Rivka Galchen hails from Oklahoma but has come to call New York City her home. As the Mary Ellen von der Hayden fellow, she is currently working on a new novel entitled The Nature Theater of Oklahoma and has received numerous awards for her work— she was named one of the twenty promising writers under the age of forty in last summer’s New Yorker fiction issue. This month she's judging the upcoming BOMB fiction contest, which has an April 16th deadline. We spoke with her at Culture Cafe in Midtown (a very hidden gem) on the subjects of literature, medicine, romantic devotion, and the reader-author relationship.

I read in an interview you gave that you started out as an English major [at Princeton], then you studied medicine at Mt. Sinai, then you transitioned back to writing. What was the impetus for that fluctuation? I’m sort of very obedient, which is not a good thing about me. I’m not rebellious at all. It was sophomore year and we were declaring a major and my mom just flipped out. I wanted to be an English major and I was like, “Look at my very respectful, responsible friend who is an English major”. And we had this lunch with him and he, you know, kind of shared her perspective on life being threatening and scary and how to make money without being a doctor or a lawyer. And he was like, "Well, I’m doing this humanities and medicine program where you get accepted to medical school fall of your sophomore year and major in whatever you want". And [my mom] was like, “Well, you do that and if you get in you can major in whatever you want."

So we had gone on this train track without even thinking about it, and I did share my mom’s perspective. I hadn’t really met a writer growing up. I hadn't met an artist. I hadn’t met anyone who made a living in any of the creative fields.

I’m embarrassed to say, I’ve never wanted to be a doctor. When I actually went through and I met doctors who were really good at what they did, I was like, I can’t do this. It’s not a field [in which] to be halfway there. So then I kind of panicked. I finished and then I panicked and thought, Ok, I’ll give myself a couple years and see if I can make writing work and if I can’t, I’ll find some way to like being a doctor whether it’s public health or psychiatry, which is so different from the other fields.

Do you feel like your medical studies have influenced your writing? I spent a lot of years having all of that language be in my head and all of that thinking be in my head. Even if I didn’t want it to influence me, what can I do? I’m sure it did. I actually think—once I got out, I started to find it all a lot more interesting than I did when it seemed to be my fate to think about those things all day. Especially the language, [that] I love. It works really hard to be precise and in a sense transparent, although you have to learn the new language. And it’s so estranging. That’s not how you think of other people, in terms of their physical systems and blood pressure and all those things. In a way it ends up being accidental poetry, in that way of being de-familiarizing. And the hospital’s an interesting place. It’s a vulnerable moment for everyone. You’re in an intimate situation with strangers.

So it was a natural movement towards getting your MFA? It was like the medical school period wasn’t real life? I wanted to be a writer for a very, very long time, I just didn’t feel comfortable pursuing it. I didn’t feel like you were allowed to do that. Obviously, people have different feelings about MFA programs, but again I’m sort of an anxious, fearful person and I was like, Hey, I’ll be in school, I’ll have a job teaching comp to the undergrads, I’ll have classes and deadlines! I never believed it but at some level you do—my mom always gave me this impression that [as a writer] you have this certain kind of job where you die drunk and facedown in a gutter—which some people find appealing! But for some reason I was just like, Oh no, my family would be so sad.

And I’d never met writers, which is the other embarrassing thing. I like science geeks, I’ve always liked science geeks, that was kind of my circle. So school was also really great for that, just being around people who like to read. I felt more like myself when I left medical school.

When did you start teaching at Columbia? When I was a student I taught comp, essay-writing. But for the past couple years I’ve taught a class here and there. I’m going to teach in the fall. I didn’t teach this year. I like it, you have to pretend to be an adult for two hours. I find it helpful.

Does it help you write or does it conflict with that rhythm? Well, I think it’s different for everyone, but for me, because I’m not a super social person, it’s one of the better conversations I have all week. I’m always alone. It’s almost like a book club. It’s interesting smart people talking not about gossip or their weight—all of which I find very interesting, but that's sort of my life outside of it. I like it. It feels good for my head. I think for other people, it can take up all their creative space.

What’s it like teaching abroad right now? Oh, I’m not teaching abroad. I’m just writing. It’s a fellowship. It’s almost like I’m a student, but it’s this great place, and almost everyone is an academic. There is one writer and one artist and one sculptor and all these academics. Every night it’s discussions about whether Turkey should be in the EU—it’s like school, it’s nice. It’s at this institute, the American Academy in Berlin. They have this thing where they bring over ten academics, a writer, an artist, a sculptor, and they relieve us of the burden of money or housing or food for a semester. And it’s good.

Are you working on a novel or shorter pieces? I’ve been working on a novel.

How’s it going? That’s a horrible question. Where is it going—it’s heading out to New Jersey and I’m trying to get it to come back. At least I’m working on it, that feels good.

Did Atmospheric Disturbances come out of a particular experience? I feel like it must—where else is it going to come from? Although I feel like it sneaks up on me. My idea, when I decided to write it, I was saying to myself, I don’t want to write anything that has anything to do with my life and experience, because it bores me because it’s my life—what could be more boring? So it’s not going to be a woman, not a woman my age. I didn’t want it to be a person in my situation at all. Then you start writing it and you kind of can see yourself in a fun house mirror—that’s me in that weird distorted mirror, and that character is me in this other distorted mirror.

My dad—he’s not in the book at all in the sense that I don’t describe him or what he ate or how tall he was or what his personality was like. But he ended up coming in because—you understand—when you are writing your first novel, the only audience is you, and you have to keep yourself entertained. His very funny, odd name—it just gave me pleasure to stick it in there. Suddenly the book had some gravity for me. I wanted it to be comic and madcap, but I was like, "Oh, now I care about it a little more." I don’t know why.

What really struck me while I was reading Atmospheric Disturbances is that I so wanted to believe him [the narrator, Leo] and I really wanted Leo to be onto something. And the more I thought about that inclination in me as a reader, it seemed like another manifestation of that desire in a relationship—to forego all pragmatism and logic in favor of its survival. Did you think about that at all while you were writing it, how the reader-author relationship is very much like a marriage? You want to be outside the realm of judgment and inside the realm of love. I do, you know? It’s sort of like deciding to enter into a different value system that is related to how things ought to be rather than how they are. Also, for me, with Leo, I think Leo is mean and unpleasant in a lot of ways, but for me he just felt like a man doing a lot of labor to avoid pain. It’s a lot of imaginative work and it doesn’t hold together and you have to be willing to let your own reason fall to the edge. In some sense I sort of thought, I also would like for him to be able to avoid pain. Almost like when you are with someone who has a delusion but a useful delusion that makes their life easier—you sort of want to protect them so those delusions can hold. But at the end of the day, they might get hit by a bus if you just pretend there aren’t buses out there, so it gets hard to protect a person.

I’m always attracted to these books that are not realistic, but they feel like projections of real emotions, almost like an aspirational reality. And I’m always sort of maintaining a hope that it’s really going to succeed in popping out, even though I’d somehow feel cheated if it didn’t line up back in the real world. I always want it to pop out and hold on its own in another realm.

I almost found the book to be devastatingly real in the sense that it addresses so many questions about commitment and marriage that are very frightening. Everybody that I discussed the book with or read passages of it to would [shudder] and say, “I think about that all the time”—the eventuality of not really recognizing the person you have loved for a very long time. Gothamist has been publishing articles recently about young people being incredibly cynical about partnership and marriage, but also [there being] this weird paradox of wanting to have children but not envisioning themselves with a partner. Was the cultural moment on your mind at all? Was this a working-through for you of your own questions about commitment and family?

I wasn’t thinking about the culture-at-large, but I am part of the culture-at-large. Relationships are eternal, but you know. I guess it’s sort of—there’s nothing more upsetting than feeling like you’ve lost someone even when you’re in their presence. And my hope was to make something emotionally honest, which is always a lot of unpalatable things, and I would want to think that’s different than cynicism. I would think that there could be some kind of honest understanding of feeling like a person, you’re in a relationship with them, and it can feel like a betrayal when they’re no longer who they were. It can feel like, Why did you forsake being the person I really love? But that’s great that they’re growing and changing! And so, I did want to show both sides.

It’s romantic that Leo is so devoted to the woman he fell in love with and it’s cruel that he’s basically devoted to this other woman, and therefore really failing to see the person who is there with him. This is an extreme case, he really won’t accept it and it really does feel like an unbearable loss to him and that’s why he’ll entertain much wilder theories than, Maybe I don’t love her the same way, or In order to love her again I’m going to have to fall in love again, as a new person, and be in a series of relationships with a series of people in a continuous body but otherwise different people.

I do think of him as someone being in an extreme case of being unable to handle change. But I wouldn’t like to think that that’s cynical about love but maybe unsentimental about it—some attempt to see it as it is, which in a sense is a more interesting thing, because you know, it doesn’t just hit you over the head and then it’s over. It’s in motion.

Do you consider yourself primarily a novelist? You’ve written short stories and essays, as well. Are you interested in continuing in the short form? Can you do both at once?

I’m just grateful for anything that works out! I think short stories are almost harder. I’m actually more daunted by the idea of writing short stories, they leave me feeling more demoralized because I start to think, "It’s so small, why can’t I make it work?"

To work on a novel is so soothing because you are there with it every day for a really long time. That’s a preferable project, just a preferable lifestyle. You get to feel like you’re sinking deeper and deeper, like you are coming to really know something, which is probably an illusion—you’re always coming to know something but it’s a little less scattered.

You’re judging the BOMB fiction contest. Have you ever judged a contest before? I judged one short story contest for Canadian public radio. I’m pretty sure that’s it. I love reading short stories. That’s the thing, it’s a relief, I like writing short stories but I don’t love writing short stories. It’s probably my favorite form to read.

You spent time in South America, in Argentina. In Argentina and Peru. I took a year off of medical school to do public health work, and I also went several times to try and just write a couple months over the summer, in Buenos Aires.

Have you read any Adolfo Bioy Casares? Yeah, and one thing that makes me sad, although my Spanish is pretty good I’m not going to read it in Spanish, is that he has a huge biography of Borges, a kind of Boswell [style], "these are all my somewhat catty, critical and loving thoughts about [Borges]" book, and the man who owns the rights to it won’t let it be translated into English. But I’ve read just his one novel, The Invention of Morel.

Asleep in the Sun is really amazing, and I felt reminded of it by your novel. Is he an influence of yours? Who are your influences? You know everyone, right? Everyone and no one. That’s one of those questions—maybe I don’t even know, maybe other people would know better than me. I feel like I can see other people’s influences better than they can. I definitely learned a lot from Ishiguro about the narrator who is self-deceptive. He’s the master of the self-deceptive narrator. A lot of people.

Do you find other mediums to be just as inspiring, like film or sculpture? Yeah, and in a sense your guard is down in a nice way with something other than writing, because there is always that terror of being too influenced. Everyone always worries about that. My take on that is, God bless me if I write too much like Ishiguro. That would be wonderful! But it’s nice with other mediums. No matter what, when you borrow it it’s going to go through an interesting transformation when it switches mediums. Even just really mainstream stuff like the Coen brothers, they are geniuses. And you can watch them generating the plot and following its own logic and then trying to figure out how the beginning is going to lead to an inevitable but totally surprising end. It’s so different because it’s unusual and has a strong visual logic. I’ve always thought that writers could do well to translate more of that to their books, which isn’t a very contemporary fiction thing, to have a kind of madcap, slightly off-the-rails plot but a tight plot. Music is always great—like, oh it’s weird because it rhymes but it doesn’t rhyme, or you’re waiting for the tonic note and they don’t give it to you or it hits you really early and then they keep going.

So you normally live in Brooklyn when you aren’t traveling. In a recent article in the LA Times, Jonathem Lethem said something about Brooklyn not being conducive at all to writing, that there is a din of too many writers and too much going on. For sure. And he’s from there—I can imagine it’s really good to get away if you’ve lived there your whole life. I lived on 115th for almost all of my time in New York. I guess I haven’t lived in Brooklyn long enough to figure out if I’ll get anything done there. I’m not sure it’s the city. I think maybe my cell phone is a horrible detriment. I always feel like I’ve forgotten something and I’ve failed to do something and it’s vibrating and I don’t know what it’s going to tell me and it gives me a sense of chaos. I think because I grew up in the Midwest and I had a pretty happy childhood—I just can’t ever imagine not wanting to live in New York. Even if it may ruin me and I can never write again, I’d be like, At least I can go to the deli and get coffee and there are crowds on the sidewalk and I feel good. It remains to be seen.