The Next Joan Didion?

Novelist Ruth Galm on living up to comparisons, growing up in pre-Silicon Valley San Jose, and advice for writers

Ruth Galm, author of a haunting and original novel called Into the Valley (Soho Press), does not mind being compared to the young Joan Didion. For most writers any such comparisons would be toxic, but Galm can hold her own. The novel defies easy description. Like Faulkner or Didion, Galm has an almost uncanny sense of place that she brings alive in the novel, in this case California’s great central valley, circa the 1960s. This is the story of a woman, B., spiraling downward, a woman who feels a persistent sense of “carsickness” or existential dread that she seeks to assuage through of all things showing up in banks and cashing faked checks. Kirkus lauded the novel for its “fantastic writing,” and for offering a “new view” of an “overexposed slice of American history.” Elle Magazine observed, “Galm’s writing mimics the hyperreality of dreams, and the novel’s penetrative heat is palpable in descriptions of highway rest stops and ‘the flatness of the valley … the mountains in the far distance like figments behind the haze.’ … Underpinning Into the Valley is a subtle and complicated exploration of what it means to be a woman and, more specifically, what it means to be a woman without a man. B. carries on, despite the looming consequences of her check scheme, colliding with other lost souls and collecting the dust of the road. And for all her disconnectedness, her plight strikes a timeless and universal chord. ‘I want to be like the others. I don’t want to be different. I don’t know why the carsickness comes,’ B. says in a rare loquacious moment. ‘If I could only get to this new place, it would all make sense.’” Galm discussed the book recently in an interview with the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, a writers’ retreat center in Northern California offering services and an inspiring setting to writers

The Wellstone Center in the Redwoods: You grew up in San Jose? In what part of the city did you live and where did you go to school?

Ruth Galm: It’s funny how proud I am now of having grown up in San Jose in the 1970s, which would seem like the least compelling origins. But I’ve realized it definitely shaped what fascinates me in writing and art — the lines and pallors and sleepiness, the undercurrent of derelictness — and made me a writer obsessed with why people come to California and a kind of real, unpretty West.

We lived in downtown San Jose because my parents were both professors at San Jose State University, and our neighborhood was this great combination of quaint historic homes and then halfway houses for the mentally ill, who sometimes wandered around, and a big park where people did angel dust and Coyote Creek ran beside graffitied and sketchy, and of course was exactly where we wanted to explore as kids. And this was before even the first attempt at redeveloping San Jose’s downtown, so we would drive for errands and my parents would remind us to lock our car doors and they’d teach us to call the prostitutes on Fourth and William “ladies of the night,” and there’d be the circusy sign for the Pussycat Theater, and most of the cityscape I remember was empty storefronts and old-time dive bars and parking lots. So a subtle seediness was part of our growing up that I think influenced what I notice as a writer.

And since where I grew up was just over the bridge from the East side, which was predominantly Latino, I went to school from kindergarten to fourth grade as the only white girl in my class, desperately wanting to be Mexican. I went to public schools K-12, graduated from Lincoln High School in the Rose Garden area. The schools were diverse, which was also a great influence, but they were also very tracked. So I was white and thus automatically tracked into the classes that pushed me, and because of that was lucky enough to have several great teachers who taught and encouraged my writing, as did my parents.

WCR: During the years you were growing up, the Santa Clara Valley went through huge changes. It had been known, if anything, as the Prune Capital of the World, long before it was called Silicon Valley. Did those changes make an impression on you? Did your connection to that valley have anything to do with your strong connection to the “Valley” of your novel?

Galm: I am so much more connected in my mind to the valley of the Prune Capital past. I remember driving by strip malls still bordered by patches of orchards, and that motley-ness and quiet and caught-between-worlds aspect to the valley before Silicon Valley is what I identify with. I actually recently finished a short story entirely set on San Carlos Boulevard of that time because visually all those Saturdays of errands up and down that street — Orchard Supply Hardware, Sears, Race Street Market, the telephone poles, the bus benches, etc. — I can’t stop seeing. So I think writing about the Central Valley probably did appeal to me in that way because maybe I hanker for the flat and open and bleached out.

WCR: Growing up, did your family ever take drives together into the great Central Valley of California?

Galm: We mostly drove quickly across it. We went to Lake Tahoe many of my childhood summers and so my strongest memory of the Central Valley is of the Nut Tree. We always stopped there for a burger or a treat, and the bright colors and rocking horses and lounges made a huge impression on me, maybe the closest I could get to Disneyland. So when I came back to the Bay Area as an adult after time out east — New York City having made me understand how Californian I was, or wanted to be — I was suddenly curious about this huge region of which I felt so ignorant. I started driving it then.

WCR: What were your reading habits like as a girl? When did you start to think you wanted to be a writer and were there books you read that helped inspire you or helped give you a sense that it might be an attainable goal to make a go of writing fiction and being published?

Galm: I was a serious bookworm, although not very discerning early on. My parents were English and American Studies professors, so there were books everywhere in our house and I loved words the way my poet father did, and I think all this stacked the deck for me to become strong at writing early on. And I do remember the first time I understood that language and prose were my church. It was when I first read Faulkner (maybe in my late teens?), and I don’t even remember which book but it was him doing that compound-word thing, and for the first time I noticed the artistry, the rhythm of the sentences and the colors he left me with (I couldn’t have told you the plot at all), and I understood that this was the world that made the most sense, that had my reverence. This felt transcendent to me.

But I never wrote creatively. I think because of that kind of genius in prose I never considered that I could even take part. So I wrote as a reporter for a bit, which I hated because of the deadlines and having to talk to people, and then I used my writing in education jobs. And when I was thirty, I decided the grown-up thing to do would be to take an extension class, and the most interesting class to me was Intro to Fiction Writing, and from there it snowballed. I took night classes for two years and then had to admit I wanted to do an MFA and center my life around writing fiction.

WCR: Influence is always a somewhat mysterious area to explore. Joan Didion, for example, has commented that she reads no fiction when she is working on a novel because she feels too susceptible to being influenced in ways she thinks a reader would notice. Are you as susceptible to influence as that? Are you careful about what you read when you’re writing?

Galm: I think Didion is right, and yet on the one hand my impulse, maybe in a masochistic way, is to go directly toward what is close to what I’m trying to do. I think I do it as a yardstick of where I’m trying to get to and a portal into the kinds of dreamscapes I want to create. On the other hand, if I find that I’m starting to mimic the prose unconsciously, which I imagine (hope) happens to most writers, I will put a book away for the duration. I didn’t allow myself to read any Didion, for example, as I got deeper into my novel, although I probably know a lot of her sentences by heart anyway. And the one book I very consciously did not read, and still haven’t read, was Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea; I assumed “the carsickness” in Into the Valley was too much swimming in that pond and I was/am intimidated. But given the whole “anxiety of influence,” I guess my feeling is there is no escaping your progenitors, so most of the time I would rather look at them baldly and wrestle my way into my own territory knowing they will be somewhere with me no matter what.

And most often, I start my writing by reading anything that at that moment is blowing my mind, usually fiction or poetry. If I’m awed artistically, it fires me up to write.

WCR: Pick three to five writers you’ve loved, please, and discuss at some length what you’ve taken away from reading each and how those writers might have influenced you.

Galm: These are no-joke questions! I only hope to do them justice; they deserve term papers. Here goes: William Faulkner — I mentioned him earlier, and I believe he is the writer who made me want to write fiction (whether I knew it consciously or not) and also scared me away from writing fiction (ditto). His genius for language woke me up to what I value most in fiction — style and the art of prose. He taught me about rhythm, and even though my sentences are spare and sometimes short in the novel, their rhythm was hugely important to me and I vetted and considered every comma for what it would do to the look, mood, and rhythm of the prose. Faulkner is obviously a master of place and he was the one who made me understand how much setting and landscape move me and how character and tension can be gotten through them. I think finally, in the same vein, he left me with the idea of color in fiction; I don’t know how to explain it, but his books are full of sepias and yellows in my mind, it’s a deep part of their effect for me, and I crave that kind of tinting and dream-hueing in my own writing.

Jean Rhys — She is known for Wide Sargasso Sea, which is one of my favorites, but her earlier Paris and London novels — Good Morning, Midnight in particular — and short stories have probably taught me as much as graduate school about writing. I almost don’t want to share the secret on her short stories, the collected version of which I think is — astonishingly — out of print, but they taught me how little back story and flashback one really needs; how much you can trust the reader to form her own opinion and fill in her own information on characters by what behaviors and scenes you plunk them down into; her stories make me want so much less of the work done for me in other fiction. Place is also everything in Rhys’ works; her protagonists are bloomed and warped by Paris, London, Vienna, the Caribbean, etc. And although her style is the polar opposite of Faulkner’s, it’s equally as singular and cared for. Lastly but maybe most importantly, she portrays the lives of women at their darkest and most lost (especially in a society of stacked gender rules) in a way that I am thirsty and grateful for.

Joan Didion — I think I have already tipped my hand here. But my reverence is for the early fiction more so than the essays. Blasphemy to many, I know. I actually get miffed when people dismiss her novels as lesser works; I don’t understand it. Play It As It Lays blew the lid off what I understood one could do in fiction. More than anything — in addition to the same genius of style and place as Faulkner and Rhys — Didion taught me the importance of detail. It is in the details that her early novels are devastating. She is exacting with detail, never lets up, and it teaches me to be as unflagging in what I choose for people to see, hear, smell, do. I think her early fiction (I’m less familiar with her later novels) also devastates because it avoids sentimentality at all costs, which is a goal she’s instilled in my writing. If I get too near any sentence that pulls a string of straight sadness or bite, I don’t want it; it’s too easy. And again, like Rhys, Didion is concerned with women at their darkest and most unraveling from what society wants of them; my kind of subject matter.

WCR: There is about Into the Valley a quality almost of interplanetary travel: A reader has such a complete, palpable feel of having entered the world of the book, it’s like being on some probe dropped down under the heavy Venutian atmosphere. I’m wondering if it’s been hard, since you finished the book, to tune into other fictional worlds and work on other projects.

Galm: That might be my favorite description so far of what I hoped to get at, and I’m so glad it felt that way because I felt like I was traveling to another planet with B.; I only wanted to capture that feeling. And you are astute to pose the question. It’s been slow-going to tune into other fictional worlds, but not because I’m still in the world of Into the Valley; I got what I needed from that planet and I’m okay moving on. It’s more been the time to back my way into a new novel-length fictional dream the way I did when I was just messing around with “a longer piece” (I called the novel that for months). I’m still awed to have a book in the world, but I’m going to have to figure out how to carve out the same kind of time and space I had when no one wanted anything of me writing-wise, when I could just go down a rabbit hole. I’m confident about tuning into other worlds again — for now I’ve been able to do that in brief interludes with short stories — and am hungry enough for it now I think to find a way to lose myself again.

WCR: Tell us the story of how Into the Valley was accepted for publication, including what it was like working with an editor.

Galm: Basically, I couldn’t get an agent to save my life; I still don’t have one. I queried about sixty, only one read the manuscript and passed, and I went through a period of extreme self-doubt where I had to decide whether I wanted to stop writing and give up on the novel. I decided to continue and just started submitting to independent presses during open periods (hallelujah for these saints). One of the last I tried was Soho Press, where I vaguely knew the senior editor for literary fiction, Mark Doten, from workshop at Columbia, and I wrote him a letter with my hard copy. It took about eight months to get into Mark’s very busy hands. But he and the publisher Bronwen Hruska read it and loved it and part of me is still in disbelief that it found such a great home. And home is what it feels like. I’m not sure you could get any luckier as a debut novelist than to work with a prestigious and robust independent press like Soho that treats you like family and cares as deeply about your book as you do. (I honestly don’t understand why every literary fiction writer isn’t clamoring to be with an independent press.) From the editing process to the cover to the publicity, Soho has been a partner in a way I don’t think I would get at a big publishing house. I said this in my acknowledgements, but I feel like I won the lottery in having Mark as my editor. He is a brilliant novelist in his own right (his debut, The Infernal, came out this year and is in the category of blowing my mind), and as an editor he is just both deferential and surgical — at a sentence and structural level — in ways that sharpened and elevated the book. He said from the beginning that editing-wise it was really about tightening the middle and nailing the ending, and this jibed with my take on the book. And when I wanted him to hold my hand and tell me how to fix the ending, he didn’t, which made me realize he trusted me as a writer to get there and gave me confidence. I will also say that I struggled with the copy editing process — the copy editor wanting to add many commas in a grammatically correct way — and Mark let me stet every one and with the patience of Job went over each comma as well. It made me understand how much he was with me in the style of the book, how much he understood and supported what I was trying to do, and in the end the whole process and that partnership made it better.

WCR: Have you been able to enjoy publication and the events you’ve done so far? Any funny stories?

Galm: Maybe it’s funny that I couldn’t enjoy the fact that I had published a novel until I got through the launch readings! They went well, but I was so nervous about taking on that more extroverted role that I had to get through a few before I could let myself feel the joy of publishing (and have a big drink). And maybe the other funny thing to me is how much you get the question “What’s next?”, which I didn’t realize was such a thing. It’s a compliment and I promise I’ll get to other stuff but I want to hold up the novel and say “Don’t you see this? This took me many years. Can’t we just focus on this for now? Because it’s going to be a while before I have another one in my hand!”

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