Interview: Rachel Pastan
June 19, 2019
Hello Rachel, Thanks for doing this interview with Middle House. I know you from the Bennington Writing Seminars but can you introduce yourself to the readers?
I’m a mostly-novelist living outside of Philadelphia. I’ve published three books and written probably twice that many, which seems like an okay average to me. My novels tend to be centered on women’s lives, and particularly around issues of work and family. One takes place in the art world, one is about a Russian literature professor, and one is about a vet at a zoo. I worked at an art museum for a while, and I like writing about art, but more recently I’ve started writing about science—which, it turns out, has a lot in common with art. The novel I just finished writing is loosely based on the life of the mid-twentieth-century geneticist Barbara McClintock, who won the Nobel Prize for figuring out that genes don’t just stay put on chromosomes but can move around sometimes.
When I took your fiction writing course one of the first things you talked about was, in the short form, stories have to have a punch. Can you offer your opinion on that notion?
“Punch” isn’t a word I remember using, but I certainly think stories need to have an effect on the reader! In traditional short stories, the protagonist changes at the end—changes because of the things that happen over the course of the story. It’s not mandatory, though, that a character change. (Nothing much is mandatory in fiction writing.) But a story does need to make the reader feel something at the end. Could be a punch. Could be a constriction of the heart, maybe. Sometimes a story will take some sort of turn at the end—or a plunge—or open up into an insight or an image that makes the reader feel changed. This is the moment I’m always urging students to reach for, and to make as powerful as they can.
I was familiar with the notion “arresting the reader” but I hadn’t heard the expression until I studied with you. You always made a point, like Vonnegut, that the arresting should happen immediately. What are you thoughts on this?
We talk a lot these days about how much competition there is for our attention: phones, TV shows, books, podcasts, Instagram, news sites. Not to mention friends and lovers, meals, work, playing tug with the dog. It’s always been true that people have a lot of options for what they want to do with their time, and it only gets truer every day. I used to give a novel twenty-five pages to see if I would like it. Now I find myself giving it maybe two. Many people are less generous than that. So, yes: arrest the reader with the intrigue, or beauty, or power, or strangeness of your first sentence! And then your first paragraph. And then don’t stop.
Two authors you suggested to me early on were Bret Anthony Johnston and Karen Russell. Do they prescribe to the advice “arrest the reader”? If so, do they accomplish that immediately?
Karen Russell’s story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves” begins like this: “At first our pack was all hair and snarl and floor-thumping joy. We forgot the barked cautions of our mothers and fathers, all the promises we’d made to be civilized and ladylike, couth and kempt.” Even before that opening, Russell gives us this (invented) epigraph from a non-existent book called The Jesuit Handbook on Lycanthropic Culture Shock: “Stage One: The initial period is one in which everything is new, exciting, and interesting for your students.” There is so much going here! Such energy in the language which races along. Strange questions raised that make us curious: What does it mean for girls to be in a pack? What kind of stages? Who is this narrative we? What does “lycanthropic” mean? (Look it up!) What do Jesuits have to do with wolves?
How could one not keep reading? I want more of this language—more of this strange energy—and my questions answered too.
As for Johnston—he’s a wonderful writer, but I gave my copy of his story collection to you, so I can’t look up his openings.
Who are the most influential writers/poets/professors to you personally and in your work?
The best teacher I ever had was Allan Gurganus in my first year of graduate school. He talked about the mystery that is plot in a way that made sense to me. He helped me see how to create characters who stretched in many directions but still remained themselves. His pleasure in a beautiful sentence—or in a lovely and surprising phrase—was almost sensual. Most of all, his attentiveness to us and our work, and his evident delight in the difficult project of making fiction, always inspired me to go back to my desk and work harder.
The writers I love and think about are many and various. Sometimes the models they offer are contradictory. I love the way Virginia Woolf’s prose takes your breath away and blasts you into the sky, but also the way Alice Munro’s sentences pin you, gasping, to the ground; the way Tolstoy wants to include the whole world in his books and Sandra Cisneros includes only what’s essential. I love writers like Anne Enright who convey the textures of ordinary life with a kind of magic that makes you feel every atom, and writers like Margaret Atwood (in books like The Year of the Flood) who make you feel what it might be like to inhabit a hypothetical future. These writers are in my head all the time. I try to live up to them as best I can.
Writing advice you wish you would have received as an undergrad?
Figure out what kind of writing schedule works for you and stick to it.
It’s okay to use models: you can learn by imitating the writers you love.
Sometimes writing is hard, but if you do it regularly it gets easier.
Find people to share your work with.
Be patient. Writing is not a race. As you get older, you’ll probably have more to write about anyway.
First memory or project where you really committed yourself to the writing?
When I was in high school, we had this thing called “Senior Projects.” For the last week before graduation, we didn’t go to class. Instead, we designed programs for ourselves, or did volunteer work. I thought I would try being a writer. So I stayed in my childhood bedroom all week and wrote (on a typewriter). It was hard! And lonely, too. But I did it. I was happy with the story I finished, and for proving to myself that I could do this thing. It was important, too, to learn that I need to have regular contact with people in other parts of my life to balance the aloneness of writing.
These days I don’t find writing as lonely as I used to. Amid the craziness and busyness of life, I feel lucky to spend a few hours a day alone in a world I get to make up.
Rachel Pastan’s most recent novel, Alena (Riverhead, 2014) was named an Editors’ Choice in The New York Times Book Review. She is also the author of two other novels, Lady of the Snakes (Harcourt, 2008) and This Side of Married (Viking, 2004) which was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her short fiction has been published in The Georgia Review, The Threepenny Review, Mademoiselle, Prairie Schooner, and many other places. In 2014 she edited Seven Writers (The Common Press), a chapbook of writing inspired by exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, where she served as Editor-at-Large for several years and developed the popular blog Miranda. Pastan grew up in suburban Maryland, the daughter of a molecular geneticist and a poet, and attended Harvard College and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She teaches at Swarthmore College.
Here are some books I’ve read recently and loved:
Trust Exercise, Susan Choi
This novel takes us into the intensely passionate world of a high school for the performing arts—then, about halfway in, it takes a surprising turn.
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado
These gorgeous, searing stories mix up the real and the uncanny in a way that resists categorization.
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
No one is smarter than Wharton about the pressures of the society we live in, and how that messes up our personal lives!