RIVKA GALCHEN

Interviewed by Vernon Wilson

In Rivka Galchen’s highly acclaimed 2008 debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, the wife of an eccentric psychiatrist inexplicably disappears, only to be replaced by a doppelganger, whom the doctor refers to as “the simulacrum.” The narrator’s search for his wife is by turns frantic and poignantly philosophical, in what James Wood in the New Yorker called “a contribution to the Hamsun-Bernhard tradition of tragicomic first-person unreliability.” Aptly enough, Galchen holds an M.D. in Psychiatry from the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. She and I met on a frigid and gusty January afternoon at her office in the New York Public Library, where she is a Cullman Center Fellow for 2009-2010. Galchen was initially loathe to discuss her own work for our interview, preferring instead to talk about the mystery/crime genre in general. Unlike the many literary novelists who—even in an age of cross-genre pollination—patronize the mystery/crime genre, Rivka Galchen is a genuine enthusiast. She takes no trope at face value, preferring to interrogate and deploy the genre for her own purposes. Her work presents a uniquely mind-bending meld of the literary and the mysterious. At the time of our interview she was hard at work on a full-length critique of the oeuvre of the Swiss writer Robert Walser, and is currently completing her second novel.

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INTERVIEWER

What sparked your interest in mystery, or crime fiction?

RIVKA GALCHEN

Well, it was just the dearth of other books. We had no books in my house.  No one in my house was really a reader.  But when we gave $50 to support public radio, we got the Complete Sherlock Holmes as a gift!  So the few books you have you’re like, “Oh my God!”  I’m always sort of embarrassed about it.  But I shouldn’t be.  Because a lot of those Sherlock Holmes stories are amazing. And I’ve always been a cheap, plot-turn kind of reader—and movie- and television-watcher.  It’s probably not a good sign but I was always one of those people who thought, even if nothing’s happening, at least give me the illusion that something’s happening.

INTERVIEWER

How do you think being that type of reader and TV-watcher—one who gets pulled in by plot no matter how “cheap”—informs your work as a literary writer?  Do you even subscribe to the notion of being a “literary writer?”

RIVKA GALCHEN

Well I definitely think it’s in your DNA somewhere. I guess the equivalent used to be that people would wait at the docks for the next installment of [Dickens’s] Little Dorrit. Even though, when I think of the Simenon books I love, or some Sherlock Holmes stories, half the time I don’t even remember what happened. I just sort of enjoyed reading them anyway.

INTERVIEWER

Would you classify Simenon, or the books that you love by Simenon—or the Sherlock Holmes stories, or Raymond Chandler—as “great literature?”  In your mind as a reader and as a writer, do you hold those types of works apart from Dickens or Dostoevsky?

RIVKA GALCHEN

Nothing ever does well in its own category. In a weird way, I still fall for that sort of grad school stuff. I find Proust more exciting if people refer to him as a mystery writer—or if they call Freud a mystery writer. I find them more exciting than when they’re referred to as literary writers. I think of course Simenon is a great writer. He’s just a different type of great writer. And in a sense he wrote one [book], essentially. In order to realize how great he is, you can’t read this book or that book. But if you just think here’s this man who wrote 1001 Arabian Nights, that’s when he starts to get great.

INTERVIEWER

Would you say, in terms of Simenon, that you like his serious novels better?

RIVKA GALCHEN

No, I don’t like his serious novels better.  But I feel guilty about it. Like I’m failing him in some way.

INTERVIEWER

You like the Inspector Maigret books.

RIVKA GALCHEN

Yeah. Those are my favorites, of course. And they seem also weirdly more serious… even the alcohol the characters consume is like a weird, unacknowledged gravity.

The two books that I read really closely before writing Atmospheric Disturbances were [Kazuo Ishiguro’s] The Remains of the Day, which is a mystery, that sort of classic 20th century mystery where the mystery is a knowledge someone keeps secret from themselves. That novel deploys clues for the narrator to pick up on about himself—he’s both dropping the clues and finding them. Then there’s Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Which is, like, you’ve read seven mystery novels without sleeping and then fell asleep and had crazy dreams. Both of those were books I stole from, which themselves steal from mystery writing.

INTERVIEWER

I read somewhere that Murakami said his ideal novel would be a combination of Dostoevsky and Raymond Chandler.

RIVKA GALCHEN

That’s amazing!

INTERVIEWER

You’ve touched on this in speaking of your own writing—

RIVKA GALCHEN

Oh, The Savage Detectives and 2666 take advantage of the mystery genre.

INTERVIEWER

Roberto Bolaño actually said in an interview that if he weren’t a writer he’d have wanted to be a detective. What do you think the best of the mystery genre has to teach younger writers today?

RIVKA GALCHEN

Well, [mystery novels] are a way of handling detail, and making decisions about how loaded with meaning [detail] is or isn’t, both internally to the novel and the characters, and how loaded with meaning the details are or are not to the reader outside of the novel. So in that way, in a sense, mystery writers have crystallized handling how much weight each detail gets. If a door is open or not open, or if a window shade is up or down. Even if those things don’t deliver in the mystery—the reader is hyper-sensitive to them. And that just seems like a genuinely valid sensitivity for any writer to have, to be almost dizzyingly aware of how different details are going to resonate.

INTERVIEWER

You touched on something interesting when you mentioned Proust being more fascinating when pegged as a mystery writer. Who are some of your favorite writers in the mystery/crime field? What genre writers do you find really intriguing?

RIVKA GALCHEN

Patricia Highsmith is my top, top favorite. I think Jim Thompson is wonderful. But for some reason, the women who wrote these kinds of books are really interesting to me. Vera Caspary—a lot of her books aren’t under her own name, but are just amazing. The titles alone are amazing.  It’s the one area of literature where I just stumble over one great woman after another. Even Shirley Jackson, she’s not a mystery or crime novelist, really, but she gets put in a kind of weird, lower-class fiction category, too. She’s amazing.

INTERVIEWER

Would you say that as a writer you now embrace the genre wholly?

RIVKA GALCHEN

If anything, I feel like there’s this inverse, obverse, reverse, or whatever it’s called. I sort of feel really comfortable loving Philip K. Dick and Patricia Highsmith, but I feel, not uncomfortable thinking Dostoevsky’s a great writer… but it’s one of those things that doesn’t go anywhere when you talk about admiring someone who is understood to be admirable.

INTERVIEWER

Are there great books—classic books you appreciate—that you now feel fall under the mystery genre as it’s established today?

RIVKA GALCHEN

Well, Crime and Punishment is obviously a tempting one. It feels readjusted under film noir because we look backwards. You have the murder, what we don’t know is the motive, which distinguishes it from other stories. Normally we don’t know who did it, but we know who did it from the first page. I don’t know how much in the canon it is, but he’s clearly enough in the canon to be in print: the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz. He’s most famous for Ferdydurke and maybe even for Pornografia, but Kosmos is my favorite. It reminds me of Borges. He’s the other one.  So much of his stuff clearly goes in the genre of mystery.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned in another interview liking Machado de Assis. Do you think that something like Epitaph of a Small Winner falls also into the mystery genre, or is that too much of a stretch?

RIVKA GALCHEN

I’m really hungry to come up with a reason why it does, although I can’t think of it off-hand, except for how cliffhangery he is. Even though, the cliffhangers are often intellectual cliffhangers.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that thinking like a literary novelist and thinking like a mystery novelist differ?

RIVKA GALCHEN

Well, how do literary novelists think? I have no idea. And I feel like they’re always lying about how they think.

INTERVIEWER

I mean in terms of your approach to your material, or to plot—or complete indifference to plot.

RIVKA GALCHEN

I guess the received notion of [literary fiction] is a sort of snobbishness about plot, and that literature is what happens in the snoozy parts, where there’s no action. And that’s an appealing idea, in some way. But every idea ends up with whatever is its opposite, which also starts feeling really compelling. At the end of the day, Proust is a page-turner, and Edith Wharton is obviously a page-turner. It almost seems as though in order to get anything across other than plot, you should have a really good plot. And if you want people to notice the plot, you should have a really non-plotty book, and then you would notice the seven things that happen. Almost like Henry James’s Turn of the Screw. You barely get to even see the ghost until really far in, and it’s unclear what the stakes are. So in a sense, the plot’s almost heightened.

INTERVIEWER

What is your normal writing routine?

RIVKA GALCHEN

I used to have a super-normal writing routine, which is so comforting.  Not as normal as Simenon—I didn’t go and see a prostitute every afternoon. But I would go to the same place every morning, I would have the same breakfast.

INTERVIEWER

So you would go to a place and write?

RIVKA GALCHEN

Yeah. I would go to the same coffee shop.

INTERVIEWER

Was this the Hungarian Pastry Shop?

RIVKA GALCHEN

Of course. And in the morning it’s so empty except for these old, retired men who talk about politics. It was just, like, heaven. And then it just broke. I guess you have a habit and it serves you and then it eventually breaks. So that habit broke. And since then, I’ve been trying to find a new habit, but I don’t have one. So maybe this book will be different, because I don’t have a good habit. I do think it’s important to have a place that feels like your writing place, just like they tell you for sleep hygiene you shouldn’t read in bed. I started working at the library, and I was working at home a lot, but working at home was really making me crazy—not Redrum crazy, just a little crazy.

INTERVIEWER

Do you intend for this next novel to have any of the qualities of Atmospheric Disturbances?

Rivka Galchen

RIVKA GALCHEN

I don’t know yet, but the things it’s copying are very cliffhangery. The reason I feel so comfortable copying things is because I’m such a bad copycat. I figure that in the flawed translation, it’ll become its own thing.

INTERVIEWER

So do you feel like the next novel has some of those elements that may link it to the mystery genre?

RIVKA GALCHEN

I have someone murdered in the first chapter! I don’t know, for some reason, I almost think of that as the MacGuffin, like the thing those books are supposed to be about is really the rails that you can ride on. Just like Moby Dick, you spend the first 250 pages wondering when you’re going to see a whale. It’s just nice to have that hovering over.

INTERVIEWER

How did you feel about the reception of your first novel? Did you feel like it was pigeonholed in any way, or was it well-understood?

RIVKA GALCHEN

Well, I feel really lucky that anyone read it at all, so that was the best part of the reception—it being received. But it made me want to be more controlled. I guess when a book goes out in the world, whatever anyone thinks about it is, in a sense, truly what they think. You can’t really disagree because it’s not a mathematical proof.  It’s something that sends ripples out in a room. There were things that seemed very small to me when I was writing it, and ended up being what was grabbed onto. And the inverse—things that seemed really important to me, that I thought were really loud, were in fact seen as really quiet. So I would like to be more in control of how it’s received.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that’s possible?

RIVKA GALCHEN

I think it’s not possible, and also, it sort of suggests that I have the best idea of what might be interesting, which is probably not true. I think about all the people in my life… the reasons I love them are counter to the reasons they would want to be loved. And, you know, that’s OK. I think it’s that way with a book also.  Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wished he could stop writing the Sherlock Holmes stories and write something better.

INTERVIEWER

In Atmospheric Disturbances, did you get the idea of the disappearance and reappearance of the simulacrum from the mystery genre? Or did it just happen organically?

RIVKA GALCHEN

I definitely didn’t consciously take it from any books. And I do think that everyone has emotional experiences that are prime to them. To me, it’s the failed recovery that’s prime—going back to somewhere that really mattered to me, and realizing, “Oh, they’re gone already, even if they’re still here.”  For some reason that’s the emotional thing that drew me to the disappearance, which isn’t really a disappearance but feels more disappeared because there’s this person reminding you that they’re not there.

INTERVIEWER

Are you a Hitchcock fan?

RIVKA GALCHEN

I am a big Hitchcock fan. But actually, Vertigo was not ever my favorite movie, which I think was just resistance, because it was so many people’s favorite movie. For some reason I was always turned off by those wonderful, cheesy, head-spinning sixties effects in Vertigo. And I don’t find Kim Novak all that pretty! I was clearly wrong. It was one of those movies like The Searchers that I felt, it was really great and I had to see it a few times to overcome my resistance to liking it because everyone says it’s so great.  Those plots were sort of the most important in the back of my head—not consciously—in writing Atmospheric Disturbances.

INTERVIEWER

You’re saying that film had more of an impact—if you had to choose between film and mystery novels—on Atmospheric Disturbances. Those cinematic images and those plots.

RIVKA GALCHEN

Probably, sadly. Or not sadly. But I also think that the sort of thing where you end up not copying the thing you’re copying, so you feel comfortable stealing from another form.

INTERVIEWER

I hate the phrase “young writer,” but as a young writer, what do you think?

RIVKA GALCHEN

I’m so tired of people calling me “ma’am” instead of “miss.” I think I’m just sensitive, probably everyone uses ma’am. For me “ma’am” is really matronly. “Ma’am” is post-mother. So I hope people call me a young writer!

INTERVIEWER

As a young writer, what do you think of the state of literary culture in this country? Are you one who bemoans the lack of readers generally? Or do you feel this is a great time because there are so many potential readers?

RIVKA GALCHEN

I have no idea, because I have a bad sense of scale. I’m really bad at perceiving very large phenomena. It’s something I’ve noticed about myself.  I’m even bad at keeping track of what day of the week it is.

INTERVIEWER

Really?

RIVKA GALCHEN

Especially when I write at home.

INTERVIEWER

That’s the small craziness you were talking about?

RIVKA GALCHEN

That’s the small craziness. And I don’t know how to get on a Twitter account. So in that sense I feel embarrassed about this sort of conservative, backward, non-technological, not-plugged-in person I am. I have no idea whether people are reading or not. On the other hand, I feel pretty confident that—there are certain types of people who get most of their pleasure from the way words are arranged. They’ve never been the dominant force of the culture, and they’ll never disappear. I think of it as sort a high-incidence mutation. So I just think, you know, until it gets in the way of reproduction…

INTERVIEWER

Reading or reproduction!

RIVKA GALCHEN

Yeah.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think the mystery genre has such enduring appeal, for writers and readers?

RIVKA GALCHEN

Because it goes so well with a fire. No, I don’t know. Maybe with mystery, it feels like things happen. Sort of like sitcoms.

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