Amina Cain’s collection Creature, released earlier this year by Dorothy, a publishing project, is a structurally intriguing, allusive, and inventive work. Throughout the book, Cain weaves in references to literary influences, works within a wide range of styles, and keeps the reader on their toes. The order of these stories creates a clear progression, both for the book’s themes and for the styles utilized by Cain. To learn more about the process that created Creature, I checked in with Cain via a series of emails.
There are characters in Creature named Marguerite and Clarice; from looking at the acknowledgements, am I correct in taking these as nods to Duras and Lispector?
Yes. They are two of my favorite authors, and lately as I’ve been writing, I haven’t been able to get their books out of my head. Something of their work accompanied me in Creature.
Over the course of the collection, there seems to be a progression in the characters from writers to nonwriters. How did you come up with the sequence for these stories?
To be honest, sequence is always difficult for me, and I had some help with it from my editor, Danielle Dutton. In different moments I thought about ordering the stories in different ways–through temperature and season, landscapes, dis/ability, pleasure and suffering–but ended up putting them together more instinctually, which I think was best. I hadn’t thought of the progression of writer to nonwriter, but I like that and I’m glad it is there. I want to think it has something to do with uncertainty, and a blurring between the acts of writing and reading, but I can’t say for sure.
What inspired you to work within the screenplay format for “Tramps Everywhere”?
When I write a story I mostly don’t have any ideas beforehand about what will happen or what the story will look like in the end. This is why I sometimes have trouble with the term “experimental fiction” to describe my work: when I write I am not experimenting, at least not consciously. I am interested, however, in the possibilities of the short story, and because I am also very driven by image, I wanted to see what it would be like for me to write a story in the form of a movie, a movie that will never be filmed. I wanted to experience the relationship between a story and a screenplay. And, I wanted to linger in those images for a little while, longer perhaps than a story allows. Or maybe stories allow anything.
Your site lists several curatorial projects of yours. Have these had any effect on how you’ve written subsequent to these events? And do you have any more in the works?
Curating literary events felt very necessary for me for a while, and I especially enjoyed and got a lot out of working on two festivals that included performance, film/video and installation, in addition to literature: When Does It or You Begin? Memory as Innovation (co-curated with Jennifer Karmin at Links Hall in Chicago) and Both Sides and The Center (with Teresa Carmody at the MAK Center/Schindler House in West Hollywood). I’ve said to people before that I see, easily, connections between the space of a text and the space of a literary event. Through curating, through writing, I think it is possible to really look at and effect the space of a room, whether it is real or imagined. I am forever trying to get to setting, and I think there is a way for a literary festival to be a setting, in which anything can unfold. I’m interested in that. These are the connections for me, and I guess it’s less about one effecting the other, and more about them always being in conversation in the first place. But I have written in small ways about curating in my stories, and that is of course an effect. Lately I’ve had to slow down on curatorial projects, at least for now. There’s that way in which one gets so busy with the things that are not writing that one can’t actually write. And I want to write.
In his review of Creature for the Los Angeles Times, Jim Ruland makes a distinction between prose pieces and stories. Is this something you’re conscious of as you write? Where do you classify your work?
I think of my work as fiction. At times I have written pieces that probably read as prose, and I know there are writers who see themselves not in a lineage of fiction but poetry, and so prose is how they talk about what they do (I’m thinking here of new narrative, etc.), but I love fiction, I love stories/narrative, and I don’t see it as a problem to claim it, even if my stories sometimes veer from what story is supposed to do in a conventional sense. I see the story as full of possibility, and even if I sometimes move away from it, I never totally leave. I always keep one foot in. To be honest, I often get annoyed with the rejection of fiction as a site of possibility, as if it has no history of that; I even get annoyed with the phrase “poet’s novel,” as if you have to be a poet to be interested in language, or shape, etc. when it comes to writing in a form like that.
What are you working on these days?
These days I’m working on a novel, for the first time ever really, though it is so new at this point, still so small, it feels funny calling it that. But I’m enjoying it, happy to sink in for five years or whatever it takes. That feels relaxing. And then I have also newly been writing essays, sometimes about fiction.