An Interview with Rachel Pastan, Author of Alena

Yesterday I reviewed Alena, Rachel Pastan’s latest novel. Ms. Pastan graciously agreed to be interviewed via email about the novel and her writing. 

Rachel Pastan  (c) Carina Romano

Rachel Pastan
(c) Carina Romano

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.

AlenaHow did you go about learning about contemporary art, which is so critical to Alena? Did you discover a favorite contemporary artist along the way?

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!

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Out Today: Rachel Pastan’s Alena

AlenaFrom its first line — “Last night I dreamed of Nauquasset again” — Alena, Rachel Pastan’s new novel, echoes its inspiration, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. However, Ms. Pastan’s interpretation of Rebecca‘s plot rejects recapitulation in favor of a refreshing focus on the workplace and contemporary art.

Alena‘s narrator, like du Maurier’s original, is an unnamed young woman from a modest background. Here, she is from the outset identified as a curator of contemporary art. On a trip to the Venice Biennale, she meets Bernard Augustin, the elegant, wealthy, and mysterious founder of a small museum on Cape Cod devoted to contemporary art — the Nauquasset, or Nauk. Bernard sees in her a fine sensibility and eye, and offers her the job of curator.

Arriving at the Nauk, the new curator finds that the staff, particularly the black-clad Agnes, still devoted to the previous (and presumed dead) curator, Alena. Alena’s touch and vision suffuses the small museum’s rooms and atmosphere, and soon the new curator must decide between reopening the museum with an exhibit of her own choice — or Alena’s choice, the grotesque art of a man named Morgan McManus. Meanwhile, clues to Alena’s disappearance linger in the shadows, waiting for their moment to appear.

One of the major differences between Alena and Rebecca is Alena’s shift of focus from the domestic environment to the workplace, a change wrought for the better (meaning no disrespect to Rebecca, of course). By raising the stakes (for example, from a country house party to the opening of a contemporary art museum), Alena pushes its focus outward from the personal into the world of art and the non-domestic workplace, without losing sight of the personal. The relationship between Bernard and his new curator, we learn quickly, cannot possibly be sexual, and doesn’t carry the erotic charge between Maxim and the second Mrs. de Winter, but that does not diminish its intensity.

The novel is wonderfully evocative of Cape Cod in the summer (I speak from experience, here — my husband grew up on the Cape and we spend time with his family who live there), and lucid in matters of contemporary art. I’m not a contemporary art aficionado by any stretch of the imagination (on a college trip to Paris, I skipped the Centre Pompidou to spend the day at the Louvre, a trade I’d still make any day); I have a passing familiarity with Damien Hirst and Marina Abramovic, and I like Chihuly’s work very much, but that’s about it. Ms. Pastan refers to a great many more artists, but her descriptions of art are so finely crafted that it’s easy to imagine the art she describes.

Death, lying side by side with art, is the novel’s other fascination. Like Rebecca, Alena is suffused with creepiness, a sense of something malevolent lurking just around the next corner, biding its time. Add that sensation to the narrator’s overwhelming anxiety, and the result is a suspenseful read, daring in both its departure from and adherence to its source material.

Note: I received this book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program.

Tomorrow on the blog: An interview with Rachel Pastan, author of Alena