I first learned of Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen from author Lauren Groff (The Monsters of Templeton, the upcoming Delicate Edible Birds) when she reported that she was reading an early release copy of the book. Intrigued, I emailed the publisher of the book to ask about getting a copy for myself.
Atmospheric Disturbances, originally released in June arrived at a very busy time but was still a novel that I very much wanted to read, it made it into my nigh stand table where it languished for a few months. Heading out of town one weekend, I brought along my copy of Rivka Galchen's debut novel and after having read the first three chapters I was unable to put it down.
On the outside this novel, which centers on a Dr. Leo Liebenstein, a successful older therapist living in New York City with his younger and very attractive Argentinian wife Rema, looks as though it is a book heavily rooted in mystery and the science of weather and the atmosphere. However, the further I got into the novel the more I began to realize that Atmospheric Disturbances had much more to say about long term relationships and the way in which we all change over time when Dr. Leo encounters one day, in the apartment he shares with his wife, a young woman who looks and sounds just like his beloved wife Rema but is most certainly not. The novel centers on themes of love and the ways in which, just like the weather, relationships change, shift and enter different stages.
I have recommended this book to a number of people and would very much encourage anyone looking for a fresh new literary voice to give Atmospheric Disturbances and the exciting and entirely interesting voice of Rivka Galchen a look.
Loaded Questions Interview with Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances
Kelly Hewitt: I have to say, first of all, that I was kind of nervous when writing the questions for this interview, partly because I liked Atmospheric Disturbances so much and partly because all of the other interviews that you have participated in have focused very heavily on science, the interviewer resorting to a scientific battle of wits with you. I know nothing about science and am not all that keen on embarrassing myself. So, I am going to let you be the scientific whiz and I will play the part of the interviewer more interested in you and your novel. Sound like a good deal?
Rivka Galchen: Sure. I’m excited about whiz costume possibilities.
Kelly: The greatest thing about Atmospheric Disturbances is that it does involve a good deal of science and yet, with my previously admitted minimal knowledge, I found the novel to be very good and profound – one of the best I read this year. The novel, for me, was more about relationships and how they change over time, sometimes quickly, almost in the same manner that weather changes, going from good to bad. Is that a fair analysis if not too woo-woo?
Rivka: I’ll go with that. Especially if you’re going to be so sweet about it. In general, I tend to take other people’s reads a bit more seriously than I take my own. I guess I go through life with the nagging suspicion that other people know something about me or my work that I don’t; this despite no past KICK ME sticker traumas. I get that mood of an Errol Morris film, thinking I’m telling one story, thinking I’m running the narrative, while everyone else understands that I’m revealing something totally else. (Which is, well, what my narrator does; I love the sound of self-deception.) I’d like to think I’m a little more in control with the voice of a fictional character than with my own voice, but, I suppose I can’t really know. That said, so far as I can tell, I could think I was writing about the estivation patterns of pond frogs and somehow I’d still somehow be writing about love. I think that’s all I ever write about. Meaning: your read sounds plenty right to me.
Kelly: Some of the reviews of the book have made a big deal about a novel with a scientific component. Do you feel like fiction and science are as odd a pair as some of the reviewers of the book have made them out to be?
Rivka: I like how in Kafka’s Amerika, there’s a bridge—the Brooklyn Bridge actually—that links New York to Boston. I mean, one wouldn’t need such a bridge, but why not? And Boston’s quite a bit farther from Manhattan than Brooklyn is, but what if there was no bridge (or tunnel) to Brooklyn, and you were afraid of water? I guess what I’m not quite saying is that it never struck me that one needed to construct a connection between fiction and science—there’s so many there already—but maybe at the same time there’s a kind of, hopefully useful, confusion on my part about where they are—according to a more generally consensus. Maybe they really are s far apart as Boston and New York. For me, fiction and science are both these wild, childish, rigorous imaginative endeavors. I know that fiction writers are more likely to be seen wearing hooded sweatshirts and scientists are more likely to be wearing—this might be based just on my dad—dowdy button-ups…but they both seem like play, and play that is very sensitive to vocabulary, striving for a very precise way of saying things.
Kelly: You received a MD degree from Mount Sinai School of Medicine with a specialization in psychiatry and then went on to get your MFA at Columbia. I don't have a question here, every interview about your includes this fact and so I felt obliged.
Rivka: Thank you for not asking more about it. Medicine, medicine, medicine, medicine, medicine.
Kelly: I was about a third of the way through the novel when I realized that the name Gal-Chen, the last name of the novel's almost mythical scientific hero, was very familiar. I sat down the book to think about where I had heard it when I glanced at the spine of the novel and realized that aside from the lack of a hyphen, it was your last name. I have since read that Tzvi Gal-Chen is your father, a prominent scientist himself, who passed away some years ago. I wonder at what point Gal-Chen became a part of the novel. Had you developed the character inspired by your father before the characters of Leo and Rema?
Rivka: My dad used to get all these wildly mislabeled junk letters. “Chewy Chen.” “Zivi Galen.” For whatever goofy reason this amused my brother and I to no end. So even when he was alive, my dad’s name had a kind of goofy talismanic quality for me. And then, I’m not quite sure how his name came into the novel, but I think a lot of it had to do with it being a first novel, which is a lonely process in which you’re mostly just trying to keep yourself entertained. And so having his name enter into the novel, having him be mistaken for a kind of heroic and wise figure who may hold the secret to the world and everything—well, that both amused me, and got at that emotional feel of my father to me…it was kind of irresistible to me to have other people—these characters—have totally other reasons than my own for putting a kind of magical excess of faith into, well, kind of my dad, kind of a ghost.
Kelly: From what I have read your mother is a fairly opinionated woman, upset that your real age has been printed in interviews. How did she feel about the inclusion of your father in the novel? Did you share portions of Atmospheric Disturbances with her prior to its publication?
Rivka: My dad’s been the family white elephant in the room ever since we lost him. My family didn’t really comment on his inclusion in the novel. I think it made them happy though. My dad used to clip out articles in which people wrote about their dads—I remember the Calvin Trillin one in particular—and then post them on my wall, sort of as a joke, sort of seriously, the idea being, you should do this! (We were the kind of family who staged tests trying to prove who our dog loved most.)
Kelly: Normally I would not ask an author a question of this nature but, given the connections between characters in the novel and your real life it begs asking. If Tzvi Gal-Chen is based on your father, a character that is all-knowing, a source of guidance and a scientific genius then does one of the other characters in the book represent you? Would you say that you are like Dr. Leo, the lost psychiatrist who is transfixed with Gal-Chen and comes to almost worship him, craving contact or are you like Rema, the woman who has a history of also being very interested in Gal-Chen to the point of impersonating him in order to help Leo with a patient? Both of these individuals have a relationship with Gal-Chen that one could see as parental, akin to a relationship that an adult child might have with a parent they have admired and have missed.
Rivka: Oh dear, yeah, it’s much more clear to me now—during composition, I really did think of putting my dad’s name in the book as just this tiny private joy—that the attention paid to him by the various characters, all the ludicrous hopes and plans centered on him, all of that, it’s kind of my own return of the repressed, the repressed showing up in a silly outfit of course, but making its return nonetheless. I’m definitely always longing for family, and not really to be a parent, but to be a kid again; we were this tight odd little tribe of four, with basically no relatives or close family friends within a thousand mile distance. I miss that. Even though maybe I’m only imagining that I ever really had it. But I don’t think so. Either way though, I think that’s something I share with Leo and Rema both; sometimes I feel like they’re both vying for the position of the one who gets to be tended to, the more difficult one, the child.
Kelly: You're quirky. I hope that doesn't offend, I mean it in a very entertaining and interesting way. You've said some very interesting and funny things in interviews. In an interview at Bookslut you said: "I would be honored if someone disliked me. There was always something mild and bland about me. That would be great. That would be exciting." How is it that you think you were mild and bland and do you still find yourself to be so?
Rivka: I eat a Six Grains pear yogurt and two sugar cookies for breakfast every single day. If I find a coffee shop or restaurant or bookstore or person I like, I jut want to go back again and again and again and never try anyplace new. And I can’t handle disagreeing with anyone in a conversation. So. I am good at origami though. And at making all sorts of tarts. I’m not sure if I dislike being a bit pale and steady of personality though. I’m ambivalent about it. It’s a kind of privacy.
Kelly: And secondly, now that your novel has become a big hit and has landed on many lists of the best books of the year I wonder if you've had the fortune of being "honored" by someone who has disliked you? It seems like if this was something you were aiming for you ought not to have written such a good book.
Rivka: Well maybe that was a bit of stretch, or a fantasy at least, my saying that I like to be disliked. I guess I do and I don’t. There’s undoubtedly something about having a book out in the world that has put me back in touch with my chubby-seventh-grade-leopard-print-pant-wearing-too-embarrassed-to-ask-my-mom-to-buy-me-a-bra self. But weirdly the most judged I’ve ever felt in my life was a few years ago when an old woman in the library started shouting at me and punching and swinging her bags of books at me for no reason that I could tell, except that maybe I was taking up too much space in the hallway. Those sorts of random acts of aggression always have the feel of divine justice to me, like I deserve them. Whereas, somehow, snipey comments here and there, about the book or about me, feel vaguely not personal at all? Maybe I have some crossed wiring in my head.
Kelly: Part of what makes the characters in Atmospheric Disturbances so interesting, entertaining is the fact that you let them make mistakes, think unintelligent thoughts and behave very awkwardly. In another interview you wrote: "I have a lot of friends who are deeply awkward, and I'm kind of seduced by the things that cripple them. But it's also a little bit cruel, even though it's seductive and interesting." Aside from finding this endearing and realizing that I sometimes feel the same way, I wanted to know what else does Rivka Galchen find herself "seduced" by?
Rivka: Ummm…I’m going to steal someone else’ language here. there’s a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem that starts: “Glory be to God for dappled things….all things counter, spare, original, strange.” I think that’s what I love. I have to stop stealing that line of his though. I think just used it in a blurb for a book that I loved. It’s hard, the vocabulary of love! Sometimes it feels all used up.
Kelly: One of the things I will take away from having read Atmospheric Disturbances is the word simulacrum, a word that Leo often uses to describe the facsimile of his wife Rema that is a lot like her and yet not at all her as far as Leo is concerned. You have come up with a number of interesting words that refer to the copy of Rema. My boyfriend, who is now reading the novel, asks me again what it means every time he cracks the book open and when I told him that we'd be doing this interview he asked me to tell you that the word gives him "a great deal of difficulty". Is this a word that you had been carrying around in your vocabulary or one that you discovered when writing the novel?
Rivka: My dad used to say simulacrum to mean Xerox copy, or carbon copy. He had this odd auto-didact foreigner’s English, and a fondness for chunky and cluttered words. He also instilled in me a habit of referring to floors as ‘the ground.’ I really think though, even if English had been his first language, that he would have still had this kind of estranged vocabulary. He liked throwing technical terms into, say, a description of a cookie. I still remember him talking about a cookie ‘cleaving along uncertain planes’—and how that made me think of a cookie and a quartz rock at the same time, and, I dunno, I could kind of ‘hear’ his language in a way that I can’t quite with ‘normal English.’ In normal English I kind of go into auto-pilot. I was thinking about this on a plane recently, about how they’d ever so slightly changed the little safety patter…to that part where they talk about the dropping of oxygen masks in an emergency landing, the stewardess added a little interjection about an emergency landing being – ‘a highly unlikely occurrence’—and somehow, amidst that drone of safety instructions, for the first time since I was little—I suddenly actually felt that I was hearing about something scary, about an emergency, about the plane plummeting to the earth, what to do, all these sorts of images coming to mind…which is to say, I could ‘hear’ what she was saying…then again, I guess pretty much anything makes me scared when it comes to flying.
Whoa, so that was a digression. I guess I’m flying tomorrow for the holidays.
Kelly: When we first began chatting via email I remember telling you that, after having completed the novel, I came to realize that over time a lot of people we have close relationships can seem like they are a simulacrums, different that the person we first met. That, in the end, is the truly beautiful thing about this novel, the realization that we are all always changing and that we aren't the same people today that we were a year ago. Having spent so much time writing a novel about a man who suddenly believes that the love of his life has been replaced by a very similar and yet starkly different stranger, did you come to feel that those close to you were simulacrums?
Rivka: Pretty much several times a day. My mom and I went to a Turkish restaurant together not that long ago, and she didn’t want to order the fried calves’ livers, and she normally talks about them the whole meal. So that made me suspicious. You know, those Sanka moments (to reference a really old commercial, that both dates me, and makes evident my terrible past of watching 9 hours of TV a day.) And little things. Like when my husband is oddly responsible about depositing a check, or getting his mom a birthday present. I doubt him in those moments.
Kelly: And finally, the question I have been waiting to ask you! What's next? Have you already started working on another novel? What can we expect from Rivka Galchen down the road?
Rivka: I think it's a novel, I think it's titled The Nature Theater of Oklahoma, and I think it has visions and ghosts, kind of. So, mostly that!