Yesterday I reviewed Alena, Rachel Pastan’s latest novel. Ms. Pastan graciously agreed to be interviewed via email about the novel and her writing.
When and how did you conceive of writing a book that responds to Rebecca? Was the writing process long?
RP: I had taken a nine-to-five office job—a different kind of job than I’d ever had before. The woman who’d worked there before me, Elysa, had left months before, so I didn’t have anyone to train to me, and I kept making mistakes. People would say, “Elysa used to do it this way.” I felt inadequate, and a little in awe of this unknown Elysa. And then I thought: It’s just like Rebecca, only in the workplace! And then I thought: That’s a good idea for a novel. I wasn’t able to start writing it for a while, but once I did, it went quickly. It took me only about eighteen months to finish a draft.
Much of Alena‘s action takes place on Cape Cod. Was there a particular reason (or reasons) for this choice?
RP: My family used to spend a month in Cape Cod every summer when I was little, and the landscape has always stayed with me. For years I used to have dreams about the ocean there. Rebecca takes place on a coast—probably of Cornwall. The atmosphere of Cape Cod seemed like a good parallel to me, and I was happy to revisit its beaches in my imagination.
Was it challenging to avoid giving the narrator a name?
RP: Actually I gave her a name while I was writing—I figured I just wouldn’t be faithful to that part of Rebecca. But afterwards I saw I could take the name out. Du Maurier had a few advantages; people could call her narrator “Mrs. de Winter.” After I took out the name, I did go back and make one of the characters call my narrator Cara—Italian for “darling.” That helped.
RP: For last few years I have worked at the ICA—the Institute of Contemporary Art—in Philadelphia, writing and editing. This has been a fabulous immersion course in contemporary art. I don’t have a favorite contemporary artist—any more than I have a favorite contemporary writer—but the discovery of Anne Truitt was a wonderful and memorable moment. She made very simple, tall sculptures that are somehow incredibly moving and evocative. She wrote a terrific memoir, too, called Daybook, The Journal of an Artist, which talks about her struggles in her work, and with trying to combine work and family life.
Which writers do you read while you’re writing, if any? Do they change from book to book?
RP: I often read a little every morning before I start working, a few pages by someone whose sentences I love. Alice Munro is a favorite, as is Margaret Drabble. Other than that, I might read books that address a subject I’m writing about to see how other people handle it. When I was writing Alena I read a bunch of novels that deal with contemporary art in one way or another: By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham and “A Thing of Beauty” by Steve Martin were a couple.
What kinds of projects are you planning next?
RP: I have a very different project in mind: a novel based on the life of a real person, which is something I’ve never done before. It’s exciting—and daunting—to think about how to shape a real life into a compelling narrative.
Many thanks to Ms. Pastan for her time and thoughtful answers!