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Rivka Galchen

Black and white photograph of Rivka Galchen outside a Manhattan subway station
  • Interview by Hermione Hoby
  • Issue 2
  • Free Radical

Rivka Galchen was born in Toronto, grew up in Oklahoma, and lives in Manhattan. After studying English at Princeton she received her M.D. from New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, where she specialized in psychiatry. Immediately after that, in 2003, she began her M.F.A. at Columbia University, and her first novel, Atmospheric Disturbances (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) was published in 2008. Two years later Galchen was named one of the New Yorker’s top twenty American authors under the age of forty.

The narrator of Atmospheric Disturbances is a psychiatrist, a fifty-one- year-old man who believes his younger wife has been replaced by a doppelgänger and embarks on a quest to find “the real Rema.” If psychiatry seeks to order the entropy of human minds, Galchen’s writing does the opposite, allowing pathologies to unspool along unsettling trajectories that are as awkwardly funny as they are moving. The stories in her first collection, American Innovations, out in May, also evade diagnoses. In one, a girl overhears the manager of a McDonald’s speaking about his workers overdosing on heroin in the restaurant’s bathrooms. He uses the phrase “They slip out from under their own control,” and it sticks with her. “I pictured the right side of the person lifting up a velvet rope and leaving the left side behind.” It’s an image that well describes the sensation induced by Galchen’s work, a fictional world in which things are always a little off. The stories thrill as much as they discomfit.

I met Galchen at a cafe a few blocks from Times Square, close to her home. As we talked over coffee and banana cake, she took a break to change the diaper of her six-month-old daughter. When I admired the author’s flair for accessories—Georgie's onesie matched the case of her mother’s iPhone matched the baby-bottle trimming—Galchen noted the strangeness of “all baby stuff” being suddenly the same color. Her theory: “I think it’s the re-imagining of Guantánamo orange.”

Hermione Hoby

You’re a writer who doesn’t live in Brooklyn.

Rivka Galchen

I know! I think I’m nearly the last one. Manhattan is so 1980.

Has living in a city of writers been good or bad for your work?

Oh, I'm sure it can be a problem. There’s that truism that there are two kinds of stories—one is, A stranger comes to town, and the other is, A person goes on a journey—well, New York kind of helps with that, but it also kind of doesn’t help with that at all. George Saunders wouldn’t be the writer he is if he’d spent the last ten years in New York City. And I imagine Lorrie Moore would be a different Lorrie Moore, and Joy Williams a different Joy Williams.

What made you want to become a doctor?

I come from a family of immigrants. They don’t want you to die in a gutter on the street. I keep meeting these young people who say to me, “I’m so torn; I’m really passionate about medicine but I’m also really passionate about writing,” and I find that I'm not much help to them, because I wasn’t passionate about medicine. I was like a koala sent to live in Kuala Lumpur—it only resembled a natural fit but really it was the wrong climate altogether. I have an enormous amount of respect for good physicians. And physicians deal with vulnerable people, so—even more than in other professions—a doctor really should love what they do, should want to be there.

I do miss medical settings. Mostly because medical settings are so intimate. Everyone is in their pajamas—the medical team are in pajamas, the patients are in pajamas—and the sense of whether it's day or night gets eclipsed. And people’s personalities are under distortion because they’re stressed or they’re frightened or they're very tired. It’s a kind of bubbled mirror image of humans. That all contributes to this odd and powerful intimacy, not based on personality or affinity or demographics. I like that. I’m a chatty enough person, but I’m not a very intimate person—so being forced into that kind of proximity, I find it refreshing. If I could work twenty hours a week in a hospital in some way that wouldn't mean there was an only half-competent person working there—I would love to do that. But I wouldn't want to be half competent.

You did your M.F.A. immediately after your M.D. How was that?

I know a lot of people feel ambivalent about M.F.A. programs, but for me it was really nice. I had a job teaching freshman composition, and I really liked that job. Before my M.F.A., I’d read almost no contemporary fiction. I didn’t have a bookish background, and I didn’t have very bookish friends, and I found it intellectually exciting just to be among all these people who cared about books. Even though maybe now I’m so surrounded by those people that I miss other parts of the world. I really liked seminars, though, and reading outside my familiar shelves. Of course the discussions were occasionally confounding. You really do hear again and again things like, “I don’t know, I just didn’t really like the character—maybe if they were more friendly?” And I would think, Well maybe no one really wants you to like them!

As if characters should be likeable, or fiction somehow palliative…

Right. I don’t get it. It’s difficult to have a good story about a companionable, nice person being sensible. That's more someone to be friends with than someone to read about. On some level a story tends to do well when it’s about people or situations that we don’t know how to feel about, that lie at the perimeters of our empathy or understanding.

Your stories are often set in a world not quite like this one. But there’s something that prevents these narratives from feeling arbitrary or outlandish. How do you preserve that sense of reality in your fiction?

I wish I had a kind of intellectually strong theoretical answer, but I feel it’s mostly instinct.

But maybe it has something to do with being very devoted to the real in a certain way, and to emotional realities. For example, well, obviously I have babies on my mind a lot now, and there’s a Japanese myth I’ve long really liked, “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” One day this old, poor, childless bamboo cutter is out cutting down bamboo, as he has done for years, and he comes across a glowing bamboo stalk. Inside it he finds a glowing tiny baby, small enough to fit in the palm of his hand. He takes the baby home to his wife and they raise the baby, and various things happen, and the bamboo cutter begins finding gold nuggets inside bamboo stalks, and the baby grows to normal size, and grows up beautifully, and eventually it turns out the bamboo girl is from the moon, she boards a spacecraft home, leaves behind broken hearts… there’s lots going on.

But re-reading the story recently, I was thinking, Oh this is just a pretty straightforward description of what it feels like to have a baby: They arrive in your life as if by magic; they're a tiny bit spooky; they seem to come from another realm; they have a weird charisma; they are never entirely yours. The myth is just a straightforward, realistic description.

And yet if you described a baby more “realistically”—and this is done very, very rarely in literature; in a sense Frankenstein is the main literary story we have about fresh progeny—and said, “It was seven pounds and six ounces, and it was female, and sort of red, and now she’s crying, and now she’s sleeping, and now she’s eating, and her feet are so tiny,” well that description seems to miss pretty much everything. There are certain things where the only way to feel like you don’t miss the point entirely is by shifting the story into another register, another world.

It’s a kind of counterfactual thinking, and counter-factual thinking is uniquely good at revealing the ordinary things we don't quite see because we're so accustomed to them. Margaret Atwood takes advantage of this especially brilliantly. She’s an ethical thinker, a political thinker, and I think that’s why science-fiction tropes work so well for her. The counterfactuals of science fiction are especially powerful for seeing into ethics.

How do stories begin for you?

I used to get embarrassed because I couldn’t say what I was working on. I knew it was going to morph a hundred times. Now I just know that's how it goes. Usually a story begins with a little set of words that have a mysterious appeal for me and I don’t know why, and I just try and follow them.

With “Once an Empire,” I was just drawn to the first sentence, “I'm a pretty normal woman, maybe even an extremely normal one.” Normal is one of those words I find numinous, I'm not sure why. Maybe for it’s uses and deployments, or maybe just because in the town where I’m from, Norman, when I was very young, the high school put the quote on the cover of the yearbook, “It's not Normal…” and I was impressed by that somehow.

When it comes to writing fiction, I think the unconscious and subconscious parts of our selves are smarter than the more conscious controlling parts—because that front brain, the conscious brain, is constantly trying to please people (or, if you're a different kind of person, trying to bother people), and so the front of the brain is like a fatigued hostess, reduced to just trying to offer a drink to everyone, and forgetting who she’s already offered drinks to, and just becoming a person who is weirdly pushing drinks on everyone—strangers on the sidewalk or recovered alcoholic cousins or whoever. It’s addled. So you have to get past that part of the brain. And then you can get on to something a little less self-solacing and less deformed by what you want to see and want to hear. One has to move past the stage of writing a comfort blankie for one’s self—although writing itself can be, in a serious and not easy way, a kind of comfort. Comfort is one of those weird etymological journeys. It started from the idea of “fort”—of giving strength, but now we think of it more along the lines of an easy chair. But that old, almost counter-, meaning lurks in comfort, and does it some good.

“Wild Berry Blue” is written from the perspective of a nine-year- old girl who falls in love with an ex-junkie who works at McDonald’s. How did you get into her consciousness?

I think we all have these states of arrested development within us. Parts of me are mature, and other parts can still be made to feel powerful and alive by a pair of red shoes. That parliamentary nature of the self can come in handy, because at least a few members of the parliament are children.

“Wild Berry Blue” I modeled off James Joyce’s “Araby” because I was interested in that epiphanic ending, and in the love-drunkness. I knew the story would change by being contemporary, and with the narrator being a girl. The power dynamic would be different, everything would be different. So it was one of those projects that comes from the proverbial head but then sinks or swims in how much it really comes from your proverbial gut.

Several of the stories begin with very grounding sentences: “This is a story about...”

Yes! Maybe I’m allergic to trying to get someone’s attention at the beginning of a story, even though of course I’m trying to get their attention at the beginning of a story. It’s as if I’ve refused to try to get your attention because I want it so badly? But even the stories that are purely realistic have characters that are a bit… at the ends of certain bell curves, so I think that makes me feel drawn to flatness of tone in other places.

What were some influential books for you?

There were almost no books in my house as a kid. My older brother, who’s super-smart about politics and numbers—he has that kind of brain—used to bring home for me the books he had to read for college, so I could tell him what happened in them. Those were the first real books I encountered. They were mostly classics. Madame Bovary was a big book for me… The Autobiography of Malcolm X… And one of the reasons I think those books got to me was that I was too young to understand what was going on. At all. So it was that thing where it feels runic, but you’re confident it’s worth paying close attention. I often wonder how twenty-one- year-old songwriters sometimes manage to make music that seems to have the wisdom of another age entirely, and I think it's a premonition thing. You can only have a premonition of what those adult emotions might be when you’re a kid. But it's a strong premonition. Like I remember reading The Brothers Karamazov, with its atmosphere that life is ethically extremely complicated, even baroque, and, at twelve years old, my own life, well it really didn’t feel ethically complicated or baroque. I had a funny experience with that book, because my copy was a bad print with missing pages, and the section that was missing was “The Grand Inquisitor”—which is arguably the most important section of the whole book. Those pages remained this weirdly perfect mystery, for years.

And lately, what are the books that have been important?

I’m a re-reader. That’s my favorite thing to do. The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien is a book I can turn to happily at any time. It makes no sense and it makes perfect sense, and the sentences don’t end like you would think they will, and neither do the paragraphs or the chapters. For a while I was making my way happily through Barbara Pym’s novels. And those of Charles Portis. Now with the baby I haven't been able to read for as long of stretches, so often I just go to books I really love and start reading a little. I’ll open up any book by Sebald and read anywhere and will feel glad to be reading. Same with Tristes Tropiques. The one thing I’ve read recently that’s really long is [Karl Ove Knausgaard’s] My Struggle, but I'm not sure that counts as long because it's almost like a vampire novel, it's a page-turner. I've been trying to think what makes it so compelling, and I think it has something to do with time. The first two volumes of the book cover in depth only about seven to ten days, but the book gives one the sense that it has covered in depth every single day. He’s figured out some kind of metonymy. A different one than I’ve ever seen before.

How does what you read affect what you write?

If you read bad stuff you get depressed about writing. That’s a big danger. I find that to be the only danger, though. I know many people worry about being influenced, but I feel the opposite. I’m more, You know what, I could try and write like Knausgaard and there’s no way in hell I’m going to write like Knausgaard. I can try and write like Gogol and there’s no way in hell it’s going to sound like Gogol. If I begin to emulate someone then maybe something interesting can happen in that attempt, because I can't actually sound like them, I'm not them. I don’t know if it’s apocryphal but I heard that the Stones said, Well, we were trying to sound like American blues musicians.

Their first album was all covers.

Oh, I didn’t know that!

I went to a panel of female novelists recently, and several of them spoke about how they had given their first novels male protagonists, because they were worried that a female character would just end up being the writer herself.

I have an even sadder experience, which is that out of the first six hundred books I read, probably five hundred and ninety five of them had either male narrators or main characters, or both. The canon can do that to you, and it’s not as if I don’t have enormous admiration for a great deal of what’s in the canon. And then those few canonical women—I had some weird aversion to Little Women, I had a weird aversion to Jane Austen. Flannery O’Connor I loved, but there were so few others I even knew about. Now I think Edith Wharton’s amazing, but I didn’t read her until I was older because I wrongly assumed her work was bad simply because there’s, like, a movie with Winona Ryder looking distressed and beautiful and everyone in the movie wears fancy period pieces. So my idea of what literature sounded like was so male that when I wanted to write a female character I was like, This just sounds wrong. When I was in medical school, I looked at my bookshelves and thought, This is just terrible, these are almost all books by men, I guess if I want to find books by women I'm going to need to seek them out, for some reason those books are not making their way to me on their own. So I started looking for women to read. I remember thinking, “Oh I’ve heard that this Denis Johnson is really amazing.” I figured it was a French woman. The Internet was different then, I don’t think there was even Wikipedia. And I ordered a book by Denis Johnson, it was a weird one called, The Name of the World. There was no author photo. It's a Bernhard-ian sort of book. After reading it I thought, How weird, I would not have thought that was by a woman. It was only later that I realized Denis was not a French woman. Of course now there are many fiction writers whose work means so much to me: Jane Bowles, Muriel Spark, Lydia Davis, Janet Frame, Helen DeWitt, Marilynne Robinson, just to name a few.

Novelists sometimes face the problem that autobiographical detail is seized upon as evidence of the work somehow being lesser. Did you worry about including your father’s name in Atmospheric Disturbances?

The great thing about a first novel is that you don’t really think that it will get published—so you’re just entertaining yourself by writing. Even putting my dad’s name in there was just a matter of amusing myself, and keeping my own ghost in the book.

I love how we’re so completely in Leo’s mind—so with him in this conviction that his wife is not his wife. How did it feel to inhabit madness like that?

Heidi Julavits said to me once—and maybe someone else said it to her, I can't remember—“We all suffer from a very rare mental illness of which we’re the only victim.” I take that very seriously! Each of us has things that for whatever reason we find unacceptable, things we just won’t see. And for Leo, he can’t admit he loves this woman a little less. Or at least not in the same way. It’s too awful for him. Too banal a thing to happen to him. So he remains devoted to a story that can't continue to be true. He goes to extremes with that devotion. He hasn’t figured out the story for falling in love with this new, changed woman, though he tries.

Did you set out to write about long-term relationships or did Leo’s extraordinary condition come to you first?

I didn’t know what I was writing about because I never do. But I do have a couple of origin stories. I had a friend who has two cats, Milo and Otis, and one of the cats got sick and had to go to the vet, and when he came home he smelled weird and the other cat, his companion cat of years, rejected him. I found that very touching.

And there was another case in the news, about a man in England who was in car wreck and he had some sort of brain trauma and he couldn’t recognize his wife afterwards. In his mind, she’d died in the car wreck. In the insurance case, he was compensated as if his wife had died, because that was his experience. I was also moved by that—by someone’s subjectivity being officially, formally, taken really seriously.

But I don’t think I’d have written a sad love story unless I didn’t know I was writing a sad love story.

You’ve said that the person you feel you have the least epistemological access to is yourself. Do you think too much self-knowledge might actually be a hindrance to writing fiction?

I do, although I think the risk of having too much self-knowledge is pretty low. But the strange paths our minds take in order to avoid certain truths can be very useful in art, I think. It’s the long walk instead of the direct walk, and you see so much on that long walk. It’s like how in our dreams we do so much work to hide something from ourselves even as we are the same time telling ourselves about that same thing. Or like a message arriving in the mail, a postcard that says “This is not a message!” I think that work of transforming the raw facticity of our lives into something else, something palatable—well, it shows us something. Not just the something palatable, but all the weird stitching and mismatched threads and then also there's this strange artifact and you think, Why this sad unicorn dream, why that dream instead of another?

I do think seeing a shrink can make one a better person—slightly less likely to be hurtful for no reason, slightly more aware of what one is doing. But I eventually quit because . . . I chose to become less self-aware! It’s useful to be stuck speaking in code. You learn weird code languages. But of course at some point you need your conscious brain to show up and make a better story out of the tangle the unconscious has made. My editor at The New Yorker, Willing Davidson, does this very generous thing of reading my work in intermediate stages. I find it so, so useful, almost essential really, because the way I write is, well, with limited self-knowledge. With my eyes closed. I know that when I have my eyes open and plan things they turn out flat. Writing fiction—it’s like trying to grow truffles.

I’m curious about your routines and rituals.

I need them. I used to have them. There was a coffee shop...

The Hungarian Pastry Shop [which features in Atmospheric Disturbances]?

Yeah. And it would open at seven thirty, so I’d just be there at seven thirty, there was almost no one there in the morning, and I’d try and work. I really just put in the hours. No word count, but just being there.

And now?

I thought being with a baby would be really boring. But it's not. I feel like people have been lying to me. It’s not boring. Maybe it will become boring? The fact that it's not boring at all makes it difficult for me to set aside hours for not being with her.

How has parenting affected your writing life?

It hasn’t opened up reserves of time. That’s really the only worry, though—time. I know they say your brain goes to mac and cheese and it kind of does. I’ve had dreams about yogurt. But whatever, you grow. You move out of adolescence. I mean, adolescence is such an interesting phase—Everything is wrong! We are so upset about it! No one understands!—that we’d tend to stay in it forever if we could. Part of a person always stays there. Dostoevsky was an eternal adolescent even though he had a wife and kids and enormous gambling debts. That was his form of intelligence. All those raging voices: Norman Mailer had an adolescent intelligence. I think Saul Bellow is not adolescent, I think he is actually most like a child, which is another variety of intelligence. But I think Marilynne Robinson is an adult voice. She has a different set of concerns. Her rage sounds different. Her love sounds different. Norman Rush is a mature writer, and always has been. I’d like to become a mature writer. I don’t think there are as many of them.