The Unscientific Method

Books Features Rivka Galchen
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Hometown: New York
Book: Atmospheric Disturbances
For Fans Of: Kurt Vonnegut, David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon

Fresh out of med school, Rivka Galchen made an odd move for a newly christened M.D. After the meticulous studying, the grueling hospital shifts and a year spent in South America doing public health work, she swept it all aside to become a fiction writer. More accurately, she swept it all into some comprehensive filing system in her memory, keeping her knowledge of diseases and the psyche on hand for seamless integration into her first novel, Atmospheric Disturbances. The book hits shelves in June, and Galchen also had fiction published in a March issue of the New Yorker. She’s essentially gone from a globetrotting physician to a highbrow scribe before she’s even hit her mid 30s. “Med school was a big, expensive mistake,” she says, laughing while at Manhattan’s Hungarian Pastry Shop, a locale frequented by Dr. Leo Liebenstein, the protagonist in her novel.

Liebenstein is a mentally declining psychiatrist who believes his real wife has been replaced by a doppelganger. The book confirms that Galchen’s studies have put her in a unique position to write about themes regarding identity, intimacy and trust with both scientific and literary authority. Yet there was plenty of uncertainty surrounding the endeavor. “I always wanted to be a writer,” she says. “I come from the kind of family where that’s sort of obscene. It’s funny. I think my mom would be more comfortable if I was like, ‘I’m going to be a stripper.’ She’d say, ‘you know, that’s practical, you’ll make money, that’s a career, you could probably get a health plan.”

Buzz is beginning to circulate about this hot, young New York writer, but But Galchen doesn’t want to hear it. “Good news means that you’re about to have really bad news—I just don’t like it, just a typical defense mechanism,” she says. “The day I sold the book I was really depressed.”

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