Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Q&A with Rachel Cantor



Rachel Cantor is the author of the new novel Half-Life of a Stolen Sister, which reimagines the Bront
ë family. Cantor's other books include A Highly Unlikely Scenario. She lives in New York City. 


Q: What inspired you to write this novel based on the lives of the Brontë family?  


A: Like many, my favorite book growing up was (and still is) Jane Eyre. I didn’t feel inspired to write about her till I learned rather late in life the terrible story of Charlotte Brontë’s many losses: a mother when Charlotte was 5, two older sisters, both beloved, a few years later, and her remaining brother and sisters—Branwell, Emily, and Anne—by the time she was in her early 30s. A mother and five sibs! I couldn’t imagine this!  


Charlotte was at that point “too old” to wed, so would she, after enjoying such a close family life, be alone now for the rest of her life (her father was still alive and, indeed, outlived her, but he wasn’t a confidante)? I wanted to understand.  


When I started writing, I began when the sibs were very young. I wanted to convey their strong bonds and how those bonds grew and changed so we might feel something of her grief, and cheer her on as she created a life for herself after their deaths. That all sounds rather depressing, and it is, a bit, but ultimately I think the book is hopeful and affirmative (in addition to being quite funny).  


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, in part, “Cantor’s frisky and time-collapsing blend of forms elevates the experiment above run-of-the-mill Brontë fodder.” What do you think of that description, and how did you come up with the novel's format? 


 A: The description is fine as far as it goes. I bring the Brontë family to a contemporary, unnamed North American city and use a variety of forms—screenplay, meeting minutes, radio transcript, dating-site profile, etc.—to tell a version of their lives. This is what the review means by “time-collapsing blend of forms.”  


Perhaps it can’t be helped, but reviews tend to focus on the book’s formal innovation as if it were an end in itself, the whole point of the book. It isn’t. I intend these innovations to offer readers a fresh way of looking at a family we too often romanticize, so they can see in this family something human, something real.  


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?  


A: I chose the title, and I’m glad to say my publisher was happy with it. I don’t want to do too much interpretation for the reader, but we know that the “half-life” of an unstable substance is the time it takes for half of it to decay, to disappear.


You might look at that as a figure for grief. Grief destabilizes us, and it never disappears, but it does dissipate—or does it? How long does loss haunt us? How do we manage grief?  


Many sisters are lost in this story; the two eldest are lost when Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne are children; easy, then, to imagine them “stolen.” If a sister is stolen, can she be saved? Can she be rescued? If so, what form would that take?  


Q: What do you think still fascinates people almost two centuries later about the Brontë family and their work?  


A: So many things! First and foremost, they were great novelists; many of us read those novels when we were young, which makes them extra beloved, extra powerful. Then there is the curiosity of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne being sisters, writing and publishing their very different novels at basically the same time.  


There is also the fact that they all, even Charlotte, died very young, presumably before they’d realized even a fraction of their potential—I think we find that sort of tragedy romantic.  


Finally, I think there is some awareness that in writing, even under masculine pseudonyms, the Brontë sisters bucked all sorts of tradition. Not just because they wrote, which might have been enough, but because of what they wrote.  


They were, to a greater or lesser degree (depending on the sister), quite conventional in terms of lifestyle (they were the daughters of a clergyman, after all) but their books upended literary expectations; none was a drawing-room novel of “polite society.” Their novels shocked both reviewers and readers; their writing was considered coarse and immoral!  


So we also admire their courage and originality; we see them, correctly, as forebears.  


Q: What are you working on now?  


A: I’m working on a series of connected middle-grade and young adult novels set at different times (past and future) in Manhattan’s Lower East Side!  


Q: Anything else we should know?  


A: This book isn’t like anything you’ve ever read; I think that’s a good thing! Readers should also know that, for the first time, I’ll be doing a few virtual events, so they can learn more about Half-Life and ask their own questions, even if they aren’t near one of my IRL bookstores or festival events. They can get up-to-date info about all events at my website (https://www.rachelcantor.com/events/).  


If they attend any event, I hope they’ll introduce themselves—the world needs more Brontë fans! 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Rachel Cantor.

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