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Sex Scenes Belong in Novels: An Interview with Author Ruth Madievsky

feature image photo of Ruth Madievsky by Adam F. Phillips

I recently got the opportunity to talk with Ruth Madievsky, author of one of my favorite books of the year, All-Night Pharmacy. Described by Kristen Arnett as, “…rich and boldly dark, slick and queer in all the best ways,” All-Night Pharmacy is a show-stopping novel following a young unnamed narrator living in the shadow of her alluringly chaotic sister Debbie. The two spend their nights traipsing the streets of Los Angeles before ending up at Salvation, a bar full of fellow misfits, chasing highs through a cycle of alcohol, drugs, and risky decisions. One night after a particularly potent cocktail of hard liquor and unidentified pills, our narrator finds herself pushed to an act of violence after which Debbie disappears. Trying to figure out how to exist without her sister’s influence, she takes a job as an Emergency Room receptionist where she steals prescription medications to manage her opioid addiction. While she’s there, she meets her girlfriend Sasha, a self-identified psychic and Jewish refugee from the former Soviet Union who acts as her spiritual guide. In this relationship, our narrator must learn to navigate her existence alongside questions of sobriety, mysticism, and generational trauma.

Madievsky’s debut poetry collection, Emergency Brake (Tavern Books, 2016), was the winner of the Wrolstad Contemporary Poetry Series and spent five months on Small Press Distribution’s Poetry Bestsellers list. She’s a founding member of the The Cheburashka Collective, a community of women and nonbinary writers whose identity has been shaped by immigration from the Soviet Union to the United States.

Author’s Note: This interview has been edited, and some conversational threads have been re-organized for clarity. 

Gen: Hey Ruth, how are you?

Ruth: Hi Gen! I’m good — working on an op-ed related to HIV care today. How are you?

Gen: I’m good! Actually, you mentioning your op-ed gives me a nice segue into my first question. Do you mind sharing a bit about your work as a pharmacist and how that work informed All-Night Pharmacy?

Ruth: I didn’t set out to write about anything pharmacy-related, but once it became clear that All-Night Pharmacy was going to be full of grifters and schemers, a scam involving pharmaceuticals felt like one I could speak on! As much as I love books that are clearly heavily researched — I remember being in awe of Rebecca Makkai reading every issue of a Chicago gay periodical on background for writing The Great Believers — I wasn’t interested in spending a thousand years in the archives to think of a scam I couldn’t wrap my head around on my own. And having spent some time in emergency rooms at various points in my training, as well as responding to cardiac and respiratory arrests when I was working as a hospital pharmacist, I was interested in the extremity of the ER. It felt like fertile ground for fiction, especially for the narrator of All-Night Pharmacy, who lives in such extremes.

Gen: I loved the setting of the ER for the narrator as a space where she observes those extremes and lives surrounded by prescriptions. She also got to live my dream of being approached by a hot woman at work who says she can guide her through life.

Ruth: (laughs) Yeah.

Gen: Sasha added a lot to this narrative for me in terms of how I read the narrator’s experience with addiction and obsession. Throughout the novel, readers are able to see her struggles with opioid and benzodiazepine dependence, addictive patterns of behavior, and the difficulties of looking for what lives underneath those patterns. What was your experience like writing into addiction and weaving the narrative threads around it together?

Ruth: It was important to me to not write about addiction as a moral failing, because it’s not. There’s so much stigma there already, and I didn’t want to throw another log in the pile. I was also interested in exploring the way historical traumas can affect those who are several generations removed. It felt to me that there was a connection between the narrator and Debbie putting themselves in peril and their family legacy of Soviet terror and the Holocaust. Not the kind of connection that can be summarized in a pithy thesis, but a connection nonetheless. I wanted to explore how being the descendant of survivors can fuck a person up.

I mean, one could write the math class scene in a way that’s just as erotic as a sex scene, but I digress.

Gen: I really appreciate the ways both your writing and work as a medical provider act in opposition to that stigma. We see this intense almost co-dependence when it comes to our narrator with her sister Debbie and also with her girlfriend Sasha. It had me thinking a lot about what it looks like to try to separate yourself from the people who understand the darkest parts of you and people who you share a history of generational trauma with. Was that a question you were thinking about as you were writing these characters?

Ruth: Totally. The narrator lashes out at Debbie for being such a dominating presence in her life, but really, she wants to be dominated. She’s consumed with unease over how to be a person and craves being told what to do. When Debbie disappears, Sasha becomes a less toxic version of that for our narrator. She helps her hone her own agency and act on her desires. But also, she’s another person telling our narrator what to do.

Gen: I can absolutely see that in her personal life and in her sex life. You have some really powerful sex scenes that exist at the intersection of desire, domination, and violence. Did you have a specific approach or mentality when it came to writing sex for this novel?

Ruth: I’ve always been interested in the interplay between tenderness/desire and violence. It’s so silly to see internet discourse about whether explicit sex scenes are “necessary.” I don’t know, Regina, are nectarines and cough drops and your brother “necessary”? I don’t think sex scenes have to “earn” their place in a book more than any other scene. But I also don’t buy that they don’t function differently on a craft level than other scenes. People pay more attention to them, I think, which means they function differently than a scene where someone is teaching a math class. I mean, one could write the math class scene in a way that’s just as erotic as a sex scene, but I digress. I think it’s easier for a sex scene to fail because we’re primed by our puritanical and sex-obsessed culture to take notice when we see sex on the page. I’m a poet, so I was already going to polish every sentence in the book like a fucking stone. With the sex scenes, I probably took a little extra care, knowing those might be more memorable.

Gen: Absolutely. I’m personally a big believer in including sex scenes when sex and sexuality are part of the narrative. Especially hot bathtub exorcisms.

Ruth: Especially those.

Gen: So important. You mentioned you’re poet which I could definitely feel in the way your sentences were crafted and the fluorescent visuality of the novel. Can you talk a bit about how your work as a poet affected this project?

Ruth: I wrote the novel the way I write poems — no outline, just me staring at a blank page, letting beauty and truth guide the way. I always feel so schmaltzy talking about Beauty and Truth like they’re essential oils in a Ponzi scheme. But it’s been my experience that the only way I can figure out what a piece of writing wants to be is by writing it. As with my poetry: image, voice, and chaotic metaphors were my favorite tools in the box. My obsession with constantly chiseling away at the line level also made it hard to tell sometimes whether a line, paragraph, or chapter etc were serving the book. Sometimes, that shit is a flex and doesn’t actually belong there.

Gen: Going back to essential oils, I’d love to hear a little bit about the setting of LA. Did you always know that was where you wanted this novel to take place?

Ruth: I’ve spent most of my life in LA, and it’s a city I love dearly. The occult is everywhere here. Growing up in a place where every other commercial block has a psychic shop — it felt inevitable that this would be the landscape of my novel, too. LA is so many different cities and is home to types of people you can’t even imagine. People writing screenplays with their gastroenterologist, water witches catching mistakes on your taxes. And also, you know, people living much more “normal” lives within the same margins. You can be anyone here, which means you can also be no one. That felt like the perfect backdrop for these characters.

Gen: It did feel like the perfect setting for this story. Also, if you know any water witches who can help me with my taxes, please send them my way. Can you share a bit about what you’ve been working on?

Ruth: I’ve been working on a new novel which is — you guessed it — about women behaving badly. Or, as my beloved Goodreads prudes will probably think of it: “disgusting women being disgusting.” Put it on my tombstone, bitches.

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Gen Greer (she/her) is a dog lover, runner, and slasher enthusiast. Her work has appeared in Queerlings, Haunted Words Press, Black Moon Magazine, and elsewhere. You can find her looking for little tasks and on Instagram at @sylvia_plath_iamiamiam.

Gen has written 6 articles for us.

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