This interview series features original conversations with folks around the world who are in the thick of literary culture -- the passionate writers, editors, critics, readers, translators, publishers, bloggers, designers, booksellers, poets, performers, journalists, and instructors who are bringing vibrancy and joy to the world of words. More than a rehash of things you have heard familiar names natter on about before, this series will turn its attention beyond the bounds of the usual suspects and the usual issues. This series is committed to a dynamic exploration of ideas, craft, language, literature, and culture with the people who are committing their lives to it. See more interviews here.
Shannon Cain lives a lot of different literary lives. She is a fiction writer, first, with stories published in Tin House, The Massachusetts Review, and the New England Review. She can boast of Puschart and O. Henry prizes, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Shannon is also an editor. Along with Lisa Bowden, she edited the anthology Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq, and she is the fiction editor of Kore Press, an independent publisher of literature by women. And Shannon is a teacher of fiction and literature--in traditional college classrooms, as a private coach, and in a series of master workshops, available online or in-person, that are designed for writers that are ready to engage.
Shannon's art often hinges on performance -- whether it is in a theatrical adaptation of Powder, or her current tactic of reading her novel-in-process aloud to her local Tucson, Arizona city council during the public comments portion of their meetings every Tuesday. Three minutes at a time, her fiction turns into an unexpected style of civil discourse. (Follow the project here.)
Perhaps that performative dimension to Shannon's literary life draws from the deep well of her lifelong commitment as a peace activist and agitating for progressive social change. In our conversation, Shannon discusses the intersection of activism and art, creativity and radicalism, the multiple lives of a writer, and what she says when people ask her what she "does." Also mentioned: a certain sophomore that is learning how to drive, nonprofits, the danger of middle ground, and political fiction.
In full disclosure, Shannon and I were both fiction students at the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. She was a couple of semesters ahead of me, and I distinctly remember her graduating class that focused on stories by a potent and uncommon trio: James Baldwin, Jeannette Winterson, and Anton Chekhov.
You wear a lot of different hats these days. When someone asks you what you do, how do you respond to them? And supposing that person (say: me) is plenty patient and not just being polite, how would you really describe what you do?
When someone asks what I do, I tell them I'm a freelance creative writing teacher. At which point they usually excuse themselves and head for the hors d'oeuvres table. But if that person is plenty patient, I'd tell them about the novel I'm writing and its related civil discourse/performance art project and blog, and I'd tell them about the online master class workshops I'm facilitating and the teaching gigs at UCLA and Gotham (Writers' Workshop), and the volunteer job as fiction editor for Kore Press, and the live workshops I teach here in Tucson and the novelist I'm coaching whose 500-page international spy thriller is just about ready to be sent to literary agents. Oh, and the short story collection I finally just finished. But first, I'd tell them about my darling kid, who just started her sophomore year at Tucson High and is learning to drive, which causes me more anxiety than all the above put together.
So yes, I'm very busy and it's way, way too much and the pay is terrible and the uncertainty of freelancing requires nerves of steel, which I don't always have. But I wouldn't want to be doing anything else. Some days I yearn to go back to my old field, which was nonprofit executive administration and fundraising. But those moments pass quickly. I'm grateful to be able to make a living practicing my craft. What do I do? I parent, I write, I read, I teach, I agitate for social change.
How do you see your creative work intersecting with your agitation for social change?
I've always gravitated toward jobs that let me be an activist on some level. Most recently I co-directed Kore Press (I still volunteer as fiction editor), a publisher of literature by women whose mission statement is explicit about creating progressive social change. Before that, I administered a private philanthropy that made grants to projects that addressed the root causes of inequality for women and girls. Earlier on, I was a young executive director for a tiny nonprofit in East Harlem that educated homeless women about alternative healing and ways to navigate the healthcare system.
So when I shifted careers from philanthropy to the literary arts, in some ways I was just shifting my activist vehicle from fundraising to fiction. I've always been interested in work that gets to the root of things; work that's radical in the literal sense. I have great respect for people who run soup kitchens and homeless shelters--and I've done my share of that work myself--but what gets me fired up is understanding why we allow people to be homeless in the first place and helping others come to that awareness.
Since the dawn of time, humans have turned to stories to help them understand the world. When they're working at their highest purpose, stories open us up to a more compassionate view of one another. I believe that careful stewardship of a culture is our best strategy for bringing about social justice. If this means I've got to appoint myself as one of those stewards, so be it.
I most admire stories that combine compassion for the suffering of their characters with a hard revealing eye on the social circumstances behind their pain. The roots of it. I admire stories in which the victims aren't entirely innocent, either. From a craft standpoint alone, it's essential to explore the ways in which characters are responsible for their circumstances, and in political fiction this often translates into ways they're complicit in their own oppression. For me, this is fertile ground for conflict.
I've never been much of a fan of the novel of ideas. I want to see the injustice play out, the social situation imposed on a character and her people. I want to see how she reacts, what happens next. I want a minimum of rumination and political asides on the meaning of it all. Just give me a story.
My novel in progress is political. I learned a lot from James Baldwin, Grace Paley, Nadine Gordimer, Kurt Vonnegut, and many many others. Listing their names here makes me want to read them again.
How do you find your effort in seeking out what you have to say in your own fiction influences your work as a teacher and editor of the fiction of others?
You know, I think more often that this influence goes the other way. The daily practice of reading the stories of others and thinking hard about how to help them succeed in their intentions has absolutely spilled over into my own writing. I'll find myself pontificating on some question of craft, like structure or narrative distance and suddenly I realize I'm actually talking to myself...teaching myself, reminding myself of what I already know.
And in fact I try pretty hard to keep my own agenda out of the editorial and coaching process. I learned a lot about doing this while editing Powder, the anthology of writing by women who have served in the military, and again in the process of co-adapting the book for the stage. I'm a peace activist, and I entered that book project with certain ideas about military service and war and women. I used to believe that if women fought wars, well--there wouldn't be any. And that a book on the subject of women warriors would necessarily be a statement about peace. But the stories we received of course proved me wrong; it turns out that plenty of women in the military are of the gung-ho variety. My co-editor, Lisa Bowden, and I realized early on that compiling this anthology would need to be an exercise in editorial self-effacement. We figured out that in order for the book (and the play) to be credible and indeed interesting, we would need to present the voices of everyone with equal generosity and compassion and weight. Women and war is a complex subject, and the deeper you dig, the more complex it gets.
Which is in part what I find so wonderful and so difficult about writing with an eye toward social change. My characters have got to be layered, complicated and conflicted. The bad guy--the wealth-obsessed land developer, the rapist, the crooked politician--sometimes acts against his own interests. And as I said, sometimes victims exacerbate their suffering. These sorts of characters are the ones that endure.
Certainly the presence of complicated characters is one of the marks of good literature, but if you don't attend to this question relentlessly in political fiction, if you don't make it your standard, the work quickly descends into diatribe. One of the best things that any audience member ever said about Coming in Hot (the stage adaptation of Powder) was that she came expecting peace propaganda and instead found the truth.
In that case, have you seen your peace activism transformed because of your creative work? In seeking political fiction and art that transcends diatribe, are you finding your activism transcends along with it?
Before I answer that question, let me be clear that my quest to transcend diatribe in my writing doesn't mean I'm getting mellower or more centrist or that I now believe the middle ground is somehow a better place. In fact, I'm terrifically bored by the middle ground. Which I suppose is one reason I'm also terrifically bored by politics. Politics requires too damn much compromise, too much capitulation. Don't get me wrong; I vote and I support candidates and I'm a huge fan of democracy, but also I'm unrelenting in my belief in the necessity of justice and equality and the imperative of abolishing the barbarism we call war, no matter what. One of the other best things an audience member said about Coming in Hot --and this was a teenager--was that she'd been ready to enlist in the military and that after seeing the play she decided against it. One less human being shooting at another one is a real victory.
Standing on the middle ground because it's safer or less offensive is different than a deep exploration of all sides of a question. So yes, my peace and justice activism has been transformed by my writing. (I think it's been equally transformed by middle age, but that's another issue.)
I'm going out on a limb more. In my twenties in NYC, I certainly thought that my street activism was risky--the arrests over women's rights, the guerrilla graffiti, the crashing of presidential fundraising dinners to yell about AIDS--but that was nothing compared to reading my overtly political novel three minutes at a time as testimony to the Tucson city council every Tuesday. This project requires me to stand my ground, to impose my art on an audience that's at best mystified and at worst derisive. Every week I need to psych myself up again, especially when I feel as if I'm stealing three minutes of testimony from ordinary citizens who come downtown to exercise their right to participate in the democratic process. I have a new respect for performance artists, people who believe so fully in their work and in their right to present it that they're unafraid of looking like fools. Every week, I struggle to set aside that fear. Every week, I need to reaffirm my commitment to literature as a tool for social change.