When Rachel Cantor told me her new novel, Good on Paper, took ten years to write, it wasn’t hard to see why. Cantor’s second book, which came out from Melville House Press in January, follows the efforts of Shira Greene to translate the work of Romei, a Nobel prize-winning poet who communicates with her via fax. (The book is set in the 90s, after all.) As more pages of Romei’s work emerge from the fax machine, Shira discovers Romei is playing games with her, creating a work impossible to translate with any accuracy. But to what end? Good on Paper plays games, too—the novel’s structured by the hero’s journey, a conceit borrowed by Shira for a grad school paper on Dante and again by Romei himself. In the midst of all this textual hoopla, Shira must navigate her own difficulties finding love and asking for forgiveness. I spoke with Cantor on the phone about the novel’s many layers.
You set the book in the last months of 1999, so there’s the potential crisis of Y2K—as well as the absurdity of that crisis—looming in the background. What was appealing about this mood for the story?
I started writing [Good on Paper] in the opening months of 2001, maybe six or nine months before 9/11. I didn’t want to write about post-9/11 New York City. I might have had the option to transpose the characters to a later time [and] remove it further from the 9/11 time period, but really the characters belonged in that time. I did appreciate the comedic potential of Y2K, and it also echoes themes of the book related to the apocalyptic vision of Dante. You envision Y2K being the end of the world, but it’s not. This is very much a novel about second chances and new beginnings.
Could you unpack the relationship of the plot to the structure of the novel? What kind of fun did you having in building all of these layers?
I returned to a problem that had to be solved when I was writing the book, [and that was] “how do you write a book?” [Laughs] How do you create a journey for a character? I chose to follow a very roughly understood hero’s journey, what Shira believed was the structure of theVita Nuova by Dante. I knew who Shira was very clearly because I had written many stories about her and her friends, and I knew where she had to end, but how to get from the beginning to the ending was a complete mystery to me.
Even though you knew their backstories, did the characters in this novel still surprise you, or does the surprise come from finding other characters to build?
That’s a really good question. I introduced a brand new character, who is Romei. He’s the one who challenges Shira, which then [puts] pressure on all of her relationships. Shira did surprise me. In the various stories that I wrote, she was really stuck, and in the novel I had to make her change because that’s what happens in novels—she had to be transformed. Her ability to change did surprise me. I knew she had to, but the fact that she managed it… I feel kind of proud of her.
It’s almost like she proves herself wrong. She believes quite strongly at the beginning of the novel that people don’t change. And that becomes one of the themes of the book.
Everything that she cares about appears to start falling apart by the end of the book. She really has to work hard to make amends and make things better. It’s not because she turns around and says, “Oh, now I believe people can change.” She has no choice. That was one of the major tasks of revision for this book…to [emphasize] the question of “How can Shira recover her most innocent, open self, despite what wrongs have been done her? How can she recover her ability to love openly?”
Shira panics when she finds out she might—God forbid—have to leave New York and move to Connecticut. Is this a love story to New York?
I lived in New York right after college, on the Upper West Side. I left for various reasons, but I always wanted to come back. It imprinted on me. It is very much a love story to New York, and I feel very strongly Shira’s panic about the idea of ever having to leave. [When I left New York in the 80s], I wanted to return but I didn’t know how to do it and also be able to write. I very much saw it as a choice between writing and living. I live in Brooklyn now, of course, and that’s my home. I hate the idea of ever having to leave Brooklyn.
What’s it been like to work with the Brooklyn-based press Melville House?
They saw [my first novel] A Highly Unlikely Scenario first. They wanted to launch someone’s career, to work with somebody who had more than one book ready to go. So they weren’t concerned with lots of things that more mainstream publishers might have been concerned with, [like] how difficult it might have been to categorize the first book. It’s a hard book to categorize! Is it YA? Fantasy? Adventure? They didn’t care about that. In both of [my books] they saw books that were different from what we see in the world. It’s been a pleasure.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.