Rachel Khong makes her fiction debut with the small-but-mighty Goodbye, Vitamin, the story of 30-year-old Ruth, who moves home to help care for her aging father, Howard, who was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In poignant and often hilarious journal-like entries, Ruth charts the joys and sadness of her days at home and ultimately her journey through grief.
Khong, the former executive editor of Lucky Peach magazine and the author of All About Eggs: Everything We Know About the World’s Most Important Food, makes us laugh once again as she shares the secret behind her first novel’s diary style and shakes her fist at memory.
How much of this story is drawn from your own life experiences?
My father doesn’t have Alzheimer’s, I’ve never had a fiancé break up with me, and I’ve never spent a year at home being a caretaker. But I do know about career-related ambivalence, about heartbreak and about anger. I’m also forgetting things every day. I’m often asked if I have personal experience with Alzheimer’s and I do—my late grandmother had Alzheimer’s. But I’m hesitant to place too much emphasis on it, because though it resembled Howard’s at times, her experience was very different, and our relationship was nothing like Ruth and Howard’s in my book. It informed my writing, but wasn’t the reason I wrote this book.
The story unfolds through journal-like entries, which is really effective in offering intimate glimpses into Ruth’s state of mind. Why did you choose this format? Are you a diarist yourself?
I wish I could say I chose the format for some intelligent reason, but it wasn’t as much a choice as it was what was possible for me. I didn’t know how to write a novel, but I did know how to write paragraphs. Stringing those paragraphs together was how I was able to write this book. I had been reading books like Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick, Speedboat by Renata Adler, Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion, Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison—short books made up of much smaller pieces. And these were books that, despite their length, nevertheless made an outsized impact on me.
I am not a diarist, but last year I started writing in Tamara Shopsin’s Five-Year Diary, a little notebook that has five spaces on every page for every day of the year. There’s only enough space for a few lines, so it’s something that’s easy to do right before bed. The point is so you can look back on the year before, or five years before, and see how your life has changed. That’s been a useful exercise in perspective.
Goodbye, Vitamin is part break-up story, part Alzheimer’s story, part family story, part coming-of-age tale. Piece it all together, and it’s a novel about memory. Has your way of thinking about memory changed for you since writing this book?
Something that I thought about memory, and still feel now, is that it is incredibly crappy material we have to work with. It’s faulty, it’s inaccurate, it’s misleading. It leads us to believe relationships are better or worse than they are; it stops us from forgiving us or allows us to forgive too readily. “Memory is shitty,” was the main thing I thought about memory when I started the book, and I still think that now. But while my thinking on memory hasn’t changed—I still think it sucks—writing the book was a way to come to terms with it, in a way. It’s a frustrating thing, but there’s something beautiful, too, about this flaw we all share. It’s human, and it’s imperfect, but it’s what we have.
What kind of research did you do into the effects of Alzheimer’s—both on the individual and on the family?
I don’t have a good answer to this question! I read a lot on the subject—from books to discussion threads on Metafilter and Reddit. But a lot of it was imagination. It’s easy to imagine your own memory much worse than it is. We’re forgetting things every day, all the time. I don’t have to look too far for examples of that in my own life.
Ruth is such a great character. I loved when she listed things that take up room in her brain (and she wishes wouldn’t), like the lyrics to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and various taxonomic ranks. What are a couple things taking up unnecessary room in your brain?
As a kid, I was a big fan of the Babysitter’s Club series, and to this day every personality trait of each of the Babysitter’s Club members is still rolling around uselessly in my adult brain. You’d think I should be allowed to free up that space in the hard drive and be better at, I don’t know, geography.
Food doesn’t play a big role in Goodbye, Vitamin, which surprised me considering all the food writing you’ve done. Was that intentional?
I started writing fiction long before I ever wrote about food; this novel, too, preceded the food writing. Though food—both cooking and eating—is certainly one of my interests, it’s just one. People have actually told me that they’re surprised by how much food there IS in the book. I think, in the same way that people have different thresholds or tastes for humor or violence or sentimentality, they have sensitivities about how much food is in a given book. So it’s interesting to me to hear these different reactions. I didn’t intentionally leave food out, nor did I intentionally include it. I tried to correctly represent how often a human might think about or talk about food, and it might be abnormally high or low, but I only have my own experience to go on!
If you had to pick, do you think Goodbye, Vitamin is more tragic or funny?
You’ve said that you never thought you’d write a novel. Now that you have (and it turned out so well!), do you think you’ll do it again? And again?
Writing a novel has always been the dream, but it always seemed daunting and impossible, the same way that, when you’re young, it seems impossible that you’d ever possess enough money to be able to buy a car or house. As it turns out, being older really helps, and the main factor in writing a novel or buying a car is simply accumulation of little things into a bigger thing. I’m working on my new novel now, and it’s very different. Decidedly NOT a diary.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Goodbye, Vitamin.
Author photo credit Andria Lo.