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Ruth Madievsky's new novel explores trauma, drugs and toxic sisterhood

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

In a new novel set in Los Angeles, a young woman loves her older sister, Debbie, deeply. But Debbie is volatile and addicted to prescription drugs, and her relationship with her sister, the novel's narrator, is an unhealthy, conflicted one.

RUTH MADIEVSKY: (Reading) I didn't want to be like Debbie. I didn't want to rely on precarious jobs or on men to stay afloat. I wanted to live for more than fleeting hits of chaos.

FLORIDO: That is author Ruth Madievsky reading from her debut novel. It's called "All Night Pharmacy." The story gets its thrust when, one day, Debbie goes missing. And her younger sister, who has always wanted to break free from Debbie's toxic influence, decides not to go looking for her. This younger sister never gets a name in the book. And when I spoke with Madievsky about it, I asked her why.

MADIEVSKY: So the narrator is kind of a cipher, right? Like, she is consumed with unease over how to be a person. She describes her relationship with her sister, Debbie, as Debbie being the artist and the narrator being canvas. So she's kind of a blank slate for a lot of the book. And her arc involves the question of - will she get some agency, and will she figure out who she is? So it felt too hard to pin her down with any particular name. I don't even know what her name is, honestly. It kind of feels like it's none of my business.

FLORIDO: Hmm. I really like the way your narrator describes her sister, and I wonder if you could just read us another one of those descriptions from one of your book's opening passages?

MADIEVSKY: Sure.

(Reading) Debbie had big, blue eyes and a pout that made men do stupid things. People said we looked alike, but no one ever mistook one of us for the other. Debbie wore her body like she owned it. For me, it was the other way around. She was only 5'2", but that made her more powerful. You could fall asleep spooning her and wake up with a screwdriver pressed to your throat. She was so alive, it was scary. I could hear her heart beating from another room. Sometimes, she bruised herself sleeping. Her blood was that close to the surface.

FLORIDO: You really get a sense that these two sisters are a study in contrasts. Why did you want to explore a toxic relationship between two sisters?

MADIEVSKY: You know, I was interested especially in how historical traumas affect people who are several generations removed. And so I was thinking a lot about Soviet terror and the Holocaust and how that might manifest in, you know, first-, second-, third-generation immigrants who did not experience that historical trauma themselves, but who were raised by parents and grandparents who had been through that, and how having survived these horrors might make you a little bit more hesitant to become estranged from a family member, even if you know they're toxic and that your life would probably be better off without them. So that's part of the key and why our narrator isn't willing to cut her toxic sister loose - is this kind of idea that, you know, for people who have survived Soviet terror and the Holocaust, we don't just abandon family members, even if they kind of suck.

FLORIDO: Well, as I said, Debbie goes missing. But instead of going to look for Debbie, your narrator decides not to go look for her - to kind of brush it off. Can you say a little bit about that decision?

MADIEVSKY: So her sister, Debbie, leads her on a lot of very cursed expeditions that end terribly - you know, often with them hooking up with all the wrong people, doing all the wrong drugs in all the wrong places. Debbie disappears after the narrator and her share some mystery pills. The narrator blacks out and wakes up on one of the overhangs on Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles, which, if you've ever been to LA, feels like a very likely scenario after a night out taking pills.

FLORIDO: (Laughter).

MADIEVSKY: And so when Debbie goes missing, our narrator sees it as an opportunity to really discover who she is for the first time and become the artist rather than the canvas. But as we see in the book, she ends up, in a lot of ways, just becoming a Debbie understudy and just falling deeper into opioid and benzodiazepine dependence. She gets a job at an emergency room as a secretary and ends up stealing pills to sell on the side. So she really leans harder into chaos with her sister gone.

FLORIDO: And yet that question about what happened to Debbie kind of - sort of haunts her throughout the novel, right?

MADIEVSKY: It does. So the narrator has this sense that, probably, Debbie is avoiding her or skipped town. But we also don't know for sure that Debbie hasn't just, like, wound up dead in a ditch somewhere. And the narrator basically has to decide - is that information she's ready to know the answer to, and is her life better with or without her sister, ultimately?

FLORIDO: Hmm. Well, you - you're a clinical pharmacist in real life. That's your day job.

MADIEVSKY: Yeah.

FLORIDO: And I wonder how much your experience being around, you know, a lot of prescription drugs and working with patients - how much that influenced the way that you wrote about these struggles and the way that addiction can really tear families apart.

MADIEVSKY: Yeah. So I knew that I wanted to write about grifters and schemers and, you know, people kind of running scams left and right around LA. And because of my background as a pharmacist, you know, I had a sense of how, like, a scheme could go in which people, you know, sold like their grandparents' extra pain pills or sold expiring pills that were being tossed out at the pharmacy. And then as for writing about substance dependence, I tried to write it in a way that was really empathetic and not doing any additional harm because I really don't think that addiction is at all a moral failing.

FLORIDO: My favorite character in your book is your narrator's grandmother. Can we talk about her a little bit?

MADIEVSKY: (Laughter).

FLORIDO: She is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union. And it's really through her that we learn about all of the historical trauma in the family that you were mentioning earlier. But you managed to somehow make her memories of all these awful things a family went through - to make them really, really funny. I was - I felt like I shouldn't have been laughing through these chapters...

MADIEVSKY: (Laughter).

FLORIDO: ...But I couldn't stop. Why was I laughing so hard reading about all these awful incidents that happened to this family in the past?

MADIEVSKY: I think that the grandmother, who was so fun to write - she has a very Soviet and Jewish orientation toward life, which is this, you know, very dark, kind of gallows humor, where, you know, she's recounting her father being, you know, taken by the KGB and probably murdered, which is actually something that happened to my great grandfather. And, you know, the grandmother is just kind of spewing out all these traumas left and right, like out of a T-shirt gun. And she's so blase about it, I think, because of the sense that she never had kind of the luxury of processing her trauma and that, for her, humor is this defense mechanism. And it's very off-putting to her that her daughter - the narrator's mother - has this kaleidoscope of mental illnesses and so much paranoia that the U.S. could go the way of the Soviet Union, and the firing squad is always around the corner. And she kind of has this sense of, well, if I made it through all of this and I can laugh about it and I can function in society, like, why is my daughter or why are my granddaughters so messed up by it?

FLORIDO: And your narrator, her granddaughter, seems - she seems really resentful of the fact that she should have to live her life in a way that sort of honors the sacrifices that her grandmother or her ancestors even father back made. And I was struck that this was one of the themes in your book - like, how far back does our responsibility to family go?

MADIEVSKY: Yeah. I mean, that's kind of an open question in my own life, too. And I think a lot of my immigrant friends that I've talked to about this - we have this sense that we have this unrepayable debt to our ancestors for sacrificing so much to help us have a better life in America. And, you know, some of the traumas they've experienced are just completely unrelatable to us. And so there's this kind of constant bag of ghosts that we're carrying at all times of how to live our lives in a way that honors what they lost, but, you know, also kind of raising the question of - well, what if we get to experience and enjoy the freedom that they never had - to make choices that were never on the table for them, even if they disapprove with those choices? Is that a way of honoring them?

FLORIDO: Ruth Madievsky's debut novel is called "All Night Pharmacy," and it's out now. Thanks for being here.

MADIEVSKY: Thanks so much, Adrian. It was great.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Tinbete Ermyas
Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.
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