
Germany. She is the fiction editor for Kore Press.
with Shannon Cain
How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?
Shannon Cain: All
but one of the stories were initially drafted in graduate school, at
Warren Wilson. But in the five years between graduation and acceptance,
I worked them over pretty hard. I collected a whole lot of rejection
letters for these stories; I’d send one out, have it rejected by about
a dozen editors, then stare at it for a while longer, puzzle over the
cryptic notes sometimes scrawled on those little slips (I spent a
weekend wondering what C. Michael Curtis meant by "mannered") until
whatever flaws causing all that rejection made themselves clear. Then
I’d kill off a character or add a scene or something equally radical
until the thing just clicked. This whole process took about 8 years. I
have a file containing 243 rejection slips. The story I didn’t write in
grad school is The Nigerian Princes, which in 2010 came rushing out practically in one sitting, with very little revision. I have no idea what that’s about.
have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
I didn’t sit down to write a book about people who misbehave; that’s
just what came out of my brain. But I hoped, as I suppose do most short
story writers, that the stories would eventually end up in book form.
Before any of these stories found their first homes in literary
magazines, I dreamt aloud with my colleague Lisa Bowden, the publisher
of Kore Press...I told her how wonderful it would be if one day my
stories were collected and she were my book designer. And then it
happened; she in fact did end up designing the stunning book jacket.
Lisa’s response to this outcome: Way to manifest, girlfriend.
you choose which stories to include and in what order?
stories that ended up in the collection made it in simply because I
thought they were the best ones. I didn’t plan them thematically in any
way other than merit. The manuscript was assembled in a very editorial
kind of way: I just kept dropping the weaker stories and kept working
on the survivors. Ordering the stories was like a logic puzzle. I
wanted the title story last, because I think it’s a good anchor; I hope
the ending is satisfying not just for itself but for whole collection.
I wanted This is How it Starts to go first, mostly because the title begs for it. I wanted The Queer Zoo and The Nigerian Princes--the
only stories with male protagonists—to be separated from one another.
Etcetera. I laid them out on the floor of my living room and read each
final paragraph together with the opening paragraph that followed. I
tried to think about the mood a story might leave the reader in, and
how turning the page to the next story would complement and/or shift
that mood. And I also reminded myself that if most readers are like me,
they skip around in the collection so none of it mattered much anyhow.
does the word "story"
mean to you?
Change. Big change, little change. Personal change, social change. If
there’s no change, there’s no story. If there’s no story, there’s no
change. Every change has a story behind it, and every story contains
change. Stories help us see the world, and then once we see it clearly,
we can change it. I change as I write. I write to make change.
Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?
SC: No. (No fucking way: thinking about the reader would kill my courage). Yes. (All the time. The reader is everything.)
anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?
SC: Did I go too far?
TSR: How does
it feel knowing that people are buying your book?
Like I’m a little girl looking into her future, both stunned at this
development and also knowing it was inevitable. When I was 10 years old
I started writing a Nancy Drew novel. I’d heard that Carolyn Keene was
actually more than one person (is this true? I guess it doesn’t matter)
and I thought I could ghostwrite Nancy Drew as well as anybody else. I
got about 3 pages into the story and was stymied because I didn’t know
how I was going to end it. Twenty five years later—it took me that long
to begin writing seriously—I learned that you don’t need to know the
ending before you begin; that in fact it’s best if you don’t. (The
little girl who wanted to write a novel about a chaste and
straightlaced girl detective would be very surprised to discover her
adult self wrote stories about sex and drugs.) What I love about
writing is that it’s a process of discovery. That other people are
buying the book just to see what I’ve discovered is a mind-blower.
What are you working on now?
SC: I’m performing an oral serialization of my novel-in-progress at the weekly Call to the Audience
segment of the Tucson City Council meetings. Call to the Audience is
the part of each meeting in which any member of the public may speak on
any subject for 3 minutes. I’ve hijacked a podium designed for
participatory democracy and have turned into a space for story; I’m
spending my 3 minutes each week delivering about 500 words of my
manuscript. I’ve been at it for a year and a half. It’s a political
novel, set in contemporary Tucson, with a culminating scene in the City
Council chambers. The project is called Tucson, the Novel: An Experiment in Literature and Civil Discourse.
I use a precious 30 seconds of my time each week reflecting on language
and civility in the public sphere, especially as it manifests in
Tucson, a place where the failure of civility contributed to tragedy
earlier this year. I’ve pledged to keep reading until the book is in
stores or until I reach the last page, whichever comes first. Let’s
hope for publication, because otherwise I’m looking at roughly 4 more
the three most recent short story collections you've read?
SC: Antarctica by Claire Keegan, This is Not Your City by Caitlin Horrocks and the Fall 2011 issue of American Short Fiction.