It’s a bad habit of mine, passing quick judgment on strangers and friends—readerly and writerly friends—who haven’t read someone whose work was been so essential for me. I can know that we all have our blind spots, that it’s not as if books expire, and so on, while simultaneously finding myself deeply frustrated, because how has the person in front of me failed to read or seek out the work of this writer I love, this wonderful writer whose work I think of as impossible not to fall for, to fall into?
Rivka Galchen is one of those writers for me—though, justly, I find that in the time I’ve been reading Rivka, I’m met more and more with knowing nods and shared exuberance when her name comes up in conversation. I’ve been a superfan of Rivka’s since 2008, when her debut novel Atmospheric Disturbances came out and completely blew me away with its innovativeness—the strange and devastating and lovely way it’s built and moves—and the magic occurring on the sentence level. (Galchen’s ear for rhythm and syntax is like Didion’s ear—the sentences sing, never losing their music even when they’re a paragraph long, and feel perfected without ever feeling tweaked or overworked.) I doubled-down on thinking Galchen was one of our best contemporary writers a few years ago when I read an advance of American Innovations, a story collection I treasure and have forced on many friends who come back converted.
So consider it a triple-down when it comes to Little Labors, Galchen’s first book of nonfiction, a fragmented compendium of ricocheting observations and reportage about motherhood—or perhaps through motherhood is more apt. It is a work of stunning intersections between curiosity and scrutiny, between wandering and wondering, and to follow Galchen’s mind as it moves through everything she’s gathered to look at is a gift. Reading it, one feels the enlargement of one’s heart and mind, which is the work of literature.
It was a thrill to speak with Rivka by email about the book, out now from New Directions.
Vincent Scarpa: I’d love to know the origin story of how Little Labors came into being. Were you consciously aware that you were putting this book together, or did that reveal itself as you kept writing?
Rivka Galchen: My original plan was to write an appealingly dry and detailed piece of literary criticism—that was the aspiration. Michael Barron, who was at New Directions, had invited me to come up with an idea for their Pearl series—very slim books, usually stories—and I had for a long time thought that I’d like to try to write something about Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book and Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, and I thought maybe this could be the form for such a thing. Shonagon and Shikibu were contemporaries, and somehow they both wrote books that lasted a millennium. And they had done this writing in the ‘minor’ language of Japanese; at the time, anything considered serious in Japanese culture was written in Chinese. Anyhow, that was what I intended to write, and it was going to be due the November that happened to follow the August of my child’s birth. I turned that book in nearly two years late, and that book ended up being this book.
VS: I’m curious about the process by which you decided to tackle—to include, to analyze, to juxtapose—any given element of the book, to create this patchwork that includes autobiographical writing but also your analytical orbit around everything from Frankenstein to an epistemological inquiry into the color orange to your evolving relationship to women writers. Was there something inherent in each thing you gathered in that felt unifying or necessary to fit the form of the book? Because, as your reader, I got the sense that you could’ve pulled anything into the text and alchemized it to make meaning, and yet it felt as though you chose the exact right things.
RG: I took it on faith that the way I was experiencing the world and thinking at that time was in some way like switching from a species that sees in the familiar ROYGBIV spectrum to seeing instead like a bee, or a goldfish. Not a better or worse vision, but a different vision (for me), and differently useful. And so I figured I could include whatever caught my attention, because the book wouldn’t be precisely ‘about’ whatever I was looking at so much as it would be about what the visible spectrum was of the species that I was, for a window of time. I knew I wouldn’t see like that forever, so I hoped to write the book baby-drunk, in a sense.
VS: Perhaps this is something of a pedestrian question, but I’m genuinely interested, because this is your first book of nonfiction, how the writing process and practice of Little Labors differed from, say, your story collection or your novel. Had you done much autobiographical writing before this project? Because Little Labors seems to me exemplary of my favorite kind of creative nonfiction: the kind where the realizations or observations made by the writer feel completely undetermined; they are happening on the level of language, on the level of the line.
RG: I’m told that people who work seriously with puppets don’t like the term puppeteer, or the idea that the puppeteer is determining what the puppet does—the puppet has a natural destiny, has its own things to express, and the puppeteer’s job is just to help the puppet be what it’s meant to be. I recognize how sappy-automatic-writing that sounds, but I believe in that idea! It’s like, Swedish chef has to be Swedish chef, Beaker has to be Beaker; you can’t coerce them into being other than themselves and still call it art (or the Muppets.) We see this also in puppet theater we’re more accustomed to calling art, like Bunraku, or the Gigantes in Guatemala. Long way around of saying: you’re definitely right to intuit that in this book the words had a strong say in what words or thoughts followed them; they were trains equipped to lay down their own next piece of track. And that’s a familiar experience for me, similar to fiction writing; that there’s a need to lower the level of control for anything interesting to happen. But writing this book was an unfamiliar experience in the sense that I usually find that it requires a real effort for me to turn off my drive to captain everything—here I didn’t have that problem. Instead, I had to beg the captain to come intervene. My frontal cortex was so dimmed out by fatigue and love that the ship was just a floating party, going nowhere. It was like there was just a lump of felt, no puppet constraint. I don’t know why I feel moved to go by land and by sea both in these mixed metaphors, but I’m trying to say that usually when I write I’m trying to dismiss the captain, and in this book it was more like I kept sending out message-in-a-bottles, hoping the captain would return, if only for just long enough to teach me how to use the sextant.
VS: Having read it twice, I think what I admire most about Little Labors is that it seems equally interested in a kind of self-anthropology and outward-seeking analysis as it is interested in being processed by a reader. That is to say the text is confident in what it declares—even confident regarding that about which it is unsure—but makes a generous space for your reader to move through as we watch you being both the scientist and the split rat. You even write, “…because firsthand knowledge is an obstacle to insight,” which seemed to me a sort of invitation to the reader. I’m not sure what the question is here. Perhaps: was that sort of phenomenological mode of relation between writer and reader something you were aiming for, or just a happy accident? (And if I’ve totally gotten this wrong, I will cite you back to you one of my favorite lines: “The theory may not quite hold water, but has at least a dense enough weave to keep in place a few oversized bouncy balls.”)
RG: I love your take on it. I wasn’t thinking in any conscious way about anything like that. But I do feel like in a way this book turned out to be my most ‘private’ work. Which isn’t to say that it discloses much at all about me in the straightforward sense, but that I was in touch again with the kind of writing that just has to please one person. That sounds like a bad idea—to only please one person, and for that person to be one’s self—and yet, I love that feeling. It’s like when you’re a kid and find a crunched-up note, one not written to you. It’s somehow great to read something written to someone, but not written to you.
VS: I’d love to hear you talk about the process of arrangement. I was surprised, receiving the final copy, to see its differences (in organization and in formatting) from the galley itself, and I guess that’s what prompted me to wonder how you went about ordering in the first place. Was the process of the old print-everything-out-and-arrange-it-on-the-kitchen-table variety, or was there something more calculated, some kind of tempering or balance you felt it was necessary to strike for the book to succeed?
RG: It was mostly intuitive, but I didn’t have the chance to really sit properly with the sections before the ARC went out; it’s sort of painful to me now to think that I let the book out into the world, at least provisionally, before it was really done! But that’s how it goes. I feel like the ordering process grows out of really sitting and spending time with the words once they’ve become foreign enough—no longer the fresh progeny—that you can see them in a way that more closely resembles how other people might see them. And, of course, there’s the regular old questions of how to make the most of variations in length and tone, of lightness and dark.
VS: The section that struck me most is one of the shortest. Titled, “New Variety of Depression,” it reads in its entirety, “It’s true what they say, that a baby gives you a reason to live. But also, a baby is a reason that it is not permissible to die. There are days when this does not feel good.” That one knocked me flat on my ass. It’s so, so concise, and yet holds within it a feeling so unbelievably complicated and nuanced. It’s an example of something I think you do enviably, maddeningly well, here and in your fiction—of locating the exact right language through which you can force the most knotty emotions, sensations, perceptions. You find language that can bear weight without buckling, and I think that’s what we’re all trying to do. I’m wondering, then, about the instinct toward compression of that language, and if/how that might differ from instincts you’ve felt as a fiction writer—especially as a novelist, whose task is in so many ways to grow out.
RG: I’m not going to say anything, because that question was so nice, I don’t want to muss it up. (I do think though that I like what you’re pointing to, about how sometimes a kind of prolixity and going on and on can become its own kind of compression. A long novel like Don Quixote feels like it acquires density, rather than dispenses with it. It’s almost like novels are the inside of poems.)
Rivka Galchen is the author of the novel Atmospheric Disturbances. In 2010, The New Yorker selected her as one of its notable “20 Under 40” writers. She lives in New York City.