From the first line of Rachel Khong’s debut novel, you know it’s going to be funny: Goodbye, Vitamin opens with a man finding the protagonist’s father’s pants in a tree.
Ruth’s father has Alzheimer’s disease, and she has returned home after breaking up with her fiancé. This year of Ruth’s life is documented in episodic fragments as she helps care for her father and deal with the loss of her relationship. The result is a deeply felt meditation on the power and shortcomings of memory. Rachel Khong’s writing is smart, funny, and insightful, and Goodbye, Vitamin is a total pleasure to read.
I recently interviewed Khong via email about her debut, her influences, and humor.
Rachel León: Goodbye, Vitamin is actually your second book out this year. Your first book came out a couple of months ago. What’s the experience been like to publish your first book and first novel back-to-back?
Rachel Khong: Publishing two books in one year was certainly nothing I ever expected or even dreamed could happen! It’s true that my first book was technically All About Eggs—a book, yes, all about eggs. It was published this past spring as the fourth in a series of books by the magazine Lucky Peach, where I was editor for five years, in collaboration with the publisher Clarkson Potter.
But I don’t really consider myself the author of that book, so much as the editor/curator: I worked with so many brilliant, talented people to put it together, so I can’t take all the credit (or the blame!). And it was really fun—as far as learning experiences go—to test the waters of book publicity with such a fun, collaborative cookbook. Goodbye, Vitamin was many more years in the making, and so it’s a lot more personal and anxiety inducing. But the process of making each of these books was simultaneously challenging, exhausting, exciting, and exhilarating, so it’s been a treat to finally get to celebrate their being in the world.
Rachel León: What inspired this story?
Rachel Khong: I’ve always been interested in how memory and forgetting relates to understanding of ourselves and our pasts. And our relationships with other people, too.
At the time I started the book, I was going through a breakup and feeling generally gloomy and skeptical about the Point of Things. And I was particularly interested in the role that memory plays in the dissolution of relationships.
I had a lot of questions: If what one person remembered were the sunniest events of a relationship, and the other party remembered mostly the bad times—wouldn’t that always be a recipe for heartbreak? Could heartbreak be avoided if both parties’ memories were more perfect? If we could remember everything that ever happened? Or would that make all relationships impossible, because we would remember everything terrible we did to each other?
I was interested, also, in memory as it exists in families, between parents and children. Your parents remember more than you do about your own life. Is that why those relationships, in particular, can be so confusing? I also watched my late grandmother battle Alzheimer’s in the last years of her life, and I saw memory loss manifested really acutely. Writing the book was a way to try to understand—or really just explore—the human experience of forgetting from a few different approaches.
Rachel León: The novel is written like a series of diary entries. Why did you choose to tell the story this way?
Rachel Khong: For the most part, things that look like conscious decisions that I chose wound up choosing me: I stumbled into the book’s form through a lot of trial and error.
From the beginning, I knew that I wanted the novel to span a year. After I figured out that much, it was a lot of haphazard experimenting with different ways to put words down—cutting the text into different pieces, and finally arriving at the way that felt right. I don’t really think of them as diary entries so much as simply dated accounts of what happened that day—a first-person novel with more signage.
Rachel León: I was struck by how sparse and tight your prose is. There is so much in this short novel, but it’s all compressed in a really admirable way. Can you share which authors have influenced your work?
Rachel Khong: The books that were rolling around in my head when I started Goodbye, Vitamin were Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, and Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays. They showed me how even the slimmest of novels could have outsized impact. Writers I always go back to for this same reason—powerful sentences packed into small spaces—are Grace Paley, Amy Hempel, and Sarah Manguso.
Rachel León: I loved how you managed to combine drama with humor, particularly while dealing with something serious like Alzheimer’s. Was it difficult to strike a balance between finding comedic situations and handling the illness respectfully?
Rachel Khong: I don’t see Goodbye, Vitamin as a book about Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease that I’ve seen firsthand; in later stages, it mostly really isn’t funny, in the slightest. To me, this is a book centered around memory, and what it’s like to be a human being with an imperfect memory. And because I was interested in writing about real people, experiencing the normal day-to-day fluctuations that come with living life, emotions had to be less than totally straightforward.
Because people are complicated. Humor, sadness, anger, and happiness are daily parts of life—even, maybe even especially, in the face of something as terrible as disease. I wanted to incorporate them all. And, to be honest, I’m usually the person who makes an inappropriate joke in an uncomfortable situation in attempt to lighten the mood. So there’s that.
Rachel León: Any plans for book number three?
Rachel Khong: I started a new novel in December, and I’ve been working on it since. That felt a lot more fun than obsessing over the novel’s publication, which is unfortunately a big temptation for me. The new thing is currently too amorphous to talk about, but it’s much more plot-driven than Goodbye, Vitamin, and interested in questions of race, identity, and power—subjects that have been on my mind a lot lately.
Note to Chicago readers: Rachel Khong will be in conversation with Camille Bordas at Volumes Bookcafe on July 13th at 7pm.
RACHEL KHONG is the author of All About Eggs: Everything We Know About the World’s Most Important Food, which came out this past April. She was executive editor of Lucky Peach magazine and received the 2015 Karola Saekel Craib Excellence in Food Journalism Fellowship. She attended Yale University and holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Florida.
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Rachel León is a writer, editor, and social worker. She serves as Daily Editor for Chicago Review of Books and Fiction Editor for Arcturus. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, BOMB Magazine, The Millions, Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Ploughshares blog, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere.