Rivka Galchen is in an upbeat mood these days, feeling lucky, confident and relaxed. She has felt that way since the publication of her debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances (Harper Collins), which has garnered rave reviews in the United States, where she has lived since the age of four.
Still, the humble Toronto-born writer wonders why critics praised her comically dark novel, a complex love story set in New York City and Argentina, turning on such themes as loss, parallel worlds and a missing wife’s almost perfect double, and touching on elements ranging from weather control and quantum theory to a counter-intuitive conception of space and time.
“I’m not being falsely modest,” said Galchen, a 32-year-old New York-based rising literary star whose richly imaginative novel has been nominated for Canada’s Governor General’s Award. “Some books that aren’t that good get lots of attention.”
Galchen, whose parents left Israel in the late 1960s and never returned, was brought up with the notion that she should aspire to be a scientist. Her late father, a distant character in the novel, was an applied mathematician who worked in meteorology, while her mother was a computer programmer.
At first, Gaslchen rebelled, studying literature and creative writing at Princeton University under the tutelage of her thesis advisor, famed novelist Joyce Carol Oates. But bowing to family pressure, she enrolled at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, emerging with a medical degree five years later. Between her second and third years, she spent a satisfying year in Peru working on public health issues.
“My mom begged me, basically, to study medicine, thinking I’d be unemployed otherwise. I wanted to make her happy. I was a yalda tova, a good girl.”
Eventually, she regretted her decision. “I didn’t feel engaged in medicine,” explained Galchen, who was recently in Toronto to promote her novel at the International Festival of Authors.
Longing to return to writing, Galchen registered for a master of fine arts degree at Columbia University. She never practised her specialty, psychiatry, thereby disappointing her mother.
She now believes that her enrolment in Columbia’s MFA program was like a rite of passage. “To become an adult, you have to displease your parents,” she noted, adding that her mother nevertheless wished her well. “She was very nice,” said Galchen in an interview.
In retrospect, she does not think she wasted time at medical school. “Education is never a waste. Medicine is a part of my identity today. It made me into a stronger person.”
To some degree, Columbia formed Galchen, who taught an undergraduate course in essay writing there. “I loved Columbia,” said Galchen, a soft-spoken person whose sentences occasionally end with an endearing giggle. “I made very close friends. I read a lot more deeply. Before Columbia, I felt desperately behind in my knowledge of literature. No one had ever told me about Ulysses.”
Armed with a fellowship, Galchen began Atmospheric Disturbances in the autumn of 2004. She composed much of it in a favourite hangout, the Hungarian Pastry Shop, which her father once frequented. It is five blocks from her apartment in Manhattan, which she shares with her husband, Aaron Harnly, a computer scientist.
“You can sit there all day with a $2 cup of coffee and refills. The macaroons are amazing, and the atmosphere is shabby in a nice way. The clientele is mixed. In the morning, elderly Jews sit there discussing politics, and in the afternoon, it is filled with Columbia students.”
She had no problems writing Atmospheric Disturbances. “It very much wrote itself,” she explained. “It didn’t develop in the direction of my plans.”
She had no agent when she started. But after hiring one, everything fell magically into place. She submitted her manuscript on a Thursday, and on the following Tuesday, it had been accepted for publication.
The reviews were nothing short of ecstatic. “Hilarious and daring,” exulted one reviewer. “Playful yet profound,” observed another one.
Having hit pay dirt with her inaugural book, Galchen is far more self-confident than she was a few years ago. “Writing is not a stable field,” she said, echoing her mother’s sentiments. “But now I feel a little ground under my feet.
Much to Galchen’s relief, her mother liked Atmospheric Disturbances. “She doesn’t read fiction, but she heard from friends that it was a good book. She thought it was very realistic, which is the last word I’d use to describe it.”
In fact, her virtuoso novel bridges the gap between literature and science. “I’m interested in revealing the poetry of scientific language,” said Galchen, who has been drawn to science since childhood. “My parents encouraged me to become a scientist,” she recalled. “My father thought that science was the noblest endeavour, but he and my mom had respect for the humanities.”
Her parents, both sabras, left Tel Aviv in 1969 as newlyweds. Tzvi Galchen, originally from a moshav, wanted to complete a post-doctoral degree at the University of Toronto. He and his wife assumed they would return to Israel after Canada, but instead they moved to the United States.
Galchen’s memories of Toronto are hazy today, but she remembers the pre-school she attended in a church.
After Toronto, the Galchens went to Norman, Okla., via Boulder, Colo. He accepted a position at the University of Oklahoma, while she landed a job at the National Severe Storms Laboratory.
“They had no idea where Oklahoma was,” she chuckled. “Oklahoma was not the end of the world, but you could see it from there. It was safe and cheap. My dad was happy there.” (He died of a heart attack in 1994 at the age of 53.)
Galchen, her parents and older brother, Oren – an investor in New York City today – were virtually the only Jews in Norman. “It was the ultimate Jewish experience. We were in exile. It gave me a sense of homelessness.”
During this formative period, she and her family visited Israel almost annually. “I’m very attached to Israel. For better or worse, Israel feels very personal.”
Currently, Galchen is finishing her second novel, tentatively titled The Nature Theater of Oklahoma, which revolves around a false religious prophet who heads a populist movement.
Looking ahead, she said her third novel may draw on material in an unpublished novel on pre-state Israel she wrote as a thesis at Princeton.
“It was about my father’s parents coming to Palestine in 1918,” she disclosed. “It wasn’t very good. I was young and didn’t understand how to construct a novel or form a character. I hadn’t come under enough writerly influences. But I learned a lot in writing it. It encouraged me to write.”
And now, with Atmospheric Disturbances behind her, Galchen has come full circle.