Diasporic Stories as Revelation: An Interview with Ruth Madievsky

Greg Mania

When we think about inheritance, we tend to think about the tangible: property, titles, investments. Maybe jewelry, cars, or antique furniture. Or it can refer to a collection of traits: eye color, blood type, a predisposition to a health condition. But what about the things that evade the exact, the defined? The things that course through our blood and sway how we move through the world like an invisible force, immune to clear-cut language? 

In All-Night Pharmacy, novelist, poet, and essayist Ruth Madievsky is not interested in putting what is handed down to us in a box. Instead, she asks to consider what it would be like to make space for the things that are of us—in us—and the inexactitude that comes with them. Our unnamed narrator—which is fitting, since her search for selfhood is at the core of this novel—grapples with the dark underbelly of her Soviet Jewish inheritance that manifests in addiction, self-destructive behavior, and, namely, her co-dependence with her older sister, Debbie. This dynamic reaches a fever pitch when they get into a fight and she stabs Debbie, who survives and goes missing shortly after. While our protagonist contemplates looking for her, she meets Sasha, a queer Jewish refugee from Moldova who claims to possess psychic abilities, at her job doing admin work in an emergency room. Before long, a budding romance between the two takes them on a trip to Sasha’s homeland, where the narrator begins to contend with her intergenerational trauma—and who she is underneath it all.

Madievsky solidifies herself as an unmistakable voice in fiction with this spellbinding debut, and I was fortunate enough to sit down with my friend and fellow child of immigrants to talk about identity through the lens of ancestry, living with our ghosts, and the other things she thought about while crafting this atmospheric banger of a book.

Greg Mania: You and I became friends by bonding over being the children of Eastern European parents who immigrated to the U.S. There is so much that resonated with me in this book! If we’re staying within the context of heritage and identity, what makes this story important to you?

Ruth Madievsky: Yes, we did! It’s probably in our families’ best interest that we never meet IRL, or we’ll become too powerful.

Claire Dederer has this amazing line in her new nonfiction book, Monsters: “What makes great art depends on who we are and what we live through.” I didn’t set out to write about intergenerational trauma or post-Soviet Jewishness when I started the novel in 2014, but those were preoccupations of mine when I began working on the book seriously in 2019. I had just visited Moldova and Russia for the first time since immigrating from Kishinev in 1993. I had recently co-founded The Cheburashka Collective, a growing community of women and nonbinary writers whose work has been shaped by immigration from the former Soviet Union to the U.S. and I was having really interesting conversations with Jewish and diasporic friends about “the immigrant experience.” My personal essay column, “Eldest Immigrant Daughter,” published in Catapult came out of those conversations. What started out as a novel about addiction, sisterhood, queer coming-of-age, and urban loneliness became a diasporic story, too.

GM: In your Acknowledgements, you write, “I am so grateful to have spent time with the ancestors I never got to meet while working on this book.” Was connecting with your history the impetus for writing it?

RM: It wasn’t, but it was a nice side effect. My family history didn’t make an appearance in the book until I first started drafting Part III (the Moldova section). At which point I was like, “Oh, okay, I guess intergenerational trauma and the legacy of the Holocaust are a big part of this book, interesting.” I never outline, so the drafting process is all about discovery for me. The family history element ended up tying a lot of threads together, and I can’t imagine where the book would have gone without it. A few editors who read the book when I was on submission wanted me to cut the Moldova stuff and double down on addiction and sisterhood. That’s a novel I’d gladly read, but not the one I’d written.

GM: That’s interesting to hear. I feel like the Moldova stuff uniquely textures the themes of addiction and sisterhood.

RM: I’m really glad to hear that. The family history felt like important connective tissue between those themes. And that particular interplay isn’t something I’d seen in many books before.

GM: Our unnamed narrator’s relationship with her older sister, Debbie, is integral to this book from the get-go. What about their sisterhood—or sisterhood in general—was central for you to explore?

RM: Sisterhood became central to my novel almost incidentally, in the sense that the first sentence of the novel has always been, “Spending time with my sister, Debbie, was like buying acid off a guy you met on the bus.” As a reader, voice is everything to me. When I wrote that sentence, I found myself wanting to let the voice keep talking. That’s how the whole book got written, to be honest!

GM: When Debbie disappears, Sasha appears, and within their overlap we have our protagonist. Sasha serves as her spiritual guide, but their relationship evolves to become much more. To me, their relationship illustrates the connection between spirituality and how stories are passed down. Is this a lesson you wanted your character to learn, or did this dynamic transpire during the writing process?

RM: I love the way you phrased that. All-Night Pharmacy was originally a linked story collection, and in the early stories, Sasha was both the narrator’s spiritual guide and a friend with whom she had some sexual tension. When I began reworking the collection as a novel, both elements—the spirituality and the lust—revealed themselves to be central to their dynamic. I cut a lot of minor characters during that reworking. Sasha became a main character, rather than just another misfit in the narrator’s menagerie of weirdos. And their connection is one that marries spirituality and family history (specifically, intergenerational Jewish trauma) for the narrator in a way she’s never had access to before. That’s partly why their bond is so strong and also why it’s so volatile.

GM: Debbie’s kind of a ghost in the way that she haunts our narrator. Even in her absence, her presence looms large. I read this as a meditation on living with our ghosts—and finding a way to be okay with that, being okay with things left unsaid, unanswered. Am I reading too into it, or is this something you actively thought about when writing Debbie?

RM: I was talking to another writer the other day about how immigrants carry a bag of ghosts on our backs at all times. That’s something the narrator’s relationships with Debbie and especially with Sasha help her realize. She describes being Debbie’s sister as “obliterating,” but even after Debbie disappears, she doesn’t know who she is and still hears Debbie’s voice in her head. The ambiguous power dynamics of her relationship with Sasha make the narrator wonder whether she’s moved on, or has just found a Debbie replacement, or something in between.

GM: It feels like her sense of self is tied to those around her; she just sees herself as a variable in relation to the company she keeps. Is this why you chose to keep your protagonist unnamed?

RM: I’m obsessed with how Ottessa Moshfegh answered this question about the narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation: “What the fuck could her name be? Jennifer?” That captures how I feel about the speaker of All-Night Pharmacy, whose name I don’t even know. I have a sense of what her first initial might be, since it’s mentioned that she’s named after her great-grandmother. But also, it feels like it’s none of my business. Our narrator’s hunt for agency, her desire to be artist instead of canvas, is so central to the novel that it felt almost violent to saddle her with a name.

Debbie’s name, on the other hand, felt right to me from the start. There’s an irony to such a chaotic, larger-than-life character having such a respectable Jewish name. You almost want her to be called Scarlet or Harlow—something sexy and dangerous, rather than the name of your mom’s accountant. The influence of intergenerational trauma on Debbie’s behavior is one of the novel’s preoccupations and kept me from changing her name to something that seemed to fit her personality better. 

GM: Speaking of intergenerational trauma, has writing this book helped you reconcile with your own?

RM: In an essay I wrote for Catapult in 2022,  I talk about the messy ethics of translating the immigrant experience into fiction. I feel contradictory desires to memorialize my family’s oral history and also to avoid mining trauma I didn’t personally experience for content. Ultimately, I come down on the side of being a cultural custodian.

GM: I love that. Tell me what that means to you.

RM: I don’t want these stories—like my great-grandfather’s murder as an enemy of the state—to get lost or distorted beyond recognition, which I could easily see happening if they aren’t written down. Though the narrator’s family history doesn’t always mirror mine exactly, the resonances helped me engage with my own Soviet Jewish inheritance in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Nothing got resolved, of course! But acknowledging the mysterious ways that these forces shape the lives of even those several generations removed was a revelation. 

GM: I literally gasped out loud when I read this line: “Living better than them did not mean making my own choices. It meant honoring the choices my ancestors would have wanted for me.”

RM: Ha, this is an ongoing tension in my life—the desire to repay the dead for their sacrifices by being the person you think they’d want you to be.

GM: Was writing this book a way to contend with that tension for you? I know reading it helped me contend with my own.

RM: Absolutely. The lines you quoted are corrosive thoughts that writing the novel helped me contend with in real time. I understand now that exercising the freedom to make choices that were never an option for those who came before me is a way of honoring their sacrifices. That realization hasn’t freed me from the guilt that comes with behaving in ways my living and dead family would disapprove of. But it poured a little light over everything.

GM: You’re also a healthcare provider, and our unnamed narrator also has a job at a hospital as administrative assistant. Was this parallel intentional? If so, what was your motive behind it?

RM: I love fiction about people plotting and scheming. Pharmacy school drilled the laws around controlled substances into me—the regular inventory-keeping, the triplicate sheets, what you do and don’t report to the DEA. I started with the first pharmacy scam of the book—where the narrator and her lover get a shady doctor to write opioid prescriptions for unhoused people that they buy off them with cash and resell. After that fell apart, the narrator needed a new scam to continue her access to pills, which is where her emergency room secretary job came into focus. The parallelism to my own job as a clinical pharmacist was mostly about convenience—a prescription drug scam felt like something I could write about with more authority than, say, a dry shampoo pyramid scheme (though I would read the fuck out of that, too).

GM: I can’t let you go without asking you the question I ask all my authors: what did writing this book teach you about yourself?

RM: I never thought myself capable of writing a whole-ass novel. I had never deeply considered the downstream effects of the Holocaust and Soviet Jewish trauma on people of my generation. I learned that I prefer drafting long-form fiction to revising it. That, as excited as I was to share the book with editors, I would have moved commas around forever if my agent hadn’t torn the novel from my death grip. And I was pleasantly surprised by how much of an influence my poetry background had on the novel. I polished every sentence until it gleamed. That’s both my strength and my weakness. It's easy for me to think I’ve really done something here when I write a beautiful sentence. I think it was Matthew Zapruder who said that, in poetry, everything can be abandoned in the pursuit of beauty. That principle doesn’t quite translate to the novel—many of the lines that served beauty more than the book itself had to go.