Early on in Ruth Madievsky’s mesmerizing debut, All-Night Pharmacy, the unnamed narrator declares, “I was tired of being a knife block. I wanted to be a knife.” This sentiment perfectly nails the complexity of her journey throughout this dizzying, kaleidoscopic, and ambitious love song to the disparate locales of Los Angeles and Eastern Europe. The novel follows a narrator who is trying to pursue meaningful love, separate herself from her toxic sister, and reckon with her family’s traumatic past in order to find what it really means to be “the knife.” As the story unfolds, the narrator’s sister goes missing and she eventually struggles with sobriety, dating a woman who changes her life forever, and finding meaning in a city and world that is often brutal and unwelcoming. What results is surprising, heartwarming, and offers hope to any reader who is tired of living the wrong life in the wrong place surrounded by the wrong people—anyone who has spent too many unwilling years being “the knife block.”
Ruth Madievsky and I connected through Twitter because of our post-Soviet heritage: She was born in Moldova and I was born in Ukraine, and we both moved to the United States as young children while continuing to speak our native Russian and to long for our complicated, crumbling homelands while confusing our left-brained relatives with our decision to pursue the arts. I knew Ruth first as a poet, and it was such a pleasure to connect with her to discuss her ambitious, bold, queer, and post-Soviet debut novel.
Maria Kuznetsova: Debut novels are often autobiographical. I know that you were born in Moldova and came to the United States as a child. But here, we’ve got your unnamed narrator, whose grandmother was the one who immigrated, and who is still bearing the legacy of that trauma. And then you’ve got Sasha, who is the immigrant from Moldova, and who takes our narrator back to her homeland. I was wondering about your choice to kind of give these parts of yourself to other characters, or to separate your narrator from the immigration (without really separating her). Was she always the grandchild of immigrants and did Sasha always exist? Did you think having her be the immigrant would take up too much of the book?
Ruth Madievsky: For me, fiction always starts with a voice grabbing me by the throat. I never outline or know what I’m going to write in advance. I let the voice speak and try to follow it without interruption. Sasha was an allegedly psychic Jewish refugee from the moment she entered the page. With the narrator, I was nearly halfway through the first draft before realizing that the intergenerational trauma of Soviet terror and the Holocaust was the thread (or, I should say, *a* thread) connecting so many of the dynamics she’s working against: addiction both to substances and to people, her mother’s mysterious mental illness, her grandmother’s coldness. A few early readers wondered why the narrator was so bound to her toxic sister—what was stopping her from cutting her out of her life? Once I saw that she had inherited this violent legacy of her family being torn apart, it made sense that she would have trouble discarding her sister, just as many immigrants I know maintain relationships with people in their community who bring them little joy. I love writing without an outline because it allows me to be surprised by what’s already there on the page.
This book is hard to describe in the best possible way. It’s an immigrant story, a detective story, a recovery story, a story of a sexual awakening and coming of age, a story of a toxic sibling relationship, and so much more. What do you see as the primary story or how did you see all these different stories coming together as you were writing? Were you consciously trying to write one kind of narrative, or to resist writing one kind of narrative? Does that relate to the title, All-Night Pharmacy—almost like, hey, I’m open all night, there’s all kinds of shit in here!
Fuck, I love your read on the title. I’m going to use this in all my interview answers in the future! It’s true, I don’t see All-Night Pharmacy as being primarily about any of those things; it’s the slippery in-between-ness that captures its vibe. The diasporic among us are used to living in the in-betweens and of having no discrete place to call “home.” Not to be too psychoanalytical about it, but I think my background as a Jewish refugee from the Soviet Union who grew up primarily in America has a lot to do with my being allergic to pinning my book down as primarily any one or two things. When I was on submission, a few editors wanted to see the book hone in on the addiction and toxic sisterhood elements and tone down the immigrant story. I can see how that would make for an easier elevator pitch, but there was no world in which I could write this story so neatly.
I hear you. I find that any story I write, no matter how “fictional,” always has some complicated immigrant undercurrent running through it, whether I intended it to or not. I also find it so interesting that editors wanted to tone down the immigrant aspect of it, instead of play it up. I wonder if that would happen if you pitched it today.
Anyway, kind of related to the baggage/messiness of immigration—I feel like as immigrants who spend many hours at the kitchen table with their families hearing endless stories, we have all these ghosts that we’re living with: family anecdotes, stories of long-dead relatives we never met, the weight of all this history that we may never understand. There are so many stories I heard over and over about people I never met, or barely met, that I’ve been carrying around. And your narrator is also dealing with Shoah grief, hanging onto the pain passed down to her from her family’s experiences in the Holocaust. And I couldn’t help but notice that you do so well with having these memorable side characters that are introduced with just a line or two, or who we meet for just a few pages and then almost never see again. Does this relate to being an immigrant in some way, and how do you write side characters so well?
That’s such an interesting point about immigrants: We really do carry a bag of ghosts on our backs at all times. I can’t imagine writing a tight little novel that isn’t haunted by the absurd, un-fact-checkable and incomplete oral histories that raised me. And I’m relieved to hear that the side characters felt fleshed out to you; that’s something I spent a lot of time revising toward. I’m really drawn to the way Rachel Kushner writes side characters in The Flamethrowers, which I reread while revising. In just a few sentences, you get this intensely clear-eyed portrait of someone who feels so specifically themselves that it’s almost unimaginable that you haven’t met them before. Earlier drafts of All-Night Pharmacy were a total menagerie of weirdos, especially in bar scenes at Salvation. Those characters were so fun to write, but I found I was sometimes using these brief, hyper-specific flashes of personality as a way of avoiding fleshing anyone out. During revision, I tried to balance keeping that mural-like effect you mentioned while also deepening the most important secondary characters (Sasha, the narrator’s parents, Ronnie, Franklin, Shirin, etc.), who in early drafts sometimes came across as cyphers. All of that’s to say, it’s much easier for me to write atmospheric descriptions of endearing fuckups than to do the soul-searching work of writing three-dimensional characters. I hope I landed on a good mix of both!
You sure did! I also think you’re so good at it because you have a poet’s way of looking at one thing, describing it in this evocative, pitch-perfect way, and then moving right along. My apologies for my terrible fiction writer’s description of poetry! I was also wondering how your experience as a poet affected your writing this novel more generally. And, maybe relatedly, if your experience as a Twitter expert, where you also kind of have to quickly write these memorable, attention grabbing sentences, helped form this book?
My toxic trait is that I’m always trying to write mic drop moments, no matter what genre I’m working in. I think that impulse comes mostly from my background as a poet. I bled over every word in this book, and my agent had to tear it from my death grip to take it on submission. I could have polished it like a fucking stone forever. I call it my toxic trait because quotability can be a crutch for actually saying something that serves the story. So much of my revision process with my agent and then my editor involved cutting one-liners that I was proud of for their dark humor, their wit, etc. that were really just me flexing. I’ve never thought about how being Very Online feeds into that drive to be quotable, but I think you’re onto something. Though I don’t write with Twitter in mind, sometimes tweeting about writing helps me work through craft questions. For example, a couple years ago, I fired off a facetious (but also serious?) tweet about the “disturbing lack of ass-eating in contemporary literary fiction.” Readers will find that my novel is a humble foot soldier in this fight, partly because tweeting about it made me realize how much I wanted that scene to stay in the book.
What a noble cause! And a great transition to my next question: How did you become so skilled at writing about incredible and terrible sex? I loved how awful the sex between the narrator and poor Ronnie and Franklin was, especially to serve as a contrast to how amazing the sex was with Sasha. How did you pull it off?
Ha, I’m glad you liked them! I love writing sex scenes. Not so much because I see them as inherently different from a craft perspective, but because writing explicit sex feels charged and political given how fucked-up our culture is around sexuality. Sex scenes can grab the reader’s attention in ways that other scenes don’t, and they’re fun to write with that knowledge in mind. We’re also living in especially hostile times as the right-wing culture war on LGBTQ+ people continues to escalate. I don’t think that writing explicit sex, and queer sex in particular, is gold star activism, but it’s certainly a political act to depict something that fucking matters while knowing that others will hate you for it.
It certainly can’t hurt. How did you write a novel with a poetry background, without an MFA, and while in pharmacy school and working as a pharmacist?
FOMO! Throughout college, pharmacy school, and my early days as a clinical pharmacist, I had this obsessive drive to keep up with my peers in MFA and PhD programs, and those whose jobs were writing-related. I felt I needed to make up for never being able to make the readings I wanted to attend at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday, for not having a built-in writing community or mentors or deadlines to force me to write. It was a lot of waking up an hour before class to write, writing during my lunch breaks at work, and pouring myself into self-education by reading a ton of poetry, novels, and nonfiction, especially by my contemporaries. One-off workshops and classes were really helpful too—attending the Tin House Summer Workshop for poetry was revelatory, and helped me find community. Twitter has also been my most loyal frenemy. It can be a hellscape where a mob awaits you with the worst faith reading of your words imaginable. But mostly, it’s where I met so many writer friends and mentors, and it’s how we stay in touch. It’s where I’ve been introduced to so much incredible writing that’s shaped me and helped me build my own writing career. I joke all the time to my family and non-writer friends about catching up with “my dear friend of five years, X, who I’ve never met.” Though I used to feel angsty about having to fight for the time and space to write, I now feel like that FOMO has pushed me to be really intentional about what I write and who I want to be in community with.
That’s how I now feel about being a mother! I don’t have very much time to write so I feel like I have to use it very wisely. But I can also see how having a background in something so different from writing can actually help you write much more interesting work. I feel like all of my characters are always some kind of artist or teacher because I don’t have experience doing much else! How did your pharmacy background influence your writing about addiction and rehab?
Pharmacy stuff isn’t something I intended to shoehorn into the book, but it made its way in naturally. I imagine you might feel similarly when writing about elements of the immigrant experience. It’s hard for the air you breathe not to make it onto the page! It was fun to put some of my more esoteric knowledge—like how the government keeps track of controlled substances—to use, when it felt earned. As a reader, I love being introduced to microcosms totally outside my own. As for the addiction element, I’ve taken care of people working through substance dependence, and have helped them taper off medications like benzodiazepines. So much damage can be done by misrepresenting marginalizing experiences—I’m thinking, for example, of art that has totally misrepresented HIV/AIDS. It was important to me to write about people I’m in community with and to avoid uninformed conjecture about experiences I haven’t lived through.
And it’s just another example of the incredible scope of this short book! I began my interview asking about the origins of the book and the different sub-plots, so I’ll end by asking about one more: One element that really had me hooked was the suspense element of what the heck happened to the narrator’s sister, Debbie. How did you weave the suspense element through the book while maintaining so many other threads?
Maintaining suspense without being heavy-handed or overly ambiguous was one of the hardest parts. Originally, there were chapters upon chapters where Debbie had basically no presence. In revision, I tried to bring her in through time markers of how long she’d been missing, through the narrator’s intrusive thoughts, through flashbacks that served the plot. One of the hardest parts of writing a novel was not really knowing if I was pulling off the pacing. It’s easy for me to tell with a poem, short story, or essay I’ve written—but with a 64,000-word manuscript? I really relied on others to tell me where the hot spots were and where the story sagged. And now that galleys have made their way into readers’ hands, I get a little dopamine hit every time someone tells me they binged the novel in a day or two.
Maria Kuznetsova was born in Kyiv, Ukraine, and moved to the United States as a child. She is the author of the novels Oksana, Behave! and Something Unbelievable. She is also an assistant professor of creative writing at Auburn University.
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