What is it like to grow up in a shadow?
The unnamed narrator of Ruth Madievsky’s debut novel, All-Night Pharmacy, lives in the orbit of her sister Debbie —a world full of drugs and danger. Caught in a web of addictions, the narrator struggles to find her way out of Debbie’s influence. When Debbie disappears one day, the narrator is unmoored, working as a pharmacist,navigating Los Angeles and its glittering nightlife alone. But as Debbie steps out of the picture, Sasha steps in—a Jewish refugee from the former Soviet Union, who claims she is psychic. In a hunt for her sister, her history, and herself, the narrator embarks on a physical journey that will take her across continents, and an internal journey as she grapples with that eternal question—who is she?
Ruth Madievsky draws the constellation of influences that make a person in All-Night Pharmacy, which I devoured in a single sitting as if in a fever dream. Full of sharp-edged sentences and even sharper relationships, this book balances its heavy subject matter with a remarkable lightness and humor. I spoke with Ruth over video call about immortalizing memories in fiction, the invisible weight of intergenerational trauma, and how she turned a short story collection into her debut novel.
Nirica Srinivasan: What was your starting point for All-Night Pharmacy?
Ruth Madievsky: I’m not an outliner. I never sit down to write having any idea what I’m going to write about. But for me, it’s all about finding a voice that feels like something I can get obsessed with, that really gets under my skin. Usually, it’s influenced by what I’ve been reading. When I started working on the book in 2014, I was reading a lot of voice-driven literary fiction, and the first line just popped into my head, and it stayed that way the whole process—the line being “Spending time with my sister, Debbie, was like buying acid off a guy you met on the bus.” I wrote that line and thought, okay, who’s talking? This is interesting.
It’s almost like a magical intuitive process where I write toward interesting voice-driven language and imagery and see what feels true. I didn’t start with an idea. I started with what felt to me like a gripping first sentence and reverse-engineered the story from there.
NS: 2014! That’s a long time. What was that process like?
RM: At the time I didn’t think I was writing a novel! I thought I was writing a linked short story collection, which felt a lot more doable as a young writer. I thought it was something that I could work on very sporadically, like writing a story or two a year without necessarily having a sense of the broader picture of the project. It shows how naive I was about it, thinking I could very casually write some stories, copy-paste them in a row, and have a book. From 2014 until probably 2018 or 2019, that’s basically what I was doing.
At some point it became clear that it was going to be better as a novel, and that the stories were missed opportunities to build off each other. It was different angles of the same world and characters, but it wasn’t more than the sum of its parts in its current iteration. I decided to try it as a novel, and then it really came together. I finished the first draft in two and a half months, whereas before I had spent five years just crafting 40 or 60 pages of stories. Suddenly the whole 200-something page book came to me.
NS: Just one thing clicking into place! That’s amazing. How much do you draw from your own life in your fiction and how much do you invent?
RM: I would say the most autobiographical stuff has to do with the family stories. A lot of the stories about living under Soviet terror and state sanctioned anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union were either based on, or literally as they happened. They’re stories that I got from my parents, from my grandparents, from aunts and uncles. It felt important to me to memorialize those oral histories somewhere because it seems like it would be so easy for them to be lost if no one’s writing them down. I’m sure that because they’ve been passed down to me there’s things that I got wrong, but it feels better than just hoping that I remember to pass them down to my children.
I do feel like it’s sometimes ethically dubious to commercialize trauma that I didn’t personally experience, but ultimately, I come down on the side of trying to be a cultural custodian and trying to preserve these stories. I would say that’s the main stuff. But also, being a young person living in Los Angeles, trying to find yourself, trying to harness your agency, all of those things I really relate to.
NS: You talked about maybe getting the memories wrong. By writing them into fiction, does that take off the edge a little?
RM: It does, it does. And it let me play with some of the stories to make them fit better. I definitely cut some out that were in there. I might have gotten some details wrong from my own memory. Some of it might have been told to me wrong. Some of it is rumor, or not necessarily something that we know for sure to be true. But here I am trying to put it into fiction anyway.
Having that gloss of it being fiction rather than a memoir does make it a lot easier. And it’s partly why I put a disclaimer in the back of the book that the family in the story isn’t my family in real life. Because it’s not—some of the stories are similar, but the characters couldn’t be more different. I thought that it might be really upsetting and alienating for people to feel like I was writing about them when I wasn’t, because a lot of the characters aren’t necessarily likable!
NS: You mention this “once-removed” trauma. Your narrator struggles with a history that she doesn’t feel personally connected to, even though it affects her past, present, and future. What was your experience writing about that?
RM: That was something I was really interested in, this idea of intergenerational trauma, even when the narrator might not be aware of it. My thesis, if one could have a thesis in fiction, wasn’t that there’s some one-to-one connection where if this happens to your family, you will react this way, your relationships will be like this, but the idea that there is an effect and that it can be murky and ambiguous. The characters might not know that they’re responding to these events in the past. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not.
It started for me with the character with Shoah grief, who shows up in the emergency room [where the narrator works]. That came out of a conversation I had with a friend who’s also Jewish, about her mother who did not live through the Holocaust. As the child of Holocaust survivors, she had this very particular upbringing where there was an unspeakable sadness in the home. She knew that her parents were part of this historical event that we’ve all heard so much about, but she never got to hear any stories about it because it was too painful. What is it like to grow up with that absence taking up a huge presence in your house? It was the first time I’d considered something like Shoah grief in people who had been separated from the Holocaust by a generation or two. That got me thinking about whether that sort of response to intergenerational trauma could be inspiring some of the character’s actions in my book, even if they don’t know it.
NS: Your book deals with a lot of heavy themes—this intergenerational trauma, violence, homophobia, addiction. How did you balance these harsh realities with hope or humor?
RM: That was one of the main struggles of the book. I have trouble reading books where it’s unremitting bleakness, and where the characters are miserable and there’s no light in sight. I can appreciate those books on a craft level or on a sentence level, but if I’m not also laughing or feeling like there’s another side to that darkness, it’s hard for me to really have a spark when I read that book.
I normally lean on humor a lot, no matter what’s going on. One of the hard parts with writing the novel was not overdoing it, because for me it’s so much more natural to make a joke than it is to write an emotionally wrenching scene. I think that’s because I’m always afraid of being schmaltzy or sentimental or heavy-handed. It’s so much easier to throw in cool detached humor than it is to do that much harder craft work.
The revision process involved cutting a lot of jokes—just because they were funny and I was having a good time doesn’t mean they were serving the book. Sometimes they were actually undercutting the seriousness. Instead of leaning into a moment that could be emotionally resonant, it’s more like leaning out and making a joke of it. One of the hard parts was figuring out how to balance the two. And my editor and agent were really helpful with that because I can’t always see it for myself.
NS: I feel like the narrator can’t see it for herself either – she is detached in a lot of ways from herself. Why did you choose to leave her unnamed?
RM: I think it can create some intimacy with the reader when you don’t have a name for a narrator. The anonymity of the unnamed narrator served the fact that she was really trying to craft her identity, that she was trying to hone some agency for herself. There also wasn’t any particular name that felt right for her. It never felt right to pin her down.
I don’t even know her name. It’s not one of those things where I know it, and I’m keeping it secret. I literally don’t know it. It’s none of my business! She doesn’t want me to know.
NS: The narrator’s main relationships in the book are with Debbie and Sasha. I found it interesting that there are parts of herself that she figures out through her interactions with them. How did you construct these characters and relationships?
RM: That was one of the harder parts too, when you reverse-engineer a novel out of a short story collection! In short stories, concision is king. You can get away with saying things like, “and then I got sober”, “and then Debbie disappeared”. In a novel, you can’t drop bombshells like that. You have to make it feel earned. A lot of the revision process involved putting some meat on the bones of both the plot and the characters. Because the way I write is intuitive and organic and I don’t outline, I really had to go back and think through what motivates these characters. Why is this person acting this way in this scene? Are they doing it because I haven’t decided something about them yet? Or are they doing it because it’s actually serving the book?
It was okay to have a certain level of mystery. With Sasha especially, she’s a little bit of a cipher. For example, I felt strongly that I didn’t want the book to take a stance on whether she’s a real psychic or not, because I didn’t think that was an interesting question. But I was thinking to myself, what would someone who really believed they were psychic act like? Their believing they’re psychic, in relation to this trauma that happened earlier in their lives, and also as an expression of their queerness—how would that affect their behavior?
NS: All-Night Pharmacy is about many things, but Debbie’s disappearance is at the center of it. What was it like to write a mystery?
RM: Crafting suspense was so hard for me because I think it’s so hard to know what suspense will feel like as a reader when you, as the writer, know where something is going. It was so hard for me to tell which moments felt slow or what might feel boring. I didn’t set out to write a mystery. I don’t necessarily read books that are super suspenseful—I think a lot of literary fiction stereotypically is about nothing, just about characters vibing.
Debbie’s disappearance was the main thread connecting the short stories, back when it was a short story collection. It felt like she needed to be gone for the narrator to figure out who she is. But we needed to have her still be on the narrator’s mind, and we needed to have some sense of resolution toward the end, of is she alive? If so, what’s their relationship going to be? Something that I revised a lot was how often the narrator would think about Debbie and what moments she would come to her throughout the book—how to keep Debbie a presence even when she was absent. One of the hard parts was deciding what to reveal and what not to reveal until it happened in real time.
NS: One of the things that struck me is how chapters ended in a line that felt very incisive. What was it like to construct the book on a sentence level? Did your poetry writing impact that?
RM: My background as a poet is both helpful and a toxic trait when I’m writing because it makes me polish every single word like a stone. It does make the book feel like a compilation of sentences, very much in the line of what literary fiction is, where every word counts. I’m searching for beauty and for really arresting imagery and lyricism. That can lead to really nice moments, like ending chapters on these mic drops (or what I try to think of as mic drops).
The other side is that sometimes chasing that beauty can be a distraction from doing the more difficult plot work and character work. One of the big things I had to work on in revision was getting rid of some of what I thought were the biggest bangers in the book because they sounded great, but it was just me leaning into language as a crutch.
NS: There are many references in the book to other media—I noticed a mention of Olivia Laing, and Phoebe Bridgers! Was there anything that you looked at as inspirations or touchstones as you were writing?
RM: One of the really fun parts of writing intuitively rather than writing with an outline is that things I’m consuming at the time make their way into the book. There’s a reference to a book that Sasha lends the narrator about these teen boys who have an illicit love affair in France. That’s Lie With Me by Philippe Besson. I read Molly Ringwald’s great translation from the French while I was working on the first draft, and it stayed in the book the whole time. I was also thinking about Alice Bolin’s book Dead Girls, that really great non-fiction collection about how the media loves a dead white girl.
It makes it really fun because it makes every bit of media that I consume feel like it could be inspiration potentially. It protects me from feeling like it’s fraught to read other novels because it’s doing what my novel is doing. I approach all these other forms not as potential competition, or as a sign that what I’m doing is so much worse, but as something that could potentially help me build my own book.
NS: Finally, I wanted to bring up the Madievsky Rule, where you declare a 3.5 Goodreads rating the sweet spot for books written by women, about women. At the time of this interview, your book holds a 4.6 star rating!
NS: Ratings aside, how do you hope that your book will be received?
RM: Even though it sounds a little silly, this idea that 3.5 stars for books written by women, about women is the sweet spot for literary fiction, it really is so true to my experience. When I read a book that feels like it knocks it out of the park, I look on Goodreads and there’s so many people who are like, “this was vulgar”, “why were there all these masturbation scenes”, or “the ending felt unfulfilling.” A lot of it is people just describing what literary fiction is! And when [the books] lean into queerness or explicit sex or writing about racism, or whatever it is that that intersects with a marginalized experience, it really ruffles people’s feathers. They’re going to hate my book and that’s totally fine—it’s not for them.
I think of my book as being for people who love language. I hope that it resonates with immigrants, with children of immigrants, with people who have experienced substance dependence or have loved people who have, with people from LA or people who are curious about LA, people who like dark humor. And if I can flatter myself, I think that it would be enjoyed by people who like to read Melissa Broder, Kimberly King Parsons, Rachel Kushner. Those are some of my lodestars. Every time I read their books it makes me want to drop everything and write another book myself that can capture a voice as well as they can.
Readers of voice-driven literary fiction—I think that’s the main audience that I’m trying to catch. Because that’s who I am too! I basically wrote the book that I would want to read.
Ruth Madievsky’s writing appears in The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Times, Harper’s Bazaar, Guernica, Ploughshares, Tin House, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She is the author of a poetry collection, Emergency Brake, and a Tin House Summer Workshop scholar. She co-founded the Cheburashka Collective, a community of women and nonbinary writers whose identity has been shaped by immigration from the Soviet Union to the United States. Originally from Moldova, she lives in Los Angeles, where she works as an HIV and primary care clinical pharmacist.