With her debut novel, Goodbye, Vitamin, Rachel Khong urges readers to realize the importance of food beyond its mere necessity. The book is far from primarily about food though—it tells the story of Ruth, a 30-something woman whose father has developed Alzheimer’s. The story starts with reluctance—Ruth is heading to live with her family after years of independence—but it's precisely when Ruth resolves to aid in taking care of her father for a year, that the story really begins. Every few sentences, offhandedly, Khong will describe what a person’s eating in a given moment, or the effects of certain foods on one’s health, and imbues snacking with a real sense of personality.
This skewering of food is far from unexpected from Khong, who was an executive editor at Lucky Peach, the cultishly adored, now-defunct magazine that presented food from all angles, most of them unexpected. While Goodbye, Vitamin is both hilarious and heartbreaking in ways beyond Khong's depiction of food, what really sticks with me is the shock of an author describing a sense of fear as bratwurst-like. We talked to Khong about the seemingly insurmountable task of a first novel, writing about the difficult subject of Alzheimer’s, and her home state of California.
The book is written mostly as diary entries, then switches up a bit toward the end. What was the importance of writing the story in this style?
I think that I didn’t really have any grand schemes in the beginning when I set out to write this book. I really just wanted to do what was possible for me. I had never written a novel before, I didn’t know what I was doing. I had sort of been writing short stories up until that point. The form was more out of necessity than anything else. I knew that I could write brief paragraphs, I knew that I could write sentences. So it really just arose out of this experimentation with stringing together smaller pieces into this longer thing.
While reading Goodbye, Vitamin, I was also reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, which is partially about her mother’s Alzheimer’s. It was interesting to read these two accounts, one fictional and one nonfictional, of the experience. Were there any books you turned to when writing?
I guess I didn’t really have books that stood out to me... I haven’t read the Rebecca Solnit one; I really need to. I did a lot of internet research. Just hanging out on Reddit and reading about people’s experiences because it felt really immediate and real to me. I didn’t set out to write an Alzheimer’s-centric book; that’s one component of it, but I have been reluctant to call it an Alzheimer’s book because I feel like that would be such a disappointment to people. I don’t think it’s that great of a book if it’s specifically about Alzheimer’s. It’s one aspect of the book, and it was an easy thing to imagine. We’re forgetting things every day and all the time, so there was a lot of imagination involved in it. Thinking about what the disease would be like, and thinking about what it would be like if your memory was 100 times worse.
At some points, you’ll mention specifics about cruciferous vegetables or how certain foods affect memory, and health in general. Did you already know this information or did you set out to research it for the sake of the story?
I actually did know a lot of that because I’m weirdly obsessed with, not nutrition, but when I procrastinate, I’ll read about food and what foods do. I’m also kind of like a hypochondriac slightly. I’ll Google some ailment, then be convinced I’m dying, and try to look up foods that will help me not die. It’s a procrastination tactic when I’m writing! [Like,] "I’m probably dying, so I should figure out how to combat that."
I was wondering if you consider yourself particularly a fiction writer or a journalist? I know that you received a food journalism fellowship, but you also have an MFA in fiction.
The fiction came first. That’s how I first came to writing, just by being a reader of novels. As a kid, I was definitely not reading journalism and thinking, Oh my gosh, I must be a journalist. It was reading books, finding escape in books, and wanting to do the same thing. I come from a family of immigrants, so telling your parents you want to be a fiction writer or a novelist is not exactly acceptable. They would say, "Oh, you mean a journalist?" That was sort of something I started doing in high school, I was part of the school newspaper; then in college, I was on the newspaper and doing feature writing and feature editing. I did that because it seemed to crazy to just write fiction. I had to have some way to make a living, and writing is pretty much the only thing I could do at all. So I had to figure out how to make money from writing, and journalism seemed, like, obviously not a lucrative way to make money, but a way to make money.
[Fiction writing and journalism] always seemed separate to me, and now I’m realizing that they’re maybe not as separate as I thought they were. All of my interests get swirled into both types of writing. I consider myself a fiction writer, fundamentally, just because that’s what I came to first and loved first. At this point, I’ve done nonfiction writing for so long, and it’s also part of my identity. I feel like percentage-wise, I feel like a fiction writer 60 percent versus a journalist 40 percent. I guess with both of the genres, I feel like a bit of an impostor. I don’t feel fully like a journalist, I always have to kind of act at it. Before an interview, when I’m the interviewer, I get so nervous. I’ll spend most of the day so nervous, then I don’t know that I do things correctly. I don’t know that there’s a correct way to do things, but I just feel like I’m going about it wrong. I’m not fully trained in it, but at the same time, I do have training with writing fiction, but it’s also something that’s really just shots in the dark all the time. I never feel like I’ve totally figured it out. I guess that’s what makes both things fun—how hard they are. [Laughs]
Earlier this year, you released All About Eggs [a nonfiction book about, well, eggs]. Can you talk a bit about working on these two very different books at the same time?
The timing is interesting because even though they’re both 2017 books, I started the novel in 2010. It really preceded any kind of writing about food or my job at Lucky Peach. I actually sold it in the fall of 2015, which is basically when I was just starting to work on the egg book. They didn’t really overlap at all; I was revising while I was also working on the egg book, but I wasn’t doing any huge rewriting or anything like that. They exist pretty separately for me. It’s just been interesting that the egg book, which I started working on way later, came out first, and is technically my first book. I never imagined that would happen, but it’s been a pretty fun experience! I actually think of that book not so much as my own book because it's almost like a big version of a magazine. It’s a lot of different contributors, a lot of different recipes from lots of different voices. It doesn’t feel like I’m entirely responsible for it—I don’t deserve all the credit or the blame. [Laughs]
I was reading this interview you wrote for The Rumpus, and, in introducing the interview, you write that in college you read about one book of short stories a week. I thought it was really interesting that you read so many short stories, yet your first book of fiction was a novel. Was writing a novel first a conscious choice?
It wasn’t. I had always thought I would write a story collection first because that just seemed more possible to me. I think that in college, when I was studying creative writing, short stories are what drew me to want to write creatively. I remember going to Costco with my parents—that's so suburban [laughs]—and I would stand in the book section and read The Best American Short Stories from whatever year. That was how I got exposed to short stories. It seemed more possible, but it also seemed like an interesting challenge because there are so many short story collections that are pretty uneven or imperfect. The challenge of trying to write a perfect short story collection really appealed to me.
So I did always think my first book would be a collection of short stories, and I didn’t really think that writing a novel was possible. When I started the novel, I had been writing short stories for so long, and really struggling with them, too. Even though stories are short, they each have their own unique problems that you can’t just wave this wand at to solve. Each story is its own mess, essentially. I was struggling to write these stories, and really often writing them and then hating them. I just realized if I just worked on one long thing—I didn’t even call it a novel at first, I just called it my long thing [laughs]— I’d only have one thing to hate, instead of, like, 10 stories to hate, or to just agonize over. It seemed efficient and more like something I could do.
Do you think that working as an editor at Lucky Peach helped with revising in your own work?
Yeah, definitely. I think it went both ways: Working on my own writing helps me be a better editor, and editing other people’s work also helped me learn how to get out of my own head a little bit. It’s hard to say which came first, really. I am a pretty slow writer, and sometimes I’d sit down at the computer with the intention of writing, and wind up with fewer words than I started with, which never really feels good but is part of the process. I do think that both writing and editing helped and informed each other.
The book is set in California, and throughout there is a lot of historical detailing of the state. What was the importance of setting this particular story in California?
Going back to trying to do something I had never done before, write this novel which seemed really hard, I just wanted to make it kind of easy on myself. I didn’t want to set it somewhere that I would have to research extensively or had no connection to. There are so many other challenges of putting a book together, so I wanted to [write about] something that felt familiar to me, and that I felt nostalgia for. I grew up mostly in California—also a little bit in Arizona, weirdly—so my family moved around a lot to these desert-y towns of Southern California which are versions of where Ruth and her family live in the book. Growing up, I didn’t think it was anything interesting or special, but I think, as an adult, it feels like a really unique and distinct place. I wanted to both make it easy on myself and spend more time with this place that I had distanced myself from as a child.
The book has a really honest way of depicting how complicated relationships with parents can be once the child reaches adulthood. Can you talk a bit about how you chose to frame Ruth’s relationship with her parents?
It’s a little bit mysterious to me! I know that I really wanted to explore exactly what you’re describing—what it’s like to be a grown child. I didn’t want to discuss the flip-flopping of parents as children, like the parents declining and the child taking over as caretaker. That’s really the premise of the book, but she’s not watching over her dad at this really regressed state. He’s still pretty okay. I was interested in exploring that in-between moment that I don’t think is as discussed. I wanted to talk about that middle area where—well, Ruth is realizing this pretty late—but you’re just starting to realize your parents are people with pasts, aren’t perfect, and that they have lives that are totally separate from you.
Goodbye, Vitamin is available for purchase here.