Monday, July 10, 2023

TBR: Half-Life of a Stolen Sister by Rachel Cantor

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe. 


Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?


Half-Life of a Stolen Sister is an imaginative retelling of the life of the Brontë siblings in a time and place much like our own. Half-Life is about siblings—their bonds and how they collectively and individually understand their lives; it is also about the creative impulse and how we manage terrible loss.


Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?


I didn’t have to create my characters, really, because they’re based on real people. My task (self-imposed) was instead to imagine and understand them. It was probably easier to imagine Charlotte than it was Emily because Charlotte left so many personal writings and met so many more people (who then remembered her) while Emily left almost no writings and had no interest in meeting anyone ever!


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.


The book took ten years for me to write—lots of time for highs and lows! At one point, my former agent told me she would only go out with the book if I cut it by more than one-third; she offered no roadmap, however, for how I might do so! That was definitely a low! Highs included writing every piece in the book, and also finding an editor who truly appreciated what I was trying to do.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


Alice McDermott and Jim Crace both offered similar advice at different points which I now, with Half-Life, possibly follow to an extreme! Alice read a story about young people traversing Asia in a Magic Bus in 1960 and told me to keep those kids, and their drama, on the bus! Jim read an early version of the opening of my first novel, Good on Paper, and said that the love interest’s bookstore should not be many blocks away, but visible from the narrator’s window. Spatial unity! I like it! My Brontës are homebodies: in my imagining, virtually all their drama takes place in their much too small, rent-controlled apartment!


My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?


I had intended to write four realistic long stories, each from the point of view of a different Brontë sibling; collectively, these long stories would comprise a novel, telling us something more or less comprehensive about their lives. Imagine my surprise when before I’d written even five pages, the Brontë children were jumping on and off subways, and running from their doorman. This was not going to be a realistic version of their lives!


How did you find the title of your book?


The title of the book came out of that first piece, which by some crazy miracle already contained so much that would be important in the book. The stolen sisters refer, at first, to the two oldest Brontë girls, Maria and Elizabeth, who die at age 11 and 10, respectively (when Charlotte, the oldest of the remaining children, is barely nine); later it could be said that Emily and Anne, who die at age 30 and 29, respectively, are also “stolen.” In my imagining, these deaths haunt Charlotte. What is the half-life of this kind of haunting? Does it diminish over time? What are its effects? These are (some of) the questions this book explores.


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)


Emily, it seems, is constantly making stew. By all accounts her stew is excellent, though it is in no way exceptional. Definitely it wasn’t made with wine because Emily wouldn’t want alcohol of any kind in the house to tempt her brother; also, she can’t be using a crockpot or pressure cooker, because she seems to always be stirring … I haven’t tried this recipe, so can’t vouch for it, but this is very much like the stew Emily might have made: Hearty, ordinary cut of beef, plenty of veg to make the beef go further!












DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.