TCR Talks with Ruth Madievsky, author of All-Night Pharmacy
By Breen Nolan Schoen
While most readers may know Ruth Madievsky best as a poet and a contributor to such outlets as The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Times, and Harper’s Bazaar, her latest book marks her debut as a novelist. All-Night Pharmacy is an intoxicating novel about a young woman’s search to find her sister after a drunken and violent night out in Los Angeles.
Told through the voice of a reckless unnamed narrator who works as an emergency room secretary (a job procured mainly to steal pills), this book takes the reader on a journey through the underbelly of toxic family relationships while examining the chokehold of intergenerational trauma. Alongside the narrator’s quest to find her sister is an expressive story about queer love, finding oneself amidst the strain of family history, and discovering how to live a life unencumbered by the weight of ancestral inheritance.
Born in Moldova and raised in the Jewish diaspora of Los Angeles, Madievsky writes with razor-sharp wit, clean prose and sentences that shiver.
The Coachella Review met with Ruth to talk about the importance of having a good editor, the drive for more specificity in her writing, and the importance of connecting with community when making art.
THE COACHELLA REVIEW: I can’t stop thinking about your gorgeous novel. One of the things I love about it is the specificity. Can you talk to me about your process on getting there?
RUTH MADIEVSKY: My favorite type of novel or short-story collection to read is stuff that’s really voice-driven. Where you have a very audacious, personality-heavy narrator who is able to capture the specificity of the world and how it feels to be alive. And for me, I feel like that involves being very attuned to the absurdity of the world around us, the specificity of everything [a character] interacts with. So, it’s not just shoes; it’s like pink plastic jelly sandals. And it’s not cookies. It’s Double Stuf Oreos.
I think humor is a big part of that, too. Like having a dark sense of humor felt very important for my narrator because that’s the tea in which I was steeped growing up in a Jewish post-Soviet family.
From a craft perspective, our narrator is very perceptive, and she reads people for filth anytime she looks at them for a second. But I think we see throughout the book that’s also a way of her avoiding introspection. So, we do have these richly drawn, highly specific people around her. But part of that is her worldview of casting judgment on everyone else as a way of avoiding figuring out what kind of person she is.
TCR: The dark humor intertwined with each layer of trauma and sadness was laugh-out-loud funny. And your writing is so clean and sharp. I read that you don’t outline. Can you talk about how you get started when developing your characters?
RM: It’s funny—I wish I was a year older and could see if my answer to what I’ll give you now rings true because I’m trying to figure out what my next novel is going to be. I’m very much in the early stages. I wrote [the novel] very similarly to how I write poems, which is sitting down to the blank page, no outline or specific agenda except to write beautiful sentences and let beauty and truth guide the way. And for me, knowing the biggest tools in my toolbox as a writer are voice and dark humor, and trying to write a darkly funny first sentence by someone who clearly has a lot of personality, I was open to that sentence being anything, as long as it had all those qualities.
The first sentence in the book is, “Spending time with my sister, Debbie, was like buying acid off a guy met on the bus.” When I wrote that, I did not know who was speaking, or who their sister Debbie was. What city are we in? Why are we taking the bus? Why are we buying acid from a guy we met on the bus? None of those things were clear to me, except that it sounds like an interesting dynamic between two characters. The narrator sounds funny and kind of wild, their sister sounds chaotic, and I basically just wanted to let them keep talking and to follow them off the bus. And so, I let the language guide me from there, trying to come up with more specific, darkly funny sentences. That method has worked really well for me in prose, better than I thought, without an outline.
TCR: So many of your sentences read like poetry. I’m curious if the poet in you was at all a hinderance to your prose writing.
RM: Yes, totally. It’s a blessing and a curse. I actually wrote an essay for LitHub about burying my darlings in a cemetery of bangers. It was literally about that exact question you just asked, which is how it was an objective of mine to write the novel like an album with no skips. I wanted every single sentence to shine the way that it does in poetry. Because with poetry, there’s such an economy with the writing. I tend to write short poems. They’re very rarely longer than a page. Every word has to kind of fight for its place there. I wanted a novel that felt like that, where there were so few sentences that felt boring.
And something that I had to spend a lot of time on during revision is asking myself the question, Do I like this sentence because it serves the book, or because it’s just a pretty sentence? And are some of these sentences just flexes and me just having fun, but they’re doing nothing, or they’re slowing down the pacing, or it’s too much exposition? Am I making eight different versions of the same joke because I can’t help myself? I love to take things a little too far, both in conversation and in my writing. It’s helpful to have a good editor or multiple good editors in the form of my agent and trusted readers who can tell me, “I can tell you’re having fun here, but the reader is not going to.”
TCR: You do a spectacular job of putting the reader inside these fevered situations. I’m thinking now about Salvation, the dive bar where the narrator spends time. How do you mine these moments in your real life? How do you save the inspirations around you? Do you write in your phone as you see things that move you? What’s your process?
RM: I do. I try to write things down as I see them, things that are so weird they take you out of the everyday. Especially if you’re doing things on autopilot, like you’re driving to work or you’re in the grocery store when you see something that feels a little bit absurd. I always try to capture those moments to see if I can use them somewhere. When I write, sometimes I’ll have a placeholder sentence, like, “I walked outside and the air smelled like flowers,” and then I’ll make a note to myself to find something more specific there like, Is it night-blooming jasmine? or What time of year is it?
I think I have a line in the book about drying leaves that look like the husks of dead insects or something like that. I’m trying to always push harder for specificity, that doesn’t always occur to me in the moment. If I try to push past the easier way of describing something, I often can land somewhere interesting with enough time.
TCR: Can you talk about your decision to have an unnamed narrator?
RM: The narrator’s never had a name at any point when I’ve drafted. I don’t know what her name is. So much of our narrator’s arc is about crafting her own identity and trying to go from someone who feels like a blank canvas to the artist herself. And that’s a metaphor that she uses to describe her relationship with her sister, Debbie. Debbie is an artist, and she’s the canvas. And so, it felt too hard to pin her down with a specific name because so much of the book is about her trying to find an identity within herself… because she’s so slippery.
TCR: When you brought this to your editor, did you find that you had to defend that decision?
RM: I’m lucky that my editor, Alicia Kroell at Catapult, got the book from the very beginning. And that was clear when we had our first editorial call before they offered to buy the book. They understood the purpose of the intergenerational trauma thread and the trip to Moldova. Some editors felt like the Moldova section and the intergenerational trauma exploration belonged in a different book entirely, and saw this as just a sisterhood and addiction story first and foremost. But Alicia understood that ancestral legacy thread was really key to making all the other threads hold.
Alicia was really great at helping me figure out which scenes or chapters were totally extraneous. I think there was only one time where Alicia suggested that I cut a chapter that I ended up wanting to keep. And they made a really good point for it, though. It was the chapter that opens Part Two, where the narrator and her new lover, Franklin, have this ridiculous scheme where they pay unhoused people to get fake opioid prescriptions and pick them up at pharmacies; the narrator and Franklin then buy those pills off the unhoused folks and sell them at Salvation.
In an earlier draft, Alicia saw it as more of a capsule chapter where Franklin never appeared anywhere else in the book, where the scheme felt disconnected to everything else that happens in the book. And so, Alicia was wondering, Do we really need that here, or can we just go straight to her working in the emergency room? I felt a lot of affinity for that chapter because that was the first chapter I wrote in the universe of this book, back when it was a linked short story collection. Which isn’t necessarily the right reason to keep something—because you feel attached to it—but it felt to me like there was something more there.
So, I peppered more Franklin earlier in the book, and I made the connection between how she [the narrator] got her emergency room job later. I put the first breadcrumbs of that in this chapter where we met Jeff, the shady doctor, and Alicia was immediately like, “OK, now I see it.”
TCR: I’m so glad that you kept Franklin’s part in; it gave more insight into the narrator’s internal world, to what was driving her. The intergenerational trauma thread is palpable and masterfully written. At the start of Chapter Twenty-eight, as the narrator is considering the woman with Shoah grief, reflecting on her own suffering and Debbie’s disappearance as intergenerational trauma imprinted in her bones, you wrote:
“When Debbie walked the balcony railing at the nightclub, when we gave parts of ourselves to men who saw us as disposable, when we stuck things in our noses and throats and beneath our tongues, it was because, in 1950s Leningrad, our great grandfather was shot in the street, and this was why our grandmother was so hard, why her love felt like cold hands shaking me awake.”
These lines flattened me in the most delicious way. It was a gut punch that I wanted to hold onto forever. Perhaps it’s because Millennials—myself included—seem to have this hunger to interrogate our traumas. I’m curious how you dug into the theme and/or what that process looked like for you.
RM: I was especially interested in the way historical traumas affect people who are several generations removed. I think the term intergenerational trauma has been kind of hot the last few years. People talk about epigenetics and the famous experiment with rats who were electrocuted when they smelled cherry blossoms—how, generations of offspring later, whenever rats would smell cherry blossoms, they would have this stress reaction as if they were going to be electrocuted. I feel like those are kind of the typical things that people discuss with generational trauma. I was interested in ancestral traumas as more of an atmospheric thing in the book where our characters are behaving in relation to these traumas that they don’t know the full details of. They’re several generations removed, and they couldn’t possibly articulate how their relationship to [the traumas] guides their desires and behaviors. I wanted the reader to feel that there was a connection there, even if we can’t summarize what that connection is in a pithy thesis. I felt resistant to this being a book about generational trauma in the one-sentence log line, but it did feel honest based on the experiences that I’ve had and that other immigrant writers and friends that I’ve talked to have had. Where, yes, these forces exist and they guide your life to some degree, but they’re not the definition of your life. And it would be dishonest both to make the book seem almost wholly about that or to not include it entirely.
TCR: Since you mentioned conversations with other immigrant writers, can you talk to me about cofounding the Cheburashka Collective?
RM: Yes, that’s fun! I love talking about it. The Cheburashka Collective is a casual community of women and nonbinary writers from the former Soviet Union. We all found one another on Twitter years ago, I think in maybe 2017 or 2018. I think someone started a thread and was like, Where are my other post-Soviet writers at? [People] got tagged in the thread, and we all connected over email and decided to do a reading together because, at the time, most of us were on the East Coast or close to it. We did a reading at Berl’s Poetry Shop in Brooklyn. We’ve done a few events in-person together since and some virtual events, and we had a feature in Jewish Currents’ Soviet issue. We all wrote ekphrastic poems in relation to our pre-immigration photos. It was a cutout zine. Before [the Cheburashka Collective], I did not personally know any other post-Soviet writers. Obviously, I know about Gary Shteyngart, but he and I are not exactly peers. So, it’s been really special to connect with other women and nonbinary writers who are close to my age and have similar experiences, and to make art together.
TCR: Community is so important, especially during this time in the world, when we’re endlessly connected. I think there’s this the idea of especially writers sitting alone in a room, smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey—all of which can be true—but the vibe that I’m seeing and have immersed myself in within the writing world is total community.
RM: The community, I think, makes a lot of it so worth it. It’s why I get so sad when I see Twitter kind of hitting the dumpster. Because [it’s where my] writing community lives, for the most part.
TCR: Did you have any roadblocks while writing this book—maybe things you were afraid to put out there or anything that’s been surprising for your family to read? Or completely accepting it and loving it?
RM: Oh, yeah. I have so much anxiety about writing about both real people and fictional people. Just a lot of anxiety in general about upsetting people or causing harm. I’m a people-pleaser in real life, and it takes a lot of effort to not get too stressed out about what people will think of this thing. [You know] how in the book Debbie says, “If you’re not asking yourself, Am I about to ruin my life? at least once a day, you’re not living a life at all.” That’s sort of how I feel about things that I publish, where if I don’t have a moment where I’m like, Oh, my God, am I about to ruin my life if I publish this, then probably it’s not that interesting or the stakes aren’t high enough.
That’s not always true when I write more reported stuff. But there is a time, and I would still say it’s probably eighty percent of the time, if not ninety percent, when anything I write—poetry, fiction, nonfiction—I feel deeply self-conscious about how people who know me will react. I don’t really worry about strangers thinking I’m disgusting or weird or fucked up or whatever, but I worry more about family, colleagues, acquaintances. People who don’t necessarily know the intricacies of my mind, but think of me as a good daughter and a mother and a sister and someone who can be relied on and someone who works in pharmacy in this stable career path. I think I get worried about what they’ll think about the gross preoccupations of my mind.
I try not to ever let that stop me from publishing something that I think should be out there, but I do have minor stress crises about it. And sometimes, I don’t post things on certain social networks because I don’t want certain people to see them, because I just don’t want to stress about what their reaction will be. I will say that with this book, my family, my community, my immigrant community, have been so supportive: people buying multiple copies, people reading it overnight, and being so happy and so proud. I’m sure there are things in the book that they might wonder why that came from my mind specifically. But everyone’s been very supportive, and it’s definitely made me feel better about putting things out there, even if they feel unpalatable.
TCR: I feel like so many us writers have that fear, and you just have to push through it. If it’s making you uncomfortable, it’s worth putting out there. But it’s hard to silence our inner minds.
RM: You know how they say you never really leave high school? I feel like to some degree—even though I’m now in my thirties, I have a kid of my own, etc.—there’s still something so mortifying about writing explicit sex scenes and knowing that people who have known me since I was a year old are going to read them. It still feels like I’m doing something very bad, but at a certain point I have to just grow up and not let that anxiety stop me from writing what I want to write.
TCR: You’re a new mom. Has that changed your perspective on writing and your place in the world?
RM: It definitely made me a lot pickier about what sorts of assignments I take on and how I spend my now much more contracted time [for] writing. I’ve always tried to only write things that I want to write and not take on assignments that don’t sound really interesting to me, partly because I have a full-time job. So writing is always about getting in the nooks and crannies of my schedule. But especially now with a kid, I really have to soul search and not just say yes to the first thing that’s offered to me because I want to do someone a favor or I want to be nice or helpful or I want another byline. And so, it’s made me much more selective, which has also helped me be more in touch with what I truly want.
And then it has also made me a much faster writer when I’m writing nonfiction on a deadline. I’m not someone who tends to write fast at all, especially with fiction and nonfiction. But since having my baby, with assignments that I have agreed to do since then, oftentimes I can’t spend twenty-five hours working on a first draft the way I might normally. And so, I really find myself writing with a gun to my head. And it can be helpful. The first drafts, they might not necessarily be as good as they would be if I had spent twenty hours on them. Eventually I realize I can get to something I’m proud of faster than I thought I could when I have this kind of scaffolding determining how much time I have to work on something.
I think the biggest change is that working on the kind of big-picture project like a new novel is going to be tougher because I feel like I need many hours in a row to think that globally. Working on a standalone essay or interview, it’s a lot easier to enter and exit that space quickly. So, I’m definitely intimidated about working on whatever my next fiction project will be. But I also know that as [my daughter] gets older, it’ll be easier, and I’m still kind of in the thick of it because she’s so new.
Breen Nolan Schoen is a writer from Rochester, New York. She is a current MFA candidate in the University of California, Riverside-Palm Desert low-residency program in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her family.