Translation, Intimacy, and Secret Histories: An Interview With Rachel Cantor

Rachel Cantor’s new novel Good on Paper (Melville House, 2016) is a uniquely literary comedy of manners. At the center of the book is Shira Greene, a translator working at a series of surreal temp jobs and caring for her young daughter. A Nobel Prize-winning poet, Romei, reaches out to her about translating his latest work, an offer that upends her life in a variety of ways, expected and otherwise. The novel that follows is intricate in its plotting, often moving, and deft in its handling of a series of characters whose histories with one another are frequently long and complicated. And in the translation-related dilemma that Shira finds herself, Cantor has found the comic in a literary nightmare, a quality that’s reminiscent of Martin Amis’s The Information. I talked with Cantor via a series of emails about the process of writing Good on Paper, its relationship to her previous novel, the metaphysical and dystopian A Highly Unlikely Scenario, and more.

Tobias Carroll: The plot of Good on Paper centers around the process of translation, and touches on the fact that certain phrases and examples of wordplay in one language may be fundamentally untranslatable. What first drew you to this as an idea that could result in a dramatically compelling situation?

Rachel Cantor: My protagonist, Shira Greene, had a life before Good on Paper. In fact, before Good on Paper she wrote a whole collection (unpublished) of (mostly published) stories about herself and her friends. We know, for example, from “Love Drugstore” (Kenyon Review, Summer 2011, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3), that Shira serves the New York branch of the Translators of Note as secretary, assistant to the King of Arms, and Bloomsday charwoman (sic); in the latter capacity, she organizes the pub crawl at which translators read their versions of Ulysses. And it’s not surprising that she’s a translator: she spent time in Italy as a young person, studied Dante et al. in grad school, and was basically a literary sort.

So Shira being a translator was a given. When I started to write the story that was to become the novel Good on Paper, I asked myself, What kind of adventure can a translator possibly get into that challenges everything she believes about herself, her past, and her future? What’s her transformative journey? I already knew quite a lot about Shira’s personality — her limitations as a person, her fears, what motivates her, and also her intelligence, her humor, her fierceness, her loyalty — so that’s where I started (with a character rather than an idea). Then, as I began writing the novel, it became evident that translation — the carrying over of meaning from one language to another — was something Shira would distrust, because she can’t trust intimacy, she doesn’t in her heart of hearts believe that meaningful connection is possible. There’s your conflict, if you’re a writer/person like me; there’s your drama!

TC: Good on Paper makes for a significant change of pace following the metaphysically-infused science fiction scenario of A Highly Unlikely Scenario. Did you set out to write something that would be a significant departure from its predecessor, or do you see the two books as exploring similar ideas?

…I don’t consider Good on Paper a strictly “realist” novel nor, unfortunately, do I find dystopic settings, such as the one in Scenario, to be fully “unreal”…

RC: I actually wrote Good on Paper before I wrote A Highly Unlikely Scenario, so I’ll reverse the question. In my mind, the two books have a lot in common — a concern with language, a fascination with things medieval, bookstore/library settings, a plot that’s activated by a probably wise older man who pushes himself into the story, necessitating radical change, and that hinges on the interpretation of obscure manuscripts, an outsider orphan protagonist with strong family ties, love interests, seven-year-old characters who may or may not steal the show. Both use humor to work with sometimes serious material; both are smart books that ask something of the reader; both are strongly concerned with the question of how to love and live a good life. As I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t consider Good on Paper a strictly “realist” novel nor, unfortunately, do I find dystopic settings, such as the one in Scenario, to be fully “unreal” as they often present what’s real under the surface of our world. But it’s also plainly true that the books are different. I wrote Scenario in part as a response to having spent 15 years writing Shira stories: I wanted to write outside the first person, from the perspective of a male, having as much fun as I could creating a world which, unlike New York, has never been seen.

TC: Almost all of the central characters in Good on Paper have relationships that began before the opening of the novel, especially Shira and Ahmad. How much of that backstory did you need to have figured out before you began writing?

RC: Good question! Because so many stories precede Good on Paper, these characters have a lot of backstory. Stories cover events in 1970 when Shira and Ahmad (and Ahmad’s secret crush Jonah) are fifteen-year-old expatriate high school students (and Shira and Ahmad, already best friends, are first estranged), and again when Shira turns 35, has just left her husband and is looking to reunite with people who “knew her when.” Jonah (spoiler alert) dies in front of them, hit by a car on Fourteenth Street, leading to the second estrangement between Shira and Ahmad. They are finally reconciled when Shira becomes pregnant and asks Ahmad to become her child’s godfather, which leads to the creation of their little family. Obviously, their relationship is volatile, which not surprisingly figures into the plot of Good on Paper. There are also short stories in which Shira, a mother now and living in Ahmad’s apartment, struggles romantically, another theme that plays out in Good on Paper. I often think of the stories as asking the big questions that the novel has to eventually answer. But getting the balance of backstory right was our largest editing challenge: we cut, we added, we cut and added again!

TC: Good on Paper is set in late 1999–what prompted that particular year for the setting? Did you need to go back and research or revisit assorted cultural or technological happenings?

RC: Again, the choice was less deliberate than you (generously) suppose. I started writing the book in 2001, some months before 9/11. I very much did not want this to be a “9/11 book,” nor did I want at the time to write about 9/11 New York. I didn’t want to move the setting closer to the present (though I could have: the book took me 10 years to write!) as that would have meant changing the ages of my characters, and I couldn’t do that: Shira was a flower child when young; Ahmad was a think tank economist who lectured Bush Sr. on the Soviet Union; Romei was a WWII refugee. These facts could not change. So as with Shira’s vocation, I instead found opportunity in what was given: I backtracked a year or two, setting the book in late 1999, with all its chatter about apocalypse. This setting pleased me both for its comedic potential and its quiet echoes of the Christian Day of Judgment and the Jewish End of Days, which come up in Good on Paper. Shira’s clunky slow desktop and non-smart phone and fax machine were all-too-familiar to me from that time, and some of the cultural references naturally arose as I was writing; others, like the life and times of Tinky Winky, I had to research!

TC: Did you have a particular model in mind for Romei, the Nobel Prize-winning poet whose work is at the center of the novel?

RC: Not at all! Everyone in the book, and everything I write, is absolutely and in all ways fictional. Does he remind you of someone?

TC: Your biography mentions that you grew up in both Rome and Connecticut, both locations that loom large in Good on Paper. Did you find yourself revisiting your own memories as you were working on the book?

RC: I’ve been working on Shira stories for at least 15 years, so I’m not sure I know the difference anymore between her Rome memories and mine! She’s older than I am, but to a large extent, she sees the city through my eyes, as did her friends in the stories I wrote about them: she and her friends visit places I often visited (the Janiculum, the Roman Forum, the flea market, Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, the English-language movie theater). But little of this is evident in Good on Paper, unless it’s under the surface: the book is set entirely in the U.S. Any reference we may have to Rome is probably via Romei, whom we know from the beginning of the novel to be an unreliable narrator. As for Connecticut, I’m from the city of Hartford whereas the book refers to the bedroom communities of southern Connecticut; for Shira, these represent the suburbs to which Shira never wants to return (and in which I’ve never lived, properly speaking). The distinction may seem slight to someone not from the Nutmeg State, but these really are two entirely different things! Southern Connecticut, for one thing, roots for the Yankees, which is something no self-respecting Hartfordian (Hartfordite?) would ever do. Still, Shira and I are resolutely City People: her fierce wish to remain in her urban home, come what may, is also my own. Just as we were both shaped by our Roman expatriate childhoods, albeit in different ways.

TC: Are there any translations that strike you as particularly memorable–or particularly wrongheaded, in terms of fundamentally altering the original work?

RC: I hope this question means you think I know something about translation, or read any languages well enough to have an (informed) opinion about specific instances thereof! I don’t, in fact. I admire translators passionately because I can’t imagine being as intimate with another language as I am with English. It boggles my mind! Their understanding of tone, nuance, connotation, word echoes, word play, sound, rhythm, and so on has to be so fluent and so precise — I honestly don’t know how they do it. In Good on Paper, Shira asks some of the questions I imagine translators ask, and presents some of their (impossible!) choices: how to translate Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, with its “sweet style,” so called, while still retaining the poem’s unrelenting terza rima and the echoing meaning of its repeating words? Shira is more interested in precision and word echoes than she is in lovely sound, but I don’t know that I agree with her! She has a professional’s right to passionately held opinions; I much less so!

TC: You mentioned that you had been working on Good on Paper for several years–what caused it to finally click for you?

RC: I wish I could say there was an aha moment! Getting it right was actually the result of endless rewrites. The problem was twofold. First, this was my first novel and I had no idea what I was doing. When I started, I thought I was writing a short story! So I didn’t have a grand structural plan or even a notion that I was “ready” to do the crazy work of novel writing: it just kind of happened, expanding first beyond the confines of a short story, then, to my initial regret, becoming too large even for a novella. In my newbie-ness, I made lots of narrative mistakes, to put it kindly. Second, I was way too ambitious! Initial drafts (more than 600 pages long!) were chock-full of themes and (ugh!) symbols and backstory and competing action and very much more discussion of Dante and literary theory and everything else that struck me as remotely relevant (everything is connected!)! Eventually, revisions that clicked tended to streamline and focus the book — characters cut, scenes dropped to the cutting-room floor (or in some cases turned into additional short stories), subplots abandoned.

TC: When writing a friendship that takes as many twists and turns as Shira and Ahmad’s, how do you balance that quality with making their disputes and positions understandable relative to the reader, if not one another?

RC: What an interesting question! First of all, let me say that I hate it when Shira and Ahmad fight! The scenes in which they fight were for me easily the hardest to write. So much so that earlier versions of the book allowed a third party — Ahmad’s live-in boyfriend — to act as a buffer! He ran interference between them, and his sweet presence tempered everyone’s excesses. It was a very wise reader, Robin Black, who challenged me to let go of Roger, much as I loved him, so the book’s conflicts could develop more naturally. But to answer your question: I believe I know these characters quite well, so, again, I know what they hope for and, more importantly, what they fear. Their actions are emotionally logical to me, and I feel for them: I get why Shira does what she does, why Ahmad does what he does; I know their fault lines, individually and as friends. I hope this allows me to write their actions and words (and, in the case of Shira, thoughts and point of view) in a balanced way.

TC: Do you plan to revisit Shira and her circle of friends and family again in the future?

RC: No chance! I do hope to see the Shira stories in a collection some day (I have the best possible title: Picnic After the Flood — what do you think?), but otherwise I’ll move on. Though I am a little curious about what seven-year-old Andi is up to…(if all’s gone well, and I hope it has, she’s graduated college by now and is preparing for a wonderful life in New York publishing!).

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