Reading in Private: An Interview with Rivka Galchen


Rivka Galchen is the author of American Innovations, a collection of short stories speaking in conversation with “classic” short stories from a female perspective, and Amostpheric Disturbances, a novel. Staff writer Joseph Ponce corresponded with Rivka via email about the dangers of “familiar” language, intentionally de-railing plots, and misconstrued emotion and characters. She will be reading as part of the First Person Plural Reading Series, along with Mya Green, Patrick Rosal, and a screening of the Field Niggas and Antonyms of Beauty, a film by Khalik Allah, on Tuesday, March 31 at 7:00pm, at the Shrine World Music Venue in Harlem, NY.

Joe Ponce [JP]: American Innovations at times seems to be a commentary on the restrictive and even oppressive nature of language. Do you feel like the language you use in American Innovations is, in a way, a rebellion against old fashioned or constrictive language (the lazy language of idiom)?

Rivka Galchen [RG]: I do think my characters, on the spectrum, find phrases particularly magnetic, even talismanic. They’ll try on a phrase as a way to feel, they feel obliged to try and feel the way that language suggests they ought to. It doesn’t quite work, of course. Like, I suspect, the popularity of “that’s amazing” a few years back made us feel more compelled to find things amazing, even as the world may not have been any more (or less!) amazing. And sometimes the poor tailoring of language is just minor comedy and a popped button, and sometimes it’s tragedy, and usually it’s both? See that question mark, that’s the first emoticon doing its all-thumbs work at trying to nudge the sentence toward accuracy.

JP: You’ve spoken previously about literature speaking in conversation to other literature. How important is it to you that your work speak to what we typically consider “the modern classics?” What “lessons” do you think we can gain from looking over these classics and interweaving them with a more modern experience?

RG: I feel the classics are present with us even when we haven’t seen them. Every story of a girl making her way somewhere is always stuck also being Little Red Riding Hood again. So one may as well take advantage of that, it’s already there. I’ve often wondered if Hitchcock was consciously re-imagining E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Sandman” when he wrote Vertigo. But, right, like you ask, is there something in that other than just that it’s there? I do think so. I think those interweavings are a natural way to defamiliarize modern experience and classics both. And I guess one could argue that defamiliarization is almost the only way we come to know things? At least literary sorts of things, and psychological sorts of things. The Proust quote on that which is so apt: “Habit is our second nature which prevents us from knowing our first.” Defamiliarization is a reliable way of rupturing habits of perception.

JP: In other places you’ve spoken about the dangers of certainty in medical practice and warnings about dangerous sorts of cliché and deadly abstractions  (referring to Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”).  Do you feel there are dangers in the homogenization of language?

RG: There must be, right? Simply because language is so powerful, and we tend to organize our thoughts and feelings around it, under its spell. So it has to be fluid, flexible, changing, surprising, if we want to be able to think. Language has to leave room for thoughts that have not already been thought. What I admire about scientific language is how hard it works–at its best–to be as precise as it can be. But because scientific language intimidates us, and has the guise of truth, it can get co-opted, re-deployed, used to other ends, as a hired muscle.

JP: How about the verbal distances between people and the increasing number of abstractions (“armed conflict” as opposed to “war,” “muscular foreign policy”) they use to communicate with each other?

RG: Those are brilliant examples. Yes, it’s an old-fashioned, still powerful way of lying, of directing attention away from the center of things.

JP: The protagonists in American Innovations often seem to want to defy the plot of the stories they find themselves in. They yawn through bits of exposition told to them by male characters and, at points, voluntarily avoid contributing to the plot (by staying inside, by not answering the phone). Would you say that it is plots, overall, that are constricting for the protagonists, or a certain kind of plot, that present the kind of constraints these protagonists are trying to avoid?  

RG: I think it’s analogous to your language questions… there’s a natural rail-line set down by language, by familiar plots… and you want to de-rail, almost just to be able to say something at all. I think that the way plots are supposed to go, a reader can feel the presence of that plot even if it’s not followed, and so the writer has an opportunity to hit both notes at once, of the plot that would have happened, and the one that actually did. I’m not saying this very well, but I sometimes think of it in terms of this simply lyric from a Tom Waits song on the album Alice:

The moon is full here every night

And I can bathe here in his light

The leaves will bury every year

And no one knows I’m gone.

And, of course, that last word, even though it’s not said, we all hear ‘here.’ And so both the word ‘here’ and ‘gone’ are present. And so I think once an expectation is set up, you have the opportunity to rhyme or clang with it. And that expectation can be working itself out in the size of a sentence, or of the plot structure of a whole story. Like there’s that amazing moment in Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, where, about a hundred pages in, you see the terrible tangle that the main character has gotten himself into, and you sort of know how it’s going to (not) work out… and then there’s a car crash, literally, and that whole initial plot is no longer (straightforwardly) relevant—the rest of the book moves in another direction. I love that. Not just for the moment of surprise. But because in a deep way I think it accesses a more full reality, is more truthful.

JP: Often, surrealism in your stories makes fun of itself. And when love is expressed in a beautiful way its expression is a circumnavigation of an idea that could be love, but also could be curiosity, or mystery. Do you think fiction can capture those intangibles, such as love, but only by writing “around them?” And on that note, is the direct path to try and describe them perhaps false, an example of “badly wrought language?” 

RG: I am skeptical of nearly any direct expression of anything. I don’t think that’s how emotions, or thinking, work. “I love you” is a statement, and a nice one to hear, I guess, but it only means something when the person who hears it already understands the love that has communicated itself indirectly. Emotions aren’t china plates in a cabinet, we can’t just set the table with them and say, see, there they are! Let’s eat! Emotions (and again, also, thoughts) are forces that affect the way people move through time and space, so if we describe those movements, we can infer the force-field of emotions from those movements.

And also, I feel most humans have defenses up against strong emotions, just as a practical matter, as a way to board buses and buy bread and get through the day. And so getting at things indirectly, and writing “around” is, in a sense, straightforward transcription.

JP: You’ve spoken about the “gross misappropriations of the authoritative language of science.” This also appears in American Innovations: bad language contributing to incorrect, sometimes dangerous, worldviews. Do you think there are any ideas, phrases or “bad language” for which you’d like to see a moratorium on?

RG: Interesting. Maybe all words need a fallow period. Like if you look at the Google n-gram of the word, and its use has quintupled, then probably it has shot off and away from having any communicative value anymore. Like what would happen if the word ‘victim’ had to be left fallow for a term of four years, and everyone had to Hollywood Pyramid their way around the word–maybe we’d all be jostled out of our frozen understandings of all the issues that cluster around the word, maybe all across the political spectrum people would have lost their shortcut around thinking, and would have to think afresh? Or maybe it would just be a whitewash.

JP: In a NY Times review of Innovations your protagonists were described (collectively, and possibly inadequately) as not “prescrib[ing] to the old (perhaps discredited or exhausted) revolutionary movements.” There’s a moment where one of your protagonists finds herself disagreeing with a teacher, who reminds her of her father, and he speaks about how refrigeration “ruined cooking”, and how “his mother used to make the best food.” By coming out in favor of refrigeration (albeit only slightly), your protagonist is characterized by the professor as a “refrigerator-advocate.” Is this a commentary on the writing process itself, on how a thought can be misconstrued as unintended support?

RG: Yes, I find myself drawn, even just for the comedy, to those moments when someone makes a hesitant, small observation, and then it gets reflected back at them distorted and looming large as a Macy’s Day Parade sized balloon.

We all know what it’s like to find an image of ourselves in sloppy lipstick and a weird costume, appearing in someone else’s private theatrical production. And of course, we all do this to other people. I have one character who answers a wrong number of someone trying to order Chinese takeout, and then she finds herself the recipient of a lot of nuanced anger the caller has towards the woman at the takeout restaurant–a totally different woman, and also just women in general. I feel that’s just an extreme case of the everyday experience. I’m interested in those moments when characters find themselves used as puppets in other people’s shows… and when the characters themselves do this to the people around them… one of my characters has a habit of neutralizing other people by always thinking of them in terms of one adjective…

JP: There is an emphasis here on old language re-purposed, transmogrified, bastardized, brought to us in a new form. First Person Plural emphasizes deliberate, new and collective languageand Apogee Journal attempts to give a voice to fringe artists that might otherwise be overlooked. Often in your stories the larger world (the Internet, hospital experts, science at large) is represented as being an unsafe place for self-expression (as is, to some extent, the real world). Is this idea an important topic to be considered for you in writing?

RG: To be honest, I never feel I quite know what topic I’m exploring in my writing, but I do know that again and again and again I find myself drawn to the small, the tiny, the delimited observation. I have a faith in the careful, in the little. I prefer an enormous accumulation of littles to a broad, consistent, big.

JP: Does the page, the short story or novel, as a container for self-expression or independence, feel any safer?

RG: This sounds odd, but I think one of the wonderful things about novels and short stories is that, for the most part, they don’t really make much money, they’re not followed by millions of people. Which is different from movies and television, which have much more pressure on them in that way. And so–I feel like people let writing just be, at least more than other forms of expression, and at least, in this time and place we’re in. I feel the most companioned in the world when I am reading other people’s words. Though I often can admire and enjoy TV and movies too, they are somehow too large, too budge-y, and that’s part of what I love about writing, it feels more intimate, it feels like it has an audience of one. Reading has that wonderful feeling of one at a time. I pretty much never watch even a TV show alone. But reading: it’s private.


RIVKA GALCHEN writes fiction and nonfiction regularly for Harper’s, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. She is the author of the novel Atmospheric Disturbances  and the short story collection American Innovations.

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