Rivka Galchen is the author of the wonderful debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances. The novel went on sale yesterday and already Galchen is being compared to Pynchon, Auster, and Borges. (Read my review of the book here.) The author is also very generous with her time, and she agreed to subject herself to some Q&A. Read Part 1 (of 2) of my interview with Rivka Galchen below.
Baby Got Books: I’ve read that while an undergraduate in the English Department at Princeton, Joyce Carol Oates was your thesis advisor. That seems like it would be incredibly intimidating for an undergraduate. What lessons, if any, did you learn from her that you’ve carried forward into your novel?
Rivka Galchen:Alas, Joyce Carol Oates would more appropriately be described as the grader of my thesis, rather than the advisor (even though ‘advisor’ is, I believe, what is listed in the official ‘filing’ of my thesis.) We didn’t workshop the manuscript together or anything. But. She is quite am imposing presence on that campus, far more imposing than you might imagine a 90ish pound person could possibly be. I never really had the courage to talk to her, even though I had a class with her…but I’d see her slight bespectacled self around and just know: there’s this wild, rigorous, strange, Trollope-scale-prolific imagination there. Just right there. So that’s a nice atmosphere—one that makes whining about being ‘too busy’ to finish a story seem pretty pathetic. Her work ethic is infectious; I only wish the infection could be a raging one.
BGB:Your bio notes that you received an MD degree from Mount Sinai School of Medicine (specializing in psychiatry) and then went on to get your MFA at Columbia. Atmospheric Disturbances has been called a “novel of ideas that tries to bridge science and literature.” While you seem uniquely qualified to bridge that gap, was that your intent when you sat down to write the novel?
RG:So far as I can remember—and, for better or worse, my memory landscape is as dynamic as my present, it always seems to be shape-shifting when I look back into it—but, again, so far as I can remember, my main intent in writing the novel was somehow to get away with writing my dad’s name down again and again, of making it become a significant clue. So maybe the novel for me was more of a bridge between the living and the dead than a bridge between science and literature. The fact that there’s a great deal of science in the novel just seems really normal to me, as normal as there being, say, a great deal of the Civil War in someone else’s novel. It’s just this enormous interesting thing out there in the world, and it happens to be one of the ‘things’ that I’m most perpetually drawn towards.
BGB: With chapter titles like “Least squares method of fitting functions to data,” you’ll have the full attention and enthusiasm of the scientists. It also appears that you have not dumbed down any of the scientific discussion. Do you worry about how the book will be received by those without a science background?
RG: Well one sad fact is that most of the books I really love I find on the remainders table at my corner bookstore. Or on the street for $2. So, I don’t know, perhaps it’s dangerous company.
But I think even a non-science-geek can be susceptible to the poetry—often accidental—of scientific language; it certainly has that old air of mystery and authority. It tempts towards interpretation, it hints at profound significance, but then, sometimes anyway, it undermines those sentiments at the same time. I guess for years now science is this thing that as a culture we both kneel before and raise the mighty paw against. And that’s interesting to me, even on just an emotional level, that seduction, that ambivalance. Leo often appeals to science, and yet also wrenches and distorts it and misappropriates it to his own emotion ends—and I like that kind of engaged, manipulative work that he does. I think we can learn a lot about a character not just (or even) by the direct content of that they say, but about their choice of materials and methods for saying so.
BGB: Your novel centers around a psychiatrist, Dr. Leo Liebenstein, who comes home one day to find that a woman who looks exactly like his wife has replaced his beloved Rema. I assume that your study of psychiatry provided the seed for the novel. With the universe of mental illnesses to choose from, how did you choose Dr. Leo’s “symptoms”? What would Dr. Leo’s clinical diagnosis be, if he is in fact suffering an illness?
RG:Well certainly a number of people might line up to label Leo’s file folder ‘Capgras Syndrome,’ basically a syndrome (with varied ‘causes’) in which those closest to us seem to have been replaced by exact lookalikes. (See: Invasion of the Bodysnatchers.) It’s not an incredibly common syndrome, but it does happen. I heard of a case of a woman who complained (1) that the FBI had stolen her son and replaced him with a double, and (2) that she had grown to love the double as well, and was not willing to give him up either. Another case in Britain, of a man who developed the syndrome after a car accident, and believed his wife must have been killed in the car accident and that the woman now living with him was a stranger; when the court settled the case, they awarded him damages as if his wife really had died, since that was his reality. For some people the ‘double’ is a poodle, or a mirror image. So lots and lots of interesting cases, that play out in different ways. basically a state of recognition and failure to recognize at the same time. A state of uncanniness.
But what interests me in Leo’s situation is the emotional resonance this has for almost all of us. I still remember the first time my mom—who had done everything for me my whole life, who had turned out my lights and packed my lunch all the way through high school—and then one day, I was like 25, she says—Why don’t you make a cup of tea? And I just thought—by god, who is this woman? Even, or maybe especially, with those most close to us, there’s always this confluence of both having had a misimpression of someone, on top of that someone in fact not being quite who they were ten years or ten days or ten minutes ago. Habit makes us blind to the people we are most intimate with, and then, there’s all these ordinary days and you don’t notice the transformations, the metamorphoses. Suddenly some little something—you see someone afresh, and you think: Interesting, who are you? When did you become this strange new person? Then it becomes like those old 1930s comedies of remarriage, where the couple gets together under some sort of false pretense (she’s really a card shark! not high society!) and then there’s this re-negotiation…this necessity to fall in love again, albeit with the same person.
Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 of my interview with Rivka Galchen…