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Behind the Fiction: An Interview with Rachel Khong

The author of Goodbye, Vitamin talks about writing her first novel, charting lost memories, and bridging a life in fiction with a life of one’s own.

By R.O. Kwon
Interviews | Goodbye, Rachel Khong, Vitamin
August 31, 2017

Long before I picked up Rachel Khong’s debut novel, I’d admired her writing—her nonfiction, at first, which I’d encountered in the excellent, recently discontinued food magazine, Lucky Peach. We’d also become friends: we’re in the same San Francisco writing group, as well as an Asian women writers’ karaoke book club. So, I knew she could write the hell out of a wide-ranging exploration of pho, for instance, and that she can really sing Whitney Houston, but I was less familiar with her fiction.

What joy, then, to find myself utterly delighted with her novel, Goodbye, Vitamin. It’s about Ruth Young, a 30-year-old woman whose father is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She moves home to help her parents, and the story Ruth tells is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year: beguiling, hilarious, and insightful, often all at once. Others agree. Lauren Groff, for one, says Rachel’s a magician, and that “we are lucky to fall under her spell at the beginning of her brilliant writing life.” I loved having this chance to ask Rachel some novel-related questions.

—R.O. Kwon


R.O. Kwon: Goodbye, Vitamin swung wonderfully between crushing my heart and making me laugh. How did you think about balancing charm and sorrow, comedy and pathos?

Rachel Khong: It wasn’t a conscious effort at balance so much as it was pursuing what was palatable to me—arranging these things like furniture, until it seemed, to me, like they made sense—like a room I could live in. Only sorrow would have been like too many lamps or something—garish and obvious and uninteresting; if the book had been straight-up comedy, that wouldn’t have been interesting to me either. Trying out the different dosages of each was part of the interesting puzzle of putting this book together. In the things I most love to read, I want to laugh and I want my heart broken; I want to be frustrated then devastated, then entertained again. To me, sadness sharpens humor, and vice versa. And though I admire authors who write characters who have their cards on the table from page one, I knew that Ruth was going to be a person who only had the appearance of showing her cards, but actually held a few of them with this death grip, close to her chest—until, of course, she can’t manage to anymore.

The first thing I noticed about Goodbye, Vitamin, and one of many reasons I love it, is its structure. It’s a hybrid diary form, with some surprises along the way, narrated in fairly short bursts. How did you find this structure? Did you always know you’d write the novel like this?

Definitely not! I was completely in the dark as to how to write a novel; I had exactly zero grand schemes when it came to anything. Though I’d been writing (unsuccessful!) short stories for a long time, I doubted that I could ever write a novel: it seemed so unwieldy and impossible a task. What I did know, though, was that I could write sentences, and I could write paragraphs—these were things I could do. I hoped I could string these sentences and paragraphs together, and with any luck I could write a novel. This realization happened for me after I started to read books that showed me this was possible, that all it took to make a book—and a powerful, affecting book, at that—was a series of small pieces. These were books mostly written by women, episodic and impressionistic—things like Speedboat by Renata Adler and Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison and Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion. Goodbye, Vitamin doesn’t quite mimic those authors’ forms; its own ultimately emerged through a lot of experimentation and a lot of trial and error. But these books made me realize that not only could novels follow their own logic and form, the very best ones did.

As it so happens, you’re the only person I know who kept (keeps?) a daily food log. In a Lucky Peach essay about the log, you wrote, “What I’d like to have is a perfect record of every day. I’ve long been obsessed with this impossibility, that every day be perfectly productive and perfectly remembered.” Is it a stretch to ask if this food log in any way inspired or led to Goodbye, Vitamin?

To be honest, I hadn’t thought about that at all, but you might be onto something. I’m not sure if the log led directly to the book, but my interest (bordering on obsession) in memory certainly inspired the food log and of course inspires the book. I’m particularly interested in what we remember and what we don’t, and how that can affect—and maybe it’s even the basis of—our relationships with other people and our relationships with ourselves.

The food log, which I started keeping in 2008, was an experiment: I’d write down the food that I ate to provide daily cues I might use to remember details about those days; in that piece, I talk about how I started it as an experiment in remembering things better, because of a relationship that had fallen apart for a reason I couldn’t understand, and maybe, problematically, couldn’t even remember. So what if I solved that problem of not remembering? Could I? The book certainly came out of that interest too—to try to make sense of this specific moment in my life, this relationship that had fallen apart, and to attempt to answer these questions I had. When a relationship falls apart, is memory to blame? If you had a perfect memory, would that make you less prone to heartbreak? And since nobody does—have a perfect memory, that is—what do we do with all this?

Speaking of food, you used to both write and edit for Lucky Peach. I remember asking you, maybe a year ago, if you’d written a lot about food in this novel. You said no, not really, which I eventually found to be delightfully hilarious—every few pages, it seems, Ruth is braising pork or caramelizing onions or otherwise involved with very delicious-sounding food. I think what I’m getting around to asking is: is this just normal life to you? Are you continually braising pork?

Wait, but Ruth also cooks some pretty gross-sounding food, like jellyfish! To answer your question, yes, I have braised a fair amount of pork. (I am not, however, braising pork at this very moment.) I started cooking in earnest while in graduate school in the Florida panhandle, mostly because there weren’t many restaurant options there, and also to avoid writing: I would write, cook, write, cook, repeat; I was also a part-time cook at a wine and cheese shop that was a lunch restaurant. I suspect that I think about food (eating it and cooking it) more often than the average person, but I have no way to know for sure.

It’s funny how people have reacted differently to the amount of food in the book: people have told me they’ve been surprised by how much food is in the book, and other people have said they’ve been surprised by how little food is in the book. As with most things, it depends on the person. I tried to accurately represent how much a normal human being might think about food, especially a normal human being living at home with parents (I eat a ton when I’m home with parents), but have no idea whether or not I got that right.

What other books did you find to be helpful or companionable while you were writing Goodbye, Vitamin?

While writing, I loved—and love—to read works by authors that feel vastly out of my league: Amy Hempel’s stories, Grace Paley’s stories, Denis Johnson’s small, perfect books (Angels, Jesus’ Son, and Train Dreams are my favorites). After reading somewhere that Joan Didion copied out the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms over and over again to get the rhythm lodged in her brain, I read Hemingway for the first time. And of course I read Queen Joan.

What kind of routine—or routines—do you set for your writing time?

I have a pretty militant morning routine. Otherwise, it’s easy for writing to get away from me. Lately I’ve been working on something new that I’m not sure is any good, so it’s tempting to avoid it. But when I don’t write is when I’m unhappiest. So that can become a terrible cycle of despair. Anyway! The routine is this: a few hours before bed, I turn my phone to airplane mode. First thing in the morning, I head to one of my regular cafés, order a single cup of for-here black coffee, set my phone’s timer to an hour. My phone stays on airplane mode; I don’t allow myself the internet or email. Then I just write, without distraction, until the timer goes off. If the hour goes well, I set myself another timer for another hour. I continue writing this way until I can’t anymore, at which point I turn my phone and internet on and do a less focused type of writing.

The writing fluctuates day to day: sometimes it flows out more easily and sometimes it’s the worst. I try to not beat myself up over the bad days, when they happen. If I’ve pushed through the hour, even if I’ve only written ten words, I’ll feel that I’ve done my job for the day. I’m not a person who spends my whole day writing. It’s hard! Plus, there are too many other things I want to do. Like read and braise pork.

Lately, I’ve become very grateful that my immigrant parents’ grasp of written English isn’t quite 100 percent. I think this still, to some extent, helps me feel more free to write what I like. I imagine that writing a novel centered on fictional parents could feel extra fraught—is it? Or no? Are your parents going to read Goodbye, Vitamin?

To your first question, about whether it was extra fraught to write about fictional parents: yes, a thousand times yes. People are so obsessed over this question of what is and isn’t autobiography—and I think the question is especially popular with people who don’t read much fiction, because a novel seems so mysterious: “Where did this story come from?” But my parents, who are both civil engineers and not big readers, surprised me by actually being pretty good readers of fiction—and accepting fiction as fictional, because, of course, the parents in the novel aren’t them.

Which leads me to your second question: My parents have already read the book! I gave them the galley copy, hoping they wouldn’t read it—not suspecting they ever actually would. In the same way that we all have to learn that our parents are people independent of us, I’ve never been completely comfortable with my Asian parents knowing that I have lived a life apart from them. The book’s not very risqué, as far as books go, but there’s a lot of drinking and a fair bit of cursing, and I almost wanted to cover their ears the way you do to kids. But my parents both sent me emails after they read the book. My dad wrote: “I like it. I think you wrote very well… witty, captivating and well researched. Is the thing about kidney transplant real?? Your life experience has led you to write this original piece. Good job!”

My mom, who had never read a novel in her life, sent me a note that said: “I do not read that much (except reading the Bible and devotion books) and research so much on the ‘American thing.’ Perhaps pa reads more and can relate more… However, it captured me to read more and I really enjoyed the feelings you put in and the vast experiences you encountered in your 31 years. I believe this book will touch many hearts as well. On the hold, I really, really like it (except the cursing words) and will read it again. This will be my favorite novel.”

I remember, in college, meeting my friends’ parents and feeling jealous: Wow, your parents read novels? Your parents read your writing? But now I wouldn’t trade mine for anything.

Did you always know you’d devote your life to writing? We’re both Asian, as it so happens, and I feel as though, with a lot of the writers I know who are of Asian descent, it took a little extra time to realize that a life in writing is possible. (For instance, though I took writing classes all through college, and knew it was what I loved, I majored in economics. I have a recurring nightmare about the Milton class I forwent for a senior seminar on corporate finance. What the fuck was I thinking?) Were you more enlightened than I was?

I’m laughing imagining poor, young Reese in a corporate finance class. I actually knew pretty early on—roughly age six or so—that I wanted to be a writer, but I also knew “I want to be a writer” wasn’t a thing your immigrant parents wanted to hear. As with most things, I got my way by simply getting them used to my crazy ideas early on: “I want to be a writer. I want to be an English major. I want to quit Chinese school.” (That last one I regret a little.) Each time, it felt like torture to disappoint them—to go against what they wanted for me and for my life. But the more they got used to my ideas—which, to their credit, they always did—the more they supported me in them. I wasn’t completely sure that being a writer was possible—I didn’t have any models of writers in my life—but I knew that reading and writing were the only things I could do. I was shit at math and science. I also knew to tell my parents “I want to be a journalist,” because that seemed more like a real job, and so through high school, college, and beyond I wrote nonfiction alongside my fiction. And I’m happy, now, to have explored both kinds of writing.

From Goodbye, Vitamin

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong, July 2017

December 26

Tonight a man found Dad’s pants in a tree lit with Christmas lights. The stranger called and said, “I have some pants? Belonging to a Howard Young?”

“Well, shit,” I said. I put the phone down to verify that Dad was home and had pants on. He was, and did.

Yesterday, on Mom’s orders, I’d written his name and our number in permanent marker onto the tags of all his clothes.

Apparently what he’s done, in protest, is pitched the numbered clothing into trees. Up and down Euclid, his slacks and shirts hang from the branches. The downtown trees have their holiday lights in them, and this man who called had, while driving, noticed the clothes, illuminated.

December 27

In the morning, when I go to fetch them, city workers are removing the lights from the trees and the decorative bows from the lampposts. One man unties a bow and tosses it to his partner on the ground. All the great bright gold bows are piled in the bed of an enormous pickup truck parked in the plaza.

In that same plaza, a frustrated man is saying to his dog, “Why are you being this way?” A baby in a stroller is wearing sunglasses.

“Dad, all my hard work,” I say, later at home. I’ve collected a pair of pants, two shirts, a few knotted-up ties.

“Now that’s unnecessary,” Dad says, angrily, when I return them.

* * *

I got here on Christmas Eve. I’m home for the holidays, like you’re supposed to be. It’s the first time in a long time. Under ordinary circumstances—the circumstances that had become ordinary—I would have gone to Joel’s. His mother would have popped popcorn for garlands and his father would have baked a stollen. His twin brother would have hit on me. In the bathroom, there would have been a new, grocery-brand toothbrush with a gift label on it, my name in his mother’s handwriting: RUTH.

* * *

This year, with nowhere to go—no Joel and no Charleston—I made the drive down. It’s been three or four Christmases away. From San Francisco, where I live, it would have been an easy six hours south. “Up to you,” Joel would say, but I always chose Charleston. “Merry Christmas,” we’d tell my parents over speakerphone.

* * *

Except for Linus being gone, everything was the same. Mom had decorated her biggest potted ficus in tinsel and lights, and with the ornaments we’d made as kids—painted macaroni framing our school pictures, ancient peanuts I’d painted into snowmen with apathetic faces. She’d hung our stockings over the fireplace, even Linus’s. When I asked if I could shell a snowman—to see what the twenty-year-old peanut inside looked like—Mom said, sternly, “Don’t you dare.”

Christmas morning, Dad pulled out a small, worn, red notebook. He explained he’s kept it since I was very little. Inside there are letters to me. He’d been waiting for the proper time to share them, but it had slipped his mind—wouldn’t you know—until now. He showed me a page from this notebook:

Today you asked me where metal comes from. You asked me what flavor are germs. You were distressed because your pair of gloves had gone missing. When I asked you for a description, you said: they are sort of shaped like my hands.

Then he closed the notebook, very suddenly, and said, as though angry, “That’s enough.”

December 29

Now Mom is asking if I could stay awhile, to keep an extra eye on things.

By things she means Dad, whose mind is not what it used to be.

It comes as a surprise. Things aren’t so bad—Dad doesn’t seem any different—on top of which, my mother hates to ask for anything.

“Just the year,” Mom repeats, when I can’t manage to answer. “Think about it.”

* * *

On my way to the bathroom, I catch my mother shouting, “No, no, no! You’re expensive!” to a vitamin she’s dropped. Gingko, I think.

* * *

The first things started approximately last year: Dad forgetting his wallet, forgetting faces, forgetting to turn the faucet off. Then it was bumping into things and feeling tired even after full nights of sleep. That he’d been a drinker, Dr. Lung said, didn’t help.

There is, presently, no single test or scan that can diagnose dementia with complete accuracy. It’s only after the person is dead that you can cut his or her brain open and look for telltale plaques and tangles. For now, it’s process of elimination. What we have are tests that rule out other possible causes of memory loss. In diagnosing Alzheimer’s, doctors can only tell you everything that it isn’t.

What my father doesn’t have: hyperthyroidism, a kidney or liver disorder, an infection, a nutritional deficiency. Deficiencies of vitamin B-12 and folic acid can cause memory loss and are treatable.

“I’m just straight-up demented,” Dad says.

December 31

This morning I packed an overnight bag, wished my parents a Happy New Year, and began the drive to Silver Lake, to spend New Year’s Eve with Bonnie. She’s the one with the plans. For the night, I mean. Lately it’s hard to make plans at all.

Traffic is worse than usual on the 101, but festive at least. Every window is rolled down. To my right, a tan man in an also tan Escapade has a Christmas song playing. It’s the one that starts like the Pachelbel Canon in D and then some kids start singing On this night! On this night! On this very Christmas night!

He is blasting it, tapping his cigarette out his window to the tune.

* * *

For a long time on the freeway I trail a chicken truck that rains white feathers onto my windshield. I try to windshield-wipe them, which only results in their getting stuck in the wipers and moving enchantingly.

Robert Kearns, who invented the intermittent windshield wiper, was legally blind in one eye. It’s something Joel told me once. An errant champagne cork shot Kearns in the eye on his wedding night. While driving his Ford Galaxie through light rain, he had the idea of modeling the windshield-wiping mechanism on the human eye, which blinks every few seconds rather than continuously.

I remember absently parroting that fact to Joel years later, forgetting—in that moment—that he was the one who’d originally told me. “Oh really?” he said, as though it was the first time he’d ever heard it. Even now I don’t know if he was humoring me or if he’d genuinely forgotten.

* * *

The door to Bonnie’s apartment is unlocked, so I let myself in. The room smells like toast. In anticipation of me, she’s rolled her rug to one side of the living room and laid the Sports section out on the living-room floor.

“Hey!” Bonnie calls from the bathroom, then flushes. “The heater is broken, so I’m running the oven all day,” she explains. “Can I interest you in some toast?”

Bonnie is a painter, but lately she makes her living three or four different ways. One of the ways is cutting hair. She won’t cut your hair if you’ve newly been through a breakup. That’s her rule. See how you feel in six weeks, she’ll tell you, and if you still want the haircut then, she’ll do it. But not before.

The reason she’s making an exception for me is that, after a breakup, all I want to do is grow a cloak of hair and hide in it. Because she is my oldest, best friend—we met as children, at the college where our fathers taught—she knows this.

“Sit,” Bonnie instructs, pointing at the kitchen stool she’s relocated to the living room. She snips a neat hole out of the front page and drops the newspaper bib over my head. She hands me a glass of iced tea, which is more for her entertainment than my refreshment: occasionally, I raise the tea to my face, trying my best not to move, and stab myself with the straw.

Divorce Court is on TV while Bonnie cuts my hair. At the end of the show, after the man has not gotten the settlement he wanted, and neither party is very satisfied, he is asked if he has anything to add.

“You still feed me,” he says ominously into the camera, addressing his ex-wife. “You still the fool.”

* * *

What Joel said: that it was not about her. But how do you believe a thing like that, when the facts so unquestionably dwarf the claim? The facts are: the two of them are now living in South Carolina, not far from his family—happier, presumably, than we ever were.

Last June in San Francisco, all our things packed into boxes, I had to caramelize onions in the only clean pan I could find, a cookie sheet. I mixed them in with potatoes I’d microwaved and mashed, and that was our last dinner, though I hadn’t known at the time.

We were switching neighborhoods—that was what I thought. I thought we were moving into a one-bedroom in Bernal Heights. I thought we were moving because the space was bigger, and the rent was curiously reasonable. Joel had taken great care to pack his things separate from mine, and I had thought that he was only Joel being Joel, when actually it was Joel not coming with me.

There were signs, I guess, I’d chosen to ignore. At parties, talking to another woman, Joel used to reach out to touch me lightly when I walked by, as if to say, Don’t worry, I still like you the best. I noticed when it stopped happening. I told myself that it wasn’t anything.

* * *

Anyway, the point is, I didn’t catch on, and what could I have done differently if I had? He told me, Ruth, don’t get me wrong, I care for you deeply. He said that! And what I thought then—and what I still think now—was, That’s not something to say. That isn’t anything.

“Forget it,” Bonnie says. “He doesn’t deserve you,” she says, sternly, the way friends assure with a lot of conviction but have no way of knowing for certain. What if we deserved each other exactly?

* * *

The party is in Highland Park, at the home of Bonnie’s friend Charles, from art school. Before it, we drink tumblers of vodka in Bonnie’s kitchen and chase them with baby carrots dipped in sugar, the way we used to.

At the door, greeting us, Charles seems nervous or flustered. His face is completely pink. “Does he have a crush on you?” I ask Bonnie, once Charles has moved on to greeting newer guests. But she says no, it’s that he’s eaten too many Wheat Thins. All Charles had was a niacin flush, from all the enriched flour. It’s happened before, Bonnie tells me. The two of them dated, very briefly in college, and that’s how she knows. He still loves Wheat Thins. He’s still unable to exercise restraint around them.

Inside, a group is assembled in front of a TV that’s playing the recorded broadcast of the ball dropping in Times Square. Many of them have familiar faces, but I have trouble placing them. Three or four people, you can tell, have fresh haircuts. I’m relieved it isn’t just me.

“Ruth?” one of the familiar-looking people says. He has a thick red beard and ears the shape of paper clips—Jared, my high school biology lab partner. I know—by the unabashed way he’s talking—he’s forgotten that he was not a very good lab partner. He’s a sushi chef now. He graduated recently from a special sushi academy. He has a knack for peeling eels.

Jared asks what I’ve been up to, and if I’m living in LA, and I tell him, no, San Francisco. But I’m considering staying home for the year, to keep an eye on my dad, who’s having “lapses in memory.” I don’t know why I say that—“lapses in memory.” It was what my mother had said, and I was echoing it, because I’d never had to articulate it before.

“Only for the year,” I say again.

He raises a punch glass full of something bright blue and knocks it against my champagne. “Cheers,” Jared says, full of admiration. It’s too much. I excuse myself. I tell Jared I’ve forgotten something in my car.

In the car, I stretch my legs out across the backseat. I reach gingerly into my purse to retrieve my phone. Gingerly, because my purse is full of trash—so many receipts and pamphlets and ticket stubs I’m afraid I’ll get a paper cut.

There’s a voice mail from Joel’s mother. She’s called to wish me a Happy New Year—to see if I’m doing all right. I wonder if it’s a drunk-dial. She always liked me—sometimes it seemed she liked me more than she liked her son—and I wonder what she thinks of Kristin. I let myself fantasize that she dislikes her so much that she’s had to call to tell me so.

There is, inexplicably, a cigarette in my pocket, where somebody must have slipped it. It’s bent and I straighten it and roll down a window to smoke it—it’s menthol—while people shout the countdown and the old year becomes the new one.

Joel could be indecisive in a way that exasperated his mother. With him around, I could assume the opposite position. I think she liked that about me. Empowered by his waffling, I could decide: Let’s do this, and Let’s go here, and Are you sure Because I am .

Now I think: I did that?

My phone rings a minute after midnight. It’s my brother.

“I’ve been singing a song about you,” I say, and sing, “Christmas minus Linus.”

“It’s catchy,” Linus says. “You have a gift.”

The thing is, I’m not allowed to find fault, not with his litany of excuses, not when so many resemble my own.

I’m wearing somebody else’s coat, I realize. I don’t know who the coat belongs to—I don’t remember seeing a person encased in this particular coat walking in—but it isn’t a very effective coat. The owner is probably inside, wearing an impractical outfit. She’s going to be too drunk to be concerned about the weather once the party is over. I’m not sober, but I am also not drunk enough to be unaware that I’m freezing.

* * *

I’ve never liked New Year’s. The trouble with beginnings is that there’s no such thing. What’s a beginning but an arbitrary point of entry? You begin when you’re born, I guess, but it’s not like you know anything about that.

* * *

A few weeks after the engagement someone asked what I was looking forward to, about marrying Joel, and I thought: the clarity. But that was kind of pulled out from under me.

* * *

Also, I loved saying the word fiancé. Which—whatever. Poor, poor me.

* * *

Back in the apartment, people are kissing at random and Bonnie is on the telephone, probably with Vince, the boyfriend she’s been meaning forever to dump, and Charles is still pink, and now also pantsless, cleaning up a champagne spill with paper towels. His pants are across the room, absorbing a different spill. A crowd is arguing about which make better pets, guinea pigs or gerbils, and Jared is halving a Valium.

I finally find my plastic cup, which I’ve starred with a Sharpie, in a stack of other cups. Originally it was champagne, and now it’s champagne swished with bourbon, because my thinking is always, if I’m going to poison myself, why not make it count?

Earlier Jared had said that we were young—youngish, he corrected—and that a year was a long time not to be doing what you wanted to be doing.

He was a sushi chef, he’d said, but somebody else I later talked to laughed and said meanly, “Chef is one way to put it.” This person had been to Jared’s restaurant. Jared filleted the fish and pulled pin bones out of salmon, and it was the real chefs who did all the slicing. Jared wore a hairnet on his beard.

* * *

And now, even later, back at Bonnie’s place, Bonnie and I sit on her balcony, eating peanuts and ranch dressing from a big bowl with a spoon, sharing her blanket. We can hear the parties all around us, picking up and losing steam. We watch the lights blink on and off over the hills across the city.

“You know what happened yesterday?” Bonnie says. “Yesterday we had someone walk into the salon and ask what the price was for a shampoo and blow job.”

“And you gave it to him?” I say.

“She was a paying customer,” Bonnie says.

I realize, horrified, that I am wearing Joel’s ring. I’d been carrying it in a pocket in my purse. I can’t remember putting it on. I jiggle the ring off and drop it back in the purse, where the sea of junk engulfs it immediately.

Bonnie is looking at me, it appears, with fondness.

“Are you,” it occurs to me, “admiring your haircut?”

And suddenly, somehow, it is three in the morning and we are back to the vodka and carrots.

“Here’s to the new year.” I raise my glass. “Here’s to new leaves.”

“I’m going to be nicer this year,” Bonnie says, “but meaner to Vincent.”

“I’m going to keep a clean purse.”

“You’re going to find it in yourself,” she says, sternly, “to be okay.”

“To being okay!” I cry.

“New year! New leaf!”

“New leaf,” I repeat, and we drink.

Copyright © 2017 by Rachel Khong