Perseverance: A Conversation with Fiction Writer Andrea Barrett (Williamstown, MA)

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<p>Head shot of Andrea Barrett</p>

Andrea Barrett. Photo by Barry Goldstein

Andrea Barrett is the author of five novels and two collections of short stories. Her story collection Servants of the Map was a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, and she received the 1996 National Book Award for her short fiction collection Ship Fever and Other Stories. In addition to a 1992 NEA Literature Fellowship, Barrett also has received a 1997 Guggenheim Fellowship and a 2001 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. Currently Barrett teaches at Williams College and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

Shortly after receiving the National Book Award, Barrett spoke about her development as a writer with then NEA Publications Manager Keith Donohue (who has since published his first novel, The Stolen Child).

NEA: I’ve read that you had some 13 jobs in the past ten years as you tried to write fiction in your spare time. Could you tell us a little about those jobs and how they affected not only the time you had to devote to writing but your work as well?

ANDREA BARRETT: During my first 10 years after college (1974-1984), while I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do and then beginning to write, I was in and out of graduate school twice, both times very briefly: once in zoology and once in medieval and reformation history.

I held down a seemingly endless series of jobs those years: receptionist, then billing clerk, customer service representative in a corrugated box factory, greenhouse technician, helper in a biological supply company, trainer in a test-preparation service, assistant to a dental surgeon (that one lasted only three days!), annual-fund clerk, and then research assistant in a college development office, secretary to a biophysicist, administrative assistant to a group of endocrinologists at a medical school, tax-form typist for an accounting firm, freelance proofreader, copy editor, medical editor.

From 1984 to 1990 or so (through the publication of my first two books, that is), I supplemented the money I was earning from my books by doing freelance medical editing, which paid relatively well and was often interesting. After that I started to do a lot of book reviewing, and brief stints teaching creative writing, and was able to patch together a living through those and the advances for my novels.

I learned a lot doing all those jobs. A lot of biology and medicine, which fed my fiction quite directly; some nitty-gritty writing skills (from the years of editorial jobs) that continue to serve me well during the later stages of revision; also (from all the secretarial work) useful organizational skills that still help me manage a lot of tasks simultaneously. I learned to be patient with other people’s problems and trials and demands on my time; I learned how to carve out time for my own writing, no matter what else was going on. Probably most importantly, in the larger sense, I learned what it was like to be labeled by what I did for work.

Especially during my younger years, I got used to people thinking of me not as a writer who worked as a secretary or clerk but as a secretary who (amusingly, to most) “wrote.” I learned what it was like not to be privileged, not to be treated as “special,” not to have money or respect or security or the time to do what I most yearned to do. Which is the condition of almost all of us, almost all the time--a useful thing for a writer to remain in touch with.

NEA: How did your study of zoology affect your writing?

BARRETT: It was inevitable, I suppose, that I turn to this as subject matter for my fiction. Although now it amazes me that it took me so long to begin writing about science and scientists. I’ve always been interested in science; I was a biology major as an undergraduate, and went off to graduate school in zoology very briefly. But I didn’t understand until I got there that real science wasn’t about all this rich, descriptive naming. It was the history of science I was interested in, and the language of science. The stories of science. Actually, I don’t have a scientific mind at all.

If late-20th century biology still had anything to do with going off to the Galapagos or the Amazon and describing the fauna, I might have stayed in graduate school: what I really wanted to be was a pale shadow of Charles Darwin or Alfred Russel Wallace. But I still read a lot of science and natural history. And I’m married to a structural biologist, so I’m surrounded by working scientists and get to spy on their lives.

The second time I went to graduate school (I didn’t finish this either) I studied history; again, though, it turned out to be stories I was interested in rather than academic analysis. When I quit that second time is when I started writing fiction; I’m a very slow learner. Now it seems to me that what I have, in part, is the mind of a mid-Victorian naturalist. I want to name things; I want to tell stories describing the things I observe. Certainly naming--showing--is an essential part of all fiction.

NEA: Many of the stories in Ship Fever involve a confluence of history, science, family, and memory. How did these different strands come together?

BARRETT: This book really evolved from the stories themselves--I didn’t start with a preconceived idea and then write the stories with a book in mind. I had an idea for an historical novel, and I knew I didn’t have any of the tools I needed to approach the material. I also knew that, although I’d published four novels, I didn’t really understand how to write a story. So I thought I would try to write some, as a way of teaching myself how to handle a new kind of material, and how to use a new set of tools. I didn’t really expect to publish these; I was passionately interested in what I was doing, but I didn’t expect anyone else to be, and I thought of them as a kind of schooling. My 1992 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship was what gave me the time to try this.

Now, when I look at these stories together, they seem to me to form a sort of laboratory notebook. A kind of written record of the experiments I was making with voice, narrative approach, structure, and the possibilities of historical material.

The evolution of families and memory over time has always been crucially important to me, and is apparent in my earlier work--but even with those novels, I always relied on research to uncover other people’s lives and to help me invent their stories. I knew as little, initially, about the Chinese doctors of The Middle Kingdom, and the elderly monk in The Forms of Water, as I did about mid-Victorian biologists.

The stories in Ship Fever, though, were unusually satisfying to write. It was as if I’d finally found a way to bring together all the great, seemingly disparate loves of my life. As if the long route I’d traveled in my writing life, swinging wide through explorations of family life and contemporary love, China, and a village lost to water, had led me back home after all.

NEA: How do you think the National Book Award will affect your future as a writer? And as a working artist?

BARRETT: I can’t tell yet what this is going to mean. The flurry of attention has been startling--both wonderful and very time-consuming--but I expect it will pass quickly. And I imagine that soon my life will return to the way it’s been these last four or five happy years: a mixture of writing and teaching. I teach at some summer writers’ conferences, and also in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, where I’m in the company of splendid writers and have outstanding students. Because of my odd, checkered background, and the fact that I didn’t study writing in college or go through a Master of Fine Arts writing program myself, I’m still very much in the process of getting an education. I learn a great deal from both my fellow teachers and my students and expect I’ll continue that.

To read more about the NEA Literature Fellowships, please visit our Publications section.