When Eugene writer Cai Emmons talks about her writing process, her language is physical — even athletic. In conversation about her forthcoming novel, Unleashed, set to be released Sept. 6, she describes how instinct, a central theme of the book, permeated her writing process in an even more heightened way than is usual for her. “It poured out of me. Somewhat violently,” she tells me as we sit across from each other in her living room.
The pull that she feels to write, which in one of her blog posts on her website CaiEmmonsAuthor.com she describes as a “siren call,” has been present since she was a child. It has led her to explore a lot of different ground; as a writer of novels and short stories, and previously of plays and screenplays, she has written work centered on climate change and natural disasters, as well as on identity and self-realization.
One of the most tangible aspects of Emmons’ voice on the page is its almost shapeshifting quality. Her characters often seem porous; what they notice and pick up on brim with a constant potential for change. Instinct and the many forms it can take, as well as a heightened sense of physicality, are unifying threads between Emmons’ novels.
Unleashed explores how the connection between a mother, Lu, and her daughter, Pippa, evolves as they each begin to seek out the natural world. Their verbal communication has been fraught since Pippa left home in Sonoma for college in Los Angeles. In a time where they are physically apart it is not verbal communication that brings them back together, but a shared instinct powerful enough to lead them back to each other — and back to themselves, to their cores.
The idea of Emmons’ body knowing when to write, and what to write, as if before her conscious mind can understand it, has been a defining aspect in her writing process for previous novels.
“I’m a very body-centered person, I think. And I have always felt that there is a kind of bodily aspect to writing that is under-acknowledged,” she explains. “And I do feel that when I get into the flow it’s because my body is ready. A receptacle.”
But for Unleashed, the pull she felt to get this idea onto the page carried a significance that she wouldn’t come to recognize until after she was diagnosed in the winter of 2021 with bulbar-onset ALS, a fatal disease that progresses through the nervous system.
Unleashed was written primarily during the beginning of the pandemic, with the first draft coming to fruition in September 2020. At first, she thought the book was unpublishable, that it was too strange. But she had to write it anyway. In a note at the end of the book, Emmons writes that she had to write “whatever this was” and that “it poured out like an opium-induced dream.”
Only after her diagnosis did she find that Unleashed is “my body’s chronicle of a developing disease, a metaphorical autobiography of sorts.”
Because of ALS, Emmons can no longer speak, but is still able to move and to type. When we meet at her house in June, she uses a device called Voice Keeper that reads aloud — in her own recorded voice — what she types. She explains that this novel “was guided less by my left brain than any of my previous books. I wasn’t stopping to second-guess myself.”
As we talk about Unleashed, at times in a kind of code so as to avoid spoilers for a documentary filmmaker in the room that morning who was not done with the book, Emmons lights up when we get to the subject of eyes and their communicating power in the book.
“I think the idea that the eyes are passages to the soul is always with me. I think about that with anyone I meet.”
The power of the senses, specifically sight and touch, as well as the physical connection between mother and child, radiate through the characters in this novel in a way that is simultaneously supernatural and human.
The senses and their unique power has become a subject of focus for Emmons since she has lost the ability to speak. In a recent blog post she writes, “listening without speaking has made me feel like a human antenna, maybe a satellite dish, receiving information from so many quarters I ignored when I was talking.”
Emmons’ Unleashed is, in her words, a “metaphorical autobiography of sorts,” of her body’s ways of knowing as she began to develop ALS. Though it does not take anything factual from her life, its characters are brimming with the life force and porousness that she exudes.
Unleashed will become available for purchase Sept. 6. Cai Emmons celebrates the release of Unleashed, as well as Livid (2022), with a reading, signing and reception at 5 pm Sunday, Sept.25, at Oregon Contemporary Theater. Actresses will read from both books.