Author of A Horse At Night: On Writing
Image: Polly Antonia Barrowman
“On my laptop are JPGs of paintings of women reading books”, Amina Cain writes in A Horse At Night: On Writing. “I dragged them there from the Internet, not quite knowing why I was doing it. But now I realize something in me relaxes when I look at them.”
As someone who also saves (and shares) paintings of women reading books, I understood the feeling. Cain describes the subjects of Augustus Leopold Egg’s The Travelling Companions—the cover art for her book—in great detail before concluding that “Each [subject] is resting in her own way. All of us need this kind of rest.”
Whether you’re a writer or a reader A Horse At Night: On Writing is a book that is bound to summon Egg’s (and Cain’s) vision of an idyllic type of rest. Published in October 2022 by Dorothy Project and presented as “a diary of sorts”, Cain examines the writing life through a range of books that have influenced her—including The Ravishing of Lol Stein by Marguerite Duras—in this impressive compendium.
I was not familiar with Amina’s work prior to picking up A Horse at Night, but as I read on my aunt’s couch, into the early hours under the light of a muted television, I felt as though I was staying up with a friend. The book is charged with the sort of confessional sincerity one is typically only privy to after knowing a person for some great length of time. “Am I ‘pure’ when I write,” she wonders, “am I real, am I my true nature? It’s one of the times when I am not alienated from myself; maybe that’s why I like writing so much.”
In addition to writers and thinkers like Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Clarice Lispector, Jean Genet, and Junichiro Tanizaki, Cain explores and praises the work of her contemporaries, Marie NDiaye, Joanna Walsh, Kate Zambreno—“Sometimes I read and thought about the books my friends had written (they were my friends partly because I felt great kinship with what they wrote), sometimes about books by writers I will never know. They are dead, or they are alive, but I won’t meet them. It is enough to read their work.”
We as readers are treated to the intimate scope of Cain’s inner world: her relationship to writing and meditation (“The eternal return”), the beaches of her childhood that she dreams of, the ones from her future which she projects herself to, and the bundle of diaries she inherited from her aunt Allison, diaries which span thirty years. “I learned something about writing, about diaries, when I read hers. They’re compelling, and it was an immersion in that form. Interiority is one of my favorite things to read in fiction—to abide in a narrator’s mind if that narrator, that mind, compels me—and when you read a diary you have that, ten fold. A diary is intimate, forthright, immediate.”
And so is this book.
Image: Augustus Leopold Egg, The Travelling Companions, 1862
Girls on the Page
A Horse At Night begins with a confession: that despite the book seeming like “a diary of fiction”, you have never kept a diary—or you have, but it never stuck. What do the beginning stages of working on a book look like for you? Do you find it equally as difficult to begin writing or is there a different type of freedom and magic at play with a work of fiction or nonfiction?
When I'm beginning a new book there is a difficulty, but it's of a different kind. It's not so much about getting started or keeping at it, but figuring out what the book will be. That's probably because I start from such an open place and have to wait for the book to reveal itself to me while I write. For some reason, the beginning stages of the novel I'm working on now were easier than Indelicacy. I was able to enter it more quickly, maybe because it's my second novel. Regardless, I feel a great sense of possibility when I'm writing fiction, as opposed to nonfiction, or to writing in a diary. Though I'm glad I did it, to be honest, I may never write another book of nonfiction again. It doesn't feel as free to me as fiction does. That's not true for all writers, of course (I'm thinking now of Annie Ernaux).
What was the first book you read that made you want to create your own world?
I've talked about it so much already (including in A Horse at Night), so I hesitate to mention it here, but probably The Ravishing of Lol Stein by Marguerite Duras. I'd already started writing fiction when I first read it, but it reoriented me, made me see a novel as a space, not just a story. Also, Bhanu Kapil's books, like Incubation: A Space for Monsters and Humanimal, works that so vividly appear to the reader, they feel to be made up of more than words.
I’m interested in hearing about a writer’s relationship with dreaming – are you a vivid dreamer? Do you fall asleep thinking of what you will write tomorrow, do ideas or characters ever materialize for you in dreams?
I'm a vivid dreamer, but for some reason my dreams rarely enter my writing. I do fall asleep thinking of what I'll write the next day, though, and sometimes I wake up with a sentence or part of one in my head, either in the middle of the night or the morning. So my writing and sleeping life do join, if not my dreaming life.
"I definitely feel that books have energy, each on their own, and together as a library."
“Lately I’ve been wondering about my own death, when it will come, what I will have been writing just before.” Is that “fear of the clock”, of potentially running out of time with you while you're working, as it is for so many writers? Is it ever enough to simply write something down but not share it? And are you someone who has a surplus of ideas floating around in their head at all times, or are you able to luxuriate in the stretches between projects and sort of decompress, embrace periods of not writing?
That fear is with me, yes, but it's a new fear. I really only started feeling it with the new novel. It has a lot to do with the climate crisis and the worry that time is running out for all of us. I think it also has to do with living through the pandemic. And I'm getting older, which makes me think about my mortality.
I don't mind, and sometimes even like, the periods when I don't write, as long as they don't last for too long. There's a natural ebb and flow to working on a book, and I think it's important to take breaks, but when I don't write for a long time it's not usually because I've chosen it. Work and other responsibilities take over, and if they take over for too long, I feel agitated. In those periods, sometimes a sentence or idea will come to me out of nowhere, which forces me to open my notebook or my laptop. It sometimes feels like my writing is calling to me because I've been away from it for too long.
You mention that your favorite time to go for a walk is at dusk, “As the light in the sky dims, lights come on in the houses, and the lives of the people inside the houses seem much more interesting then…My life feels heightened too, and I appreciate the gentleness of the coming evening.” I loved the reference to Tanizaki’s essay In Praise of Shadows that you include in the book. Does the time of day, the amount (or absence) of natural light affect your writing? Are there specific conditions that you work best under? Do you write (and/or read) differently in winter than you do in summer?
I love dusk and I used to like to write in it too, but that's changed. By the time it's getting dark, I don't really want to be working anymore, not even writing. Now I like to write in the morning, when my mind is clear. I like to write when it's sunny and hot, but I also like to write when it's overcast and cold. It's not that I write better in one kind of light or season than another, but the writing changes depending upon it, not formally or stylistically, but atmospherically. I tend to write into the temperature, light, and weather I'm in, whatever it might be at any given moment.
You examine interiority at length in the book—I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the physical space that books consume. In your home are books arranged or organized in any particular way? Do you work with stacks of books next to you, are there books on your nightstand, do you feel that books give off a certain energy?
I definitely feel that books have energy, each on their own, and together as a library. When my husband Amar and I bought our house, we hired a carpenter to build bookshelves along one wall of the living room, which is where most of our books are kept, but there's a shelf above my desk in my study and another little shelf low to the ground, a bookshelf in our bedroom, another in Amar's study, and my books have spilled out onto tables, the nightstand next to my side of the bed, where I keep a small stack of the books I'm reading, and they're of course stacked on my desk as well. Not surprisingly, fiction takes up more space on my shelves than anything else, and it's the only section of my library I've alphabetized. Its energy is more vibrant to me than any other section. Amar is more methodical and sophisticated than I am when it comes to the arrangement of his books. He organizes them by country.
This is something you write in A Horse at Night: "There are books I’d never read at night. They are for the morning or afternoon.” Can you recommend two morning books and two night books for us?
For the morning, I recommend The Table by Francis Ponge and Calamities by Renee Gladman. For the night, Ladivine by Marie NDiaye and Insomnia by Marina Benjamin.
What was the last great sentence that you read?
Can I include more than one? The opening sentences of All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami: "Why does the night have to be so beautiful? As I walk through the night, I remember what Mitsutsuka said to me. 'Because at night, only half the world remains.'"
Amina Cain is the author of A Horse At Night (2022), Indelicacy (2020), Creature (2013) and I Go To Some Hollow (2009). Though she calls Los Angeles home, Amina is currently spending some time in the Catskills.
Interview by Emma Leokadia Walkiewicz
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