AN INTERVIEW WITH RUTH MADIEVSKY, AUTHOR OF ALL-NIGHT PHARMACY
by Simona Zaretsky
Ruth Madievsky’s novel, All-Night Pharmacy from (Penguin Random House, 2023) is a gorgeous and dark exploration of sisterhood, sexuality, and traumas inherited and experienced. The unnamed narrator struggles with addiction to drugs and to her sister, all while trying to come out from under intergenerational trauma (Shoah grief, as the narrator terms it) with the help of her self-appointed spiritual guide, Sasha. Madievsky has previously published a poetry collection, Emergency Brake, and her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry are featured in many publications. Her writing has been awarded numerous prizes, and 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.”
Madievsky’s knife-sharp humor balances the heavy sadness of the book. The vibrant prose pulls the reader in and makes each sentence a poem in itself:
My eyelids were a gradient from silver to galaxy black. The wings of my eyeliner sharp as needles. Lips the color of honey and more symmetrical than I’d ever felt.
“Do you like it?” she said. The uncapped lipstick in her hand was called Toxic.
I looked icy and confident. Unfocusing my eyes, I pretended I was looking at some other girl entirely. “It’s perfect,” I said.
Simona: There’s a familiarity in the destructive cycles that the narrator and her sister, Debbie, live in. The language itself reflects this tension of the familiar toxic sisterhood and yet the narrator’s desire for deeper fulfillment. Could you talk about their relationship a little?
Ruth: A lot of it ties back to the Holocaust and the Soviet terror. The legacy of historical traumas. However, the narrator and Debbie don’t necessarily think in terms of how their behavior might have been influenced by these historical traumas that are several generations removed. There’s something in having lost ancestors to these horrible events that make the narrator very hesitant to cut her sister loose. Even though the narrator’s boyfriend Ronnie at one point asks, “Why do you still talk to Debbie?” For some readers who can’t relate necessarily to having that kind of immigrant baggage, they might wonder at first, Why does the narrator not become estranged from her sister? To me, it’s this idea that family, even if they kind of suck, aren’t expendable and a lot of immigrants, especially Jewish immigrants, understand this on a molecular level. Debbie is the larger-than-life chaotic sister who often leads the narrator into just the most cursed escapades that involve hooking up with all the wrong people, doing all the wrong drugs in all the wrong places. Yet it also frees the narrator from having to exert any agency or make her own choices, because for her, the idea of being a person in the world is so terrifying that she would rather on some level just be the canvas to Debbie’s artist.
Simona: That’s so interesting. Debbie is such a force of nature and so vividly captured, particularly in that opening scene where they are getting ready to go to the bar Salvation. I was so struck by that line that you mention: “She didn’t want me to learn how to do my own makeup. It would upset our dynamic of her as artist and me as canvas.” How do you see art functioning in the story?
Ruth: Interesting. No one’s asked that before. The narrator clearly likes to read, she’s into art. She has this side of her that’s interested in culture, but I think she also mistrusts that and feels like she’s kind of a fuck up because she can’t get her act together to sign up for classes in school. And she’s sarcastic about her own engagement with art. At one point she talks about spending her days watching SpongeBob SquarePants and reading novels about women behaving badly and masturbating into a near vegetative state. There’s something tongue-in-cheek about the novels about women behaving badly where the narrator’s kind of aware that she’s like stepping into a trope. But she’s a voracious reader and likes what she likes. It’s clear why she relates to it so much. It’s a little too terrifying for her to imagine herself as the heroine of her own story, but she can get into these other stories about slacker, fuck-up women who are just following their desires and living their lives.
Simona: Sasha tells the narrator snippets of her past lives, including the tragic endings and the strength she has (perhaps putting up with too much). There’s this sense of a partially unknown past permeating the narrator’s life, in particular regarding the grandmother’s stories of life in Russia. Could you speak on that?
Ruth: A lot of immigrants, children of immigrants, and people who grew up in a hybrid culture have inherited all this family lore that they can’t totally relate to. Many of us have this sense that we’re just carrying around a bag of our dead at all times. There is something very estranging about living a much more stable, privileged life in America, and then learning about things that happened to your parents or your grandparents that feel almost unbelievable.
In 2019 I went to Russia and Moldova for the first time since immigrating, and I actually got to see the Jewish cemetery in Moldova, which was very similar to how I described it in the book. It was totally decrepit, with weeds everywhere. You had to basically bushwhack to find your relatives. You get the sense that everyone there’s been forgotten about. I saw the apartment complex where my family lived before we immigrated. While we were visiting the medical school where my parents went, they would tell stories about how my dad had to join the army in order to get one of the few spots that were allocated to Jews. How did this just happen a few decades ago? A lot of us are haunted by stories like that and by the fact that there’s so many more that I’m sure we don’t know of yet. I only know the stories that have been passed down to me, but I’m sure there’s so many slights, big and small, and traumas that are not even really speakable that I’m missing out on. I feel the outline of them all the time. And these characters do too.
Simona: In a similar vein, all the characters are engaged in different forms of storytelling that help them to survive these various traumas. The grandmother’s stories, for example, seem to shift and there’s the sense that even she doesn’t know the “true” events. How did you craft all these stories within stories?
Ruth: Some of the stories are taken from my own family history. My great-grandfather was also murdered as an enemy of the state, by the KGB under very vague reasoning. Growing up, my grandma told me that he died of a heart attack, to protect me. It was only my parents who told me that’s not what happened. Both versions feel kind of true in their own way. My grandma was 12 or 14 when that happened, so very young. I have the image in the book about them tearing the keys off the piano, and that happened in real life. They were looking for jewels beneath the piano and obviously found none. I wanted to be a custodian for these family stories that I was afraid would get lost because they’re oral histories. Fiction is also helpful because it let me deviate from the truth sometimes too, to find a different truth that worked better in the world of the book.
Simona: The narrator’s Judaism and the idea of Shoah guilt seem intertwined with the idea of a golem: “Golems are alive, but incompletely—their souls are unstable. They can be a force of protection or great destruction.” Do you see any of the characters as golems?
Ruth: That’s a really interesting question: not off the top of my head. I was interested in this idea of Jewish mysticism permeating the book, not in a way that made the book magical-realist as a whole, or in a way that made the book mostly about contending with Jewish trauma. But I did feel like it was an important and honest thread that explains in some ways why the narrator and Debbie’s relationship is the way it is, why they’re kind of addicted to each other, why their mom has these obscure, overlapping mental illnesses that no one can really put a name to. Why the grandmother is such a hard, tough love kind of person where the love is so clear, but it comes in this very bludgeoning, punishing way a lot of the time. Melissa Broder’s book Milk Fed was really helpful for me in thinking about Jewish mysticism. Have you read that book?
Simona: I haven’t yet.
Ruth: It’s so good. She has this amazing thread where she basically goes to therapy because she wants to work on her messed up relationship with her mom and with her body. She’s recovering from an eating disorder/not recovering, and still actively in it. Her therapist has her create this clay figure out of Theraputticals, a fake clay. She creates this woman who is supposed to look the way she thinks she looks and she’s this zaftig play-doh figure. Right after she makes that, it’s almost like she summons this zaftig Orthodox Jewish woman in her life who works at the local frozen yogurt shop that the narrator becomes obsessed with. At one point she loses the clay figure. At one point it comes back. It’s this totemic object that I think she thinks of as a golem. That was really interesting to me, the idea that you could delve into Jewish mysticism in little patches without it being overarchingly what the book is about.
Simona: There are so many kinds of desire that the narrator experiences in the book. I was so struck by the lines: “I was tired of being a knife block. I wanted to be a knife.” Could you speak on the types of desire that the narrator experiences?
Ruth: The narrator is paralyzed by what she feels are different, unruly desires. She wants to know who she is, but she is also terrified to know who she is. This is why Salvation is such a refuge for her because everyone who goes to that bar feels that there is something incurably wrong with them. They are there because they don’t want to know what it is. The narrator is into the idea of studying Biology or English in college. She sees herself as someone who has some kind of future, but is too intimidated to actually seize it. And so she does these half measures, like becoming a page at the community college library rather than enrolling in classes there.
She wants to be a person who does things rather than a person that things happen to, but she can only imagine doing that through violence because that’s kind of the example that’s been set for her. So much of the arc of the book is figuring out whether she can become who she’s meant to be without being a force of destruction the way her sister is.
Simona: I understand that the book actually started in 2014 as short stories that ultimately evolved into the novel form. Has this process changed your approach to writing at all?
Ruth: The reason it was short stories in the beginning is because the idea of writing a novel was so intimidating that it felt impossible—though I love to read novels. When you read a novel that’s really well structured where everything comes together, it’s so intimidating to think about: How did they come up with that scaffolding? How did all the plot points pay off, developing characters, foreshadowing things, working on pacing throughout a whole book? It’s A plots, B plots, C plots. There’s so much to a novel. I naively thought that a linked short story collection would be easier. I was like, I’ll just bang out some short stories that are 2,000 to 4,000 words each, copy-paste them in a Word document and there’s a book.
Now I understand that short stories are incredibly difficult and a satisfying linked short story collection is no less hard than a novel. Case in point, when I had a bunch of linked stories copy-pasted in a Word document, they were very much not more than the sum of their parts. It was not going to be a satisfying reading experience. I ended up meeting with an agent back in the day who thought that it would work better as a novel because there were through-lines with a lot of the linked stories that were being hit on over and over, but not really reflecting anything new. I was also only writing a story or two a year with very little zeal, which kind of indicates that I myself did not necessarily take the project that seriously.
Whereas when I decided to write it as a novel, suddenly the first draft got done in like two and a half months. I didn’t realize that drafting a novel or any book could be really fun, especially if you just take the pressure off of yourself to outline, to know what’s going to happen, if you just let yourself come to the page and see where it goes. I wrote the novel the way I write poems interestingly, where I just come to the page, see where the voices take me, and write in pursuit of beauty, arresting imagery, and truth—whatever that means in the context of the book. The revision process is when you can go back and fix the plot holes and deepen the characters. I was surprised by how fun it was to write a first draft where I could take the pressure off myself for it to be anything because it already wasn’t really a book at that point. It was just something I was futzing around with.
Simona: Is there one piece of craft advice that has stuck with you?
Ruth: In poetry, you don’t have to be as indebted to narrative. You can do whatever as long as it works in the world of the poem. But with novels, because people are investing so much time in reading it, there are certain expectations and it’s not going to be a satisfying reading experience if you’re too ambiguous, or too lyrical. I’m speaking in broad terms about traditional publishing. I had to get rid of a lot of vibey lines and sentences that I thought sounded pretty. But they were just a flex that weren’t really doing anything for the book itself: they were fun on the language level. I had to do that constantly when I was revising the book.
To answer your question, I would say—make hard narrative decisions that I had been putting off. It was a lot easier to write a funny or pithy sentence than it was to sit and think: Why do these characters do X? Why can’t this person achieve Y? Or even coming up with the timeline. At a certain point, you have to go back and make those decisions because readers can tell when you haven’t. Those questions can really weigh on the reader when they fundamentally don’t understand how much time has passed, for example.
Simona: What are you reading and writing now? Although I know you probably have very limited time because of your new baby!
Ruth: Most of what I’m reading right now is while breastfeeding or while she’s napping on me. I’m reading A Living Remedy by Nicole Chung. I love Nicole as a person and as an essayist. I just read Emma Klein’s The Guest and it lives up to the hype. I’m really excited about a bunch of books that are coming out soon. Katya Apekina has a book called Mother Doll that I’ve heard an excerpt of and it’s wonderful. That’s coming out in 2024, as is Marissa Higgins’s A Good Happy Girl, which is this lesbian throuple novel that is going to be so chaotic and amazing. Sasha Vasilyuk has a novel called Your Presence is Mandatory that covers a lot of similar themes to mine, a kind of post-Soviet inheritance also coming out in 2024.
Simona: So many good things to read! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.
Ruth: Absolutely, thank you for talking to me.
Simona Zaretsky is the managing editor of digital content and marketing at Jewish Book Council. Her work has been featured in Lilith, The Normal School, and other publications. She holds an MFA in fiction from The New School.