Issue 103 |
Fall 2007

About Andrea Barrett

Andrea Barrett, after spending years immersed in science and history, recognized her literary calling in a house in western Massachusetts. She was working on a paper about the Franciscans and noticed the narrative threads circulating throughout her research. "I was enrolled in a master's program in Reformation and Medieval History, thinking I might go on to do a Ph.D. and become a historian," Barrett says. Instead, she found herself "making characters and having them exchange dialogue." The impulse to create characters and narratives was "the last brick in the wall. Obviously I wasn't meant to write history. Perhaps I was, then, meant to write stories."

Since then, she has published five novels and two collections, and received the National Book Award and a MacArthur Fellowship. The Chicago Tribune has said that "to call Barrett our poet laureate of science is perfectly apropos, as long as we recognize that her specialty is the heart." Despite the accolades, Barrett remains modest about her accomplishments and prefers the solitary life. "I am lucky in having wonderful friends, who are extremely important to me," she says, "but I only seem to understand how to be with people one person at a time. In groups—parties, gatherings, meetings—I am wretchedly uncomfortable and quite awkward." Her uneasiness does not, however, reveal itself in the classroom. From the M.F.A. program at Warren Wilson to Williams College, where she currently works part-time, she has a reputation as a gifted teacher.

She has also remained a relentlessly meticulous writer. Although she takes a meandering, hazy path when embarking on a project, never really having a clear sense of where she's heading, she is a "compulsive re-drafter" who scrutinizes "not only each sentence, but the order of the words in each sentence, the order of the sentences in each paragraph, the order of the paragraphs in each section or scene." She applies the same exactitude to the physical particulars in her fiction, and says her need for precision can complicate her process when she's working with historical material. "If a character is, in 1873, wading into a grotto to look at some sea anemones," she explains, "I can't write the scene until I know exactly which sea anemones would have been in that place at that time. And then I also need to know what material the character's skirt was made of so I can understand exactly how heavy and clingy and annoying it would have felt, once it was soaked in the sea. It slows me down a lot." Apart from her historical accuracy, Barrett's work is known for her precise, lyric prose and her vivid evocation of the natural world, whether it be the western Himalayas or Grosse Isle. Nature is not just a backdrop, but serves as a metaphor, catalyst, and an essential companion to the examination of the characters' inner lives.

Born in 1954, Barrett spent her early years in Cape Cod. "I do think growing up on and around the Cape made me alert to the landscape and the living world in ways I might not have been otherwise," she says, adding that "another big influence was simply the fact that we moved very often—every couple of years, usually—always within the same general landscape of the Cape, but shifting schools and sets of friends each time. The constant uprooting meant that I never got to know any one village or school or set of neighbors and schoolmates for very long, which often pained me as a child. But it taught me to turn to other things: to the larger, unchanging aspects of my surroundings." Books became another source of companionship for her. "Characters in books are always with us, and can move around with us. Books really were my most constant friends then, and in some ways they remain so."

Barrett did not complete high school, but left in her junior year—without a diploma—for Union College, where she studied biology, forgoing any courses in literature or creative writing. She graduated in 1974 and briefly attended grad programs in zoology and history. Between leaving college and beginning to publish, she held a variety of jobs: greenhouse worker, receptionist at a box factory, SAT-prep teacher, freelance editor for nursing and medical textbooks, assistant to a dental surgeon, the latter lasting only three days. "None of it was fun," she says. All the while, she read fiction. At first, she only knew about "old books, the 'classics' I could find in small-town bookstores. When I made my first fumbling attempts to write, in my mid-twenties, I started reading contemporary poetry and literary fiction, and then my world expanded very quickly." She honed her craft for nearly a decade before publishing. "I worked very hard on a novel for about seven years; I had to throw it out, in the end. I spent two years more on another, which I also had to throw out. Finally, humbled—apparently I really was incapable of writing a novel—I tried writing a few stories." She published her first story, "Secret Harmonies," in The Northwest Review in 1985, followed by two more in 1987. Soon after, she returned to the novel with her debut, Lucid Stars, which appeared in 1988.

Three other novels quickly followed: Secret Harmonies, The Middle Kingdom, and The Forms of Water. It was, however, a collection of stories, Ship Fever, that brought Barrett to real prominence, winning her the National Book Award in 1996. Barrett hadn't focused on stories since her early writing years, but while reading stories and student work for Warren Wilson, her interest in the shorter form was rekindled. "I learned an awful lot. Pacing, economy, structure; how to skip around and over time; how to write lively, scenic summary; how to leave out a great deal and simply suggest," Barrett says. "I learned that as a younger woman, writing my very first stories, I'd made the same mistaken assumption I see many of my students making now: which is that a story, because it is short, must cover only a short amount of time and a compact and tightly defined set of actions. Teaching stories, later on, made me realize that actually the stories I liked best, and wanted to write, were ones that did nearly as much as a novel but in a smaller space."

The stories in Ship Fever—as well as in her second collection, Servants of the Map—are as expansive as epics, sweeping across generations, cultures, and landscapes. The characters are not content to remain in their houses and yards; they explore, question, and provoke the enigmatic world around them. The stories confront the knotty relationship between humans and the natural world and, in turn, the complexities of the characters' relationships with each other. Historical elements, including appearances by Mendel and Linnaeus, are woven into some of the stories, along with meticulously researched scientific practices: the hybridization of peas, the cataloguing of exotic species, the study of disease, the hibernation patterns of swallows. In Barrett's hands, science comes alive for the reader—never staid or inflexible, but bursting with energy and ambiguity, a source of adventure, discovery, solace, and, for some characters, devastation. While the quantifiable nature of scientific truth often provides a striking contrast to the mysteriousness of human personality, the prospect of meaningful scientific discovery is sometimes just as unreachable as human connection, and the search can bring both rejuvenation and harm.

In one story, "Birds with No Feet," Alec, an animal collector, is wrecked by his desire to conquer nature for personal gains and his competition with a fellow scientist. Throughout the story, everything Alec touches is ruined. During one voyage, a fire breaks out on the ship and his captured animals burn alive. On another excursion, after shooting an orangutan, "his desire for possession carv[ing] a line in the air between his gun and his target," he takes the animal's orphaned offspring back to camp, only to watch him perish from the ague. And later, when Alec finally returns with an impressive collection of animals, America is at war and his achievements go unnoticed, causing him to experience a displacement that plagues nearly all the characters in the collection. It is only after this last blow that Alec realizes he "has never been the scientist he'd believed himself to be, perhaps is no scientist at all." As with all the stories in the collection, the truths of the characters in "Birds with No Feet" represent larger human realities, rendering redemptive qualities alongside fatal flaws.

Voyage of the Narwhal, which followed Ship Fever in 1998, was both critically acclaimed and a bestseller. The novel centers around a group of men leaving Philadelphia in 1855 to voyage into the Arctic in search of a lost expedition, and Thomas Mallon described it as "a brilliant reversal of Heart of Darkness: the danger is not that the characters will 'go native,' but that a lust for scientific knowledge and intellectual distinction will drive them to cruelties they would have been incapable of before." Barrett's second story collection, Servants of the Map, was published four years later, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The stories contain links to characters from Ship Fever and Voyage of the Narwhal, the settings ranging from the early nineteenth century to the twentieth century. While there is a romance to the scientific quests, the adventures and discoveries, the characters are hardly idealized: an obsession with science, in these stories, can fracture marital and familial ties, can lead to disappointment at one's lack of recognition or the ultimate faultiness of their theories. Once again, displacement is a recurring theme, with people longing to leave their mark on the world.

In 2001, Barrett was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (the "genius grant") and a fellowship at the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She and her husband moved to New York, that "relentlessly sociable city," for a year, taking up residence in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Barrett, who was doing research for a novel set in a tuberculosis sanatorium, had been in Manhattan for only a few months prior to 9/11. After the attacks, she found herself unable to write. "What was the point? I thought at first," she says in "The Sea of Information," an essay that appeared in The Kenyon Review and The Best American Essays 2005. As the chaos that followed 9/11 unfolded, she once again sought solace in books and sank deeper into her research, and this textual immersion eventually enabled her to resume writing. "Reading, which gives me access to lives I haven't lived, am not living, probably won't live," she continues in the essay, "is how I find my way to writing: in this case, how I found my way back to writing."

While Barrett's preoccupation with science is often foregrounded in her work, the research and historical threads are unfailingly in service of the human story, the search for connection, recognition, and meaning, the sometimes agonizing mysteries of how love can fall short and one's vision of the world can fail. Her aptitude for packing in the wonderful "stuff" of science and history, coupled with exotic locales and physical adventure, distinguishes her work in a crowded field of domestic settings, but what truly makes her fiction remarkable is her ability to traverse the geography of the heart and mind, to bring a sense of order to the wreckage and triumphs of her characters' lives. As she says in "The Sea of Information," "reading and writing are two of the ways we make sense of our mysterious, sometimes terrible world."

In 2004, Barrett accepted a position at Williams College. She and her husband moved into a loft in a mill building in North Adams, where they remain. "I like to walk in the woods with my dog, to snowshoe in winter. In the summer I swim in one of the lakes near us every day the weather permits." She teaches undergraduate writing at Williams College, and, despite the body of work she has amassed, she doesn't take breaks between projects. "I'm always working on something," she says. "If I'm not, you don't want to be around me. If I take a break it's not by choice: either some life emergency has arisen, or I'm sick." After six years, Barrett has completed the novel she began in New York; W.W. Norton will release The Air We Breathe this October.

These days, Barrett writes "in a little brick-walled room, sticking out at right angles to the rest of our loft." Long ago, when the loft was part of a functioning mill, her office was a workers' bathroom. "Best," Barrett says with characteristic good humor, "not to think too hard about the symbolism of that."

Laura van den Berg is currently in the M.F.A. program at Emerson College and the editor-in-chief of Redivider. Her stories have been published or will soon appear in StoryQuarterly, American Short Fiction, The Literary Review, and elsewhere.