Rachel Cantor launched her second novel Good On Paper last week. The novel follows Shira Greene who is asked to translate an important book that will make her translating career. Cantor was joined by Susan Bernofsky, a translator, at Book Culture on Wednesday to discuss the novel and the art of translation. The book is set in the Upper West Side and Cantor says she was excited to read it in that neighborhood.
Cantor first thought of the idea for the novel back in 1999 but she didn’t begin writing until 2001. She never intended it as a novel and expected it would be a short story. It would have been the last story in a collection of stories she had been working on.
The Shira Greene character had gone through a number of experiences in the story collection and ultimately those culminated with her becoming a translator. As the story kept growing longer, Cantor considered that maybe her story could be a novella. She remained in denial that she was writing a novel even as the novella grew longer.
“I kept writing and it kept getting longer,” she explains. As the novel grew longer it grew in complexity as well.
“I didn’t know how to write a novel,” she says, especially from a technical perspective. Early drafts had too many characters and too many subplots. She crammed in too many themes. Everything was in there, she explained. Learning what to include and how to structure a novel were the two most important factors in getting it together.
The act of translation became a useful tool in the story. The idea of a translator linked the collection’s central ideas about bridging the gulf between two people.
“I think about language kind of obsessively,” Cantor says.
Cantor read a lot of books about translation as research for the character, but was too shy to approach a real professional translator.
The novel follows a traditional hero’s story, Cantor explains. The hero receives a call to duty. In the case of Shira, her call is quite a literal one. She wishes for a new life, and then suddenly is offered one, but she isn’t sure it is what she wanted.
While writing the novel, Cantor knew an unusually large amount the characters’ backgrounds. Since the original story for the novel was the end story of a collection, she explored many of their backgrounds before even coming up with the novel. Chronologically, the novel was also after all the stories, so by the time of the novel, many of them are dead. She hopes that the novel ends up answering many of the questions asked by the story collection.
When Cantor first started sending the manuscript to literary agents, many replied to her that it was too literary. During that process, she started writing a new manuscript. That draft became her debut novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario. She says for that book that she wanted to stretch the limits of her imagination. Eventually, both books were sold together at the same time and her publisher, Melville House, decided to publish the A Highly Unlikely Scenario first.
The title of Good On Paper was one of the last things that was settled. The original title, Door Number Two, didn’t quite have the right ring to it.
Whether or not Good On Paper will be translated depends on a number of things, but if it happens, Cantor thinks it will be difficult. The book is fundamentally about language, and that makes it hard to translate.