Reminiscent of a lost Victorian classic in miniature, yet taking equal inspiration from such modern authors as Jean Rhys, Octavia Butler, Clarice Lispector, and Jean Genet, Amina Cain’s Indelicacy is at once a ghost story without a ghost, a fable without a moral, and a down-to-earth investigation of the barriers faced by women in both life and literature. It is a novel about seeing, class, desire, anxiety, pleasure, friendship, and the battle to find one’s true calling. In this interview, recorded at McNally Jackson Williamsburg, Amina Cain and Patty Yumi Cottrell (Sorry to Disrupt the Peace) discuss the pre-writing, writing a world you want to be in, and Indelicacy.
Patty Yumi Cottrell: I’m so thrilled to be here with you. I am a huge fan of your work and this book, obviously. I typed up some questions and I thought I would read them. Because I don’t like to leave things to chance.
I’m intrigued by how Indelicacy began for you, places like Arizona and Brazil are mentioned in the book. I confess I’m not sure the novel takes place in the present day, but I could be persuaded that it does—perhaps in a parallel dimension. Can you talk about how you thought of time and place when you began the novel, and if your understanding of those things changed by the end?
Amina Cain: Well, I said earlier that the book takes place atmospherically in the late 1800s. And in a way it’s such a funny thing to say. What will that mean to people? But for me it feels very true, and I’m always compelled towards atmosphere, and setting, and images, and objects much more than something like plot. The idea of the parallel universe—I think when I was writing it, I was kind of in one, in which I wanted different times to exist together. And I wanted to sort of evoke these different places, so, like you said, Brazil is mentioned, and Arizona.
Both places feel very evocative. In a narrative and in a sentence, I’m interested in what you can evoke without making it a very central thing. You can create atmosphere. You can conjure Arizona by talking about a painting of it. And to me, that’s the fun of composing something. But it took a while for me to even get into that atmosphere as a writer. I spent about a year in pre-writing, during which I was just sort of floundering around in a space that felt like it had promise. It took me a long time to really get into the parallel universe I wanted to be in.
Yumi Cottrell: What does pre-writing mean?
Cain: Pre-writing is just a lot of bad writing that doesn’t make it into the book. I always have a pre-writing phase. And, you know, with short stories it’s usually a month long. But for Indelicacy, it was a year. I’m always interested when writers say they like the beginning of a writing project. I find it really torturous.
Yumi Cottrell: I was just talking with a different writer, Jessi Jezewska Stevens, about beginning a novel and how there is something very false about it. Could you say something about that?
Cain: Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot in the last year about falseness and authenticity. It’s definitely a question I’ve had in my mind. I think of it in regards to a sentence I write, which I might actually like, but which still feels flimsy for whatever reason.
I read this interview once with Elena Ferrante. I think Elissa Schappell was interviewing her. And Ferrante talked about something similar. She talked about writing a sentence that feels false to her in some way, too studied, and then having to get rid of it and ask where she went wrong. There were a lot of false starts for me in writing this book. It was frustrating. Yet I know it’s my only way through. I mean, writing rarely feels easy to me. It does in certain moments. You know, I can get there.
Yumi Cottrell: I consider myself an absurdist who admires alternative narrative structures. Yet, sometimes I just want to read like John Grisham or something like that, something with a story. In your novel, many events occur over the course of the narrative, but without the trappings of traditional plot. I’m wondering what generates momentum for you as a writer to continue and also as a reader?
Cain: I start from a very blank place with any new project, but I’m usually propelled forward by things I feel fixated on. Whether that’s a landscape, or a work of art, or going to a dance performance, or reading another writer’s work.I think I depend on those kinds of fixations, in a way. They really create a space for me to want to write in the first place. So, if I read a book I really love or I go to see an exhibit that really moves me in some way, it’s almost like I can’t not write. I need to be in conversation with things that mean something to me, and that I can’t stop thinking about. And that definitely drives me forward more than plot. I mean, this novel has more of a plot than many of my stories have, but I found that one of the hardest parts of writing it was having to work with plot.
Yumi Cottrell: But what made you feel like you had to?
Cain: In the beginning, I didn’t know what kind of novel I would write. I thought it was possible it would have no plot at all. So, there wasn’t the sense that I was writing a novel and therefore it needed to have a plot. It just kind of happened. I know I always talk about writing as something that happens to me, but it did feel that way. At a certain point Jeremy Davies, my editor, said, well you inadvertently wrote a plot and now you have to deal with it.
Yumi Cottrell: So, Amina and I have been friends for a number of years, and throughout our friendship we’ve had many conversations about beauty, which is very strange. Because it’s not something I’m personally interested in.
Cain: I probably forced you into those conversations.
Yumi Cottrell: Yeah, I mean I enjoy talking with you, so it’s fine. But we have all these conversations about beauty, and I’m wondering if you’ve ever felt disgusted by where your intuition takes you as a writer?
Cain: Yeah, I felt disgusted sometimes writing this novel with the level of preciousness that I perceived to be in it. There was a point, after that year of pre-writing, when I wrote pretty much a whole draft, then I set it aside, as sometimes you do, to come back to it with fresh eyes. And I read it again and I kind of hated it. There was so much preciousness in it. I had to get rid of half of the novel to like it again. Half of my editing process was getting rid of preciousness. And I don’t like preciousness in other works. Yet, I kept moving towards it myself, and I don’t know why.
I don’t think Jeremy used the word precious, but without trying to he helped me to see the places that were left that I needed to sort of mine for their preciousness. And I’m still sort of afraid there is some preciousness in the book. But yeah, it’s kind of disgusting.
Yumi Cottrell: You had mentioned visual art a few minutes ago. What artworks have moved you? If you could live in a painting for a day or an hour or a minute what painting would you live in? What would you inhabit and why?
Cain: That’s such a hard question. There are so many I would want to live in., but really I think I just want to live in the ones I wrote about. In a way, that’s why I write—to spend time with things, to spend time with those paintings.
I do have an example from a number of years ago, when I used to live in Chicago. Patty also lived in Chicago, but at a different time. We didn’t know each other in Chicago, but we both did our MFAs at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As as a student, you could have a free membership to the museum. Was that true for you too?
Yumi Cottrell: I never went.
Cain: You never went? Wow. Well, it’s like one of the two museums I feel I’ve had a close relationship to. I would go every week, and sometimes I would just go into one gallery. There was a Bill Viola retrospective there at some point, and I didn’t really know his work yet. There was a lot of video installation, and the galleries were very dark. And it felt sort of like walking around a fun house. I think that was the first time I’d experienced art and felt like I wanted to do in writing the same thing it was doing in video and installation. It was very formative.
There’s this new band–I don’t know if anyone has heard of them–Bonny Light Horseman. Has anyone heard that band yet? I discovered them on the radio in LA last month and looked them up. And I’ve been listening to them kind of non-stop. I listen to them to comfort myself. Like today, I was really tired. And I listened to them and had that feeling—I really wanted to write like their music. It’s never like I know how I can actually do that. But this feeling that I would love to live inside their album—I feel it often.
Yumi Cottrell: What about spaciousness? I feel like so much of your work involves clearing away clutter on a table. Not to make it sound like it’s Tidying with Amina— I’m not saying that’s what your writing is. But I do get that feeling as I’m reading your work. I’m wondering if you know how a sense of spaciousness and openness informs your writing practice.
Cain: I think spaciousness is one of the biggest things that informs my writing. If someone asks, how do you know when a short story is done? When do you know you’ve finished it? It’s when I’ve made enough space in it while retaining the resonances, the relationships between characters or between objects. I find clutter really hard. My cousin Jonathan is here and our Grandmother, Irene, had a very cluttered house. I would go to her house and realize, oh there’s a beautiful table. I hadn’t been able to see the table because there were so many other things in the house. That’s an early memory of not being able to handle clutter very much. But, I do like reading very ornate books.
Sometimes I’ll go into someone’s house and it’s so full of things, and I think oh, this is just another way to live. But I can’t do it. I live in a very minimalist house, like to the point where a friend of mine once asked, what are you guys going to do with your living room? And I said, we’ve already done it—these two chairs. I’m just drawn to cleared-out spaces. I like living in a city like LA where it’s not quite cleared-out, but there is an ocean on one side and a desert on the other. In my writing too, I want things to be cleared out. And that’s partly because I feel like the things that are left can talk to each other in a way that maybe they couldn’t otherwise. Like in the same way you can’t see a very special thing in a room if there are tons of other things in it. What if you just have a few special things, and they’re somehow in conversation or they’re creating something together?
Yumi Cottrell: I’m thinking about how in the book there is a scene between two men at a literary event having a pretentious conversation. Is there a way not to be pretentious when having a literary conversation?
Cain: I’m not completely sure I know. I’d like to think I do, but we all have huge blind spots. So, like, who knows? Most of the novel is made up, but some things come partly from real experiences. I was at a reading once where the writer was a woman and the person in conversation with her was a man. I don’t know why I’m setting up this gender thing here, but maybe because it felt significant at the time. I really liked her reading, but the man talked twice about his own success as he interviewed the writer who’d just read—once at the beginning and again in the middle, and I was just like why does he keep talking about his own success? And I was sort of upset by it.
Yumi Cottrell: I think I remember you telling me about this.
Cain: Yeah, I probably did.
Yumi Cottrell: I’m also thinking about the way you write about sex in the book. It’s very matter of fact and kind of weird. Could you say more about that?
Cain: Yeah, it’s funny because this is my fourth reading and conversation about the book and two others have also brought this up.
Yumi Cottrell: I think it stands out because it’s very unusual the way you managed it. It’s cool.
Cain: The person I was in conversation with last night in Toronto, Kyle Buckley, said something like, you’ll throw in this almost S&M reference, but then you don’t really go into it. There is a very stiff, formal sentence where Vitória says basically that she’s started doing all these things she’s never done before. There is so much she hasn’t experienced, and for her it’s all about new experiences. She keeps a list of them. She says, I went to hear a talk by a famous psychotherapist, I performed oral sex on my husband, etc. and I think you read that and weren’t sure about that sentence.
I guess, to me, it feels like there is a lot about performance in the book. There is a lot of watching performances, but also performing. Often, what Vitória feels and what she says are two different things. Sometimes I perform cheerfulness when I don’t feel cheerful. And that’s very different than performing oral sex, but I think for her it’s like, you know, she’s never had sex before. And she doesn’t love her husband. But she really likes sex. She probably doesn’t really know how to talk about it. Anna Moschovakis read the book early on, and I think that sentence sort of struck her too.
But yeah, I guess it’s similar, not the performing part, but the okay, what does it do to bring Arizona into this sentence or this moment? And what does it do to bring that sort of representation of sex into this one?
Yumi Cottrell: It ruptures reality a little. I was reading this interview with Jen George who mentioned that they think that writing a novel is basically writing your fantasies. What do you think about that? You’re nodding and laughing.
Cain: Yeah, in different ways. Writers, especially when they’re in school, are told they should think about their audience, but I always feel like I’m selfishly creating a world I want to be in. I do agree that as a novelist you are sort of writing your fantasies. Yet, I have different impulses. I also like to make fun of my characters. I mean, not for the sake of making fun of them, but maybe to look at their blind spots, and the idea of the flawed self. I feel like a very flawed person. And being interested in these things also provides a sort of impulse to write.
Yumi Cottrell: This book is so beautiful.
Cain: Thank you.
Amina Cain is the author of two collections of short fiction, Creature and I Go to Some Hollow. Her essays and short stories have appeared in n+1, The Paris Review Daily, BOMB, Full Stop, Vice, the Believer Logger, and other places. She lives in Los Angeles and is a contributing editor at BOMB.
Patty Yumi Cottrell is the author of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace (McSweeney’s), a winner of the Whiting Award in Fiction and a Barnes and Noble Discover Award. Cottrell’s writing has appeared in Granta, 7x7LA, The White Review, Buzzfeed, BOMB Magazine, Black Warrior Review, Denver Quarterly and numerous other places. Cottrell is currently the Assistant Chair of the Writing Program at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.