Rachel Cantor’s wildly original first book, A Highly Unlikely Scenario: or, A Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World (Melville, Jan.), follows the adventures of Leonard, a loveable shut-in and great listener whose only contact with the outside world comes through his job manning Neetsa Pizza’s complaints hotline.
The book combines science fiction, historical fiction, and adventure fiction, among others. Did you have a clear idea of the kind of book you wanted to write before you began, or did you let the narrative take form organically and see where it led you?
I had in mind a setting that somehow involved a complaints guy for a Pythagorean pizza chain, the unreadable Voynich manuscript, the medieval mystic Isaac the Blind, and assorted other historical characters and fantastic oddities. To that extent, I suppose I intended to fuse historical elements and a fantasy setting. After a short while, though, I realized that something had to happen—an adventure, if you will (and in fact, I read Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and other adventure tales while writing this book). In that sense a multi-genre book is what I intended and also what grew organically. But mostly I just wanted to have fun, to return to that sense I once had, before I thought so much about publication, that writing can be enjoyable. To me, writing, and reading, genre fiction is about fun, it’s about entertainment—all the more so when two or three genres are involved!
Who are some of your favorite “genre” writers who are not generally considered “literary”? Who are some of your favorite “literary” writers who are not generally considered “genre” writers?
I’ve enjoyed lots of “conventional” science fiction and fantasy authors, though I would consider them all literary—e.g., Philip K. Dick, Kelly Link, Ursula Le Guin, William Gibson, Alfred Bester—as well as “literary” authors who play with genre conventions—e.g., Italo Calvino, Jonathan Lethem, Jedediah Berry, Kate Atkinson, Michael Chabon, John Banville (or are these genre writers who write in a literary way)? ”Nonrealistic” literary books I’ve read recently and loved include Christopher Boucher’s How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive; Lore Segal’s Half the Kingdom; Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown; and Chris Adrian’s Children’s Hospital. I also love, and read loads of, historical fiction—quite often by British authors, for some reason (probably because they’re so “literary”): Pat Barker, Penelope Fitzgerald, Rose Tremain, A. L. Kennedy, Jim Crace, Beryl Bainbridge, Hilary Mantel, John Banville, Colm Toibin—and so many more! I’ve also in recent years read a number of American literary Westerns, which are great fun: Ron Hansen’s, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford; Oakley Hall’s Warlock; Tom Franklin’s Smonk; and Mary Doria Russell’s Doc. Favorite “literary” writers who aren’t considered “genre” writers—oh, there are so many! Dante (though he set his best-known work in hell and other unknowable regions!), Flannery O’Connor, Isaac Bashevis Singer (though he employed historical settings and enjoyed the occasional demon), Emily Dickinson. More recently, I found We Need to Talk about Kevin, by Lionel Shriver; Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann; Room, by Emma Donoghue; Notes on a Scandal, by Zoë Heller; and Tirza, by Arnon Grunberg electrifying!
Why do you think we’ve created such rigid literary camps? Do you see attitudes changing in the future?
We’re told that such classifications are needed for booksellers, who want to know where a book belongs in their bookstore, but I’m guessing it also helps book distributors, who have lots of books to pitch, and even readers who identify as devout followers of certain genres. And for many books, genre definitions work beautifully. But literary fiction has always been impossible to define, hasn’t it, and its practitioners are, thank heavens, always pushing boundaries. I’m lucky to have a wonderful publisher, Melville House, which never concerned itself with how to categorize A Highly Unlikely Scenario.
The book features a number of historical and intellectual figures. Of those you write about, who would you say you’ve taken the most influence from or are most drawn to? Did you use the guidance of any of these thinkers as an organizing principle for the book?
I know the book treats the 13th-century mystic Abraham Abulafia rather lightly, but he is without a doubt the historical figure character to whom I’m most drawn. I was introduced to Abulafia during a series of silent meditation retreats led by rabbis who also taught us some of Abulafia’s meditations (based on combinations of Hebrew letters). When I read about Abulafia’s life during the writing of this book, I learned that he went to Rome in 1280 intending to use signs and wonders to convert the pope—this was intriguing enough, but then I learned that his life was saved only because the pope himself died just a few days before Abulafia arrived. This fascinating fact guided the plot for the last third of the book. As I was writing, I consulted a rabbi and professor—a veteran of those meditation retreats, in fact—about these historical events and even made this friend read the finished book to make sure my treatment of Abulafia wasn’t offensive. It turns out, I made Abulafia say Yiddishy things, which as a Jew from Spain he would never say (Feh!), but since I found these statements funny, I was content to call them products of the imperfect mystical process which allows Leonard to understand medieval Spanish, or Italian, or whatever language he hears. That said, only my strange imagination served as an organizing principle for the book!
What is next for you?
Melville House is publishing a second novel of mine in January 2015—a very different book in which Shira, an underachieving translator, is asked out of the blue to translate a Nobel Prize-winning poet because his latest work draws strongly from an early work of Dante, which Shira had translated as a graduate student. Eventually, of course, we realize that the poet has another agenda, one which has nothing whatsoever to do with translation. So at the time that I’m touring with A Highly Unlikely Scenario and talking about thirteenth-century Kabbalists, medieval explorers and warrior-librarians, I’ll also be editing the second book and maybe thinking about Dante and terza rima and single motherhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan!