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Though she’s a fiction writer, life stories have always appealed to Rachel Pastan. “I used to read obituaries, looking for stories,” the Swarthmore-based novelist recalled. But rather than write biographies directly, Pastan crafts fiction that is informed by historical or literary figures, hearkening in earlier works to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Getting it down to a science
She’s had a varied writing career, publishing short stories in many journals, serving as editor-at-large at Penn’s Institute of Contemporary Art, and teaching fiction writing at Swarthmore College and elsewhere. Her fourth novel, In the Field, was inspired by geneticist Barbara McClintock. “I had thought for a long time I wanted to write about a woman in science,” Pastan noted about her choice.
The timeframe for In the Field mirrors McClintock’s career, from graduate school in the 1920s through her receipt of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in the 1980s. She was a pioneer in the field of maize genetics, working first at her alma mater Cornell University, then the University of Missouri, and finally at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. She developed new techniques for chromosomal study and produced the first genetic map of corn, linking chromosomes to physical traits in the plants.
Pastan embarked on a nearly year-long journey, learning both the science and history of genetics, as well as researching McClintock’s life. For the latter, she spent time at the American Philosophical Society, which includes McClintock’s papers among their holdings. For the former, she consulted with scientists, including her father, a molecular geneticist. “I was concerned about getting the science right,” she explained.
However, the result is far from textbook-dry explanations. Like McClintock, Pastan’s heroine Kate Croft is led to genetics through a love of and curiosity about the natural world, which the author conveys through vivid descriptions of scenes and events. “For me, doing sensory description is something I rely on,” she said. “I love the little bits of the world you can make come alive.” In this way, Pastan succeeds in making the science compelling to the non-scientist and the science-averse.
A central theme of Pastan’s writing has been the balance that women struggle to find between work and personal life. “That’s such a central question for women,” she said. “How to do the work and still have families and be engaged with them.”
While the characters in her earlier books took on the challenge of trying to have both, Croft, like McClintock, sacrificed personal relationships in pursuit of her career. Though both the character and the real-life scientist achieved great professional success, Pastan depicts the cost. “One of the questions I wrestled with was what price she would have to pay for her choice.”
From reading biographies and profiles of women scientists and knowing the female colleagues of her astronomer husband, Pastan saw the field as especially difficult for women to navigate, and often blatantly misogynistic. “It’s been enlightening and depressing to hear from women scientists who’ve said ‘It’s still like this.’”
Art imitating life
Croft faces additional prejudice as a gay woman in the mid-twentieth century. Though she is discrete in her personal life, her sexual orientation is revealed occasionally in uncomfortable ways.
Whether McClintock was gay is not known. “Biographies of her and memoirs of those who knew her don’t address it,” said Pastan. “She destroyed all her letters prior to around 1973 or so. In her 80s, she decided to do that.”
Pastan thinks she found clues among a few early personal letters that did survive among McClintock’s papers at the American Philosophical Society, some unidentified photos, and a cassette of an interview with McClintock by Evelyn Fox Keller, a physicist whose later work focused on gender and science, and who was an early biographer of McClintock. “The pieces started assembling in my head,” Pastan recalled. “It’s my belief that it’s probable.”
And so, writing from the vantage point of 2021, she felt she could be more direct in describing her character’s life, and highlighting Kate Croft’s strength in persevering in the face of the double discrimination of being a gay woman in the male-dominated world of scientific research. “I liked getting inside the head of someone with so much tenacity,” she explained.
What, When, Where
In the Field. By Rachel Pastan. Encino, California: Delphinium Books, Inc., 2021. 344 pages, hardcover; $26.95. Get it here.
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