Interview conducted by Elizabeth Breeden
How do you describe your book in one sentence? (Is it possible to do so?)
A piece-y, funny/sad book about trying to be okay.
Alzheimer’s has a presence in Goodbye, Vitamin, yet it’s not only about the disease. Rather the novel focuses on memory as a whole and how memories can differ from person to person. Why write about memory, and how did it shape your storytelling? What does it mean to care for memories?
The more I’m asked about it, the more ridiculous it feels—this obsession with memory. But that’s what it is, an obsession! I’ve always been obsessed with trying to improve my memory and having a better memory. Maybe it started in school, wanting to do better on tests. It comes from the fear, I think, that if I forget things, I’ll get things wrong, or just lose my life and my identity completely. Memory has always interested me, because it’s so imperfect. We connect over shared memories, we have fights over what is and isn’t remembered, we form our opinions of other people based on what they remember of us, or vice versa. It’s always interested me.
Even before picking up the novel Goodbye, Vitamin’s jacket design–covered with colorful fruits–draws readers in. Food has a key presence within the novel too: feeding someone is the most basic level of caregiving, it’s one of the means through which Ruth and her mother approach Howard’s disease, and meals can act as a marker of time. Even some of your descriptions, like comparing Annie’s eyes to pitted olives, draws attention to the edible. Why write so much about food? (and do peanuts and ranch dressing really taste good together?…)
It turns out I think about food a lot. Who knew?! Ruth spends a lot of time at home, and whenever I’m visiting my parents at home, there’s not a whole lot to do, so I’m always rooting through the refrigerator and pantry for what to eat next. Another reason food plays the role it does in the book is that I think when you’re faced with something as terrible as Alzheimer’s, or any other incurable disease really, you try to control the things that can be controlled. I think that’s why restrictive diets can be so appealing to people when life is otherwise so uncontrollable. And I don’t know about the peanuts and ranch! You should try it and tell me how it is.
Tell us a little about your career and the book’s publication. Have you always known you would be a writer?
Always! I think I wrote my first short story when I was six. It was about a dead fish… it wasn’t not morbid. I’ve wanted to write for as long as I could read—I think it’s the same for so many writers. On good days, writing is the thing that makes me feel like time is immaterial, and I think once you find that thing, whatever it is for you, you should do as much of it as you can.
The diary format in Goodbye, Vitamin lets us glimpse telling details and observations of Ruth’s year at home. Do you keep a diary, or suggest journaling as a writer? Or as a personal hobby–as a memory-keeper? Do you think Instagram or social media has replaced traditional journaling?
I’ve never been a super reliable diary-keeper, but for the past couple years I’ve been writing every day in Tamara Shopsin’s Five-Year Diary, which has five spaces for every day in it—a space for the same day over five years. There’s only enough room for two or three sentences. It’s an exercise in perspective. There are entries I wrote a couple years ago, feeling miserable about certain aspects of a job, and seeing those entries to remind me that not everything has to be wonderful all the time, and time helps, and life is hopefully long, and don’t sweat the small stuff.
Ruth’s memories of Howard clashes with her brother’s experiences living with him after she left home; she struggles to unite the adoring parent with his later drinking and infidelity. How did you manage Ruth’s confrontation with this later version of her father which was absent from her individual memories, but present in her family’s collective history?
I knew there had to be a reckoning between Ruth and her father. It’s something that’s so interesting to me: How do we love imperfect people? How do we imperfectly love imperfect people?
Although allegedly returning home to help care for her father, Ruth must negotiate being her mother’s adult daughter as well. Why was this mother-daughter relationship, and Annie as a character, so important to include?
Families are complicated organisms, and mother-daughter relationships can be the most complicated of all. They aren’t always, but Ruth’s relationship with Annie certainly is, and it’s complicated precisely because of how much love there is there. It’s terrible, loving someone that much.
For a novel featuring a devastating illness, you somehow managed to weave humor seamlessly into your storytelling. How did you give people a reason to smile?
I hope I did! Whenever I make the mistake of reading reviews, it’s people saying, “This wasn’t funny at all, I didn’t laugh once.” That’s always a good reminder that I should never read reviews.
One of the loveliest elements of Goodbye, Vitamin is how little action actually takes place. The plot doesn’t hinge on major events, but instead wanders realistically through changing times and emotions. How did you develop this balance?
Reading and rereading and rereading again. Trying to trick myself into imagining I was reading for the first time, even when I was reading it for the thousandth. Probably that question of humor ties into this one as well; part of wanting humor incorporated into the story was wanting to entertain myself, keep the book from being too one-note. The goal was to make it as layered as life, which is never a perfect narrative or plot.
There’s a lot of random trivia and miscellaneous information (who knew cats can’t eat onions!) sprinkled throughout the novel. Do you have a current favorite piece of trivia or little-known fact?
My recent favorite is something that my husband recently told me: Alan Alda met his wife, Arlene, at a friend’s party where a rum cake fell on the floor, and they were the only two people who did not hesitate to eat it.
How did you make the choice to write Goodbye, Vitamin in the first person? Do people assume points of the novel are autobiographical? Is this magnified by your writing an Asian-American young female narrator?
I think people assume this more with first novels than second novels, but yes. I’d always been afraid to write a character that resembled me in the slightest; as a result, I wrote stories with narrators that seemed completely unlike me. Lately I’m interested in writing characters who are women, and who are Asian American, not only because I lacked those models growing up, but because that’s what I’m thinking about—how the body we inhabit informs both the way we move through the world and the way the world views us. In terms of being conflated with Ruth: the plan is to write another book, and then another book, until that assumption that I am my characters is no longer really made.
In your interview with Vogue you describe putting the book in a drawer for two years, a time which you considered yourself having “failed” at completing your novel, but that this feeling of failure was a necessary flavoring in the end. How does failure characterize the story? At what point did you consider it not a failure?
Ruth isn’t where she hoped she would be in life, and that was always crucial to the book’s fabric—her desire and longing for life to go a certain way, adhere to her expectations of it. I think I’ve always wanted that for myself—a life in which I called the shots. But it turns out you don’t always get to do that. You call shots only within a certain framework.
Do you have a Bonnie in your life?
I have a couple Bonnies! Bonnies are crucial.
At one point Ruth observes, “Sharing things is how things get started,” while passing a water bottle of gin to Theo. What was the last thing you shared with someone?
Girls’ Night In is all about embracing the wonder of taking care–of yourself, your relationships, and choosing to cultivate both by taking a break. If you suddenly found yourself with a free evening - no responsibilities or obligations – how would you choose to spend your night in?
Soft pants, glass of wine, overly ambitious stack of books and magazines, bed, a notebook, and a Zebra Sarasa 0.5 clip pen.
What’s a recent purchase which you would recommend to someone?
I recently bought a Brother P-Touch Label maker and it has brought me so much joy, labeling things.
What was your favorite class in high school, or who was your favorite teacher? Why?
Can I list three, because I’m a nerd? Mr. Kirkeby, Mr. Desmond, and Mr. Roubian. Mr. Kirkeby taught AP English Literature, loved Virginia Woolf, and threw us tea parties. Mr. Desmond, my Freshman and Sophomore Year English teacher, was the coach of the Junior Varsity badminton team, which of course I joined, and the lead singer in the band The Sword of Ulysses, and Mr. Roubian was the Journalism advisor; I was the features editor of our high school newspaper, The Bull’s Eye.
When you open your inbox, what’s the first email you open?
Appropriate for GNI and finding balance: I’m trying out a new thing where I don’t check emails on Tuesdays and Thursdays! So the answer, today, is: none.
If people come visit San Francisco, what’s your #1 suggestion while they’re in the city?
Find a big hill and walk up it, preferably with someone you love. A good view can make you feel better about everything. And a second suggestion is a treat: Go to Swan Oyster Depot, which is this tiny seafood counter in Nob Hill that’s been around forever, and serves crab and oysters and various sashimi. You wash all the fish down with bread and butter and local Anchor Steam beer. Afternoons, there’s always a line but the key is to get there first thing in the morning.
What’s your go-to take out? Favorite recipe/dish to make?
I don’t typically do takeout but we live right around the corner from Mission Chinese Food, which is convenient: I love their salt cod fried rice and broccoli beef. At home a favorite on the dinner rotation is fish tacos. We have a tortilleria nearby that makes fresh tortillas and I just broil whatever fish looks good at the store with some cumin and coriander, and make a really quick cabbage and scallion slaw with lime juice and olive oil and serve it with yogurt or sour cream.
Do you carry a tote, purse or backpack? What’s something that’s always in it?
I carry a tote or purse and it always has, within it, a smaller zippered pouch, the kind that you can get at Daiso for a dollar. Business receipts, lip balm, pens—everything goes in. http://www.daisojapan.com/c-197-vinyl-cases.aspx
Are you in a writing group? How do you typically write?
My writing happens in the mornings, fueled by coffee. I am in a writing group that I love dearly. We start the sessions with a little bit of gossip, and usually drink too much.
What’s the best thing you read this week? (could be anything from a book, article, or tweet, etc)
I just read R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries—out from Riverhead this July—in one thirsty sitting. It’s a gorgeous book about having a faith and then losing it, and also about love and how unknowable the people you love are. Her rhythms and sentences are so, so special. I also just started Kirstin Chen’s new book, Bury What We Cannot Take, which came out this week. I can’t wait to get back to it.
Are you a plant person?
Plants everywhere, always.
Ebook or paper?
What’s your favorite question readers ask about your work?
The one you just asked! “Do you have a Bonnie?” We all need Bonnies, so I hope you have one or several, too.
Do you believe fortune cookies?
What’s your most recently played artist or song?
“Make Me Feel” by Janelle Monae.
What’s one thing you hope #GNIreads book club readers will take away from Goodbye, Vitamin?
You’re doing okay!
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