The Rumpus Book Club chats with Cai Emmons about her new novel, Sinking Islands (Red Hen Press, September 2021), how writing a sequel is and isn’t different from writing a standalone novel, the research involved in writing about climate change, and the importance of teaching as a way of changing perspectives.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Maggie Nelson, Wendy J. Fox, Gene Kwak, Christopher Gonzalez, Gabrielle Civil, Eva Jurczyk, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi! Welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Cai Emmons about her new novel, Sinking Islands! Cai, I’m excited to discuss this book with you.
Cai Emmons: Hey there, Marisa! Me, too!
Marisa: Sinking Islands is a sequel to your 2018 novel, Weather Woman. I wonder if we might being with you speaking a bit about why you returned to these characters and this subject matter? When did you start to conceive of writing Sinking Islands, and (how) is the process for writing a sequel different than writing a standalone novel?
Cai Emmons: I never thought I would write a sequel, but when Weather Woman came out a few people said they thought there was more to be said. At first I resisted but there was one particularly persistent friend, and I began to agree with her. I wanted to revisit the relationship between Bronwyn and Diane, her mentor. And I also wanted to not encourage the idea that the climate crisis could be solved by one individual.
One of the challenges was that I had to deal with what I’d already set up. There was one character I wanted to visit again, but he was already dead, and it didn’t feel right to bring him back to life! That would have been a different novel, with an entirely different set of rules.
I had to go back to Weather Woman a bunch of times to find details that I needed for consistency. I also had to make sure people understood what the basic premise was without getting too expository. That was challenging.
I always wanted Sinking Islands to be a standalone novel, and I think that it is—at least no one has told me otherwise!
Marisa: I definitely think it functions as a standalone novel for a reader who hasn’t read Weather Woman. Was it familiar to revisit these characters, like lunch with old friends, or did you discover new things about them in writing Sinking Islands?
Cai Emmons: That is a great question! I felt very fond of some of the original characters, particularly Bronwyn and Diane, but I was aware that in bringing them back I would have to think about what a different kind of journey they were on in this book. I wanted them both to change in certain ways. For Bronwyn, the change has to do with becoming more confident; for Diane, the change is to become more open to realizing that she isn’t always right. Opposite trajectories, in a way.
Then, Sinking Islands brings in a number of new characters and I really had fun figuring out who those people would be and where they would come from. I wanted them to come from particularly climate-stressed places and settled on a “sinking island” in the South Pacific that goes unnamed, and from Brazil which has suffered from water shortages despite having twelve percent of the world’s fresh water. So, I guess you would say, it was like making new friends and introducing them to the old friends, and trying not to play favorites!
Also, there are characters from Greenland where I had visited. Some of those characters are modeled on people I met on that trip.
Marisa: I love that! Is there a particular character (perhaps from among the new characters) who you felt closest to, or a character who came to you most easily? And/or, the opposite: one who was hardest to get on the page?
Cai Emmons: Another really excellent question. I felt an affinity with Analu and his daughter Penina—he is a very protective father and she is a headstrong young girl, and I felt like I could really understand the dynamic between them. I also really felt affection for Patty, a sixty-ish woman from Kansas who is just so down-to-earth and good-hearted and quirky that she was irresistible. She provided a good contrast to Diane, who is about Patty’s age but is far more educated and perhaps less candid than Patty is.
The hardest characters to really nail were the ones who spent less time on the page—Joe and Matt, the partners of Diane and Bronwyn. I liked them both, but wasn’t as focused on them, so therefore I perhaps got to know them a little less completely. If you think of rings of friendship, they were one ring out from the most intimate ring that the other characters inhabited.
Marisa: I loved the character of Penina, and also of Edel. They felt so alive in a specifically teenaged way on the page, if that makes sense.
Cai Emmons: Yeah, I agree. I see them as the generation who is “stuck” with the climate mess we have created, and they have very different ways of responding to it. Penina is going to dive in and act, maybe impulsively but with great passion. And Edel, who is more timid, is going to be a communicator through her music. She was a late arrival in the novel, but I had such a clear picture of her when she arrived. There are a lot of troubled youth on Greenland, young people who feel they have no future there and want to leave, as she does. But I feel as if she has an old soul and will not succumb to despair as some of her friends do. Diane saw that, too and that was why she decided to bring Edel with her to the US.
Marisa: What kind of research did you conduct—if any—before and during your writing of the book, around climate change and environmental crises?
Cai Emmons: Oh, so much research. When I began writing Weather Woman, I knew I really had to fill in a lot of science background I didn’t have. I began with a Great Courses class about meteorology taught by a UCLA professor, twenty-four lectures that was called Meteorology 101 but was, in some places, pretty challenging. But it was great because it got me situated in the subject matter. From there I started reading about physics and neuroscience, trying to find a way to “explain” Bronwyn’s power. That became impossible, of course, but the reading I did was really useful anyway. I also immersed myself in books about climate change. Books by Elizabeth Kolbert and Craig Childs and Bill McKibben, etc. I am bit of a climate change addict these days. I loved David Wallace-Wells’s book The Uninhabitable Earth, and The Water Will Come by Jeff Goodell.
When I got to writing Sinking Islands, the research was focused on the places I hadn’t been: Sao Paulo, the South Pacific, Australia. Most of the places that are featured in the US were places I was familiar with. But both books were fairly research-heavy, I would say!
One of the best parts of my research was getting to know the glaciologist and climate scientist Jason Box, who has focused on studying the Greenland ice sheet. He invited me on that trip to Greenland where he was the resident scientist. There is really nothing like going to a place to absorb the feel of the air, the scents, the way the light looks. I sometimes need to remind myself of how helpful in situ research is. It always suggests new story and character ideas.
Marisa: Did you come away from the research—and the writing of the two novels—feeling hopeful about how humans will or won’t learn to appreciate the changes occurring, and our role in climate crisis?
Cai Emmons: Oh gosh, I often feel as if Sinking Islands is one of the most upbeat cli-fi books out there. It is in my nature to be upbeat, but it is so hard to feel upbeat about the hole we’ve dug for ourselves. I will never admit to giving up, but I do find myself despairing in the middle of the night and having to prop myself up in the morning.
I hate to write books with messages, but with Sinking Islands I was thinking a lot about the importance of teaching as a way of changing perspectives. I dedicated the book to all the influential teachers I’ve had in my life. I am so grateful to them.
I also think that some of the most effective work to “fix” things will be done at the local level, and that was something I was trying to address in the book. I hope I haven’t written something that comes across as polemical—god help me!
Marisa: I do think it’s upbeat, or as you suggest, as upbeat/hopeful as a book about climate change can be while also being true to the science of what’s happening to the planet. The underscoring of how important it is to think locally definitely comes across, and I also kept coming back to the importance of listening more deeply to the Earth, to the natural world around us. The importance of paying attention to what we often overlook as background/scenery.
Cai Emmons: Yes, listening has become something that I think is key in solving so many of the world’s problems, including problems that range far beyond the climate. Imagine how different things would be if our politicians really listened to each other. And listening to the Earth is critical, I think, toward reestablishing a kind of balance we humans can live with. This is something ancestral people did so much better than people in the industrialized world. How do we get back to listening to the Earth when so many people live in tree-less cities covered over with asphalt? I think it is crucial, as it is the only way that people can really begin to appreciate what is being sacrificed.
One more thing about listening. I think you know that I was diagnosed with ALS a few months ago, and what that has meant in my case is that it is very difficult for me to speak (and be understood). I can speak to people one-on-one using a text-to-voice computer, but in groups I am on the sidelines these days, which gives me a lot of opportunity for listening. And it has made me reflect on how much most of us speak when we don’t really need to say things!
Marisa: Do you maybe have plans for another book that follows some or all of these characters (she asks hopefully)? Without giving anything away, I’ll note that the novel’s ending felt open to the possibility of more to come.
Cai Emmons: I do think that the end offers me the possibility to pick up with these characters, Penina and Edel in particular, but all of the others too. That said, it might be a while before I return however, because i have two books coming out next year that I must edit, and I am working on another one that I’d like to finish first. So my plate is kind of full.
Marisa: I’d love to see a book that returns to Penina and Edel! May I ask what you are working on now/what the two books out next year are about? If you can’t share, no worries!
Cai Emmons: The book that I’m working on now is hard to speak about. But the other two I can talk about. Unleashed, which will be published by Dutton, is about a woman in the wine country of Sonoma who is suddenly without traction in her life, due to her youngest and most beloved daughter having gone to college and her husband flirting with another woman. When a fire burns down most of their neighborhood and leaves their house standing, she goes into a kind of fugue state, burns down her own house, and begins on a trek south to see her daughter, and on the way, undergoes a huge transformation. I can’t say more without including a spoiler!
The other book, which was called Hair on Fire but is now in search of a title, is about a woman who finds herself serving on a jury with her estranged husband. Things go from there!
Marisa: Ah! Both sound very intriguing, and I’m excited to know there are two more novels headed our way soon.
Cai Emmons: I feel very lucky to have so much on my plate!
Marisa: What were you reading, listening to, watching while writing Sinking Islands? Are there specific authors and/or books you looked to while working on the novel, or feel the novel is in conversation with?
Cai Emmons: Oh, yet another great question. One of my favorite books is Colum McCann’s Transatlantic. I love the way he writes about multiple characters, real and fictional, throughout history, and he weaves their lives together so a pattern emerges that feels transcendent. Sinking Islands isn’t like that at all, but I was thinking of the idea of polyphony that he uses. Lives that are placed adjacent to one another and thereby shed light on each other.
Marisa: We’re almost out of time—this hour flew by!—but I always like to end by asking what an author reading now. Any new and forthcoming books you’re especially excited about or want to bring our attention to?
Cai Emmons: Oh yes. I am just diving into Dana Spiotta’s Wayward, which I have been eager to read. I also have on my nightstand Hamnet. And another book out from Red Hen this month is Thea Prieto’s From the Caves that I have heard is stunning and I am dying to read. As for nonfiction, I have Elizabeth Kolbert’s book Under a White Sky. I am always riveted by her work as if I’m reading fiction.
Marisa: Great suggestions!
Thank you so much for your time today, Cai, and for this thoughtful—and, yes, hopeful—novel! I look forward to the books you’ll be putting out next year.
Cai Emmons: Thank you so much for having me here. It has been a great pleasure to talk to you! Now I’m going out to a paella festival!
Marisa: Yum! Enjoy the paella, and have a lovely rest of your weekend!
Photograph of Cai Emmons by Livia Fremouw.