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Turning Stories Upside Down

Rivka Galchen, interviewed by Eve Bowen

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.


Rivka Galchen sitting on the floor in socks

Sandy Tait

Rivka Galchen

In our January 13 issue, Rivka Galchen writes about three “lyrical, goofy, very moving” novels by Kate DiCamillo: Raymie Nightingale, Louisiana’s Way Home, and Beverly Right Here. Set in central Florida in the mid-1970s, the trilogy is about three girls, each of them fatherless (and one also motherless), who become friends after meeting in a baton-twirling class. “Though realistic,” Galchen observes, the books are “laced with fairy-tale elements,” and in her essay she looks at some of the ways that fairy tales have been “retold and retailored” through the centuries, quoting Walter Benjamin’s observation that “the wisest thing—so the fairy tale taught mankind in olden times, and teaches children to this day—is to meet the forces of the mythical world with cunning and with high spirits.”

Galchen was born in Canada and raised in Oklahoma, the child of Israeli academics. She holds an MD from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and an MFA from Columbia; in her essays she has written about everything from P. G. Wodehouse to an Oklahoma earthquake observatory to the experiences of an emergency-room physician in Queens during the first weeks of the pandemic. She has written several novels, one of which is for children, as well as a short-story collection and a book of essays on motherhood. I wrote to Galchen this week to ask her about fairy tales, the language of medicine, and which literary characters have inspired her writing for young readers.


Eve Bowen: In your essay about Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale trilogy you note that the books are written in a realistic mode, but they also include fairy-tale elements. What makes this combination so powerful for readers (whether young or grown-up)?

Rivka Galchen: Maybe it’s that thinking about one’s life in terms of stories, wherever those stories come from, is itself so realistic. I think it connects to that whole emotional kind of wondering about whether one will prove to be the hero of one’s own life or not, and that intimacy from seeing how each person experiences herself as the center of a particular tale or mystery.

How did fairy tales fit into your own childhood? Which were your favorite stories and why?

I weirdly had no fairy-tale collections in my house. But I do remember a story my father would tell me when I was going to sleep at night. It was about a very, very tiny person who ends up saving her whole family from a wolf because she can hide inside of a bottle and later recount to her returned parent what happened. It was like a different sort of Red Riding Hood story, and it’s still with me to this day as a testament to the power of littleness.

How have your expectations of fairy tales evolved as you’ve gotten older and become a writer, as well as a parent? Whose retellings have most appealed to you?

I was once teaching a fairy tale called “Fundevogel,” by the Brothers Grimm. In it, two children are afraid of a cook who is telling the boy that she’ll put him in a soup and eat him up. Eventually the two children drown the cook! And one of my students, who worked in a daycare, pointed out that adults often lovingly tell children that they’re going to salt and pepper them and eat them for dinner. That reading turned the story upside down in this great way—it was as if the witch in “Hansel and Gretel” was just misunderstood and in fact benevolent. I love that so many fairy tales have that glittering sort of power, that even without changing a word, the story is changed by the reader. Sure, that’s true of all fiction, but that power seems so much more densely concentrated in fairy tales.

For that reason, as a parent I’m especially drawn to the sparer, often older versions of fairy tales—the ones that are almost like outlines of stories, rather than real stories. Those versions tend to feel more mutable. That said, now that my daughter is eight, she loves so many of these different book series that involve children entering into old stories and changing them. She started with the Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley, then the Land of Stories series by Chris Colfer, and now the Tale Dark and Grimm series by Adam Gidwitz. For me, of course, my favorite retellings are the more oblique ones by DiCamillo.

In Little Labors, a marvelous collection of short essays that you wrote soon after becoming a parent, you write, “Literature has more dogs than babies, and also more abortions.” You counter this imbalance by weaving your daughter’s presence into every part of the book. Who are some writers you admire for their writing about babies, pregnancy, parenthood?

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I still think often of the little scene in Lorrie Moore’s short story “People Like That Are the Only People Here” in which the baby is turning the light switch on and off in the doctor’s office. It’s almost like a size trick, a tiny gesture that takes up the whole room—and that captures something of the presence of an infant.

Also the Rumpelstiltskin stories and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. They each feature monsters/children who are depicted with both tenderness and terror. (My feeling is that Rumpelstiltskin is so tiny, and so irate, because he’s the forgotten or abandoned child.)

Most recently, I read Jazmina Barrera’s Linea Negra (to be published by Two Lines Press in May) and absolutely loved it. Early on it talks about the fruits that fetuses are compared to, and which fruits there are in Mexico, and then it takes off from there.

You just wrote an essay for Harper’s about Cristina De Stefano’s new biography of the educational pioneer Maria Montessori. You, like Montessori, have a medical degree. How does that background inform your fiction writing, if at all?

Speaking any foreign language makes for more incidental poetry in one’s life. And medicine is a foreign language of a kind. It lights up the verb “complain” in a different way—for example, in the stock phrase “Patient complains of…” Or in the defamiliarizing format of describing a person in relation to a set of measurements. At times I found that a patient history would, in its unsettling and reserved language, communicate more emotion than a traditional description of a person in a predicament, as you might find in fiction.

I relate this to the way that I often found that my immigrant parents had a more alive relationship to the English language than I did. For example, they heard the word “cheesy” in all its strangeness, whereas to me the word was more invisible. To tie this back to fairy tales, children have this quality, too, in the way that they misperceive or mispronounce—my daughter will use “kempt” as a word because of “unkempt”; or she’ll pronounce “hazard” very beautifully and strangely, with the accent on the second syllable.

We both have daughters who are eight. Mine is reading Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder right now, and she’s also obsessed with Adam Gidwitz’s fairy-tale podcast Grimm, Grimmer, Grimmest. Who else is making exceptionally good work for kids around this age?

I think it’s a marvelous time to be a young reader—there’s so much that’s inventive and wild and brainy and great. It’s as if there are a dozen Roald Dahls at work. (Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration.)

But I’d love to mention an older book from my own childhood: Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls. This was read out loud to me in my sixth-grade homeroom in Norman, Oklahoma. Rawls is more famous for his other book, Where the Red Fern Grows, but I think Summer of the Monkeys is better. I read it out loud to my daughter at night in the early days of the pandemic, and even her dad would climb into bed to listen.

Rawls had a difficult life, coming of age during the Great Depression on his mother’s small Cherokee allotment farm. He had almost no formal education, but he had a copy of Call of the Wild by Jack London. He didn’t publish until his late forties, after he had married an educated Polish immigrant who encouraged him to send his work out.

My ten-year-old daughter loves a book that you wrote—Rat Rule 79. The main character, a girl named Fred, is on the cusp of turning thirteen when she finds herself transported into a world where keeping track of time is illegal. Which literary characters contributed to Fred’s DNA—whether from The Wizard of Oz, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth, A Wrinkle in Time, or elsewhere—and what inspired you about them?

All of those! You’ve listed four of my very favorite books. I also love the lead koala, Bunyip Bluegum, in The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay—a perfect and too-often-unknown classic—and I was interested in adding a little dash of that energy, too.

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