Closer to the Ritual: Talking with Author Rivka Galchen
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Rivka Galchen has been called everything from a scientific interpretive writer to the second coming of Pynchon. This stems partly from the measured brilliance of her novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, and short-story collection, American Innovations, which feature lived-in characters deceiving themselves in order to better navigate the world around them. In discussing her past work, her current project — Little Labors — and an in-development novel, I was able to lay some of those associations to rest for myself, and hopefully, for others. Galchen was kind enough to call me on a Saturday in early June after getting her baby down for a nap and wrapping up work on a top-secret article.
Eric Farwell: So, this article you were working on…
Rivka Galchen: It’s honestly so different from my other stuff that I’m embarrassed to bring it up to you.
EF: No, don’t be. Is it for the New Yorker or the Believer? I’m a big fan of your stuff in those magazines.
RG: No, no. It’s something completely else. It’ll be out soon enough though, so you can see it then.
EF: I understand. So, let’s start by talking about Little Labors. I admit that I couldn’t get a review copy, but understand, according to Amazon, that it’s an exploration of the small, with special attention to how imperial Japanese women were forced to write in kana, despite Chinese being the official language of politics in the Heian period, and how that gave rise to powerful and important works of literature.
RG: I wouldn’t say it’s specifically focused on Asian politics and culture at that time. It’s more that, in a way, kana is the old spirit of the book, if that makes any sense. The exploration of the small concerns babies in a lot of ways. It’s very much about babies- baby thoughts and mother writers. I will say that the form is similar to The Pillow Book, which was a sort of diary, but a really terse, funny diary that feels modern. It was written during the Heian period by Sei Shonagon, and it’s cool because she describes small things that were going on in the courts at the time, but cloaks them in this particular language. So, she’s taking on these major political moves at the time, but doing so in a way that was sort of a political move of its own.
EF: I was interested in whether you approach your non-fiction differently than your fiction, because there’s a methodology to both.
RG: Well, I’d say that when I’m working on non-fiction, it feels more controlled, whereas fiction is maybe less so. It sounds super cheesy, but I feel like I’m working on fiction each day, insomuch as I do my best to let ideas come naturally and parse through them later to see if there’s something there. In non-fiction, it’s more straightforward reporting, or talking to people I normally wouldn’t get to in order to develop a particular topic outward; it’s a different job than telling a story. Fiction, to me at least, has to occupy some space or go somewhere new. That’s what it’s best at. Non-fiction almost has an excess, a strong burden of information that causes it to have a lack of play.
EF: That’s interesting, because the thing I like about your fiction so much, especially your novel, is that it almost works as a small film. I was wondering if you ever feel like maybe your fiction is a response to other art forms, things you take in.
RG: Well, being a modern person, I definitely take in everything and metabolize it. I don’t think my work is ever a conscious response to anything else, but I think that, on some level, I’m picking up on different structures. I remember being 10 years old and taking modern dance and — this may sound silly — but it was the first time the structure was apparent to me, because of the physical embodiment of variation. Some kids at that age maybe could pick up on the fact that books had a certain structure, or cartoons, or whatever, but for me, dance was the first form that I really remember noticing the structural properties of.
EF: Structural properties definitely seem like something you’re interested in playing with and pushing against. In preparing to talk with you, I watched your Google Chat…
RG: Oh no. What did I say?
EF: Nothing weird or anything. You just mentioned that you remember watching ‘Three’s Company’ and wishing in some ways that there wasn’t a plot all of the time and that the characters could just hang out and tell jokes. So, in your work, and again in the novel, I was wondering if you were concerned with people “getting it”, the lack of constant plot movement. Because it seemed like there was a lot of different takes on it, and maybe not every critic understood that it best suited the journey of the characters.
RG: Hmm, I’m not sure. I don’t think of it like that, actually. I will say that I don’t like catching sight of myself, and so maybe I don’t pay a ton of attention to reviews. I get this a lot in class though, where students will have a particular take on a book and have a hard time immediately reconsidering that interpretation. When we do workshops, though, I always try to point out the same basic principle, that a novel or a collection works really well when two different subjects overlap and coalesce. It never crossed my mind that someone would “get it” exactly the same as I did, because it’s a different book for the writer than it is for the reader.
EF: Well, would you say then that you’re comfortable and happy with the final product being released, or would there be certain things needed for you to feel at ease about it?
It’s rough at first, but after a few years you become grateful that there’s no taking that version of your work back.
RG: With Atmospheric Disturbances, I wanted to take it back and change things. I remember that. Now though, I feel happy with it because it feels complete — not perfect- but it makes sense as a snapshot for who I was at that point in my life. It’s rough at first, but after a few years you become grateful that there’s no taking that version of your work back. At this point, I feel the same way about anything I’m working on or have put out. I’ve learned to be comfortable and to almost appreciate how much it represented me at that time.
EF: When you were working on Atmospheric Disturbances, how did you negotiate the lack of immediate plot providing fuel for the journey and creating momentum for the reader? In American Innovations?
RG: With the novel I remember feeling a lot of concern for velocity and movement. You know, short stories, since they’re not as long, feel slower and the reader can take more time, I think. A novel feels like it has to be read breathlessly, rushed-through because it’s longer. I was really aware of the structural moods, so it was important to me that I gave up some control to let the characters guide the story, rather than me guiding the characters. Otherwise, you know, the characters can become cliche and all sorts of terrible things can befall the project you’re working on. When I’d get stuck with something, I’d realize that something was missing from the story or characters — a sort of development, important information, contextual detail- and fill in accordingly. This also helped me to figure out where to put my plot points and how to move the action forward. It was like looking at two characters in an action scene and figuring out when the third fighter should enter.
EF: I think that approach helps to give your characters a lived-in sensibility. Whenever I began a story in American Innovations, I felt like I was always entering in the middle of the story, because the characters immediately seem to somehow come with fully developed stories and lives. It’s interesting that you have them graze up against this barrier of reality that threatens their personal fiction, and yet you never have them engage it really.
I’m interested in the pasts people come up with to avoid knowing about themselves.
RG: Well, a lot of the individuals I love are people who create a certain fiction for themselves and then set about navigating it to make them phenomenally effective in society. So I’m always interested in those moving parts, how there’s that sort of labor of not knowing something. I’m interested in the pasts people come up with to avoid knowing about themselves. I also think it’s important to allow a character to reveal themselves. I look to let the character walk me down their own path and fill in the missing aspects accordingly. I also really like it when the reader feels like they know something that the narrator doesn’t, like they’re superior but still in the dark. It creates these amazing, I guess you could call them rhyming sounds that the reader hears in their head as they make their way across the page.
EF: Right, but it’s interesting that you seem to set up your works as set pieces. What I mean by that is that reading your work, because the characters are built with strong core interiors, the chapters or stories feel in a way like they’re set pieces, almost like in a play.
RG: They’re true in the sense that “if” statements are true. “If” statements take them seriously and view them as rigorous. I like to view my characters as if they’re legitimate people. As far as feeling like they’re in a play or staged, I remember being interested in theatre in high school and taking this class where we had to write one act plays. Well, one kid came up with this play where it was just one chair in the middle of the stage and two people argued over it. It sounds maybe silly, but to this day I kind of feel a little, like, jealous that I didn’t come up with that. There’s a brilliance in the simplicity there. The hard work is front loaded and you can really let the scene surprise you.
EF: That’s interesting. I feel good about this so far, like maybe I’m asking you things you don’t normally get asked about?
RG: Well, I can tell you I’m glad you’re not asking me what it’s like to be a doctor.
EF: You get that a lot?
RG: Well, sometimes. I don’t think it should be seen as a reflection on the interviewer, but yeah, I think sometimes it’s human nature to see that I went to medical school and go “Oh, doctor. Got it.”
EF: So the story with that is…
RG: I have an MD, you can put that down.
EF: So then how did you navigate that, deciding to pursue writing in lieu of practicing with your degree?
It never felt like a natural habitat to me, being a writer…
RG: It was difficult. I knew that I wanted to write but was always slightly in a panic about that being an okay or acceptable thing to do professionally. Sometimes I find that it still feels like a silly thing to do, and I work hard to make sure it feels like an appropriate endeavor. It never felt like a natural habitat to me, being a writer, because I think that when you’re little you’re raised to see things a certain way, and I didn’t have artists around me to maybe model that it could be different. So while I’m grateful and love writing, I struggle with how I feel about it sometimes, my comfort level in a way.
EF: Do you ever worry about running out of ideas?
RG: No, but I get scared of never finishing anything. I have to make myself experience work like I’m going through a ritual. If I have routine, I find myself energized, or sometimes I’ll look to use that panic as a sort of energy source. Sometimes I feel like I’m being derailed, especially now with the baby, happily so, though! I think that’s good sometimes, because then I feel like I’m starting new, which feels weirdly like I can move through the work really fast because I’ve strangely been working on it that whole time, in a way.
EF: Are you working on anything new right now?
RG: I’m working on a novel.
EF: So are you then looking to change or push yourself in terms of your approach to structure or characterization or anything? Do you feel pressure like that?
RG: I feel almost as if I need to get closer to the ritual of that first novel. I used to teach at 10:30 and after class I’d walk over to this cafe. The walk was a good twenty or thirty minutes, which made it a good sort of spacey walk to think. I’m trying to remind myself that if I focus on the ritual and trust in it, then the work will be good.
EF: Do you notice anything though, about a difference in approach to the novel, however far into it you are?
Subject matter is kind of an illusion, and I’m trying to let go of it a little bit and to do something more true.
RG: I’ve been so influenced by a lot of people I love- Iria, Tawada, early Updike, his essays. Donald Antrim. I like that application of self to the logic of the work. I used to be open to subject matter and questions like “what’s the story about? Who are the characters?,” but now I’m trying hard to pay attention to sentence structure and how one sentence forces the second sentence to be something, and so on and so forth. I’m trying to let the story be more unpredictable and organic. Subject matter is kind of an illusion, and I’m trying to let go of it a little bit and to do something more true.
EF: Does the categorization of your work ever bother you? What I mean is, a lot of people I think look at what they perceive to be signifiers of your work and group you in with Pynchon, DeLillo, Borges. Do you feel at all influenced by them, or does it maybe annoy you that your work can’t just stand in review without those groupings?
RG: It’s not bothersome. I mean, I find it confusing when people think I’m doing some expository functional work, like I’m doing a literary sketch of the inside of an MRI or something, but categorization doesn’t bother me.
EF: So then when your novel came out and everyone thought the protagonist had…
RG: Capgras syndrome. Yeah. I naively thought that if I made him a psychologist it would circumvent that assumption, but it was obviously naive to think the reader would see it the same way as me, when it was so emotionally difficult and arduous in some ways to create it.
EF: I wanted to wrap up by discussing your work in magazines. I think for many people, The New Yorker is kind of the holy grail. I was curious if you wouldn’t mind explaining how that all occured.
RG: Sure. The Believer is very good at taking chances on writers with little to no list of writing credits. So they thankfully took a chance on me when I had nothing published. Then when I wrote for Harper’s about mitigating hurricanes, the piece had a lot of latitude to it; I was writing a sort of mix of science and memoir. Sandy Frazier at the New Yorker saw it and thought they should give me a shot. It was difficult though. I remember that I struggled with the first New Yorker piece on and off for like a year and a half. I’m so grateful for it all though. All of it led to my being a critic for Harper’s and learning how to pitch a story. I look back, and sometimes I’m in awe of how lucky I was.