In Rivka Galchen ’98’s new book of short stories, American Innovations, the narrators are all women — partly in response to the author’s reading habits in younger days. “When I was 25 years old, I looked at my bookshelf and it was all men,” she explained in a recent Los Angeles Times interview. “All of my favorite books were by men and had male narrators.”
Flipping that gender imbalance while at the same time drawing inspiration from “canonical” short stories written by men (including James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Aleph”), Galchen has written a fresh, innovative collection that has earned high marks from reviewers.
Adam Langer of The New York Times, commenting on Galchen’s tendency to eschew convention, said that following her stories feels like “watching a crisscross firework that shoots up like a normal shell, but explodes in unpredictable directions.” Hillary Kelly of The New Republic compared American Innovations to a multivitamin: “Everything one could possibly need is dispensed via dense, tiny, mysterious pellets.”
Since publishing her first novel in 2008, Galchen has emerged as one of the young stars of American fiction, earning a spot on The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” list and a regular gig as a New York Times “Bookends” columnist. But her path to the literary world included a significant detour: the former English major completed medical school before deciding to pursue an MFA.
“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,” she told PAW in 2009. “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.”