What Are Your "Classics"? A Q&A With Fiction Writer Rivka Galchen

Rivka Galchen has a slightly unusual background for a fiction writer, having first trained as a psychiatrist and then abandoned that career path to pursue an MFA at Columbia. Her 2008 novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, showed the math of that career trajectory, because it was about a man who believes that his wife had been replaced by an impostor.

Her new collection of short stories, American Innovations, serves as a more straightforward yet continuing testament to Galchen's wit and intelligence. The stories are reworkings of classics from the perspective of female narrators. The first, "The Lost Order," rewrites James Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," for example, with a disaffected female attorney who has left her job to figure out another kind of meaning. My favorite modification probably comes in the title story, "American Innovations," which varies Gogol's "The Nose" to see the protagonist grow a third breast.

The narrators of these stories are generally intelligent but slightly disconnected. David Bezmozgis, writing about the collection in the New York Times Book Review on Sunday, points out that the narrators of the collection have certain conditions in common:

Galchen's heroines suffer from precisely the opposite — from an absence of responsibilities and convictions. Liberated from traditional gender roles, they are not bound to children or housework. Nor do they subscribe to any of the old (perhaps discredited or exhausted) revolutionary movements. What Galchen's characters have instead is a lulling late-stage capitalism: which is to say, tremendous personal autonomy and no idea what to do with it.

Bezmozgis goes on to suggest that there is something strange about the narrators' disaffected tone as a result. From my own vantage the ambivalence and disconnect of the narrators fits with what I hear from other women and men in the midst of the personal and professional crises of our age.

Galchen was kind enough to exchange some emails with me last week about the book and her work. She'll drop by the comments from about 1 p.m. EDT today to answer questions you might have for her.

Are all of the stories in this book based on classics?

Well, they're all classics of my subconscious, albeit not all necessarily classics out in the world in general. And some of the rhymes are very quiet, even as others are noisy, and a couple have more than one story with which they rhyme. Like "The Lost Order" echoes, like you said, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" but also "The Wind-up Bird and Tuesday's Women" by Murakami; its opening sentence that is a mirror of the Murakami opening. Anyhow, I'm not really a planner, so its a bit all over the place, but we all have those stories we have read so many times that they become the structure we see in every rorschach blot.

What was your process in reinterpreting these stories with a female narrator? Now looking back, do you think it made much difference?

It wasn't really a conscious process until probably the sixth story or so (though the stories in the book are not in the order in which they were written.) But, well, yes, I do think it makes a difference…it's sort of like that joke going around now, about saying about George Clooney: 'I'm so happy for him!' That said, I think anything would have made a difference, its just like haystacks in another light, or whatever your metaphor. I guess the famous example of pushing this idea the farthest is the funny but not only funny Borges story, "Pierre Menard, Author of The Quixote," in which Menard sets out to rewrite Don Quixote, but he doesn't want to rewrite it in the sense of setting it in another time or another place or whatnot, instead he wants to somehow arrive at the exact same text, one word after another, but somehow starting from scratch. The narrator of the story then compares a Cervantes passage to a Menard passage—they are the same words!—and demonstrates through his scholarly magic that they have extraordinarily different meanings. It's a joke, of course, just making fun of a certain habit of scholarship, but it's also, well, not a joke at all; the scholar is in many ways right to see a difference. It would mean something entirely different to set out today on a novel project and find one's self mocking tales of chivalry of days past.

All that said though, again, I wasn't very deliberate about what I was doing most of the time. I was just in my kind of my sleepwalking way of working, which tends always to be drawn to structural resonances, I guess because I love half-rhymes, I don't know why. Even just the simplest things, like I like the simple Tom Waits lyric that goes:

The leaves will bury every year

And no one knows I'm gone.

And you couldn't have that effect—of the word 'here' being evoked without being said, of hearing 'here' and 'gone' at the same time—unless the structure coerced the listener's brain in that way through the set up. And i think it's something similar—or ideally, it could be similar— when you have another story ghosting your story, and so then you get all these associations going on in a readers brain sort of subliminally, and you can clash and match with those associations, and so it can be like getting a little orchestral backup for what's really just a solo oboe sort of instrument, the short story. That's possible, anyhow.

You quite famously quit medicine to become a writer, a fact which everyone asks you about, but I will too, because I quit being a lawyer to become a much less celebrated sort of writer. I guess my question is, do you still feel like medicine structures your approach to fiction?

It must, right? Like I imagine you have a tendency to progress in a logical and evidenced manner that is sensitive to counterpoint... although maybe this is my fantasy about legal thinking. But I'm not very sure what the influence of medicine might be. There's the estranging vocabulary, and the sensitivity to how categorizations and rubrics crumble as you grow closer to them, which is maybe more a sort of knowledge we associate with fiction. But I don't know. I have found myself saying sometimes that what has stuck with me was the weird intimacy of the hospital, but maybe that was just the part that I liked the best. I like hospitals at night, when the staff are in pyjamas basically, and the patients are in pyjamas, and everyone has disconnected from the normal sunrise to sunset cycle of work…. then it becomes a bit of an island culture, ocean-ed away from regular life.

I like the idea of the island-ness of late-night hospitals. It got me thinking somehow about the narrator of Atmospheric Disturbances, and in fact many of your narrators, who seem to be working alone, "ocean-ed" away from regular life either by temperament or by some kind of cognitive distortion. Does that seem right to you?

I like that. And maybe they think they're firing off cannons so as to be found, brought back to the mainland, but really they're just propelling themselves further away.

[Image by Ken Goebel.]