Interview with Shannon Cain

Photo credit: Richard Beban

I’m thrilled to interview a recent arrival in Paris, the brilliant writer and editor Shannon Cain, author of The Necessity of Certain Behaviors and coeditor of Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, the O. Henry Prize, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work has appeared in ‘Tin House,’ ‘Colorado Review,’ ‘New England Review,’ ‘American Short Fiction,’ and ‘Southword: New Writing From Ireland.’ She was the 2011 Picador Guest Professor in Literature at the University of Leipzig and has led writing workshops at Bennington College, the University of Arizona and Arizona State University. Shannon also works as a private coach, manuscript consultant, and workshop facilitator. She is an insightful reader and a great leader, and I feel very lucky to take part in one of her workshops.

What brought you to Paris?

I’ve been trying to get to Paris for 25 years. I finally managed it because at age 50, I find myself without external responsibilities: my marriage(s) ended and my child grew up and went to college. I have a psychic/spiritual connection to France that I can’t really explain. My family lived here when I was 13; my father worked for an American corporation that transferred him here for 3 years, but we left after a year because his alcoholism caught up with him and he was fired. Interestingly, the family story is that we left because the French were mean. It took me years to piece together the truth. We ended up in Tucson, Arizona, where I went to high school and college, studying French as my primary subject. At 17, I did a summer abroad program; at 23 I spent Spring Break here with a hot French boyfriend; at 35 I came back on vacation; and at 45 after my last divorce I came back again and spent a month. All those years I was telling myself I’d live here some day, but I had no idea how I’d manage it, immigration-wise. Many years ago I married a man who was born in Italy; I had a vague hope of snagging an EU passport through him. But then we divorced. I always thought I’d just show up on a tourist visa and just wing it, like so many others do. And then I discovered that France instituted the “talents et compétences” visa, which I understand basically as this country’s version of the brain drain system. If you have a PhD (which I don’t) or have achieved a certain level of competence in your field (which apparently I have), then you’ve got a good shot at getting into the country. Mine was awarded specifically in the arts, but academics and scientists and engineers and businesspeople are also eligible. To be considered for the visa I was required to put together a dossier, including an artistic project, for consideration by the French Consulate in the U.S. It’s a (renewable) carte de longue séjour, which means I can stay for 3 to 6 years. After that, if I’m still in love with Paris, I figure I’ll apply for citizenship. I have however promised my 19-year old daughter I’ll come back to the U.S. when she starts having babies. She in turn has promised me she’ll wait at least 10 years. Which is, I know, the kind of deal that makes the Universe chuckle.

How has the transition to living and working in France been? What are the challenges? And the rewards?

My visa allows me to work in France, but only in my approved field, which is “création d’oeuvres de l’ésprit.” Beautiful, huh? So far, however, I’ve just been continuing the work I did in the U.S. as a freelance manuscript consultant and writing coach. I started doing this work nine years ago, in anticipation of leaving the U.S. some day…I needed a job I could do anywhere. Happily, that plan is working out.

The reality has exceeded the dream, frankly. Apart from the streams of urine in the streets (seriously, dudes: what the actual fuck?), Paris has lived up to my expectations. My apartment search was amazingly painless–I got very lucky, finding a place after only a month–and because I was warned at length about the stunning bureaucracy of this country, I’m able to be pleasantly surprised when my interactions with the government actually get me somewhere. I was also prepared for the social permafrost that allegedly resides just below the politesse of the French, but instead I’ve found warmth and welcome. I slipped right into existing communities of likeminded folk, both native and expat, and after only 2 months here I find myself among several circles of friends. The only problem I’m encountering is that so many people here speak such competent English and are so eager to practice that it facilitates my laziness around fixing my incredibly rusty French. My best teachers so far have been French children.

Did you have any specific ideas of what you wanted to write when you came here, or did you just decide to take the stories/ the novels/ personal essays as they come?

I’m working on two different projects: one is a novel about a group of polyamorous U.S. Air Force pilots, which is great fun; it’s a very political and very sexually explicit examination of love and war and sex and violence and family and friendship. The other is the project for which I was awarded the visa, which is a book of autofiction based on my happy adult sex life and my sexually traumatic childhood. Autofiction is a genre that came out of France in the 1970s; it’s a fascinating mixture of fiction and nonfiction, akin to autobiographical fiction but with the important distinction that it overtly refuses to claim either genre, forcing the reader (and writer!) to grapple with the ambiguities of truth versus imagination.

You have an amazing career, from the award-winning short story collection The Necessity of Certain Behaviors to editing anthologies, teaching at terrific MFA programs to creating a writers’ retreat in the desert. Already in Paris you have created a wonderful community of writers. What motivates you?

I knew before I came here that I’d want to put together some kind of workshop, and when I arrived I found several already in existence. But none catered specifically to really talented and accomplished writers…which has been a specific focus of mine for the last 2 or 3 years. I wasn’t surprised to find this was the case; it’s true in the U.S. also. Despite the proliferation of MFA programs, there isn’t much support out there for writers once they’ve finished their graduate studies. I was stunned, however, to discover just how many writers in English here were looking for exactly this kind of thing. I got lots of applications and found maybe half of them to meet the standard I was looking for, and lo and behold they were all women. I used to direct a feminist independent literary press in Tucson, so it seemed natural and right to me that the group be modified to include women only.

I’m motivated by social change. Before I started writing seriously, I worked for 20 years with a variety of social justice NGOs focused mostly on women’s empowerment. I think gathering women together to support the telling of their stories and the creation of their literature is a political act. I identify first as an activist and second as a writer. This has made me a little bit unpopular in certain literary circles, but that’s okay. I’m out to change the world, and writing is just my most recent vehicle toward that goal.

What is the best advice you have ever received?

This oldie and goodie by Goethe has always given me courage: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

What books are on your nightstand?

A brilliant autoficitional novel by Ruth Ozeki called A Tale for the Time Being and the stunning Life Drawing, a debut novel by my grad-school buddy Robin Black.

What’s next?

I’ve been invited to be the featured reader this coming Thursday, August 21 at Paris Lit Up; I’ll be reading from that polyamorous fighter pilot novel. I’ll also be facilitating PLU’s monthly workshop at Shakespeare and Company, which isn’t so much a critique group as it is a let’s-get-together-and-write group. That one meets from 12:30 to 2:30 on the first Sunday of every month. I’m also teaching a seminar on autofiction at the American Library in Paris on October 11. Most excitingly, my darling kid arrives next week to spend a month with me before she starts her sophomore year in college. But mostly I plan to spend the fall sitting on the balcony of my new tiny apartment in the Marais, writing and reading. La vie est tellement belle!

  1. Barb

    It certainly sounds as if Shannon is in the right place. Thank you Janet for our introduction to her.

  2. Lori

    Bravo!

  3. Ellen MIchaelson

    Shannon–

    I am a physician and recent MFA graduate from Pacific U near Portland, OR where National Book Award and National Book Critic Circle Finalist Bonnie Jo Campbell was my thesis adviser. Presently I am marketing my first novel, From the Love of Strangers, which has been chosen as finalist/ semifinalist in a number of contests. I am also working on new stories about family/father/loss. Your project on autofiction intrigues me. I have 26,000 words I wrote after the death of my mother and have thought about writing fiction alongside nonfiction about my relationship with her her and my two sisters. I write to you now because I am considering a trip to France for two weeks in August 2015 while my husband is riding the 1200K bike event, Paris-Brest-Paris. I ride too but will not do this event. I am looking for own adventure and a writing one would be wonderful. I know many people leave Paris in August, but I am wondering if you would be in the city and if there is any chance you might have or be interested in teaching a 6-10 day writing workshop/ tutorial with one or more post-graduate writers such as myself. I was awarded a fellowship to the Summer Literary Seminar program in Vilnius, Lithuania which I attended in July 2013. Writing in Paris would be wonderful.

    I look forward to your response. If you would like to see a writing sample, I would be happy to send it along.

    Ellen Michaelson, MD, MFA

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