Finding Her Medium

Cai Emmons went from success to success on her way to becoming a novelist

Since she came to Oregon two decades ago, Eugene writer Cai Emmons has mostly been known as a novelist. So how did it happen that her new book contains nothing but short stories?

That surprised her, too. “This project kind of came together almost randomly,” she says in a phone interview. “These stories I had lying around, some of them had been published and some of them hadn’t been. And I saw a through line, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just throw these together and submit them to one of these writing competitions.’”

Emmons’ collection of five stories — connected by a common theme of people dismissed by the broader culture — took first place in the 2018 Leapfrog Fiction Competition. The prize was publication by Leapfrog Press. Her new book, Vanishing, came out in March, and an online book launch party is Sunday, April 19, on Zoom.

It will surprise no one who knows her that Emmons moves easily from one form of  fiction to another. Before she became a novelist, Emmons was a filmmaker who won a student Oscar. Before that, she was a playwright. Emmons studied theater and psychology as an undergraduate at Yale University. Plays she wrote were produced or given readings at New York theaters. One day she got back to the apartment she shared and found a note on the wall. “Call Edward Albee,” it said, and included a phone number.

She thought the message was a joke; she couldn’t believe she would get a call out of the blue from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. She telephoned, and Albee offered her a month-long artist residency at the Barn, the Long Island retreat run by his eponymous foundation. “I said ‘yes’ on the spot!” she says.

Theater as a career didn’t stick. “It was really great, but it was also a little premature,” she says. “I was like, ‘Wow, I don’t know if I’m really ready to be a playwright.’”

Emmons applied to film school at New York University, where she got her MFA. Other film students at NYU in those days were Jim Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise) and Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing). She got to know Barry Sonnenfeld, who would be the Coen Brothers’ director of photography for their first movie, Blood Simple, and she remains friends with Debbie Reinisch, associate producer of the Coens’ Raising Arizona.

“It was a very heady time to be there, and it was so much fun to do that sort of guerrilla-in-the-streets film making,” she says. “And being a 20-something in New York when you could afford to live in Manhattan!”

Her thesis project, an hour-long film titled A Man Around the House, won the Student Academy Award in 1981. “They flew me out to California,” she says. “There was a big ceremony and it was — I have to say, it was overwhelming.”

She married another writer, Richard Howorth, and they began writing scripts with the idea of doing an independent production. “We made some headway,” she says. “We got some New York producers interested. We ended up optioning a bunch of screenplays.”

The couple moved to Los Angeles. “We started taking meetings in L.A. and, oh my God, what a time that was. It was just like The Player, the Altman movie, the one about screenwriting. Do you know it? The one where they’re pitching movies?”

In the end Emmons got lots of meetings but no productions. She and Howorth wrote a couple screenplays for a CBS television series, The Trials of Rosie O’Neill. The work paid well — about $35,000 an episode — and she says it was fun to see her material on television a couple weeks after she wrote it. But it wasn’t, she says, high art.

“I don’t love those episodes that we did,” she says. “It’s not work I’m terrifically proud of, because there were so many constraints. But anyway it made me feel like, OK, I’m seeing a little bit of how television works.”

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Cai Emmons

Emmons and her husband wrote a movie script they called Political Wife, about a married couple who run against each other for election.

“Every studio president in Hollywood — not just the VPs, which is more the norm — every studio president read this script. Everyone loved it. There was a heady weekend when it was up for auction and we thought, ‘OK, how many millions is it going to be?’”

Their script didn’t sell.

That led her, once again, to go back to school. The couple moved to Eugene in 1996; she got her MFA in creative writing at the University of Oregon, where she went on to teach writing.

Her transition to writing novels came naturally. “I’d already been writing fiction on the side even as I was working in film. So I think there’s a part of me that kind of always wanted to be a novelist, but was afraid to.”

Emmons’ novels include His Mother’s Son (2003), The Stylist (2007) and Weather Woman (2018). Sinking Islands, a sequel to Weather Woman, is due out in spring 2021.

She and Howorth divorced in 2003 and remain friends. These days Emmons is once again hanging out in the theater world; in pre-virus days she could often be spotted at openings at Oregon Contemporary Theatre with her partner, playwright Paul Calandrino.

She doesn’t for a moment regret her work in Hollywood. “It proved to be really instructive in terms of thinking about the structure of a longer written piece,” she says. “I mean, I credit film with giving me some sense of how to approach writing a novel.”

A virtual book launch party for Vanishing is on Zoom 4 pm Sunday, April 19. The meeting ID is 644 437 057 and the password is 211043.