Rachel Cantor sends readers into a near future controlled by fast food corporations with her debut novel A Highly Unlikely Scenario: Or, A Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World. Cantor celebrated the release of the novel at Greenlight Bookstore along Hannah Tinti, co-founder and editor of the single story per issue journal One Story.
Tinti introduces Rachel Cantor by explaining how they met several years ago in an airport waiting for a small plane to take them off to a writing retreat in Wyoming. There, they bought a matching pair of cowboy boots–tonight, both wearing the shoes to prove it. Tinti cites the NYTimes review of the novel before inviting Cantor up to read.
A Highly Unlikely Scenario begins with Leonard, a customer service representative for Neetsa Pizza, a national fast food chain, prepared to answer the phone in the customer complaint office. Three days have passed without a ring. Leonard sits in a white room waiting to answer his white phone to placate angry customers with discounted pizza coupons. This is the set-up for a hero who saves the world three times.
After reading the opening passages, Tinti begins a discussion by asking what the seed of this novel was.
Cantor says she was at a meditation retreat ten or fifteen years earlier, a place to clear her mind, and one of the rabbis had made a remark about the 13th century that intrigued her. Instead of clearing her mind, she began thinking about life in that time period. Then she spent a decade writing other stories and a naturalistic novel set in the upper west side, based loosely on a character similar to herself. After finishing the novel, she came back to the ideas she had during the meditation retreat and the notes she had. “I wanted to do something was really completely different,” she said.
Leonard, the hero of the book might have begun a decade earlier as notes, but he changed a lot since his conception. Originally he spent his days watching pornography.
A Highly Unlikely Scenario has been compared to books like A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Tinti says, although offering that she thinks the narrative is more like Ray Bradbury. But she asks what sci-fi influences Cantor looked to.
One of her bigger influences, Cantor explains, was Italo Calvino, whom she read in the original Italian when she was much younger. His works left an imprint on her, and she says she once wrote exam essays on his works. She also cites Borges as another influence, but largely she simply invented a world. “Mostly I just say with my computer and made stuff up,” she says.
Though the novel is set in the future, time travel elements bring the past into the narrative, including historic figures like Marco Polo. Tinti asks about Cantor’s research methods.
Cantor describes the research as “obsessive,” although admits some of it came from Wikipedia. She relied on antique maps and engravings because she wanted to get the setting right. Once the setting is taken care of, the characters can flow unencumbered.
The dystopia of A Highly Unlikely Scenario involves fast food corporations like Neetsa Pizza providing an almost religious like experience. Tinti asks about the philosophy behind this future.
Years ago, Cantor explains, she met someone who worked as a pizza complaint hotline worker, much like the protagonist, Leonard. The job description stuck with her because it was so odd. The pizza conflict between the Neetsa Pizza and Pythagorean Pizza amused her and created a conflict for Leonard. And though there is a bit of satirical criticism about consumerism and tightly controlled societies, she wanted to keep it light. The idea of the world controlled by fast food companies amused her but also seemed like a real potential possibility.
Cantor says she always approaches writing as though she wants to be at least a little humorous, even when she is writing something serious. Its not really then an accident that the novel turned out to be funny.
Though she was working towards a specific endpoint and knew the trajectory of the novel, she wasn’t working with a specific outline. Leonard evolved as a character. She learned his limitations, and that created the sort of conflicts and adventure he needed to overcome to get the point of saving the world. There was never a micro-managed plot, or even a macro outline. All Cantor knew was that he would save the world. Ultimately he saves it three times.
The title of the novel took some experimenting. At an AWP conference she asked “600 people” for their ideas, even though none of them had read the book. She submitted four pages of potential titles, but ultimately it was her editor who suggested a quote that became the title of the book.
Though A Highly Unlikely Scenario is her debut novel, it is not the first she has written. The naturalistic novel about the single girl living on the upper west side–the one that is seemingly autobiographical–thats coming in 2015, also from Melville House.
Kate Gavino of Last Night’s Reading was also at Greenlight Bookstore. Check out her portrait of Rachel Cantor.