RIVKA GALCHEN at a round table Saturday (October 25), 1 pm, Lakeside Terrace; reading Sunday (October 26), 5 pm, Lakeside Terrace; and at the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize reading Wednesday (October 29), 8 pm, Brigantine Room.
Rivka Galchen embodies a literary paradox. On the one hand, she's written a brilliant and beautiful book that combines science, passion, logic and a character plainly going insane. On the other, she's hopelessly shy and barely able to string a sentence together.
Her conversation is full of pauses, and when a sentence does come out, it's voiced in upspeak and almost every other word is "like" - this from a medical and fine arts graduate.
She knows she tends to clam up. When I ask if she's enjoyed promoting Atmospheric Disturbances And Other Sad Meteorological Phenomena, doing the talk show circuit and all the other hoopla, she admits it's been brutal.
"I'm not comfortable in front of an audience of more than three," she says on the phone from New York City. "Even if a dinner party gets big I get shy. I had a miserable summer, which is interesting, because I feel so lucky as a first novelist. But promoting it, you just feel dirty."
She'd better get used to it, because the media are sure to keep pounding on her door. Atmospheric Disturbances is a knockout debut and has already made the Writers' Trust Award short list.
The book, full of surprises, thrives on ambiguity and on overturning assumptions. Leo the psychotherapist is as mad as his patients. He has an unnerving tendency to use his scientific background to explain his wonky way of thinking.
"I like the way Leo will turn to science to buttress his argument about his situation. He uses science to convince himself that it's all right to think something that so many other indicators say is a bad way to think."
Critics have been divided, many lavishing praise on the book, others complaining that it's just full of tricks. That doesn't faze her a bit.
"The word ‘trick' is small, but I think the whole thing is a trick. I don't think that's diminishing. Chapters are tricks, paragraph breaks are tricks. Everything seems like trickery to me, which is part of what I like about fiction."
She never practised medicine, precisely because doctors need to be so sure of themselves, to make confident pronouncements on the state of people's health. Uncertainty, she says, is her best friend.
"Everyone has their strategy for getting by. Mine is to enjoy being uncertain. I don't think that's the best thing for a doctor. I'm so envious of people who are confident and certain of their opinions, people with a large body of knowledge."