Try Inventing a World: A Conversation with Rachel Pastan

August 18, 2021   •   By Dinah Lenney

THE THING ABOUT Kate Croft — the protagonist of Rachel Pastan’s new novel, In the Field, and a flawed hero if ever there was one (but isn’t that the kind we like best?) — the source of Kate’s fire and grit, and too, her Achilles’ heel, is her devotion to work. She isn’t just good at what she does, she’s obsessed: science is her passion and vocation; science — endlessly absorbing — comes before family, friendship, love.

And the other thing: Kate is one of those people who believes and insists that life should be fair. She’s a tad self-righteous, therefore — never whiny or self-pitying, simply determined to hold people (men in particular) to account. And yet. Her efforts are thwarted more often than not — on top of which the credit and advancement she craves and deserves was hard to come by for women back then, much less women in science, even those not quite so bereft of social intuition and conventional charm.

And what I mean by “back then”: Pastan, author of three previous novels, has modeled Kate Croft on Nobel Prize winner Barbara McClintock, who was born at the turn of the 20th century and lived nearly into the next one. The novel, sensual and stirring — suspenseful, too, even though we know the outcome in part — is an account of Kate’s personal and professional coming of age; although it’s not that Kate changes over time, so much as she grows into her intractable, uncompromising self. Pastan even gives us a glimpse of an elderly Croft, in a story splendidly imagined, but with all the dimension and complexity that comes from the author’s original fascination and respect for the real-life character. I wanted to know more about that.


DINAH LENNEY: Rachel, why Barbara McClintock? How’d you know about her?

RACHEL PASTAN: I first heard of Barbara McClintock in 1992 when I read her obituary in The New York Times. I had recently married a graduate student in astronomy, and I was surrounded by scientists. My dad is a molecular biologist, so there were lots of scientists around when I was growing up too. But when I was a kid, I didn’t think about how they were overwhelmingly men.

By 1992, I had started to think about it.

And is that when you knew you wanted to write about her? All those years ago?

Well, at the time, I was trying to learn how to write a novel, which turned out to be a lot harder than the short stories I’d been writing for years. I thought a woman scientist — the obstacles she faced and how she tried to overcome them — could be an interesting subject, so I started doing some research.

In one collection of interviews with such women, I read about the cosmologist Vera Rubin (known for her discovery of dark matter). As a young mother, before she got her PhD, she used to subscribe to the Astrophysical Journal, and when it came she would put her son in his stroller and go to the playground and read it and cry. That image stayed with me for a long time.

I came across McClintock’s obituary at about the same time. Her idiosyncrasies interested me, and I liked that she worked with something as ordinary as corn. But I could see that her story was complex, and in my 20s I didn’t feel ready to tackle it. I clipped the obit and put it in a file folder and didn’t look at it again for 20 years. When I finally fished it out, I felt excited all over again.

Twenty years. I love that. But why McClintock and not Rubin? Or somebody else?

Maybe because I knew about young mothers crying (in another couple of years I would be one myself), but McClintock was less familiar to me. She had a kind of coolness I could only admire. And a kind of strangeness. The obituary talked about how she didn’t publish some of her most important work in journals because she thought no one would believe her results, and how she didn’t get a telephone until 1984. I did more reading about her and her work, learning how she saw things through a microscope that everyone else missed. I read about how other scientists planted expansive fields of corn, but she planted small fields because she wanted to know each plant. She would walk the rows every morning and note all the changes. She had an incredible memory.

There were also wonderful stories about her. Once in college, taking a geography exam, she was so excited about the material that she couldn’t remember her own name to write on the front of the blue book. Another time, as an assistant professor, she climbed into her office through the window because she had forgotten her key. (Someone saw her and she got in trouble with the dean.) And one night, during an enormous rain storm, she drove out to her field and shone the headlights along the rows as she shored up the dirt so the plants wouldn’t wash away. Colleagues lost a lot of plants (i.e., data) in that storm, but she didn’t.

I loved that McClintock could be difficult. And after all, she had to be — obsessive and private and sometimes imperious — to survive and do her work in the male-dominated world of genetics in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. As a writer, I could see that her difficult, prickly qualities made her an interesting model for a character.

And were you yourself ever a science person? To get into the head of a cytogeneticist (says Wikipedia; I had to look it up) … Was it easy for you to bring that to the page?

I’ve never been a science person, though I have tried at various times to become more of a naturalist — to learn the names of wildflowers and to identify birds by their calls. (McClintock was an excellent naturalist as well as a great scientist.) But my energy for these projects flags pretty quickly.

When I was starting to work on this book, I asked my scientist father if he thought I could learn the genetics I’d need, and he said yes. But it turned out to be hard! I got some old textbooks from the 1920s and 1930s, and it was interesting to read through them. I loved the photographic plates of color variations in guinea pigs and rats — dead and stretched out. Ratsicles, someone calls them in the novel.

If I concentrated, I found I could follow much of genetics as people understood it in the early decades of the 20th century. But when I got my hands on a modern introductory biology text book, I was overwhelmed by all the detail we have now.

But you do seem to fully comprehend McClintock’s contributions.

I can follow the parts I used in the book, but other parts get extremely complicated. What I liked as a writer was taking what I could understand and finding the language to make it possible for the reader to understand it too — fairly easily — at least in some kind of general or metaphorical way.

So you have done, but say more.

For example, early in her career, McClintock was able to look at cells under a microscope and follow processes going on inside. She did this by looking at many, many cells at many, many stages. I started to think about this as taking snapshots of a ballet — say 20 random photos of Swan Lake from many different performances — and then trying to recreate the choreography just from those. Sometimes an image might only have the dancers’ feet in it, or only their torsos, so it would take a huge amount of expertise and imagination to describe the whole thing from those snapshots. I think that’s a good analogy for some of McClintock’s beautiful and brilliant work.

I also like the way the study of how organisms develop from zygote to adult — the mysteries of how a kernel of corn becomes a mature corn plant, or how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly — mirrors the mysteries of the development of the self. How does any one of us become who we become — male or female, gay or straight, interested in science or in something else? How open is the process to change? For my character (and I believe for McClintock too), thinking hard about how a fertilized egg becomes a complete organism is a way of thinking about why she is the way she is, with her particular eccentricities, abilities, obsessions, failures, and desires.

Yes, that’s wonderful. And I’m thinking you must enjoy this sort of research. The women in your books are generally specialists, wouldn’t you say? I wonder how often they reflect your own obsessions? Or does it work the other way around?

I don’t really have obsessions that inform my life, but I admire people who do, and I’m often drawn to write about them. What I do enjoy is delving into a subject deeply enough to use it to shape and give resonance to a novel — but that only requires learning enough to be convincing. Still, the more you learn, the more creatively you can use the material and the fewer mistakes you make.

For my last novel, Alena, which was about a contemporary art curator, I drew on the years I spent working at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. I learned a huge amount from some amazing curators there. Unlike most of the people I know, none of them had children, and I was interested in the way they shaped their lives around their work. In my own life, I have always tried to balance fiction writing, doing other kinds of jobs, raising children, and volunteering for causes I care about, but it seemed to me that these women were devoting their whole lives to art. The image that came to me was that their lives were like great marble eggs they were carrying in both arms all the time, and always polishing. Everything that happened to them — everything they did — was a way of polishing the egg.

Similarly, Barbara McClintock’s passionate devotion to her work had a lot to do with why I was drawn to her and her story. But she had other interests too. She played tennis and the banjo, and she took photographs, and she baked cakes and cookies and gave them to her neighbors. Somebody told me that she used to collect walnuts and drive her car over them to get at the meat. She loved cars and engines, which she originally learned about in the early 1900s from her fishmonger uncle, who would take her with him when he drove around calling to the housewives to come out and buy his fish. In the ’30s and ’40s, she used to drive from New York to California to visit scientific collaborators. Imagine the courage it took to do that as a single woman then!

No kidding. And that’s what we love about Kate, your character (based on McClintock) — she’s intrepid. But she’s vulnerable, too. And funny, and mischievous, and sensual, and deep. Such a complicated person: How did she challenge you? Where and how did you get stuck and unstuck with this book?

Writing a novel is always hard. Each time I start a new one, I figure it will be less hard this time because I’ve figured out some important things about how to do it. But so far, each time, it’s not noticeably easier.

That said, this time I gave myself permission to be less plot oriented, figuring I’d handle whatever challenges that decision presented as they arose. In the Field follows one interesting person over several decades, rather than being focused around one or two major events unfolding over a short period of time as my earlier novels do. One challenge, then, was how to keep a reader interested. I found it was useful to have characters from earlier in the book reappear later, and to make more use of plot lines involving various kinds of scientific stealing (which I gather is not uncommon in real life) than I had originally planned. Those two strategies helped knit the book together.

Also, with this book, I had more trouble than usual working out the ending. In art — as opposed to life — your ending can’t help implying some kind of moral. So it mattered how things ended up for Kate. Would she relinquish her most important relationships in order to succeed at her work? Would she find success in love and work? (And how do you define “success” anyhow?) If there was going to be some sort of balance, or trade-off, what would that look like? What did I want to say about sacrifice, intimacy, and the possibility and shape of happiness? My own instincts about this were somewhat at odds with the instincts of my early trusted readers. The search for a solution that satisfied both me and them preoccupied me for a long time.

Well, these are the big questions, aren’t they? Did any of the answers — for Kate or for yourself — wind up surprising you?

I’m going to turn that around and tell you what some readers have been surprised by — that Kate remains determined to stay in relationship with the character in the book who might be considered a villain. To me, it seems obvious that she would care more about his scientific brilliance than about his sometimes cruelty. Also, he sees her more clearly than most of the other people around her do — sees her own brilliance, gets her sexuality, understands her vulnerabilities (and doesn’t hesitate to exploit them). To me, this is revealing about who she is and what her priorities are.

But seems to me you’ve wrestled with these issues before, right? In your other novels? Each of your protagonists struggles to balance professional versus personal ambition and desire — and each one is somehow pitted against the men in her life … Does this reflect your own experience?

I hadn’t thought about women being pitted against men in my books, but now that you point it out, I see that they often are. Lady of the Snakes has a brutal, charismatic old man Russian literature professor. This book, In the Field, has one very selfish and arrogant (but also clear-eyed and charismatic) man, and then also a bunch of men who are simultaneously helpful and impossible — which I think is often how things are. (In Alena, it’s women who give the protagonist the most trouble.) I’m interested in the way that men — in charge of so much of the world — often make life difficult for women even when they think they’re helping; even when, in some ways, they are helping.

I have seldom come up directly against men in my work life, but balancing my professional and personal lives is something I’ve struggled with forever. For most of the years that my kids were at home, I worked part time and was the parent most likely to be available if they were sick or on school vacation or whatever. Mostly I feel lucky I was able to do that.

On the other hand, it’s a truism that, on their death bed, no one wishes they had spent more time at the office, but I got tremendous satisfaction and confidence from the paid, full-time work I did when my children were older — like the art museum job. Sometimes I wonder if it would have been better to have started earlier and done more of that kind of work.

But Rachel, you were working full time. You were writing. And reading. And thinking about writing and reading — that’s your calling and vocation, right? Tell about your influences — who did you read as you wrote In the Field?

As I was beginning to think about In the Field, I read a bunch of novels about women scientists. I fell hard for Lily King’s novel Euphoria, which is based on the life of Margaret Mead — though I was frustrated that its plot centers around a love triangle and a pregnancy rather than the protagonist’s anthropology (though King does include some wonderful material about the anthropology).

I learned a lot from Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, which mixes science with an Amazon River adventure, and from Andrea Barrett’s story collection Archangel, especially the long historical story “The Island,” which features a character based on the 19th-century biologist and geologist (and racist) Louis Agassiz.

And what about now? Who are you reading? Who are your go-to writers for solace and inspiration?

I’ve become a crabbier reader in the last decade, which I don’t like. I miss being able to turn off my critical brain and immerse myself in nearly any work of fiction. And I’ve developed ambivalence about many literary masterpieces I once loved, like Anna Karenina, which used to be my favorite novel. Now when I try to read it, I feel that Tolstoy writes Anna into a corner for his own purposes. She, and his other women, feel a little flat to me, as though the complexities of their inner lives don’t interest Tolstoy greatly.

Virginia Woolf always sustains me, both in the ways her characters are so full of mystery and life, and in the many phrases and sentences from Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse I hear in my head.

Contemporary writers I love these days include the Maggies (O’Farrell and Shipstead, Hamnet and Great Circle — both historical) and the Ann(e)s (Enright and Patchett, The Green Road and Commonwealth­ — both about large, complicated families). And Louise Erdrich: Shadow Tag, The Round House, and most recently The Night Watchman, which is my favorite book I’ve read this year.

All of those books fall into the broad category of realism, but more and more I find myself drawn to science fiction or dystopic fiction, in which the writers have invented the world’s rules: Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Margaret Atwood’s Flood trilogy, or even a big sprawling mess of a book like Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. Books like these transport me in the way many of my childhood favorites did: Half Magic by Edward Eager, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Alice Through the Looking Glass. There’s something so freeing about living in a fictional world in which anything might happen. I keep wanting to try to write something like that.

Though I think the next novel will be about tensions in a small town, like the one I live in — and zoning. I’ve gotten very interested in zoning and how it affects our relationships with our neighbors.

But maybe, once I’ve figured that out, I’ll try inventing a world.


Dinah Lenney is most recently the author of Coffee, part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons Series.