Living with a look-alike

An interview with Rivka Galchen ’98, author of Atmospheric Disturbances

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(Photo by Ken Goebel)

Rivka Galchen ’98’s debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances — about a lonely therapist, Dr. Leo Liebenstein, who returns to his New York apartment one day to find that his wife, Rema, has been replaced by a simulacrum, a woman who looks, talks, and acts exactly like her — garnered critical praise when it came out last year. Newly published in paperback by Picador, the novel was named a Slate.com best book of 2008, a finalist for the 2009 New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, and a New York Times Book Review notable book of 2008, among other honors. The story follows Liebenstein as he searches for his real wife, whom he is certain is alive and hiding. Galchen, an English major at Princeton who earned a medical degree from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, weaves in psychology, meteorology, and an examination of love and human relationships. She spoke with PAW’s Katherine Federici Greenwood.

You recently competed an M.F.A. at Columbia, having already earned an M.D. Do you practice medicine?

No I don’t practice medicine, which I suspect is a good thing for all. I’m not very comfortable with bodies. I could never keep myself from apologizing before performing a physical exam.

Why did you switch from medicine to fiction writing?

I had wanted to be a fiction writer since I was a teenager but I thought of that as a pretty silly aspiration, and one that went along with other spoiled habits like not wanting to eat the crusts of sandwiches. So I went pretty far out of my way to not be a fiction writer. But finally I became grouchy enough that I figured I’d let myself give it a try.

How does your background in medicine and science influence your fiction?

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Medicine is this amazing elaborate foreign language, on top of being this wonderfully alienating way of thinking about the human body. So there’s just the aesthetic pleasure of those words and systems.

How did you get the idea for making one of the main characters in your novel — the Rema look-alike — a “simulacrum”?

At least one place was the story of a friend of mine who had two cats, Otis and Milo. And one day Milo went to the vet without Otis, and must have come home smelling a little bit different. Otis treated Milo as a complete stranger, with suspicion and hostility, as if to say he couldn’t so easily be fooled.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on my next novel, and I’d be happy to tell you what it was about, if only I were better at talking about novels. Somehow with the last book, while I was working on it, I was convinced that it was “in the tradition of Godzilla.” But that’s not even very true at all! I’m sure if I tried to say something about my current project, it would be equally off-base and silly.

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