“Hypnotized by language”: An Interview with Ruth Madievsky – curated by Wendy Chen

Ruth Madievsky is the author of a debut novel, All-Night Pharmacy (Catapult, 2023) and a poetry collection, Emergency Brake (Tavern Books, 2016). Her work appears in The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Times, Harper’s Bazaar, Tin House, and elsewhere. She is a founding member of the Cheburashka Collective, a community of women and nonbinary writers whose identity has been shaped by immigration from the Soviet Union to the United States. Originally from Moldova, she lives in Los Angeles, where she works as an HIV and primary care pharmacist. You can find her at www.ruthmadievsky.com and on social media as @ruthmadievsky.

AllNight Pharmacy is a stunning portrait of two sisters who revolve around one another like twin stars, being pulled closer and closer toward mutual destruction. Ruth Madievsky captures like no other writer that unbearable tenderness and understanding that exists between sisters. There’s a sense of inevitability to their relationship, and yet each page and sentence is a surprise. Being a sister myself, I found myself incredibly moved by her nuanced and attentive portrayal.

Madievsky, the author of the poetry collection Emergency Brake, applies her poetic sensibilities towards this novel, which results in kaleidoscopic landscapes shot through with emotion. As readers, we find ourselves alternately in a bar named Salvation, a haunted apartment in Moldova, the waiting room of a hospital—in close, and often painful proximity with psychics, painters, private detectives, lovers, grandmothers, mothers, and of course, sisters.

I sat down with Madievsky, author of this incredible debut, forthcoming from Catapult July 2023, to ask her about the process of putting the immersive world of All-Night Pharmacy together.

Wendy Chen: Characters are always leaving and returning—to one another and also place. You write each location with such persuasive detail—bars, stores for psychics, restaurants in Moldova—How much research went into the writing of this novel? Are there locations that are based on real-life sites you’ve visited yourself?

Ruth Madievsky: I love the way you phrased that—leaving and returning. Since All-Night Pharmacy is concerned with family legacies, intergenerational trauma, and coming-of-age, that constant push-pull between the past, present, and future felt natural. And the three settings—Los Angeles, Moldova, and Boston—are all places I’ve lived. I was born in Moldova, grew up in Los Angeles, and did a two-year stint in Boston (which is where I finished my first draft!). I returned to Moldova in 2019 for the first time since immigrating as a two-year-old, and much of that section of the novel is based on what I observed. The Jewish cemetery has been haunting me since my visit. It’s so surreal to visit a place like that and try to reckon with how your family lived versus how you live. That tension definitely made its way into the book. Some of the novel’s funnier details—the father who gets bitten by a pregnant dog, Los Angeles’s energy healers and bleak strivers faking it till they make it within an inch of their lives—are also based on personal experience.

WC: There are so many hauntings that permeate the novel—from Shoah grief to recountings of supernatural sightings to the evocations of family ancestors. Ghostly presences are everywhere. One of the most prominent hauntings, of course, is the haunting of Debbie’s absence. Even when the sisters are physically together, Debbie’s emotional absence is sometimes still keenly felt. Yet through Debbie’s absence, we begin to understand her larger-than-life presence and history. How did you go about imagining and visualizing Debbie as a character?

RM: Thank you for saying that. It’s a gift for my work to be read so carefully. With Debbie, as with all my characters, it started with a voice. I’ve never been an outliner; I prefer to channel a voice and see where it takes me. The voice of our unnamed narrator—darkly funny, judgmental, full of longing—came first. Early in the drafting process, she delivered the line that became the novel’s opening: “Spending time with my sister, Debbie, was like buying acid off a guy you met on the bus.” I get hypnotized by language that’s hyper-specific and coolly self-assured. Once I committed that sentence to the page, my next thought was, “Well, what does that mean?” I had to keep letting my narrator talk to find out. I ended up revising a ton of those voice-y sentences that eventually no longer served the book, but voice is always my original roadmap.

WC: What was the most challenging part of writing a novel? Do you have any tips for writers working on similar projects?

RM: It’s funny, I always thought that concocting a cohesive first draft would be the most impossible part of writing a novel. I actually found the drafting phase really fun. Revision ended up being the hardest. You probably understand this as a fellow poet—I bled over every word. My agent and I revised together for a year before going on sub, and she basically had to pry it from my death grip. I could have moved commas around forever, truly.

What worked for me with the first draft was having a word count goal and an accountability partner. The writer Billy O’Neill and I agreed to write 500 words a day for a month, and to email each other whatever we wrote. Once I got into the rhythm of writing something, anything, for about 45 minutes every day, that made it easier to keep going after that first month ended. After I had a full draft to work with, I made a list of all the things that were off, and which writers/books I could look to for guidance. I did that throughout the revising process with my agent and eventually with my editor. For example, I was avoidant about providing anything resembling an explanation for my narrator’s behavior—I worried that self-reflectiveness would come across as schmaltz. Annotating some of the comps for my book, like Melissa Broder’s Milk Fed, which I read around the time I went on sub and re-read while revising with my editor, was hugely helpful for figuring out how a writer I love tackled a craft problem I was having. I highly recommend reading/rereading books with the eye of a student trying to learn from a master. It’s so instructive!

WC: How has your background as a pharmacist influenced or shaped this novel?

RM: I don’t think I could have conceptualized the various opioid scams without having worked as a pharmacist. Pharmacy school really drills those laws, those triplicate fucking sheets, into you. And without getting into HIPAA territory, I’ll just say that I’m intimately familiar with what several characters in the book are struggling against. A big part of my work as a clinical pharmacist is “motivational interviewing”—a way of communicating that promotes behavior change based on a patient’s particular concerns and priorities. It’s a useful skill to apply to fiction, as well. What do my characters want; what will they do to get it; and how does it influence their worldview, relationships, and behavior?

WC: How did the process of writing this novel differ from the process of putting together a poetry collection?

RM: Poetry collection run a lot more on vibes than novels, in my opinion. I ask myself questions like “Which poems are in conversation with each other?” and I never feel confident that the order I’ve chosen is the best possible combination for the book. It’s a spiritual process, and I find myself going with my gut a lot of the time. I find that there’s more air in my poetry too. I’m circling certain themes, but I’m not trying to curate an experience that will answer most of a reader’s questions. If anything, I love a poetry collection that feels like an open door. With novels, I like when the door feels ajar. With fiction, there are many more conventions/expectations that need to be addressed for readers to feel satisfied. That may not be the case with more experimental fiction, but for what I’m writing, I have to pay close attention to what I describe in scene vs. summary, whether character motivations are clear enough, whether the ending feels surprising yet inevitable, etc. All things that I don’t really agonize over when I write poems. The agony with poems is much more on the level of the line and in the pursuit of beauty and truth.

WC: How did you come to organize the novel into four parts? How do you conceptualize of each of the four sections?

RM: Ha, so the novel was originally intended to be a linked short story collection. I wrote 8 or so stories over half a decade and pasted them into a Word doc. There was no urgency, and I only wrote new stories when I felt like it. Eventually, an agent reached out to see if I had a manuscript, and I showed them the stories. They thought the book would work better as a novel, and I semi-begrudgingly agreed to give it a shot. We didn’t end up working together, but they were totally right.

With my first draft, I chaotically turned the 8 stories I’d already written into Parts I and II of the book, and I started writing Part III as a novel. Part III features a pretty big change in setting, so that felt like a capsule section that was meant to end when the trip at the center of it ended. It felt natural to make the next (and final) section that ties everything together Part IV. Much of the hard work of revision was putting meat on the bones of the stories that made up Parts I and II, essentially rewriting them to work with the rest of the novel. In a short story, you have the concision to say things like, “After I got sober…” In a novel, it can be really unsatisfying for emotionally resonant stuff that deserves to be rendered in scene to be blithely summarized. 

WC: What books or writers were you reading while writing this novel? Are there particular writers or voices that haunted the pages of this book?

So many! Several of my blurbers, whose books came out before I went on sub: Jean Kyoung Frazier, Kimberly King Parsons, Kristen Arnett. It won’t surprise you to learn that I first wanted to write about a young fuckup looking for love and transcendence after reading Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson a decade ago. Some other authors whose work I read and re-read before, during, and after selling my novel: Bryan Washington, Garth Greenwell, Rachel Kushner, Raven Leilani, Andrea Lawlor, Jean Chen Ho, Kyle Lucia Wu, Ottessa Moshfegh, Alissa Nutting, Brandon Taylor, Miranda Popkey, and Alexander Chee.

WC: What are you working on next?

I’ve written a second poetry collection, which I hope to start shopping around soon. I’m still looking for my next book-length project after that. Hopefully another novel, though I haven’t committed yet to any of the ideas floating around my head. I’m waiting for a new narrative voice to grab me by the throat.