The Path to Self-Actualization Is Paved With Grifters and Psychics
Ruth Madievsky talks about her drug-hazed fever dream of a novel "All-Night Pharmacy"
Set in Los Angeles, All-Night Pharmacy follows a young woman who both idolizes and resents her older sister, Debbie, for involving her in drug-fueled escapades that could either, “end with you, euphoric, tanning topless on a fishing boat headed for Ensenada, or coming to in a gas station bathroom[.]” After Debbie disappears, the narrator detoxes and forges a new path as an ER secretary, which leads her into the arms of Sasha, a psychic from the former Soviet Republic of Moldova who guides the narrator on the path of queer discovery and self-hood.
Like the three main characters in her debut novel, Ruth Madievsky is part of the Moldovan Jewish diaspora. And like many émigrés whose families have fled persecution, Ruth has a foot in two worlds. This biographical information factored into the appeal for me, having spent the past few years grilling my mother about her grandparents, Ukrainian Jews who fled pogroms and unrest around 1906, for the US. Unlike Madievsky’s family, mine chose to forget.
Inherited trauma can have outsized influence over a family’s ability to function. But sometimes we have no scapegoat for our own bad behavior. Or, we somehow rise above the hand-me-down anxiety and forge our own path. When we spoke over Zoom in March, Ruth was on the cusp of parenthood herself. As such, our discussion naturally touched on the novel’s themes: generational grief, Jewish mysticism, and ambiguous power dynamics within families, and between lovers.
Arturo Vidich: What made you want to write a book about toxic siblinghood in all its flaming glory?
Ruth Madievsky: It’s so funny—I definitely did not set out to do that. I never outline before I write, it always starts with a voice. And it had a lot to do with the books I was reading at the time where, you know, if there’s a plot, the plot couldn’t be more irrelevant. I wanted to write a voice that’s really sharp and confident and hyper specific. Specificity in other people’s writing is what really gets me, like when they can capture something about the human experience that slices you to your core because you know exactly what they mean. For me, it started with sitting down to a blank page and trying to harness this voice of someone who’s really opinionated, and the details of their life are almost a secondary concern. It’s more about how they describe it. I just love writing characters who have really bold opinions with no data behind it. And then one day I came up with that line: “Spending time with my sister, Debbie, was like buying acid off a guy you met on the bus.” That’s how a lot of it starts. I try to say something very provocative, very specific.
AV: To me, the bar the narrator and her sister frequent, Salvation, was like Plato’s Symposium. There’s a chorus of different voices you can bounce your identity off of and create new masks, new identities. Debbie appears to have mastered her own identity, but the narrator, perpetually in Debbie’s shadow, struggles to come into her own.
RM: I love that. Yeah, it’s pretty clear by the end that their sisterhood is not a match made in heaven. And then if they weren’t sisters, they’d probably fucking hate each other, or be bored by each other, or have no reason to keep in touch. But because they are bound by sisterhood, and by mutual, shared family trauma, I think that this is the best version of a relationship they could have, one that’s distant but friendly. One in which they’re not relying on each other. A non-codependent relationship where they’re not involved in each other’s decision making.
AV: Debbie says “all relationships are transactional.” I felt like there was no shame for her in anything that she did. Is she incapable of finding fault within herself?
RM: I think that she’s had it really rough. She’s taken a lot of their family dynamics harder than the narrator has, maybe because she’s older, and less naive when things were going down with her parents. For her, relationships have always been transactional. She doesn’t really have any close friends. Because they have this dynamic where Debbie’s the dominant one, for the narrator it’s like, Who are you to teach me anything about relationships? Debbie was a lot shittier in earlier drafts, and had fewer redeeming qualities. An editor who I talked to early in the process said, “Why doesn’t the narrator just cut Debbie off?” What’s keeping her attached to this really toxic person? And I think defensively I was like, Well, it’s her sister. I think, for people who have this legacy of the Holocaust over them especially, you don’t just abandon your sibling.
AV: That’s what had me reading to the last page. In the context of the novel, what does it mean that the narrator is “estranged from her own Jewish trauma?” That’s the direct quote, but then also, is Debbie also estranged? Does it affect her in the same way?
RM: That was one of the central questions that I was grappling with in the book. And one of the more controversial things when the book was on submission. Some editors felt like this book, at its heart, is just a sisterhood story, an addiction story, and anything related to intergenerational trauma—the Holocaust—that belongs somewhere else. I was really grateful to have found Alicia Kroell at Catapult who instantly understood that there wasn’t really a concise and paraphrasable thesis about the linear relationship between Jewish trauma and addiction and complicated family dynamics. But it was more about this idea that the legacy of the Holocaust and Soviet Terror is inescapable, I think, even for these people who are a few generations removed. It doesn’t just disappear. It’s part of how they grew up. It’s not something that’s spoken about. That was a thread I was interested in pulling at in the novel without hammering in some kind of unambiguous thesis about, you know, Debbie is the way she is because of “blank.”
AV: Like if you deny your own ancestry or cultural heritage, whatever you deny could still creep up on you. There’s this line that Sasha has later in the novel, in the Jewish cemetery: “They dump all this horror on you and then act affronted when it fucks you up.” To me, that speaks to Debbie’s personality. She does all these things to her sister, and then she’s like, What the fuck is wrong with you?
RM: I’ve thought about how this history affects Debbie as a victim, but it’s interesting to hear you phrase it as, well, the exact thing that people do to her, she does to other people, but doesn’t realize it.
AV: Where did this idea of a person being another person’s amulet come from?
RM: I had a short story solicited for this magazine called 7×7. They paired a writer with a visual artist. I worked with Sarah Ratchye. Originally, it was that Sasha tells the narrator to spend time with this weird, artsy fartsy dude named Kenny and that he is her amulet. He had this creepy parrot who had these beady eyes that looked like they had been in someone’s mouth. The amulet idea got transposed onto Sasha because that’s the role she was playing in the narrator’s life anyway. And then you have amulets, this history of Jewish trauma and of needing something to protect yourself. For my family, superstition is a big thing, especially for my mom and kind of the maternal side of the family. It’s always a fight when there’s some large event and my mom wants me to wear a red bracelet and I don’t want to do it. When I told my grandparents I was pregnant, my grandpa immediately flipped all the glasses in his house upside down and closed the curtains, and didn’t want to talk about it anymore because he didn’t want to jinx it.
AV: Superstition as inoculation.
RM: Yeah. And to prepare yourself, to find out how you’ll react. I think it’s been personally helpful for me, as someone who deals with anxiety, this idea that anxiety is not intuition, that just because you have this feeling of doom that something is going to happen, you’re not onto something, necessarily. You’re just fucking anxious. And I think a lot of what superstition is is anxiety, this idea of trying to control something we can’t control. Even though I grew up with a lot of superstition around me, I find it mostly annoying. Having been through some tough times myself, superstition feels worthless to me as a way of protecting myself, like, Okay, try these things that don’t do anything. What’s the point?
AV: Right, superstition no longer holds the same power for most of us, yet people still knock on wood.
RM: I do that, actually. But it is funny how some of them become more culturally normal. We had a crazy one in my family: if you think someone put the evil eye on you, rub a pair of dirty underwear on your face. I am absolutely not on board.
AV: One of the things I felt like your novel does really well is the binding of queerness to the uncanny and the unexplainable, through Sasha. With Sasha, the narrator has her first opportunity to be in a queer relationship. Could you talk about the decision to make the narrator bi?
RM: She was bi from the start, actually, from when I first started writing the book as stories in 2014. That was something I didn’t plot out beforehand. I collapsed a lot of stuff for the novel just to make it cohere better. I describe in the novel how the narrator is at the strip club, subtly ogling all the women. Originally that scene took place in— Have you ever been to a Loehmann’s? Before they went bankrupt? They were kind of legendary for these enormous group dressing rooms with no privacy. It’s just fluorescent lights, everybody’s naked. Originally, Debbie worked at a place like that, and the narrator would keep her company in the dressing room, but really she was learning a lot about her own desires. Even though the book is partly a queer coming-of-age story, the voice was not really interested in the coming-out process or queer trauma being the main source of conflict in the book. It felt more natural for it to be an important thing about her, and certainly something she’s navigating, but not the source of all the book’s tension.
AV: What do you think the narrator’s sense of her own queerness would have been if Sasha had never come into her life?
RM: That’s a really interesting question. The narrator already knows she’s bi before she meets Sasha, so Sasha isn’t exactly teaching her what her sexuality is, per se. What Sasha does is help the narrator learn how to exert more agency, and realize that’s something she wants. She wants a partner, wants to feel like equals. Sasha shows her that there can be happiness in her relationship, though theirs certainly has problems to it. The other relationship the narrator has before that is with Ronnie, which feels a lot more superficial. They’re not a good match, but also, the narrator is never open to them being a match in a real way.
AV: Right. Ronnie’s a futon.
RM: [Laughs] Yes, he is a futon. She needs someone who can actually challenge her, but not with these very fraught dynamics of like, they’re the boss. When she’s in these relationships, both sexual and familial, where there’s a very clear power dynamic of someone who’s really dominant, and she just follows along—that doesn’t work. But it also doesn’t work when it’s these two really passive people, like her and Ronnie, kind of play acting at a relationship.
AV: He’s pure, but he’s also really naive. The narrator says, “I was most attracted to him when he was telling me what to do.” Why do some of us crave being told what to do?
RM: I mean, being a person is hard. She’s navigating this relationship with a super dominant, toxic sibling. She’s navigating her own nascent queerness. She’s navigating intergenerational trauma that she doesn’t really have the words for. It’s not something that presents itself in super obvious ways in her life, because she’s several generations separated from the family that, you know, survived Soviet terror and the Holocaust. It’s easier to not take responsibility for herself or for her actions. She just allows herself to be kind of swayed by these dominant people and dominant forces.
AV: Could you talk about how you use humor to address dark material? What purpose does humor have in post-traumatic realities, and why is it so effective for survivors?
RM: Part of that is being Jewish. Jewish humor and Soviet humor are often very dark, you know? Sometimes it’s more approachable to engage with really dark shit from a slant. Humor makes it feel more survivable. I remember being at a funeral—I was newly married at the time—and this very lovely rabbi saying, afterward, when we were all cried out and sniffling, that a cemetery’s a great place to walk around and get some inspiration for baby names. Which is especially funny in a Jewish cemetery where half the names are Semyon and Hymen.
AV: As I was reading your novel, I had the idea that if we never laugh again, we do disrespect to our ancestors. Or like the real tragedy is forgetting.
RM: I think so too. Everyone in my family has a really dark sense of humor. That’s how I was raised. Russian proverbs are often very dark, very vulgar and pretty funny. So it’s just kind of my worldview. Humor can be a defense mechanism to avoid doing the hard work of self-reflection, but it can also be a way into the darkness.