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.

Short Story Collections

The Necessity of Certain Behaviors
(University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011)

reviewed by Tania Hershman

Interview with Shannon Cain

The Short Review: 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.

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

SC: Well, 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.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

SC: The 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.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

SC: 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.

TSR: 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.)

TSR: Is there 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?

SC: 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.

TSR: 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 years.

TSR: What are 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.
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