Ruth Young arrived first. The 30-year-old sonographer showed up before her ex-boyfriend and before her younger brother. She even arrived before her parents: her mother, recently obsessed with vitamins; her recovering alcoholic, philandering, history professor father, battling Alzheimer's disease. All these characters play central roles in Rachel Khong's first novel, Goodbye, Vitamin, but first, said Khong, came Ruth.
"I had the voice of the narrator, Ruth, in my head long before I ever thought this could be a novel," Khong told Spine. "Ruth narrated a really short story of mine, and then I realized that I love writing in her voice. That initial story didn’t involve any family members and was mostly about her romantic pursuits (or tribulations, rather). When I started imagining the whole picture of her life, the other characters came into focus."
When the novel's other characters sharpened, Khong was in her final year of an MFA program and spent most of her last stretch beginning Goodbye, Vitamin. Then she graduated. "I moved from Gainesville to San Francisco, got a job at a restaurant, got a job at a café, and finally got a job at the magazine Lucky Peach, which was just beginning," she said.
Hello life! Goodbye writing time, except for the occasional stolen minute. After a few years of coffee-fueled writing in snips and bits, often tired, uninspired, or both, Khong made a pact with her friend, writer Mimi Lok. They'd meet every Monday and Wednesday morning before work at a neighborhood café to write. The low noise of a coffee shop — "conversations and coffee grinders and glasses clinking" — suits Khong, who doesn't like to work in super-quiet environments. Cafes also offer food; Khong often blasts through a writing sprint energized only by coffee and the muse, and then realizes it's lunchtime and she's hungry.
The cafes, the writing pact, the dedicated writing time spurred Khong forward. Ruth's life, and Goodbye, Vitamin, swelled to full. Though the novel wasn't yet finished, Khong started querying agents. Marya Spence responded.
Like Khong, Spence was in the early days of her career, working as an agent's assistant while gathering names to venture out on her own. Spence took a chance on Khong, Khong took a chance on Spence, and the book came out the stronger for the risk.
"She is so damn good at what she does," Khong said. "She entered the process when I was really at a loss for what to do next — at a point when I felt like I couldn't go any further on my own. She gave me invaluable feedback, and then she played matchmaker, putting the book in the hands of people who she knew would appreciate it. Sarah Bowlin at Henry Holt wound up acquiring the book, and the book would not have been the same without Sarah's careful, smart edits."
When she signed on with Sarah Bowlin, Khong hadn't yet shared the novel with her husband, Eli Horowitz (co-creator of Homecoming and former McSweeney's editor). "I'm pretty private about my writing until it's in a pretty late stage," she said. That said, she does rely on feedback and support from a crew of writers in San Francisco.
"I love them to death," she said. "They're incredibly smart but also just so much fun to hang out with. Writing can be a pretty lonely business, but talking about writing over snacks and champagne can be exactly the antidote."
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Spine Authors Editor Susanna Baird grew up inhaling paperbacks in Central Massachusetts, and now lives and works in Salem. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Boston Magazine, BANG!, Failbetter, and Publishers Weekly. She's the founder of the Salem Longform Writers' Group, and serves on the Salem Literary Festival committee. When not wrangling words, she spends time with her family, mostly trying to pry the cat's head out of the dog's mouth, and helps lead The Clothing Connection, a small Salem-based nonprofit dedicated to getting clothes to kids who need them. Online, you can find her at susannabaird.com and on Twitter @SusannaBaird.