An Interview with Andrea Barrett - Believer Magazine

An Interview with Andrea Barrett

Outmoded medical treatments:
Purging and bleeding
Taking calomel for a digestive disorder
Removing lung lobes and filling the empty spaces with ping-pong balls

An Interview with Andrea Barrett

Outmoded medical treatments:
Purging and bleeding
Taking calomel for a digestive disorder
Removing lung lobes and filling the empty spaces with ping-pong balls

An Interview with Andrea Barrett

Ben George
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Perhaps best known for her two story collections—Ship Fever, a National Book Award winner, and Servants of the Map, a Pulitzer Prize finalist—Andrea Barrett is also the author of six novels rich in metaphor and the intricacies of both science and history. These include The Middle Kingdom, The Voyage of the Narwhal, and, most recently, The Air We Breathe. Indeed, the first collection didn’t appear until after her fourth novel. The progression makes a kind of sense. Her stories—expansive and generous, often covering great swaths of time and varying geographies—read like a novelist’s stories. Half of the pieces in Servants of the Map are fifty pages or more, and none is fewer than twenty.

Barrett’s fiction presents a flawless equipoise between the internal and external worlds of the characters it investigates, not only teaching us about nineteenth-century mapmaking, epidemic prevention, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the discovery of genetics, or early “cures” for tuberculosis, but also revealing exactly what it was like to be a human being in time—how it feels to lose part of your hand to X-ray experiments or part of your nose to arctic exploration. Despite the incredible range of the fiction, it’s remarkably free of anachronisms. The simple deployment of a word like chilblains, which has been around since before Shakespeare, can launch us back with ease to a cold open plain in eighteenth-century Sweden.

Barrett grew up on Cape Cod, and lived in Rochester, New York, for many years. She makes her home now in an old brick mill building in North Adams, Massachusetts, and teaches at Williams College and in the Warren Wilson College MFA program. This exchange took place via email, in a few incarnations, as Barrett was getting her semester under way and traversing the country for a lecture in California.

—Ben George


THE BELIEVER: You graduated college at nineteen, but then you dropped out of two graduate programs: first in science, then history. Did this cause any consternation in your family, before they knew you were going to become a writer?

ANDREA BARRETT: What caused the consternation, unfortunately, was that I’d gone to graduate school at all; people were relieved when I dropped out. Then dismayed all over again to find that I was trying to write. Most of the people in my family weren’t much interested in reading or writing, and anything academic seemed suspicious.

BLVR: What did your family want for you?

AB: I don’t know, honestly. We would have been easier with each other if I could have figured this out.

BLVR: A lot of writers start out with stories before trying their hand at a bigger project. You did it the other way, publishing four novels before your first collection. Did you want to be a “novelist” as opposed to just a writer?

AB: I was so ignorant at first that I assumed one had to write novels to be a writer. One of the odd things about taking biology and philosophy and chemistry and history courses in college, rather than English, was that I read very few short stories and had little sense of them as a separate genre. I discovered their wonders only later, once I started going to writers’ conferences and teaching in the MFA program at Warren Wilson College.

BLVR: Are you glad you never went to a creative writing program?

AB: Not really. It’s true that what we learn on our own, with great struggle, tends to stick with us. But I think a lot of what I learned, so slowly, over the course of eight or nine years, I might have learned in two or three if I’d gone to a program with good teachers and good fellow students. I wish I had that lost time.

BLVR: Would it have meant more books?

AB: Probably not. But maybe it would have meant more life in common with other writers, more community, more sense of a shared world. I was quite lonely during the writing of my early books.

BLVR: Nicholas Delbanco was one teacher who helped you. When you first went to Bread Loaf, he read your unpublished novel and, while being encouraging, said you needed to throw it out because you had learned to write on it and it wasn’t salvageable. What do you think it was about you that made him believe you would respond well to that level of difficult honesty?

AB: Truthfully, I don’t know; I have always been, and continue to be, very grateful to him for his trust in my ability to benefit from that. I think about that moment often, now that I also teach younger writers. And I ask myself: am I sure she or he can withstand a really tough bit of criticism?

BLVR: Have you ever taken a risk on that and been wrong?

AB: Yes, to my great dismay, I have had a couple of students burst into tears, despite my attempts to deliver the news in a roundabout and gentle and indirect way.

BLVR: You published your first four novels in a little less than five years. The second four books didn’t come as quickly.

AB: That’s partly because the first two had been done for several years before they found a publisher, so I was already writing the third when the first came out. But the books after that have also taken more time because they involved more research.

BLVR: Have those ones been more rewarding for you?

AB: They have; I’ve enjoyed working on them so much that I don’t mind how long they take.


BLVR: It seems like a lot of readers and writers of literary fiction are mistrustful or afraid of science. Why do you think the scientific backdrop for a lot of your fiction is as rare as it is?

AB: It’s hard to fall in love with science if you’re not exposed to it early, and if you don’t have a few good teachers along the way. Science education can be woeful these days, which makes students think they don’t like science. You can’t write about it if you’ve never had the chance to fall in love with it. I was lucky in having that chance.

BLVR: Beyond your own interest, what is it about scientists, amateur or otherwise, that makes them compelling to return to as characters?

AB: Any kind of serious work is full of drama and passion, yearning and disappointment, complicated choices, sacrifices, moments of bliss—and science is serious, wonderful work. I write about scientists partly because I have some sense of that particular work, and partly because I love the stuff of that work: the words, the toys, the experiments, the natural world itself. It gives me an excuse to write about sea anemones, or to use the word autochthonous, and get away with it.

BLVR: That is a fun word, and one I had to look up. I also had my dictionary handy for your use of mediastinum, organophosphate, archenteron, pyelonephritis, and viviparity, among others. It makes me curious—what sort of prior knowledge do you expect of your audience? If readers don’t come to your books with a very good understanding of science, do you hope they’ll learn it along the way? Or do you think they’ll just enjoy the novels and stories without knowing the insider stuff?

AB: I have great faith in the curiosity of readers, in their ability to skip what they don’t need or care to know, and to pursue their interest in what seems essential to them. I’ve learned this way myself since I was a girl, always reading things that were in some way “beyond” what I knew at that moment, but always being fed by them, and often being led down fruitful paths. In the end-stages of a piece, I try to revise toward two separate but parallel sets of readers: those who know essentially nothing about the “stuff” I’m playing with, and for whom the story must still work with almost no prior knowledge; and those relatively expert, who might gain some pleasure by seeing familiar characters and events in a new context, but who will be driven crazy if I get the details wrong. It’s always a balancing act, and I never really get it right.

BLVR: Why do you think you never get it right? Where do you fail?

AB: I fail at both ends of the spectrum, I think. For someone who is really, truly ignorant of and uninterested in all things scientific, the fictions are too dense, too fussy, filled with too many annoying details. For the real expert in a particular field—a Linnaeus scholar, say, or a pulmonologist specializing in tuberculosis—I will always be an amateur, irritating for what I’ve slighted or failed to explain in great detail.

BLVR: Can you predict one thing that appears to be a scientific surety now that might be shown to be fallacious in the future? Or, when you imagine the world a hundred years from now, what’s the biggest way you think it will be different?

AB: I often think that some of our cancer treatments— trying to cure patients by nearly killing them; subjecting them to surgery, radiation, chemotherapies so toxic one would sometimes rather die than continue—will, not so far in the future, seem as pointless and terrible as, say, purging and bleeding, or taking calomel for a digestive disorder, or trying to cure tuberculosis by removing one lobe of the affected lung and filling the empty space with ping-pong balls. Part of the reason I’m so drawn to reading and writing about the history of medicine is that sense that much of what we’re so proud of now, what seems so “cutting-edge,” will seem in a hundred years to be terribly mistaken.

BLVR: Really—the ping-pong ball as medical innovation? That didn’t make it into The Air We Breathe. Did you think people wouldn’t believe it?

AB: I think I could have found a way to let you imagine it clearly, but the procedure wasn’t common until well after the period of the novel, and so I couldn’t allow myself to use it despite the amazing image. I’m sort of a stickler about stuff like that: not moving known facts around in time or place just for my own convenience.

BLVR: You’ve said that writing, for you, is like science in “that sense of starting out with a question and the haziest of ideas and just giving yourself over to the exploration.” Would you say you try out hypotheses on a story or novel to see what works best?

AB: That’s an interesting way to put that—it’s not so much forming “hypotheses,” exactly, as fumbling around trying approaches that show me, as they fail, their wrongness. But I do have the sense, when I’m finally done, of having tried and abandoned many hypotheses, testing them out one by one in search of the one right way.

BLVR: Who are some other writers you think are successful at joining science to fiction?

AB: I’ve enjoyed Allegra Goodman’s novel Intuition, A. S. Byatt’s “Morpho Eugenia,” and Richard Powers’s The Gold Bug Variations, among many others both old and new.

BLVR: One’s work—that “crisp glaze of purpose,” as one of your characters calls it—is often synonymous with passion in your fiction. Yet the great ambitions of your characters seem almost universally to cause a lot of harm.

AB: Yes, that’s true. And done on purpose. Trouble is always more interesting than stasis; and failure more interesting than success, especially for characters with large ambitions.

BLVR: Is it only that it makes for a better story, or do you think ambition for notoriety, especially in science, is sort of inherently calamity inducing?

AB: Great ambitions do induce calamities; they also under lie great ideas, great works of art, great changes in culture and feeling. The only way to cause no trouble is to sit alone in a room and do nothing—but I don’t think science is ever passive; how could it be?

BLVR: I wonder if that’s a common misconception— because my sense is that some laypeople do tend to think of science as passive, and of scientists as these entirely logical and passionless automatons who just sit in their labs, impartially following the data.

AB: That’s part of what I mean by saying that you have to have some exposure to science in order to love it, think about it, want to write about it. One day spent with a working scientist would change that misconception.


BLVR: Your last four books form a loose tetralogy, sort of a latticework of personal and genealogical histories down through a couple of hundred years. I read where you said for you it’s “like watching a double helix tumble through time.” Did you know when you started The Voyage of the Narwhal (the second in the group, following Ship Fever) that you were going to do this, and would continue to do it? Does it remain a project of yours to continue to elaborate on and embellish this tree of characters that you finally laid out at the end of The Air We Breathe?

AB: I didn’t know I was going to do this until I’d done a good deal of it. I did plan to bring Ned (a boy in [the novella] “Ship Fever”) back as the ship’s cook in The Voyage of the Narwhal, but that was essentially due to a misconception: when I started that novel, I thought of it as a companion novella to “Ship Fever,” imagining that I might make a book of the two novellas. Obviously that didn’t turn out to be true, but by then Ned was embedded. Similar relationships emerged in the third book, Servants of the Map, and then I started to think hard, and consciously, about all these threads. The web has been growing and branching since then and by now I can’t stop it; even when I try to write something disconnected, it eventually gets sucked in.

These past four books do seem to me like a kind of tetralogy, although an odd one. And I’m not sure it won’t turn into a… what would the words be? Quintet, sextet?

BLVR: I like how the books and stories become, in a way, about fate and chance. We know there are arbitrary connections in life, but they don’t generally seem to persuade us in fiction. Your books, though, make us believe in the attenuated nature of these characters’ connections…. how they happen upon one another’s destinies, even across continents.

AB: I’m glad if that works. I suppose I hope that by making these threads of connection very light, barely crossing, they’ll feel more like the strange serendipities of our own lives and hence be believable.

BLVR: Now that you have all these characters, you’ve said that no matter where you go in your fiction—in time or geography—you always bring “a shard of the familiar” with you, which helps you write. Why do you think more writers don’t return to characters?

AB: I don’t know, truly; to me it feels very open-ended, very nourishing, very productive of other story ideas. But lots of writers have told me that once a story is done, those characters completely leave them. Maybe it has to do simply with temperament?

BLVR: The new novel is simultaneously a continuation of some stories and a sort of prequel to others. What was it like to be telling a new story but also be in the middle of all that?

AB: Strange, so strange—both confining and in some ways wonderfully exciting. At times I felt so boxed in by all the ramifications forward and back that I couldn’t move. Other times I would have that feeling we all have when we’re working within a dense web of formal constraints: that the constraints themselves were forcing me to think in more interesting ways. So I was constrained, but not constricted: constrained as someone who writes a sonata, or a sonnet, is constrained by the form. But free to play within those elastic boundaries. Unable to do what was easiest or most obvious, I had to come up with something else. Despair on one side of the coin, exhilaration on the other.

BLVR: One consequence of following up on loose ends is that later stories occasionally change the reading of previous stories. For instance, I think there’s an intentional ambiguity in “Servants of the Map” as to the final decision of Max, the protagonist, of whether to return from the Himalayas to his wife and daughters. But in “The Cure,” the last story in the collection, we get an answer to that question. How differently do you want the story to function in the collection as opposed to its original magazine publication?

AB: Ideally it should function equally well both ways. That is: you finish reading “Servants” with one idea of Max and his journey and his world, and that rattles around in your head for a while. Some days or months or even years later, you read “The Cure” and, while you focus primarily on Max’s wife, Clara, and his daughters, Elizabeth and Gillian, and on Nora and the other characters, your old ideas about Max shift and rearrange themselves beneath the surface. I mean for the process to work the way our lives sometimes work—we meet someone, get to know her or him, think one set of things about that person, drift out of touch for a while, then drift back in, learning then that much of what we thought we knew was incomplete or even wrong….

BLVR: Charles Baxter has written about Gerard Manley Hopkins’s idea of “widowed” images, how we remember images best, and they haunt us most, when they’ve lost some essential part of their meaning. There’s a boot belonging to one of your characters that first showed up in a novel almost a decade ago and has now made its way through three of your books and more than 150 years and become a kind of totem. When do you realize, in the course of writing these webbed stories and novels, Oh, I’ll use this boot as an emotional touchstone?

AB: I don’t think like that; I don’t think that clearly! (I wish I did.) It’s more like this: The boot shows up. Then it shows up again. Then it shows up again—at which point even I will notice it and think: Hmm. There’s that boot again. What’s up with that? At which point it will start to talk to me and to suggest other things. On the hand-drawn family tree I keep in my office, on which I keep adding characters and connecting lines in pencil, there are also little drawings of that boot, tumbling through time and space.

BLVR: A teacher told me once that the best short stories were the ones where a single event or brief time period was covered. Your stories defy that convention. What’s uniquely valuable about the long story, which writers like you and Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant have used so expertly?

AB: The long stories of those two brilliant writers are among my favorites, and I return to them often. It’s an odd form but so delectable when it works: the best of these (think of Munro’s “Carried Away,” or Gallant’s “The Remission”) have the scope and density and richness of novels, yet can, at the same time, be held entire in the head, turned around, and examined from all sides like a story.


BLVR: Henry James said that if a writer wrote about a different epoch, he didn’t think she could evoke “the real thing, the invention, the representation of the old consciousness—the soul, the sense, the horizon.” Factual research is one thing, but what do you do to transmit the slipperier areas of accuracy, like a way of feeling or looking at the world?

AB: I’ve always disagreed with James about this, and I wish he hadn’t been so prescriptive. Anyone willing to work patiently and spend enough time can weed out most anachronisms; our friends help us find others; and the soul—well, you will have to forgive me for being old-fashioned here, but do we not, across the boundaries of time and space and culture and gender, all have souls? And aren’t extended acts of empathy, attempts to enter into the experiences of people very different from us, part of what fiction is for?

BLVR: Absolutely! I think even Henry James would have to be impressed by Servants. Are you ever overwhelmed at all you have to consider when jumping back a hundred or more years? You have to divest yourself, imaginatively, of a vast array of conveniences we take for granted.

AB: I’m overwhelmed by lots of things—my characters, the attempt to write decent sentences, structuring narrative in the best possible way—but unimagining technology actually isn’t that hard.

BLVR: You do get to write about some things the Victorians didn’t—like sex. If Servants had been written during the time it covers, we wouldn’t have seen Max in bed with Dima.

AB: We wouldn’t have. But of course he still would have been there; we just wouldn’t be allowed to see it.

BLVR: Thomas Mallon, one of your correspondents, said he was writing you in response to the New York Times survey about the best book of American fiction in the last twenty-five years, and that each of you tended to think of the body of a writer’s work rather than a single book. Besides Charles Baxter, whom you both agreed upon, are there other writers whose fiction is best considered as a whole?

AB: W. G. Sebald might be one; each book is, separately, beautiful and unusual, but the achievement becomes greater when we think about the whole array. William Kennedy’s Albany cycle might be another case. And the whole body of Alice Munro’s short fiction, stretching through and across many books.

BLVR: Does the writing process become harder for you over the years?

AB: It’s harder to get the concentrated time to write, but not harder to write; I’m incredibly lucky in that I actually love the act of writing, and am happiest when I am writing. And so that makes it possible to continue fighting for the time in which to do it. Who wouldn’t fight to keep doing the most delightful thing in the world?

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