January 22, 2016
Q&A with Rachel Cantor, author of Good on Paper
by Melville House
To commemorate Rachel Cantor‘s highly anticipated second novel—on sale Tuesday!—we asked her to tell us about the inspiration behind Good on Paper, a tale of love, family, and language.
Your debut, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, was an acclaimed novel with elements of science fiction. Good on Paper is largely about family and second chances. How was the process of writing the two novels different (or the same)?
To start with, the two don’t feel that different to me: both are concerned with family relationships, things medieval, how we’re supposed to live, and what it takes to change our lives for the better; both are funny and smart; both attempt to balance the serious with the light-hearted. The plot of each, moreover, centers on a character who struggles to interpret difficult texts. There are many who think dystopian “science fiction” (like A Highly Unlikely Scenario) the most “realist” writing we have; I’ve also never really viewed Good on Paper as being 100 percent “realist” (can we really imagine a quadrilingual kindergarten, a take-out on Broadway selling beach food, a bookstore with an All Things Green section—books on the environment, money, and “envy management”)?
That said, Good on Paper, which I wrote first, together with a companion volume of short stories about Shira and her friends, was much more difficult to write than A Highly Unlikely Scenario: both the emotional content and the structure were more challenging, and because Good on Paper was actually my first novel, I had to learn lots (and lots!) of lessons about writing along the way, so it took a very long time. A Highly Unlikely Scenario was easier to write, and more fun. By writing in the third person about a male character, and adopting some genre elements, I was able to write at greater distance from my protagonist and have a lot of fun in the process.
Has anything surprised you about this second journey through the publishing process?
I continue to be surprised by the generosity of the literary community. This isn’t new—A Highly Unlikely Scenario received enormous support from bloggers, reviewers, readers, and friends of good writing—but it still surprises me when venues as diverse as Elle, Brooklyn Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, Buzzfeed UK, and the LA-based LGBT magazine Frontiers tell their readers they are excited about the soon-to-arrive Good on Paper. These aren’t friends shilling for friends, these are literary citizens who care about writing, including writing by women and writing from small presses. It’s very heartening.
Where did the idea for this novel come from?
Good on Paper began during a residency at the MacDowell Colony. I had intended to write the last short story in a linked short story collection about Shira Greene and her friends. I was lucky enough to have a seven-week residency (which MacDowell kindly extended to eight weeks once I was there; they even moved a bust of Dante for me from their library into my studio!). This was the longest time I had ever had to write uninterrupted (till that point or since!); I guess it’s not surprising that the story in that expansive space itself expanded. Before long I realized I must be writing a novella—no problem, because you can always squeeze a novella into a short story collection, right? Before I left, however, I had to concede that I was writing a novel. I can’t tell you how disappointed and terrified I was!
What drew you to Dante’s Vita Nuova?
I read a lot of Dante in high school and college, some of it in the original; the Inferno in particular was quite influential. It seemed natural that the Italian poet in my book, concerned about his place in the poetic canon, would also be influenced by Dante, and perhaps even struggle with that influence in a Bloomian sense. I knew the poet, Romei, wanted to write about love, though, and not (only) spiritual redemption. I hadn’t read Vita Nuova at the time—I’m not even aware that I knew it existed—but the words Vita Nuova announced themselves to me without explanation in a library during the book’s early days; I investigated and found that it was exactly the right book for Romei.
What are you working on at the minute? What’s next?
I’m finishing a novel-in-stories that reimagines the lives of the Brontë siblings in a different time and place. I’m very excited about it. It’s also a challenging book to write, both technically and emotionally (I’m not giving anything away by saying a lot of good people die!). I’ve published pieces of the book in the Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, Five Chapters, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and in several anthologies. I very much hope to finish it this year, during the bicentenary of Charlotte’s birth.