When writer Eugene Cai Emmons talks about his writing process, his language is physical, even athletic. In conversation about his next novel, Unleashed, which will be released on September 6, she describes how instinct, the central theme of the book, permeated her writing process in an even more intense way than usual for her. “It sank me. A little violently,” she tells me as we sit across from each other in her living room.
The pull she feels for writing, which she describes in one of her blog posts on her website CaiEmmonsAuthor.com as a “siren call,” has been present since she was a child. This led her to explore many different terrains; As a writer of novels and short stories, and previously of plays and screenplays, she has written works centered on climate change and natural disasters, as well as identity and self-actualization.
One of the most tangible aspects of Emmons’ voice on the page is its almost transfigured quality. His characters often seem porous; what they notice and capture to the brim with constant potential for change. Instinct and the many forms it can take, along with a strong sense of physicality, are common 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 strained since Pippa left home in Sonoma to attend college in Los Angeles. At a time when they are physically apart, it’s not verbal communication that brings them together, but a shared instinct strong enough to bring them back to each other – and to themselves, to their hearts.
The idea that Emmons’ body knows when to write and what to write, as if before his conscious mind could comprehend it, has been a defining aspect of his writing process for earlier novels.
“I’m a very body-focused person, I think. And I’ve always felt that there’s a kind of body in writing that’s underappreciated,” she explains. “And I feel like when I’m in the flow, it’s because my body is ready. A receptacle.
But for Unleashedthe pull she felt to put this idea on the page had a significance she would only recognize after being diagnosed in the winter of 2021 with bulbar-onset ALS, a fatal disease that progresses through the nervous system .
Unleashed was written mostly at the start 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 weird. But she still had to write it. In a note at the end of the book, Emmons writes that she had to write “anything” and that “it spread like an opium-induced dream”.
It was only after her diagnosis that she discovered that Unleashed is “my body’s chronicle of a developing disease, a kind of metaphorical autobiography”.
Due to ALS, Emmons can no longer speak, but he is still able to move and 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 less left-brain driven than any of my previous books. I didn’t stop to question myself.
As we talk about Unleashedsometimes in some sort of code in order to avoid spoiling a documentary maker in the room that morning who wasn’t done with the book, Emmons lights up when we bring up the subject of eyes and their power to communication in the book.
“I think the idea that the eyes are passageways to the soul is always with me. I think about it with everyone I meet.
The power of the senses, especially sight and touch, as well as the physical bond between mother and child, radiate through the characters in this novel in a way that is both supernatural and human.
The senses and their unique power have become a focus for Emmons since she lost the ability to speak. In a recent blog post, she writes, “Listening without speaking made me feel like a human antenna, maybe a satellite dish, receiving information from so many places I was unaware of when I was speaking.
Emmons’ Unleashed is, in his words, a “sort of metaphorical autobiography” of the ways his body came to know about ALS. While that doesn’t take anything factual away from her life, her characters are brimming with the life force and porosity she exudes.
Unleashed will be available for purchase on September 6. Cai Emmons celebrates the release of Unleashedas good as Livid (2022), with a reading, dedication and reception at 5 p.m. on Sunday, September 25 at the Oregon Contemporary Theater. The actresses will read both books.