Introducing 2014 Literary Debutante: Rachel Cantor

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On May 22nd, at the 5th annual Literary Debutante Ball,One Story will be celebrating seven of our authors who have published their debut books this past year. As a lead up to the event, we’re introducing our Debs with a series of interviews about their debut books. This week, we’re talking with literary debutante Rachel Cantor, who made her debut in One Story with issue #98, “Picnic After the Flood.”

The title of Cantor’s novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World, is a whooping 82 characters long. Considering the cover––bold yellow letters levitating in a deep purple outer space––and scanning the pages for the first time, I wondered if the lengthy title was a sign of all the quirky-goodness crammed into this short tale.

This optimistic techno-dystopian satire follows our earnest and lovable unlikely hero, Leonard, his precocious nephew, and his warrior librarian girlfriend as they travel through space and time to save the world not once, but three times. In 252 pages, Cantor covers space, time-travel, love, personal growth, cultural and political criticism, generationally transmitted wisdom, Jewish mysticism, and pizza.   

The answer to my question is a dizzying, emphatic yes.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Rachel Cantor about her first book, meditation, revision, and time-traveling.

1. You’ve published a lot of short fiction, but this is your first published novel. Congratulations! What did it feel like to hold the completed manuscript, and what did you do to celebrate when it got picked up by Melville House?

I was at a residency (Virginia Center for the Creative Arts) while I waited to hear from Melville House. I already knew they wanted A Highly Unlikely Scenario—they picked that up almost immediately upon reading it—but I had to wait to learn whether they were also interested in a second novel (currently titled Door Number Two). The deal depended on the second book because, much as I loved Melville House, I didn’t want to go from house to house if I could help it. So I was on pins and needles, as they say, while also trying to write new work, and trying to be cool about it, which is to say, not talking about it with anyone outside my family. But when I got the word at VCCA that they wanted both books, I couldn’t contain myself: I was so overjoyed, I think I told anyone who was around—visual artists who’d maybe just arrived and didn’t know who I was, office staff, a composer or two. Fellow debutante James Scott happened to be at VCCA when I got the news, though; I was especially pleased to share the news with him.

2. You’ve worked in so many places: Rome, Senegal, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, and Brooklyn to name a few; it seems traveling and exploring is an essential part of who you are as a person and writer. Since you’ve traveled much of this world, do you think writing A Highly Unlikely Scenario was a way to explore unexplored frontiers: space, time, and mystical realms?

That’s an interesting question. I think Leonard is a beginner’s-mind traveler: he’s a virtual shut-in before he’s called upon to save the world, so everything he encounters is new, and fascinating, and scary, even the contours of his own town. He’s so nervous to take a caravan to the University Library, he’s shaking and eventually throws up into a jujuberry bush. Of course, he becomes more confident as the book goes on, so that by the time he’s forced to time travel he’s able to bring extraordinary attention to his surroundings. I don’t travel now as much as I used to, but when I do, I try to bring a beginner’s mind with me, I hope to experience that kind of wonder. But I can’t get close to what Leonard experiences—receptivity is Leonard’s Special Gift, after all! He’s so absorbed by what he sees that he can go into an altered state. I don’t experience altered states when I travel, unless you count the semi-psychosis I sometimes experience with jet lag: mostly I’m working, which means I shuttle between hotel and office, office and hotel, worrying about deadlines and did I remember to take my malaria pill. More generally, I think fiction is always a way to explore unexplored frontiers, whether you’re writing about mystical realms or the mysteries of the heart; A Highly Unlikely Scenario does investigate a potential future as well as the distant past, but the frontiers I’m probably most interested are still the mysteries of the heart.

3. In other interviews, you mention the seed of Leonard’s epic tale came to you on a Jewish meditation retreat. I meditate myself, and couldn’t help wonder if Leonard serves as a delightful stand-in for any burgeoning meditator. When we begin, Leonard complacently fields complaints in his “White Room” (a literally colorless, boring, muted space); only after receiving the call from Marco Polo does he embark on the lively, colorful, perplexing and difficult quest to save the world with his superhero power of ‘receptivity.’ I would describe my experience of the world pre- and post-mindfulness training similarly. Did you consciously draw these parallels when writing? Or did Leonard and his journey emerge from your subconscious by chance?

Leonard could definitely be seen as a figure for the burgeoning meditator (and I love that you correctly identify his Special Gift as a superpower!). The root of the word Kabbalah is ‘to receive,’ and Leonard, as I suggested earlier, has meditative qualities I admire and wish I could emulate. The White Room tells us something of the blank slate, the unformed state, which is Leonard before things start to happen. But however complacent he might be at the beginning of the book, his mind isn’t empty. It would be like anyone else’s: full of monkeys creating havoc! He has the potential to listen, of course, it’s his job to be a Listener, but like most of us, he is almost always distracted. When he does learn how to bring awareness to himself and his environment, he experiences something of the beautiful complexity of the world, and its essential simplicity. Which makes the book sound more high-falutin’ than it is. Leonard is a yogi, but he’s also a lonely recluse and a concerned uncle and a somewhat clueless brother who becomes Marco Polo’s closest friend, falls in love with a warrior-librarian, saves the world three times, and finds time to put mealie pudding out for the neighborly cat.

4. The Neetsa Pizza galaxy is rich with made-up and historic details, and it has its own complicated set of rules. It is a great feat that you were able to create such a consistent world. How did you keep all of it straight in the earlier drafts? Did you have to delete and refine this ‘unlikely scenario’ again and again? If so, I’m curious: what number draft do you consider the published version of A Highly Unlikely Scenario?

How funny! It wasn’t at all difficult to keep the details in this novel straight, and what revisions I did were mostly to tighten the narrative rather than to correct any inconsistencies. The book I have coming out in 2015 is a much more “conventional” narrative and I had to work much harder to keep those details straight—which Manhattan street are they walking on now, where do they turn right, which bus do they take crosstown, what day of the week is September 6, 1999, did I mess up my timeline so it’s really September 5 … In Leonard’s world, everything’s made up so I could do what I wanted—who would call me inconsistent if I decided Leonard ate grasshopper legs one day and haggis tarts the next? The only thing I really had to remember was who was wearing what (had Sally changed out of her orange-skin gown by the time they escaped the Baconian safehouse, was Leonard wearing his flowered climbing suit or his suave army pants when he landed in medieval Rome). For next year’s book, I wrote five million drafts (roughly), for A Highly Unlikely Scenario, maybe two or three. The only time I had to be careful with Scenario was in the scenes in Rome. I did a lot of research for that section, kept a lot of notes, looked at a lot of maps, and was more or less precise about the route Leonard and Sally take on their journey and what they see there.

5. What are you most looking forward to about the One Story Literary Deb Ball on May 22nd? 

You know, every time I go to the One Story Literary Deb Ball, I cry: watching those beautiful debutantes and their wonderful mentors, it really moves me. I know how hard everyone’s worked to get their first book published, how much luck is involved, how many dreams have come true because of that book—not just the dreams of the author but the dreams of their families, teachers, publishers, and friends. So I guess I’m looking forward, as always, to seeing those shining faces!

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