Joanna Cantor is the author of the new novel Alternative Remedies for Loss. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Literary Hub and Electric Literature, and she also teaches yoga. She lives in Brooklyn.
Q: What was the inspiration for Alternative Remedies for Loss, and how did you come up with your main character, Olivia?
A: I began Alternative Remedies for Loss as a short story, inspired by “Safari,” a chapter of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. I love family dramas and set myself the goal of writing a story similar to “Safari” but about a family traveling to India. After I completed the story, I didn’t feel finished with the characters, and I thought maybe the story could become a novel. So I kept writing.
When I came up with the character of Olivia, I was fairly new to writing fiction and just learned how to let my characters mess up. It felt liberating to create a female protagonist who was constantly stepping into action, rather than sitting around overthinking every email and conversation (which is more the way I am!) So from the start, she was feisty, gutsy, and not a people pleaser.
Q: You've said Jennifer Egan is one of the authors you particularly admire. How has her writing influenced your own?
A: One thing I admire about Jennifer Egan’s work is that, though several of her books are formally innovative, she doesn’t sacrifice character or plot in order to be cutting edge. Her books are always compelling stories with interesting, three-dimensional characters.
Though Alternative Remedies is formally quite traditional, I was drawn to Egan’s work and, as I mentioned above, a chapter from A Visit from the Goon Squad inspired me to write the first part of my novel.
A few years later, I read Egan’s novel The Invisible Circus, and the structure of that book—a secret within a secret—helped me find a plot for my book. It was helpful to look closely at the work of a writer I admired to see how she solved a similar narrative problem.
Q: The book includes scenes set in India. Why did you choose that as one of the book's locations, and how important is setting to you in your work?
A: I studied abroad in Northern India in college (I was based in Bodh Gaya, the town where the fictional ashram Olivia visits is located).
My time in India had a big impact on me; it was the first place I’d traveled that felt dramatically different from the United States, and it made me question some of my basic assumptions about how to live and what my priorities were.
I always knew I wanted to write something set in India. When I began telling the story of Olivia and her family, I liked the idea of setting a messy family situation against the already rich and complicated backdrop of foreign travel.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: I knew almost nothing when I started writing! There was a premise, but no real plot—I spent a while getting to know my characters, just allowing them to talk to each other and wander around.
By the time I figured out the arc, I did have an endpoint in sight, though of course smaller things changed along the way. (The first draft was actually written from multiple points of view, and I then rewrote some chapters from Olivia’s perspective once I realized this was really her story.)
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve been pretty busy with everything leading up to publication (as well as my other job, teaching yoga) so I haven’t sunk my teeth into a new book just yet. I have only a vague inkling of what my next project might be—but I’m excited to get started soon.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’m thrilled that Alternative Remedies for Loss is finally out in the world after a long gestation, and very grateful for the opportunity to talk about it!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb