It’s about Shira, a translator who doesn’t translate because she doesn’t quite believe that it’s possible to bring words from one language to another. Instead, she temps as a filing clerk and dogsbody, usually in the boroughs. When she gets a call from Romei, a Nobel Prize-winning poet who asks her to translate his latest work, she’s stunned. He offers a plausible explanation for his choice, she agrees, and ecstatically envisions new life for herself and seven-year-old daughter Andi. But as Romei begins faxing her sections of his work, we, and eventually she, begin to realize that Romei has another agenda, one that involves Shira personally.
Sounds like you’ve kind of memorized that pitch.
I have, rather.
So this is a book about yourself, plainly.
No. No no no! Shira is not me! Shira is fluent in Italian; my Italian is barely passable. She’s a mother; I’m very much not. She lives in Manhattan; I live in Brooklyn. I haven’t temped in twenty years, I have never been a translator. I am solvent. Shira has good hair; she doesn’t seem to wear glasses. We have very little in common.
C’mon: you both grew up in Rome, you’re both Jewish, you live in NY, you read books, you write stories, you hang out in bookstores, you’re women of a certain age …
Shira is older than I am. Really!
How do you feel about being confused for your characters?
You mean after so many in the biz found Shira not “likable”?
It’s best not to think about those days.
Like every author, I’m confused by the readerly impulse to conflate fiction and autobiography, to assume fiction must have its source in the “real,” to discount the writerly imagination.
You do the same, admit it.
I wonder sometimes, yes.
I understand you cut a lot out of the book.
Yes. Many “themes” and subplots (heaven help me), several characters, innumerable scenes, hundreds of pages. The book once opened with Shira getting the call from Romei while having sex with her boss at the flavor factory. I worried that readers would get attached to Clyde, what with his crooked grin and cowboy hat and all. Then there was Josh the translator, aka “Brat,” and Gorham, the behavior change specialist: those bad boys got cut and turned into short stories. Etc.
Is Shira likable in the stories?
You mean in stories about or by Shira that appeared in the Paris Review, One Story, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Fence, Ninth Letter, Gargoyle, and elsewhere, and now comprise the (unpublished) collection Picnic After the Flood?
Yes, those stories.
I think Shira’s likable everywhere! She’s smart, she cares about her friends, she’s fierce and funny. She’s a nifty interpreter of literary texts. She leads the translators’ pub crawl on Bloomsday. She learns (spoiler alert) through this book to be brave.
So why did some find her not relatable?
That word! I think some don’t know what to make of a woman who’s not young-young and is both earthy and cerebral.
She has sex and thinks about Dante.
Not at the same time. But yes, she does both, without apology. I don’t know that we expect or want mothers to think about Dante, or have sex, or make bad (or good) decisions about men. These things offend us (some of us).
Speaking of which, Andi should have led this interview.
She’s pretty great isn’t she?
Totally relatable. I love you when you buy me things.
Yes, she says that.
When did I ever meet a bad man in an elevator?
She said that, too.
Will you ever write a novel about Andi?
RACHEL CANTOR is the author of the novels Good on Paper (Melville House 2016) and A Highly Unlikely Scenario (Melville House 2014). Her short stories have appeared in The Paris Review, One Story, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, the Millay Colony, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn, where she is always at work on another book.