‘Really Small Books Can Be Just as Ambitious as Big Ones’: An Interview with Rachel Khong

The former Lucky Peach editor and author of Goodbye, Vitamin on being a better adult, the differences between writing about food and fiction, and the adhesiveness of baby carrots.

Thirty-year-old Ruth has moved back in with her parents following a breakup. Her father, Howard, has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and the disease has been taking its toll on his memory. He has lost his job teaching history at the local university, and Ruth and his former students decide to invent a class for him to teach on the history of California in order to give him something to do. Since he’s been barred from teaching on campus, they have to come up with creative reasons to keep hosting classes at different locations: one week, they hold a lesson at a Chinese restaurant, while Howard gives a lecture on the Canton population of California in 1880. The following week they meet at a Mexican restaurant.

It’s a funny, sad, and smart scene from Goodbye, Vitamin, the debut novel by American writer Rachel Khong. That it is centered around a restaurant makes sense in the larger context of Khong’s work. Khong was an editor at the inventive and singular food magazine Lucky Peach, which sadly just put out their twenty-third and final issue. Earlier this year, she worked with Lucky Peach to publish All About Eggs: Everything We Know About the Most Important Food, of which she was the principle editor. Goodbye, Vitamin is her first longform fiction project, though she’s had pieces in Joyland, The Believer, and Tin House. I called her one afternoon while she was at home in San Francisco to talk about her book.

How was writing a novel—which, congrats, by the way—how was that experience different from writing a book about eggs?

That was kind of a total fluke, that I had two books coming out this year. I had started writing the novel before I ever started writing about food or started working at Lucky Peach. It just takes a long time, or it took a long time for me to write the novel. Especially because I was working this full time job and trying to squeeze in the fiction when I could.

I had never planned to write or edit a book about eggs. That was sort of something that came up while I was at Lucky Peach. We were doing a cookbook series—last year there was a book about sausages. Peter [Meehan] and Chris [Ying], the other editors there, had asked me to do a book about eggs. I love eggs, and jumped at the chance. It was just crazy timing that the book about eggs came out in the spring and my novel is coming out this July. Never really expected that I would have two books coming out in a year. It was a happy project. It was really fun.

The experiences were totally different. The egg book still took a long time. I think all books take a long time. It was more condensed. I worked on it maybe for a couple of years, a year and a half, and it was very collaborative. It almost felt like a bigger version of Lucky Peach magazine. Talking to a lot of contributors, getting people who I admire to write things, just piecing that all together. Piecing the puzzle of that book together. It was a really collaborative and social process. We had a team. Not a big team, but a team. Bigger than just me. For the novel, it was a lot of just mornings in a cafe before work, or just, yeah, using vacation times to quietly work on this book on my own. Just social versus antisocial books, I guess.

When did you start working on Goodbye, Vitamin?

I started working on it in 2010. Officially I guess I was done, or I sold it, in the fall of 2015, maybe? I guess I learned that book publishing takes a long time. It was pretty close to done. We went through maybe one revision together, my editor and I. It felt like a long time. You know, you kind of start a book, and you are one person, and by the time you finish it, you’re just in a completely different headspace, I think. You know, if the book takes that long.

How has your headspace changed?

I think I just…I think some really obvious things I guess, when I started the book I was in a place that was a lot more like Ruth’s. Just not sure of what to do, just feeling a lot of career ambivalence, feeling a lot of panic and anxiety about being a grownup. Not that I’ve figured those things out, but I feel like a better adult. I have now done a lot of work that I enjoyed, and had this career in working with Lucky Peach. It feels, not like I have my shit together at all, but it feels like the career stuff is slightly more figured out. When I started the book I also had just been going through a breakup, and now I’m like, recently married. So it feels like a lifetime ago, but at the same time I’m having now, too, to get back to that brain space and trying to remember what it was to start that book.

It’s interesting you started working on this before you were at Lucky Peach, because it’s such a food book. I was underlining every reference to food, but there were just so many per page. So much of it is tied to memory, which is a central theme of the book. Like, she eats carrots with sugar when she’s with her friend, because that’s what they did when they were growing up. Or she visits her brother, and everything they eat are airplane snacks, because his girlfriend is a flight attendant. Was it a conscious decision, to incorporate food this much?

It’s funny because I got a question recently where someone said to me, “I was surprised there was not that much food in the book considering your career in food writing.” I think it’s just been funny hearing the different reactions, because I’ve gotten both reactions. Like some people have said, “Oh wow, there’s so much food in this!” and then other people have said, I’m surprised there’s not more. And for me it was not a conscious decision. Like, I tried to accurately represent the amount of times a normal human person thinks about food, but like, I guess I think about food more than some people and less than others. It wasn’t like, “I’m going to put a bunch of food in this, cause I’m a food writer!” It felt so separate from my career in food writing, which felt to me like a job. This felt to me like, this is what I’ve wanted to forever, to write a novel and be a writer. There’s food in it because I think about food and care about food, but it was never meant to be a focus. I think going about my days and trying to represent being at home, being in your parents home, to me it’s often just about “hey, what do I eat next?” because there’s not a lot to do.

Okay, but the carrots with sugar thing, is that a real thing you’ve done?

I have not quite done that, but I’ve found baby carrots to be very adhesive. They’re kind of moist. You can dip them in things. I hadn’t done the sugar thing, but I remember once when I was maybe 19, I was subletting an apartment for the summer and a friend was over, and we were looking for things in the pantry to drink before we went to a party. This was before I really learned how to cook so my kitchen was very sparse, and there were baby carrots, and there was jam. So we had vodka and chased it with baby carrots and jam.

That’s one of those things that you would do if you were broke and stoned, but it’s also a thing that if a really fancy restaurant did it, it would be considered gourmet.

I hope I’m starting a trend! That this spurs a worldwide baby carrot and sugar phenomenon, and they start serving it at Noma or something.

You’ve wanted to do fiction for a while—I mean, you got an MFA. But where did the food even come in?

Yeah, it was kind of just a happy coincidence. I started to learn how to cook when I was in my graduate program in Florida. I had sort of dabbled in cooking before, right after college, but in Florida there’s not a lot to eat. I was in Gainesville, which is right in the panhandle. So more out of necessity, I had to learn how to make the food that I wanted to eat. I didn’t want to eat like, fried food and Sonic all the time.

The Lucky Peach job came about when I moved back to San Francisco after the MFA program. I was working first in a restaurant and then a cafe, these food service jobs, because I had this fantasy I could be at a restaurant, and then write on the side in the mornings. Which turned out to be way harder than it sounds. That same year I moved back, Lucky Peach was just starting. The summer of 2011. I was just working at a cafe when Chris Ying, the editor-in-chief, asked me to join as managing editor. I had met Chris when I interned at McSweeney’s in college. We kept in touch and—and this is how Chris decided I was write for the job—I was keeping this secret blog in grad school where I would sometimes write about food or cooking or recipes. It was really nothing, but he knew that I was interested in food. He knew that I could write and edit. So that was how it happened.

I kind of learned with them. It wasn’t like I had any experience before that, but I find that sort of true for a lot of jobs. You jump in and you figure it out, or you fake it until you make it. But the thing was, we were all kind of faking it. Chris had never run a magazine before either. Everyone was doing it for the first time. We just got a chance to build the thing together. It didn’t feel like I was searching for a career in food writing. It was never a goal for me. I was just excited to be part of this magazine that felt like it was doing something interesting and not quite like the food writing that I had seen elsewhere, like another Bon Appetit magazine. Nothing against Bon Appetit.

You say you didn’t have experience, but you have an MFA [from the University of Florida] and worked at McSweeney’s and shared these sensibilities.

Yeah, that was what also made it possible for us to do things like, we published a short story in every issue, and I was the one editing those pieces and soliciting them. That was really fun. Doing stuff that was more rambly and narrative, sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t really, but we felt more free to play around.

It’s good writing! I mean, I’m vegetarian, but I still read the Chicken issue cover to cover. But to go back to your book. A lot of it is about memory. Ruth’s father is losing his while she’s trying to keep track of everything that happens in the course of the year. I love that her journal starts with these detailed, narrative entries and towards the end it gets fragmented, which is so realistic about how journals are kept. Starting ambitiously and then giving up. How did the diary format affect the story?

I wish I had a really smart reason why I chose this format, but I think it was really just that it felt possible to me. I never really thought I could write a novel. I was writing all these short stories when I was in my MFA program because I felt a novel was way too daunting. But then I started to read these pretty short books, often by women, that were really fragmented and really piecey. Like Play it as it Lays, or, one of my teachers in Florida was Mary Robison, who writes a lot of these really short stories but also has this novel called Why Did I Ever, which is one of my favourites. She basically wrote it on these index cards in the middle of the night because her home life was so crazy. She only had those moments to steal away and jot down these sentences on note cards and then she eventually pieced it all together into this novel.

I was reading all these books and they really had this impact on me, and I realized, “Oh, I could write a novel.” A novel is just a big thing made up of smaller pieces. I can write paragraphs and I can write little sections. If I can just write those little pieces, maybe I can write a novel. That is sort of where that came about. I think I tried doing even a non-diary format, where it was just these little fragments throughout the book, and then I felt a some point, oh, this needs the structure of a year and it needs these markers to help guide people along. But the format was really because it felt like a possible thing for me to do. To just write out one paragraph at a time and see how that went.

In terms of like, the way the format kind of changes near the end, I think…I wish I had a better answer for that too! It was really just a lot of experimentation. I realized at some point I wanted Ruth to be recording things for her dad and to have those roles kind of reversed. The last quarter of the book mimics his journal entries. I felt it was the right rhythm and pace. But it was really just so much trial and error and reading it over and over again. I don’t have a better reason, like, “Oh, I outlined it like this, and then there’s this scene at this exact moment…”

You don’t have to apologize for making instinctive choices! I’m always curious about how things are made, but sometimes it’s really just, “It felt right.”

That’s one of the joys too. Going back to the earlier question of what is different about writing about food versus fiction, they’re both puzzles and you have to figure out what works best with each piece, but with non-fiction you know you’re working with the pieces that you have. With fiction you can sometimes be surprised by what your subconscious brain just kind of spits out, which is fun. You’re still limited by what you know and what you can do, but at the same time there’s almost more surprise in it. You can surprise yourself with some insight or a sentence that brings that all the things together. That’s what I love about it.

What books did you gravitate towards growing up?

There were so many different stages. I read a lot of Babysitters Club when I was little, and Boxcar Children. I really loved books that involved survival of some kind, so I loved like, Island of the Blue Dolphins. Do you know about that book?

Scott O’Dell?

Yeah! Having them make huts out of walrus tusks and seaweed. I loved that kind of thing. I loved the first four books in the Boxcar series because they were cooling their milk in the stream.

Those are all about kids learning how to make their own worlds and do things on their own.

Definitely. It was about wanting to be independent, to escape childhood. I feel like in college, I had these phases. I can remember in college feeling like there were books I was supposed to read, and reading them and trying them on and often they were just really kind of like….

Boring?

Yeah. But also really male books. Just trying them on like, “I should read like, Flann O’Brien or something.” That’s a really random bad example. But I think in college I looked at, what books am I supposed to read to be a writer? And then just realizing after that I should just read—I mean, it’s good to read books that you aren’t used to reading, or that are outside your normal reading habits, I guess, but I think something clicked for me when I started reading these smaller books by women that were really powerful in their brevity. I don’t want to say domestic, but often they are less sprawling. The word that people use with bigger books is “ambitious,” but I feel really small books can be just as ambitious. Seeing how powerful a shorter book could be was really formative for me.

Like the ones you were mentioning earlier?

Yeah. Like Joan Didion, Mary Robison, Grace Paley, Elizabeth Hardwick. There’s so many that once I realized this whole world existed, I was like, “Oh shit! These are amazing.” And they’re not any less because of their length. They’re even more impressive because they’ve been distilled.

This isn’t really a question, but I have to say I love the cover of the book with the lemons. I don’t know how much you had to do with that.

Oh yay! I love it. It’s pretty weird but I like it a lot.

I feel like it’s one of those covers I’m going to see Instagrammed a lot this summer. But I’m really excited for it. I’ve actually already Instagrammed it.

I’m going to go like it right now.

The interview ends and we hang up. Two minutes later, I get a notification on my phone. Khong has indeed liked my photo on Instagram I took of her book cover.

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