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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

A Highly Unlikely Scenario giveaway!

rachel cantor book coverWhen [Leonard] got home from school, he helped his grandfather to the toilet, then brought him a snack—usually canned peaches, sometimes herring with sour cream. Then he did his homework on the old man’s settee, and when he’d finished, his grandfather would say, Listen, boychik, I need you to listen good, and he would pick one of his stories (he only had a few) and he would tell it, and after he told it he would say, You’re a good egg, boychik, you tell no one about this except your grandson.

 

I first “met” Rachel Cantor in October 2009 when we tweeted about our Yaddo acceptance letters. She and Nova and I were all going to be there in April, and we got to know one other online over that six-month interval. So when we all finally met face to face at the colony, it didn’t feel like a first-time meeting. As I’ve written on the blog before, we had a great time together, chatting over dinner and wine and raucous games of PIG in the poolhouse (though I don’t recall Rachel being quite so enthusiastic about that game as Cheryl and I were!)

Rachel is a big part of why my time at Yaddo was so rewarding. She’s been very kind to me over the past four years, letting me stay at her place in Philly when I needed to figure out what I was doing post-Yaddo, and coming early to the Petty Magic launch party to help set up (bless her!!) After writing hard for years (publishing more short stories than even she can keep track of, I’m sure), Rachel got a two-book deal with Melville House in 2012—a richly deserved success. The first of those two novels, published in January, is A Highly Unlikely Scenario: or, A Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World. The book has received an enthusiastic reception in the New York Times and many other publications.

Featuring time travel and fast-food political factions, medieval Jewish mystics, the unreadable Voynich manuscript, Marco Polo and Roger Bacon’s Brazen Head oracle, Rachel’s novel somewhat defies categorization: it’s science fiction liberally seasoned with satire and clever wordplay, mildly absurdist yet wonderfully human (which, I can tell you from experience, is the last thing from easy to pull off when the plot is doing the driving.) One of my favorite aspects of A Highly Unlikely Scenario is the tenderness between Leonard, the awkward young protagonist, and his loved ones, especially his grandfather and his nephew Felix. (The timelines of these two characters don’t overlap, which is perfect actually, because on the birth of his nephew Leonard feels he’s been given a second chance.) This familial tenderness is present on pretty much every page, but it never gets mushy. Rachel’s storytelling is playful, with a wonderful sense of curiosity, and I can’t wait to read her second novel with Melville House! (See our Q&A below.)

* * *

Everything about the book’s invented setting evolved with the book; coming up with these details was one of the book’s great pleasures. Nothing is more fun than starting a sentence not knowing how it will end.  

(from the interview at the back of the book)

The very first thing that struck me about A Highly Unlikely Scenario is what great fun it must have been to write! You mention in the Q&A at the back of the book that the novel is partly inspired by a conversation you had with a rabbi about the rich tradition of Jewish mysticism in the 13th century. How did the plot spin out from there? Tell us about the moment you knew you HAD to write this book.

The initial idea for the book came many years before I started writing, and by the time I did start writing, I’d accumulated so many additional ideas, images, and weird historical factoids that it’s hard to pinpoint the moment when I knew I had to write A Highly Unlikely Scenario. For ten years before I’d been working on a pair of other books—a story collection (Picnic After the Flood) and a novel (Door Number Two, forthcoming from Melville House in 2015). Both books were essentially quite serious and they both concern the same characters, so when I finished them, I was very ready to start something new. And I wanted the new thing to be very, very new! As in, something I’d never done before—and what I came up with was a story that combined a bunch of genres—sci fi/fantasy, adventure, historical, romance, satire … As you mentioned, I also wanted to have fun! In 2007, I had two residencies—at the Millay Colony and the sadly no-longer-operational Hall Farm Center—at just the right time. The time and space those residencies afforded me made A Highly Unlikely Scenario possible.

I always like to hear about how other writers organize their research. Juggling so many elements, how did you manage to keep everything straight?

I am very (very!) organized! Most importantly, I used document maps. I live by document maps! Document maps are a function in Word that allows you to create an always-accessible table of contents using headers. Basically, if you use headings, you can press the document map icon and get a navigation column featuring those headings. By clicking a heading in that column you can get to any section in that document instantly. So I had a “Research” file with lots of sections I could easily access, including a timeline, which tracked events from the thirteenth century (Rumi born, Isaac the Blind dies, Marco Polo’s travels begin); research on medieval Rome (with subheadings for various sources), Pythagoras, pilgrims’ dress, medieval words, etc.; a bibliography; and so on. I also kept a separate file with images culled from the Internet (e.g., building floor plans from medieval Rome, ancient maps). I also always have a notes file in which I talk through a story or book with myself, including how best to use research. Finally, and I think this is surprisingly important, I keep my research books together on the same shelf very near where I write.

Do you have any writerly rituals or superstitions? Any lucky foods, maybe?

Hah! Will you think less of me if I don’t? I’m such an irregular writer (not at all a write-everyday kind of writer) that I have no “usual” schedule, and therefore no set of rituals that prepare me to be at the computer. I wish I did! I definitely need my cup of Irish breakfast tea before I can write, though I also need my cup of tea before I put on my shoes or send an email!

As I tweeted to Rachel the other day, my only complaint about her novel is that I wish it were longer—which is the best possible complaint-slash-compliment, right? I’m giving away a copy she signed for me at her Harvard Books event back in January, and to enter, all you have to do is leave a comment here and tell me your favorite historical character (since so many good ones make cameos in Rachel’s novel!) As always, you get extra entries for Facebook comments, shares, tweets or retweets.

Contest closes 5pm Thursday, March 20th. Thank you and huge congratulations, Rachel! (P.S.—follow Rachel on Twitter!)

15 Comments to A Highly Unlikely Scenario giveaway!

  1. March 17, 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Thank you, Camille, for writing such a beautiful introduction to A Highly Unlikely Scenario! I’m glad you like not just the invention of the book but also the relationships–that was really important to me. Big hugs, and your readers should feel free to follow me on Twitter, where we met (@RachelCantor).

    I note, by the way, that you omitted to mention that you sent me COOKIES (snickerdoodles, as I recall) before you even met me, just because I was crying online that I needed sweets! (Readers: Do not try this at home!)

    Rachel

  2. March 17, 2014 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    Yay! I’m going on vacation next week and I this review just put “A Highly UNlikely Scenario” on my reading list! Reading lists are definitely the only “fun” packing….

  3. Brian's Gravatar Brian
    March 17, 2014 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    Fun! This looks like my cup of tea. Count me in …

  4. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    March 17, 2014 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    The book sounds awesome! Is Leonardo da Vinci too cliche?

  5. Senta's Gravatar Senta
    March 18, 2014 at 2:32 am | Permalink

    This must be an awesome book! Good luck to the author!

    My favorite historical character is Charles Darwin because he went on his five-year HMS Beagle trip even though he was seasick.

  6. March 18, 2014 at 2:54 am | Permalink

    Sei Shounagon is mine. (A Highly Unlikely Scenario looks great!)

  7. C. L. Morgan's Gravatar C. L. Morgan
    March 18, 2014 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Lord Byron in Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates is fairly awesome.

  8. Kelly G.'s Gravatar Kelly G.
    March 18, 2014 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    Wow, that’s a tough one! I’m going to say…Queen Boudicca, with Vincent Van Gogh a close second.

  9. Orli's Gravatar Orli
    March 18, 2014 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Sounds fantastic! My favorite historical character is Scheherazade…love a storyteller!

  10. Marjolijn's Gravatar Marjolijn
    March 18, 2014 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    I love a storyteller, too, so I’m going with Mark Twain – an historical character who created so many hysterical and otherwise memorable characters.

  11. March 19, 2014 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    This one is a toughie; I’m sure that after I name one, a more obvious choice will pop up. I’m going with Eleanor of Aquitaine.

    The book sounds quite interesting. Even if I don’t win a copy, I’ll read it.

    Thanks for the opportunity.

  12. Elizabeth's Gravatar Elizabeth
    March 19, 2014 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like a great book! My favourite historical character…hmm. How about Beethoven – I can’t imagine trying to compose music after losing all of my hearing!

  13. March 20, 2014 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    What an adventure this book is going to be. Count me in!

  14. Juli's Gravatar Juli
    March 20, 2014 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    There are just so many characters from which to choose! Mendeleev would be super rad, as he just sort of “guessed” the periodic table after hours of trying to figure out a way to organize it. Stradivarius would also be on my list. How did he make such wonderful violins?

  1. By on March 18, 2014 at 9:01 am

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.