Amnesia and Abject Terror Are Prerequisites: A Conversation With Ruth Madievsky


Ruth Madievsky is a powerhouse. Cofounder of Cheburashka Collective, a community of women and nonbinary writers whose identity has been shaped by immigration from the Soviet Union and author of the poetry collection, Emergency Brake (Wrolstad, 2016) and work that has appeared in publications like The Atlantic, Harper’s Bazaar, Guernica, and Kenyon Review, she works also works as an HIV and primary care clinical pharmacist. Her newest literary achievement is a prismatic debut novel, All-Night Pharmacy (Catapult).

The novel centers the toxic relationship between the unnamed narrator and her wild older sister, Debbie, who goes missing. The narrator gets a job as an emergency room secretary, which offers her access to steal the pills she’s become addicted to, and is also where she meets Sasha, a Jewish refugee from the former Soviet Union, who claims to be the narrator’s spiritual guide. The women’s relationship blurs and the narrator must learn how to exert her own agency. Dealing with intergenerational familial trauma, addiction, mysticism, power dynamics, and queer relationships, All-Night Pharmacy is a smart, propulsive novel with razor-sharp sentences. Like every good literary novel, it leaves the reader with questions to consider: What are our obligations to family? To ourselves? How do we learn to take up space in the world? How do we move forward, past our traumas, on our own terms?

I spoke with Madievsky online to discuss All Night Pharmacy, her fear of writing anything schmaltzy, violence against queer people in the Soviet Union and the U.S., and why craft is the necessary gift writers need when we need to articulate what we really believe.


The Rumpus: In the acknowledgements, you note that the family in your novel is not your own family. I loved that disclaimer, yet am frustrated you needed one. Were you concerned that people might not think this is a work of fiction?

Ruth Madievsky: I wanted to protect my family from outside scrutiny and, candidly, and to protect myself from people who might recognize some of the autobiographical bits and wonder if I’m calling them or myself out. I learned the hard way with my poetry collection when some people felt emboldened to ask me any probing question they wanted. When women, queer people, writers of color, basically anyone writing from a marginalized perspective publish work that intimately engages with those experiences, there’s this reflexive assumption by some readers that it’s all autobiographical and that anything they want to know about the writer is up for grabs. When All-Night Pharmacy was on submission, I even had a Big Five editor ask me which parts of the novel were autobiographical!

Rumpus: Novels usually start with strong characters or a premise. Which was it for you?

Madievsky: Character, always. I never sit down to write fiction with an outline or even a preconceived notion in my head. It always starts with a voice I want to follow. The first line of All-Night Pharmacy—“Spending time with my sister, Debbie, was like buying acid off a guy you met on the bus”—has been there from the very first draft. I wrote the line, and then I wondered who was talking, and I let them keep going.

Rumpus: You nail that perfect symmetry of voice and character. That first line shows how this narrator describes things and says so much about who they are. Despite the intimacy of this narrative voice, there’s always a slight distance since the reader never knows the narrator’s name. Can you talk about that decision?

Madievsky: Ottessa Moshfegh once gave this amazing answer in an interview when she was asked why the narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation isn’t named: “What the fuck could her name be? Jennifer?” I feel similarly about my narrator. So much of her arc throughout All-Night Pharmacy is about learning to exert agency. To be, in her words, “artist instead of canvas.” It felt right to not be able to pin her down. I don’t even know her name! I have an idea of what her first initial might be—it’s mentioned that she’s named after her great-grandmother—but it kind of feels like it’s none of my business.

Rumpus: There’s so much going on with the narrator in this story—family dynamics, including intergenerational trauma, addiction, romantic relationships, and hot sex with a woman with whom the relationship is hard to define. Was it hard to juggle these different threads?

Madievsky: I never saw the novel as being primarily a sisterhood story or an addiction story or a queer coming-of-age story or an immigrant story. It was always all of the above and then some. The challenge was making the connections feel natural without imposing a thesis on the reader. The relationship between the narrator’s inherited Jewish trauma and her toxic relationship with her sister, for example, isn’t meant to be paraphrasable. That feels more honest to the mysterious ways these forces shape our lives.

Rumpus: The organic weaving of these threads is part of what’s so masterful about this novel. It echoes how these things materialize in life—nothing happens in a vacuum, problems overlap. You beautifully illustrate how intergenerational trauma can influence addiction.

Madievsky: I think intergenerational trauma plays a role in a lot of personal and interpersonal dynamics, addiction included. I was just telling another interviewer that immigrants, particularly refugees, carry a bag of ghosts on their backs at all times. It would be preposterous for me to make some grand statement about exactly how these forces interact, and I don’t think readers would like that either. You don’t read literary fiction if you’re looking for tight little answers to life’s mysteries.

Rumpus: At one point the narrator wonders if certain things hadn’t happened, if other things would have, but there’s no way of knowing. The novel holds space for the precarity of life, which reinforces its theme of the different forces that have a hold on us. Did you have to engineer the strengths of varying forces?

Madievsky: Dialing the volume of those different forces up and down was definitely a challenge. For example, maintaining suspense around Debbie’s disappearance across the many chapters where she’s not featured. I didn’t want readers to lose interest or feel like that thread was dormant, but I also didn’t want to be ham-fisted about dropping reminders all over the place. The same was true for the woman with Shoah Grief, for the narrator’s substance dependence and attempted recovery, etc.

I have this deadly fear of writing anything that could come across as schmaltzy, so my early drafts tend to be lean. I write emotionally heavy scenes as if I’m breaking into someone’s house and just want to get out as fast as possible. The last chapters of each section tended to be the hardest to write, because they involved major confrontations between characters. It took a lot of coaxing from my agent and editor to get me to depict more of my characters’ interiority on the page. The novel started out as a linked short story collection. It’s so delicious to be able to say shit in a short story like “After I got sober, ____.” So much of my revision process for All-Night Pharmacy entailed turning summary into scene. Sometimes you have to risk schmaltz to say something real.

Rumpus: At what point did you realize you needed to change forms?

Madievsky: I never thought myself capable of writing a whole-ass novel, and back when I started writing All-Night Pharmacy in 2014, linked stories felt more doable. In 2019, an agent who’d read some of the published stories reached out to see if I had a manuscript. I opened the document where I’d pasted all the stories together and found that in five years I had thirteen thousand words. Humbling!

The agent felt that a novel would better serve my characters. I was skeptical but decided to give it a shot. I chaotically picked up where the last story left off and began writing the book from there as a novel. It ended up feeling so much more natural and exciting than muscling through one or two stories a year with no urgency. I didn’t end up working with that first agent but got very lucky and signed with Mina Hamedi at Janklow & Nesbit. We spent a year revising together, which ended up being so much harder than cranking out that first draft. Now, having written a novel, I can’t imagine pulling off a linked story collection. And writing a sophomore novel? How does anyone let a new voice into their head? I’ve learned from writing poetry, it’s actually normal to think: “I forgot how to write poems,” every single time I face a blank page. For me, amnesia and abject terror are prerequisites.

Rumpus: Your skills as a poet clearly served you while writing this novel. How much of your command in one genre informs your writing in another? Do you ever have to turn off different creative parts of your brain when working in other genres? Or does that come as effortlessly as it appears to for you?

Madievsky: My toxic trait is the urge to constantly craft mic-drop sentences. It comes from poetry, I think, where every word matters so much. I don’t turn off parts of my brain when writing in different genres, but I do have to coax myself to make the craft choice that feels right instead of the one that feels easy. With personal essays, for example, my early drafts tend to be more elusive, leaning into the vibey-ness of poetry. Sometimes I need the push of an editor to lay claim to make the point I’m trying to make, to just say the fucking thing, instead of implying it through arresting lyricism. As I mentioned earlier, when we talked about schmaltz, I had that same struggle with the novel.

Rumpus: Your use of the knife as both object and metaphor was brilliant. The narrator wants to be a knife and then gets one. This is a perfect example of Chekhov’s gun but also manages to be symbolic. Want to talk about knives?

Madievsky: Let’s talk about knives! One of the early cover art options was a photo of a knife against a bedspread, beneath sexy neon lighting. Turns out covers that prominently feature weapons can be an issue for displays in some bookstores and online sales, so we ended up scrapping that cover concept.

The narrator and her lover, Ronnie, play this drunken game where they name what household objects they’d transform into if they got zapped with a mad scientist’s ray. Having just met her, he intuits that she’d be a knife block. This triggers an obsession with wanting to become a knife, having agency, and becoming someone who acts rather than someone to whom others act upon. The narrator sees that as an improvement on her current state, but it’s a violent way of moving through the world.

Rumpus: The world can be pretty violent, especially for queer people. Was the hate crime that happens in Saint Petersburg based on a true event or made up to highlight the violence against queer lives around the world?

Madievsky: That’s true. The murder I describe in the book really did take place in July 2019. I was visiting Saint Petersburg for the first time when it happened. Yelena Grigoryeva was a forty-one-year-old queer human rights activist who was stabbed and strangled near her home. The government tried to pass it off as a drunken brawl that went too far, refusing to see it as a hate crime. She’d been the target of multiple death threats by that point, and her name had appeared on a website whose goal was to hunt LGBT activists in Russia. Russia is brutally anti-queer, so you can imagine how seriously the government took her concerns while she was alive. Grigoryeva’s friends believe that hers was a contract killing. As far as I can tell, the case has gone nowhere in the nearly four years since Yelena’s murder.

Rumpus: Was including this event in the novel a way to honor Yelena?

Madievsky: That was definitely part of it, though I didn’t name her directly because it felt wrong to use her as a plot point. I echo the circumstances of her murder in All-Night Pharmacy, there are so many other examples of state-condoned and state-sanctioned violence against queer people in the region. In the novel, the murder creates a wedge in the narrator’s relationship. She has these unformed thoughts about how coincidental it is for a queer woman to be murdered in the city where the narrator was born. Her lover reacts negatively to that, snapping, “There’s nothing coincidental about a bisexual woman being murdered in one of the queerest cities in Russia.” She accuses the narrator of treating the murder as a metaphor for what her fate may have been if her family hadn’t immigrated. Their reactions to the murder highlight the divergent ways they relate to their queerness.

Rumpus: Maybe this isn’t directly related to your novel, but talking about the violence against queer people in Russia makes me think of the article you recently published in Salon about a different kind of violence against queer people here in America.

Madievsky: The state-sanctioned violence of depriving people of essential medical care— whether we’re talking about conservative politicians restricting access to gender-affirming care, or abortion, or HIV services— always seems to be under the guise of protecting someone—women, children, etc.. It’s a craven lie, one that costs so many lives. I could go on forever about disparities in HIV care, which I’ve seen firsthand through my day job as an HIV and primary care clinical pharmacist. Medical warfare against queer people is maybe as normalized in this country as more overt violence in places like Russia. There were some deleted scenes in my novel about that, but they felt like they’d been shoehorned in there and didn’t quite work with the story.

Rumpus: Another theme of the novel was how stories have shifting meanings as they are retold. In terms of state-sanctioned violence, storytelling is essential. People need to hear those stories so they know the reality of what’s happening. One of the many lines I underlined was, “Our loyalty was to story, not reality.” Can these two things be at odds but also overlap?

Madievsky: Stories, particularly the narrator’s family lore about surviving Soviet terror, hang over the novel like mist. Then there are the stories the narrator clings to, about herself, about her sister, and their relationship. Though stories and reality can certainly overlap, the narrator often uses stories—of both the received and self-made variety—as a shield against more difficult, introspective work.

The line you quote comes up when the narrator is having another chaotic night at her go-to bar, Salvation. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say that a scam she’s been involved with has just blown up and everyone at Salvation has a different, equally confident answer about her partner’s fate. Salvation has a liminality to it, as if what happens there doesn’t translate to the real world. One of the questions of the book is whether the narrator will stay in that womb-like environment, clinging to her well-worn narratives, or if she’ll emerge and face reality. Can you tell I’m literally nine months pregnant as I write this??

Rumpus: I suppose we all have that choice: do we cling to our well-worn narratives or face reality?

Madievsky: An ongoing and lifelong struggle! The two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. For writers, turning to narrative can be a way of facing reality. Writing helps me articulate what I believe. Though we write in solitude, reading is such a communal act. You get to be in conversation with every writer that influenced the work. At the risk of being schmaltzy—what a gift.




Author photograph by Adam F. Phillips

Rachel León is a writer, editor, and social worker. She serves as Daily Editor for Chicago Review of Books. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, LA Review of Books, the Ploughshares blog, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Necessary Fiction, The Rupture, Entropy, and elsewhere. More from this author →