Monday, January 6, 2014

My First Time: Rachel Cantor

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Rachel Cantor, the author of A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World (out this month from Melville House). Jim Crace, author of Harvest, had this to say about the novel: “It’s as if Kurt Vonnegut and Italo Calvino collaborated to write a comic book sci-fi adventure and persuaded Chagall to do the drawings. One of the freshest and mostly lively novels I have encountered for quite a while.” Rachel has also had two dozen stories published or forthcoming in anthologies and literary magazines such as The Paris Review, One Story, The Kenyon Review, and The New England Review. She lives in Brooklyn, where she is working on another novel. Click here to visit her website.

My First Anthology

The long, winding, wholly unexpected story of my first anthology includes a guessing game, an almost discarded story, desperation, bankruptcy (not mine), crazy luck, and rock stars (of the musical and literary variety). It began many years ago during a graduate fiction workshop with Alice McDermott. It was 1998, toward the end of our first semester. Alice asked us to write a very short piece, something that could be read aloud in, I don’t know, three or four minutes. I wrote a piece called “White Sky”—I may even have dashed it off. It concerned an alcoholic coffeehouse musician who’s the secret mistress of a fancy opera singer; his voice is faltering, so he’s traveling to Europe for a quiet consultation with an expert. He’s in first class, naturally, while she’s been stowed in economy—only something propels her to first class, where she makes a scene, he pretends not to know her, and she looks out the window (at all that white sky) and sees how her life rests on nothing solid.

During a final meeting of our class, Alice handed out these pieces—we each read aloud the unattributed piece of another and everyone guessed whose piece was which, based on what we knew by that time about each other’s styles. A good time, and as I recall, few knew my piece was mine.

After we graduated, I began submitting stories to literary magazines. I focused on the stories in my thesis, not surprisingly: they were related (all about the same characters) and quite good, I was told.  I could see them forming the first half of a first collection of stories. I didn’t give much thought to “White Sky.”  It was an outlier, not part of the larger body of work I was trying to create. It was simple, to my mind: a simple idea written in a simple style, written to be read out loud rather than savored for its beautiful language (I was very young!). The story languished in an out-of-the-way computer folder, with other graduate school exercises.

But there was a magazine—oh, such a magazine! DoubleTake, it was called: a beautifully produced, large-format magazine that featured photography and reportage in addition to terrific fiction. I didn't know a lot about literary magazines at that time, but I became an subscriber and, well, I offered them every story I had, one by one, only to see each of them rejected. In desperation, I finally sent them “White Sky”—it was the very last piece I had with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The story sat on someone’s desk, probably for a while. It was on that desk the day our planes fell out of the sky.

DoubleTake decided to issue a commemorative 9/11 edition, and they wanted my story, because it took place on a plane. It was a “before” story, I was told, reminding readers of a more innocent time, when an airplane ride might be sad in a small way for one insignificant person, rather than emblem of national tragedy.

It was a lovely issue. My very short story appeared next to photos by Mary Ellen Mark and Ed Grazda; poems by Stuart Dybek and Billy Collins; and prose by Francine Prose and Bill McKibben. I often wondered if the cost of putting out that special edition did the magazine in, because soon after publication, I started receiving emails asking if I would forgo my fee. Not just one email, but several. I was, alas, not in a position to forgo my fee, so I waited. And waited. It was only a benefit concert by Bruce Springsteen, of all people, some years later that raised the funds to pay what I assume were much larger debts than that which was owed me, and that beautiful magazine, for all intents and purposes, soon folded.

Most stories that appear in literary magazines disappear if they don’t then appear in a story collection. I kept this one alive for a few years—because it was so short and meant to be read aloud, and, again, not because it was central to my work. It was accepted by Philadelphia’s version of Selected Shorts: a professional actor read it out loud before an audience in a sweet little theater. It was wonderful hearing my words delivered by such a practiced voice. I read the story myself (less beautifully but with conviction) on Philadelphia public radio, and in an informal reading for a foundation that gave me a small grant. But arguably the story’s crowning post-DoubleTake glory was my first anthology.

Nearly eight years had passed. I received an email, more or less out of the blue, from Joanna Yas, at the time editor of the wonderful literary magazine Open City. She wanted “White Sky” for an anthology Open City Books was putting out with Grove Books about airplanes, airports, pilots—anything flight-related. It turns out that a friend of the anthology’s editors had suggested “White Sky” to them. I found out eventually that this friend knew the story from its appearance in DoubleTake and had been teaching it, of all things, at a university in New York. I learned even later that he’d suggested the story when another piece fell through at the last minute. How last minute? Well, the book was published—as in, in my hands—barely two months after it was solicited. And what a grand anthology Flight Patterns: A Century of Stories about Flying turned out to be, with accounts from the early days of flying by Amelia Earhart and the Wright Brothers and James Salter, as well as fiction by Mary Gaitskill, Alice Munro, Joan Didion, David Sedaris, Grace Paley, Joseph Heller, and many other writerly heroes.

I’ve been anthologized since, and look forward now to two more, but this first anthology, from such an unlikely source, and after such an unlikely series of events, is one of my proudest accomplishments.

Author photo by Marianne Barcellona

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