Rivka Galchen’s Unsettling Powers

Her new novel is about a vicious, real-life witch hunt—and she somehow still managed to make it funny.

Photo: Hana Mendel for New York Magazine
Photo: Hana Mendel for New York Magazine
Photo: Hana Mendel for New York Magazine

In Rivka Galchen’s short story “The Region of Unlikeness,” a physicist offers a theory of what it’s like to time travel — to be inside the moment when past and future collide. “We’ll enter,” he says, “a region where things seem not to behave as themselves.”

Things never behave as themselves in Galchen’s fiction. In her first novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, from 2008, a New York psychiatrist is convinced that a doppelgänger has replaced his wife, one who smells like her shampoo and walks with the same turned-in hip. Her 2014 collection, American Innovations, was a send-up of fantastical short stories, like James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” that replaced male protagonists with women: “an anatomically anomalous” lump — a breast — lurches out of a woman’s back; a 30-something arrives home one day to see her furniture waltzing out of the place of its own volition. But in Galchen’s new book, the devilishly good Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch, irregularity is anathema. Abiding by the rules of polite society becomes a matter of life or death.

The novel follows a sharp, sprightly old herbalist named Katharina Kepler who’s wrongfully accused of witchcraft by her neighbors in small-town 17th-century Germany. Based on historical documents, the only real magic in this story is the sorcery of lies — the way they steamroll truth and outshout reason as if casting a spell. The idea came to Galchen early in the Trump administration. “I was desperate for escape,” says the 45-year-old, speaking over Zoom from her apartment in New York. “Even before the pandemic, I was just like, I’ve got to get out of this moment. I’m leaving the year. I’m leaving the century. I’m leaving the U.S.” She landed in 1615, at the doorstep of Katharina — who was, both in the book and in real life, the mother of Johannes Kepler, the mathematician and formulator of the laws of planetary motion.

During our interview, Galchen wears a dark T-shirt and sits in front of a blank, shiny navy wall, her nearly black hair parted away from her pale face. I’m ready for a cipher, a theorist, a citer of Saul Kripke, but the 45-year-old, who modestly asks me to cut her ums and likes from her quotes, is grounded in the earthly. She wants to talk about the very real lives of the women accused of witchcraft and what Galchen calls “the horrible joy of condemnation.” She’s less eager to define her own identity as a writer. “I once found myself describing the fiction-writing process as gardening for truffles, and I sort of stand by that,” she explains in an email. “You can’t plant truffles. But you can sort of nose around for them. I try not to be in control of the meaning of my writing, or even the themes, and try instead to obey the sound of them, the form of them.”

You know a Galchen story when you spot one: Her structures are asymmetrical and ruminative, her prose cool. Her sentences all have excellent posture. Meanwhile, her narratives thrive on unreliability. She writes in Little Labors, her 2016 memoir-cum-treatise on motherhood, about okashii, a Japanese term used to describe “the amusing and the strange.” That collision is exactly where Galchen’s fiction resides, the place where absurdity froths up into hilarious social discomfort. She says that when she’s writing, she puts her feelings and thoughts through a “sufficiently profound process of estrangement so that whatever is most important is also secret from [me].” If that process sounds mystical, it is, even to Galchen. “This is just,” she writes in an email, “How It Works.”

But while a new Galchen piece in The New Yorker, where she’s a contributor, could be a mesmerizing take on anything from Misty Copeland to composting (her author’s page looks like an aisle of a convenience store), since American Innovations, every book she’s published has simultaneously highlighted women’s experiences and refused to distill them into any unifying theory. Galchen’s women do not tick off any of the three dominant boxes in contemporary fiction: mad, bad, or sad. What they are most frequently is unorthodox.

Galchen says she was looking for a biography of Johannes Kepler when she first saw a mention of Katharina’s six-year trial for allegedly hexing her neighbors, who claimed she had cursed them with pains in their legs, killed their valuable cows, and peeled off their skin with poisoned poultices. Galchen started reading everything she could about the woman, an illiterate widow who raised a world-class scientist and owned her home, before being tortured in a drafty prison cell for 14 months during the same period her son wrote and published Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae.

Galchen wanted to know how this could happen. “I thought, okay, she’s almost the oldest woman in town. She’s been without a man, doing manly work, earning money, for years and years. And they know that her son is so powerful. She’s actually super-successful in her way,” she says. “So it was just really to see her fall.”

Galchen grew up in Oklahoma — where she was raised by her father, Tzvi Gal-Chen, a meteorology professor, and her mother, Yosefa, a computer programmer for the National Severe Storms Laboratory — and now lives on West 83rd Street in Manhattan, “the natural destiny of all Jewish women.” She describes her Israeli parents as “math people,” and she was, too, in addition to being a writer. Galchen wrote a fiction thesis at Princeton, then received an M..D. in psychiatry from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, before moving immediately into the MFA program at Columbia. Just the sort of crooked path that makes sense for her.

She admits that she has skirted away from writing about the most pungent aspects of her own identity — there was no semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age-in-the-Midwest first novel. Even her memoir, Little Labors, erects a folding screen between the family and the reader; instead of using her daughter’s real name, she calls her “the puma.” She allows her work alone to represent her in a way that many writers of her generation do not, only checking into Twitter to see what people like Gary Shteyngart post. (“I’m only getting the good. I just don’t look at the rest.”) Far from Brooklyn literary parties, she lives in an apartment west of midtown, a neighborhood she described in The New Yorker as “not a people place … better suited to the picking up and dropping off of large pallets.”

She also doesn’t like Googling herself, or even looking in the mirror. “I feel like I’m really hostile to myself inside,” she says without irony, “so that’s probably protected me from having a brand, or an image, or a thing.”

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch, with its title that sounds like a Renaissance schoolyard taunt, is, by contrast, about the all-too-certain among us, the gleeful stone-throwers. Rumors, gossip, and accusations are the building blocks of the novel, which moves between Katharina’s own (fictional) thoughts on her predicament — presented as if dictated to her literate neighbor, Simon — and the testimonies of her accusers and defenders. Galchen allows that, while she wrote, she was thinking about a friend of hers who was accused of something (she won’t say what, except that “it was not a Me Too case”) by someone (she won’t say who, just “Not my mom!”), and tarnished by it. “Lies and slanders,” she says, “often work like dreams, because they cover up an unacceptable reason for wishing someone ill with an acceptable one.”

After a jealous neighbor who Katharina says “looks like a comely werewolf” complains to a duke that Katharina has hexed her, dozens of other charges emerge, accusations shooting around like pinballs, a sort of hilarious Crucible. Shirley MacLaine would own the character of Katharina — a zesty hoot with one-liners as delightfully absurd as calling one man “an unwell river otter in a doublet.” (Galchen insists that while she likes funny books, she herself is not funny. She’s wrong.) Everyone in the novel is jostling for small scraps of power, even if that only means more commissions for a local silversmith or commanding the favor of the egotistical magistrate. It’s a novel of manners, where nobody has any.

When the critic Liesl Schillinger reviewed Atmospheric Disturbances for The New York Times Book Review in 2008, she complimented Galchen by seemingly downgrading other women. “It’s unusual — in fact (why be coy?), it’s extremely rare — to come across a first novel by a woman writer that concerns itself with such quirky, philosophical, didactic explorations; a novel in which the heart and the brain vie for the role of protagonist, and the brain wins.” In a later essay, Galchen herself wrote that “the words ‘women writers’ seemed already to carry their own derogation”; she found them “slightly nauseating.” I asked her about that first Schillinger review, and how she feels about the term now that she’s written three books for adults (plus one Dada children’s book, Rat Rule 79) that focus on women and girls.

“I would say for most of my life, my gender was not the category that I felt most … attached to?” Galchen tells me. “My primary identification was as a child of immigrants. Other categories that were meaningful to me were Liking Math, Growing Up in Oklahoma.” She says that when it came to the gender-switched protagonists in American Innovations, “I thought of this almost like a math problem, more than a political or personal one.” But she also admits that having a daughter may have changed the way she looks at the world. Writing Everyone Knows, Galchen wanted Katharina — this cranky neighbor, this tender grandmother, this spitter of truth — to walk in the world again, to be more than a footnote to her son’s astronomical legacy. Reputation is such a fragile thing: “Witches,” in 17th-century Europe, were often just successful or unpredictable women. Galchen’s research on German laws of the era turned up rules as paranoid as one against spinning bees, created so women couldn’t chat (and consolidate power) while they made thread.

Galchen grows animated and pushes her long hair back as she talks about how desperately the real-life Katharina’s accusers and torturers wanted her to repent. “They were obsessed with asking her to cry! They were just begging her to cry. I mean, she was hearing all of these horrible stories. Did they not move her? It’s one of the few actual recorded moments of her voice in the record,” she says, referring to the written history of the real Katharina. “She couldn’t cry. She wouldn’t cry publicly.”

Isn’t Katharina a kind of witch?, I ask. She was an indomitable woman who mixed up tonics for neighbors and dispensed advice like she was everybody’s mother-in-law. A woman without concern for social codes might as well collect newts’ eyes and castrate men with a wink.

“I remember when I was writing it early on, I thought, The only way for this to be interesting is for her to be a witch. It has to subvert the expectation, or otherwise it doesn’t deliver that energy,” Galchen says. But she realized she wasn’t writing that kind of novel — the tension between Katharina’s real potency and the magic she’s accused of was enough. “I do think she’s unusually indifferent to other people’s opinions, which is quite offensive to people,” Galchen says. “She has unsettling powers.”

Rivka Galchen’s Unsettling Powers