Rachel Cantor has been writing stories with her distinctively smart-and-witty voice for several years. They have been published in Paris Review, One Story, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Fence, and Volume 1 Brooklyn and have been anthologized, nominated for three Pushcart Prizes, and short-listed by both the O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories. But she really burst onto the literary scene with her 2014 debut novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World (Melville House). Cantor has lived and “worked everywhere from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe (most recently in Nigeria, Senegal, and Laos).” Noteworthy stops included Rome, Melbourne, France, India, and Pakistan. She currently lives “in the writerly borough of Brooklyn but have at various points made my home in most U.S. states between Virginia and Vermont.”
Last week marked the publication of her second novel, Good on Paper, which is receiving rave reviews from mainstream media and bookish publications alike. I spoke to Rachel briefly on January 31.
You balance a compelling drama with wickedly sharp humor and manage to keep it from becoming gimmicky or jokey. The latter leavens the former, as in the best comic relief in fiction of ideas. Where does your skill in doing this come from? Your peripatetic life experiences, your ethnic-religious culture, your muse, strong coffee?
I tend to write voice-driven fiction, and the voice you describe—both serious and comic—is what comes naturally to me, especially (though not only) when writing in the first person. That voice is integral to who I am—part of my personality, even—rather than a skill, per se (though hopefully I also do it well!). So it would be hard to say where it comes from—genetics? stories heard in infancy? experiences on the road? I can say for certain that it’s not coffee, because I don’t drink the stuff (but I wouldn’t want to count out tea!).
Shira’s work on the translation of a Nobel Prize winner’s poem seems like a metaphor that mirrors her efforts to organize and make sense of her complicated personal life. How did the idea of having your protagonist struggle with an Italian poet’s new version of a work by Dante come to you?
I wrote many stories about Shira before I wrote Good on Paper, so her work as a translator predates the novel. Even if it didn’t, it makes sense that Shira, a one-time expatriate and ex-academic with literary interests, would find herself involved in translation. Also, I really enjoy writing (and reading!) books about work; I’m interested in how a character involves herself in endeavors outside herself and her family. When I decided that a translation project would drive the narrative of this novel, it wasn’t hard to focus on Dante: any Italian poet concerned with his place in the literary canon (as the poet in this book is) would, I assume, want to “take on” Dante. The fact that the poet was interested in Vita Nuova rather than The Divine Comedy makes sense given that he wants to tell a love story, not (merely) a tale of spiritual redemption.
I love the idea of people creating their own families, as Shira and Ahmad do, even though he’s gay and they’re not romantically involved. Together, they provide Andi with stable “parents.” What appealed to you about this subplot?
Again, these characters and interrelationships and fault lines predated Good on Paper, so I didn’t have to create them for this novel. Ahmad already was Andi’s de facto father, they already lived together in Ahmad’s Manhattan apartment. The question instead was: how will the conflicts Shira has historically experienced, both within herself and with others, play themselves out in this book? How can Good on Paper push Shira to her emotional, intellectual, and even spiritual limits? This involved pressuring her relationships, including those with her daughter and best friend Ahmad. Though truth be told, I think their shared Upper West Side apartment, with its many rooms and lovely location, was the product of New York City real-estate wish fulfillment!
Good on Paper is a novel about the power of stories to change lives. How has the reading and writing of stories changed your life?
It’s hard to say how reading may have changed my life, since I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read stories—they determined who I am. Before that, who knows what I was? I started writing stories at a relatively late age (my mid-30s); certainly that changed everything! When I decided to write, to “become a writer,” that forever changed everything important about me—my lifestyle, how I spent my days, the critical choices I made, what I gave up (material comforts, for example), my goals, the people I hung out with. It gave me the focus that has directed my life ever since. As soon as I made that commitment, my life felt aligned for the first time. I’ve never looked back!