AUTHOR & ALUM JOANNA CANTOR MEDITATES ON GRIEVING WITH NEW NOVEL
After exploring a brief, early career in journalism, Joanna Cantor couldn’t ignore the pull she felt toward a career focused around creative writing—her first love. Following her gut brought her to an introductory fiction in the continuing education department at The New School, now offered through Open Campus. Cantor tells us about her time in the course, how it helped her to follow her passion, and how it led to the writing of her new novel, Alternative Remedies for Loss, where she was able to explore the stages of her own grieving process through a fictional tale of inner strength and exploration.
- What set you on the path to becoming a writer by profession?
I’ve been an avid reader since childhood, enjoying mostly fictional works. Growing up, books were everything. My mom read to me every night and we would often talk about our favorite characters as if they were our personal friends. By the time I was a teenager, I felt a strong pull to try to translate my observations and feelings into writing. In college I wrote poetry, and I followed journalistic aspirations, interning at a magazine one summer and newspaper after graduation. I postponed writing fiction for a long time since the stakes always felt really high; novels were what I loved most. But I couldn’t ignore my passion, and once I began, it felt obvious, like this was what I’d always known I was supposed to do.
What aspects do you love most about writing as a career?
For me, the best moments of writing fiction are when I feel like I’m channeling my characters. I’m not imagining what they might say—I don’t feel like I’m inventing anything—I literally feel like I’m hearing them talk to each other and just transcribing their conversation. Granted, this is a fleeting experience (it usually happens when I’m writing dialogue), but it’s the high that I keep coming back for.
How and why did you seek out a beginning fiction course at Open Campus at The New School?
After college I landed an entry-level job in book publishing, but almost as soon as I started working, I realized how much I missed writing. I wanted to build writing back into my life in a structured way, with deadlines and assignments, so that’s when I looked into evening classes at Open Campus. I’d always been a little afraid to write fiction—I felt like I needed a well-formed idea or plot before giving it a go. But, that first year in New York, everything was new and the beginning fiction course provided the opportunity for fun, creative expression. I thought, well, what’s the harm in trying fiction?
What did you take away from Open Campus at The New School’s writing course and how did it help lead you to writing and publishing your first novel?
My professor, Luis Jaramillo, did a great job of not making fiction writing too daunting for beginners. The first assignment I remember him giving us was to start with something that had really happened, and then change just three things. Of course, when you change through things, and then follow through on those changes, you end up changing everything—that was the point. But the exercise made me realize that I could continue to follow the adage “write what you know” in fiction as I had in poetry; I didn’t have to invent fantastical plots wholesale.
The other memorable takeaway from that course was how important (and hard!) it is to write actual scenes. Luis steered us away from long passages of description or getting lost in the characters’ heads, and pushed us to make our characters interact with each other. This was intimidating at first, but that’s when I realized I loved writing dialogue. I felt so in tune with my characters when I wrote scenes, and all those years of being more of an observer in social situations began to pay off.
As a yoga instructor, how do you feel that creative writing and this practice can relate to or influence one another?
Practices like yoga teach us to try to live in the moment and get out of our heads. I’ve found this to be an important and challenging principle to apply to writing fiction: in one sense, writing requires me to be completely in my head, imagining and inventing; yet because of this necessary internality, it’s also easy to either succumb to the inner critic or get side-tracked in planning/worrying about something else entirely during my writing time.I’m still figuring out how to apply the lessons of yoga to the practice of writing. For me, it often begins with feeling present in my body. When I find that I’ve gotten distracted, I return my awareness to my breath, then to the physical sensation of my body, usually sitting on the couch with my fingers on the keyboard, and so on. Once I’ve broken up the mental chatter with this present-moment awareness, I can then redirect my attention back to the piece of writing I’m working on.
On a simpler, more practical note, I find being physical a wonderful antidote to the quiet computer work of writing—and teaching yoga means interacting with actual human beings! In that respect, these two parts of my career are very complementary.
Tell us about the book; where did you find the inspiration to approach this project?
Alternative Remedies for Loss began as a short story modeled after “Safari,” a chapter of Jennifer Egan’s book titled A Visit from the Goon Squad. I loved Egan’s story—a big, complicated family takes an exotic trip, told from multiple points of view—and set myself the assignment of writing something with a similar structure. I wrote about a family traveling after the matriarch has died suddenly, set in India, where I’ve traveled extensively.
Because of my own experience, the novel became more focused on grief than I had initially expected. I did write a first draft from multiple points of view, but subsequently realized that it’s really Olivia’s story.
When I finished a draft of the story, I didn’t feel done with the characters. Family dynamics are one of my fascinations as a reader and writer, and I thought maybe this family could sustain a novel. So I kept writing. Soon after, my father was diagnosed with cancer. His illness progressed quickly; it was eerily similar to what I’d written about in my fledgling novel. Suddenly I found myself living through a loss that paralleled the one I’d been writing about. It was creepy and in retrospect I had barely begun the book— I could have just abandoned it and written something that felt less close to home. But I didn’t.
Where can we find your book or events related to its release?
Alternative Remedies for Loss will be on sale online and in bookstores on May 8th. There is a launch event that I will be speaking and signing at on Tuesday, May 8th at 7 PM at Powerhouse Arena in Dumbo, Brooklyn. You can RSVP and find out about other upcoming events on my website, joannacantor.com.
Written by Casey O'Connell for Open Campus.