A Reality Test with Rivka Galchen 

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Rivka Galchen’s debut novel Atmospheric Disturbances is now in paperback. Earlier this year, having first answered our Questionnaire for Writer Types, she exchanged further emails with the L.

The L: The literary spotlight has been shining on Brooklyn long enough for there to be a misconception that all young writers in New York City are living and writing in Brooklyn. Despite living in Manhattan, do you identify with "Brooklyn writers", or do you consider yourself independent of any communities?
Rivka Galchen: We lived in Morningside Heights for years and years, but in February, we moved out to the North end of Brooklyn Heights, betraying the neighborhood we (okay, I) will always love best. I know the chocolate, the fancy soaps, the walking, the Armenian string cheese, and pretty much everything else is better in Brooklyn, but I have a hard time with change. But my husband works in DUMBO. He can basically skateboard to work, down past the Jehovah's Witness clocktower, in 11 seconds.

As to Brooklyn writers: I suspect what most Brooklyn writers have in common is an anxiety about having things in common with Brooklyn writers? I'm pretty sure I fall into that common category of being afraid of categories.

The L: Have you adopted a new coffee shop since moving?
RG: I think maybe this is what internet dating is like? I keep meeting all these objectively pretty great coffee shops, and I have a nice enough time with them for an afternoon or two, but in the end each one seems only to be defined by all the ways in which it fails to be exactly like The Hungarian Pastry Shop, my original love. But I am wild about the gruyere pretzels and almond croissants at Almondine, and I kind of always have a great time when I work afternoons at a Tio Pio in downtown Brooklyn.

The L: Atmospheric Disturbances is a compelling crosspollination of literature and science. For a protagonist, the reader is given a psychiatrist, Leo Liebenstein, who is assumed to have a firm grip on reality and logic, but who succumbs to a patient's psychosis and finds himself questioning his perception of what is real. What was it like to develop a character that was at once certain of himself and completely disoriented?
RG: One time I was just walking in the hall of the library and suddenly I was being pummeled by this elderly woman with shopping bags full of books, and I really thought — even though I'd never seen this woman before in my life, and even though all I was doing was walking down the hallway to the water fountain — that I probably had done something to this little old woman, that I probably deserved being beaten with shopping bags of books, that the whole encounter was a just revenge for.. for something I must have done that I had totally forgotten about. So, well, the highly suggestible part of Leo, the strong suspicion he has that seemingly random occurrences are laden with meaning — that comes naturally to me.

Also: I feel like we all have practice thinking backwards, like certain things come to us basically on faith — i.e. cap-sleeves are unflattering, Mickey Rourke is a nice person — and then we go out and find arguments to lead up to those conclusions that we already have. I dunno. I think I do this a lot anyway, and I hear other people do the same thing a lot.

The L: What you're describing reminds me of the sort of magical thinking children do. Step on a crack, you break your mother's back. Of course it seems silly, but Leo begins to indulge that sort of thinking by acting on impulses. Is he conducting a sort of reality test in the novel?
RG: I like that way of thinking about it. Though speaking of the testing: it's sort of like in elementary school when the teacher makes everyone trade papers for grading, and you don't want to mark all the wrong answers wrong for some other kid, and so you manage to mostly only see the answers that you don't mind seeing. Leo's kind of like that with his reality checks.

The L: Do you consider Atmospheric Disturbances to be "science fiction?"
RG: I think it's more that my book has an enormous schoolgirl crush on science fiction. It leaves unsigned notes in science fiction's locker.

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