© Barry Goldstein

 

When Andrea Barrett won the National Book Award in 1996 for her fifth book and first story collection, Ship Fever, she was not widely known or read. After four critically acclaimed novels that had never budged from the midlist, her then-publisher had declined Ship Fever. And yet it was this collection that became Barrett’s breakout book. Initially, the stories in Ship Fever, which feature scientists as characters and are largely set in past centuries, seemed a radical break with Barrett’s first four novels, Lucid Stars (1988), Secret Harmonies (1989), The Middle Kingdom (1991)and Forms of Water (1993), all of which are set in contemporary times and were noted by critics for their deft handling of family relationships.

   Since Ship Fever, Barrett has written a fifth novel, The Voyage of the Narwhal (1998), a tale of Arctic explorers and the families they leave behind, and another collection, Servants of the Map (2002), in which many characters from both Ship Fever and Narwhal recur. Science has remained a focal point, but the apparent rift between the themes and settings of her early and later work dwindles with each new book. Not only do the scientific themes of the late books have precursors in the early ones—including passages that obsess on invertebrate organisms, aquarium fish, constellations, Chinese medicine, reproductive biology, and ecosystems—but the later books are not half so much about science as they might seem from the jacket copy and reviews. In fact, the web of family relations that interconnects the characters of the first four books is, if anything, denser in the later ones, which have grown together into a kind of extended narrative through their shared characters. Barrett does have a scientist’s fascination for the natural world, but her primary concern is always human character and community. (Her scientists are invariably members of dysfunctional families, too, after all.)

   Barrett has received several major prizes and grants, including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and a Guggenheim fellowship. In 2001, she was awarded the coveted five-year MacArthur fellowship. In early September of that same year, she arrived in New York City to begin a nine-month stay as a fellow at the New York Public Library’s prestigious Center for Scholars and Writers. Barrett described to me her first encounter with the library’s famous Reading Room; she was sixteen and it was her very first trip to New York City: “I immediately loved the messy, dark rays of brown sunlight slanting in—it was cool. There was that palpable sense of books.” It was to some version of this quiet and profoundly bookish environment that she had planned to return to when she took the fellowship. A few days after her arrival, the Twin Towers were leveled. It turned out to be a terrible and intense year for anyone to be in New York, and not a time when Barrett felt she could sequester herself in a private study and devote herself to researching and writing. She put her novel-in-progress aside for some months.

   It was in the context of this personal and general upheaval that we first met, in the spring of 2002, in her sunny sublet loft on the far-West Side of Manhattan. She answered a few follow-up questions by mail, and we met for a second session, almost a year later, in Rochester, New York, where Barrett lives in a two-story red painted house with her husband, Barry Goldstein, a brindled dog, and two cats, one of whom, the stunningly fat and affectionate Spike, purred volubly on the coffee table throughout our conversation. Her house is filled with books and curious objects: a series of antique anatomical prints depicting the human musculature and other body systems, an old-fashioned wooden and brass scientific scale that sits under a glass case in juxtaposition to a green solder-studded motherboard from an old computer hard drive. Her office is upstairs, its walls lined with wooden bookshelves and framed historical prints. The top of her massive oaken desk is actually an operating-room door, salvaged when the hospital where her husband works was upgrading its physical plant for fire-code compliance. But it turns out that that her home office isn’t where Barrett does most of her writing. Her studio is located in an old Rochester post office building, the upper stories of which have been converted into artists’ lofts. She took me by it in her car, pulling into the parking lot and pointing up at a huge, multipaned window. She doesn’t let anyone visit the space, which she referred to as her “sole private sanctum,” now that the success of her books has brought constant telephone calls and requests for her to give readings and teach classes. She was willing to describe it, though: it’s nine hundred square feet and has no telephone or other amenities—not even a computer, though she brings her laptop sometimes—just those great windows, some shelves for books, a chair, and two large wooden tables she got for a song when a nearby university library was replacing its furniture.

 

INTERVIEWER

What was your family like, growing up?

ANDREA BARRETT

A standard suburban family, pretty much—my father was a real-estate broker who worked in Boston while we lived in Natick and then on Cape Cod. My mother was largely a housewife, until she and my father were divorced. No one in the family read for pleasure—it was a very unintellectual household—but my mother did read to us when we were little, and that’s how I started to read. I read a lot, very passionately, from the time I was very young, but it was a constant battle; my mother would more or less let me be, but with my father I was always searching for a place where he wouldn’t find me. Whenever he saw me reading, he would tell me to put the book down and go outside, act like a normal person. Go play, go fish, go swim, go do something—why are you reading all the time? It was hard for them to understand what drew me to reading so much.

INTERVIEWER

So how do you think you became what you are? Do you think it was innate?

BARRETT

That’s a big question: what is learned versus what is inherited. Nobody in my family does what I do, so who would I have inherited it from? On the other hand, no one taught me to love reading and writing when I was young, so how could I have learned it? Reading feels like something I was born loving. When we lived in Natick, before we moved to the Cape, the Bookmobile would visit our street once a week. I would be starved for that visit all week long, and I’d strip the shelves when it arrived. One driver allowed the children to take books from whatever shelves they could reach, and since I’ve always been tall, I could reach the highest shelf, where all the adult books were, at a pretty young age. That worked well for me.

INTERVIEWER

Do you remember what some of the early books you loved were?

BARRETT

Children’s books at first—Island of the Blue Dolphins and Ramona, the old Helen Hunt Jackson book. Swiss Family Robinson. I loved the editions with the N. C. Wyeth paintings—those glowing frontispieces, and then more illustrations scattered throughout. I read Robinson Crusoe when I was small, of course, and Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, though neither of those are really children’s books. By the time I was eleven or twelve, I was into more grown-up books.

INTERVIEWER

Did that love of reading mean that you were a strong English student?

BARRETT

No, unfortunately. I got into a lot of trouble as an adolescent, and part of the way that manifested itself was that I skipped school more often than I went to it. By junior high, I was a horrible student. But during my sophomore year of high school, I did have a fabulous English teacher, and I would go to school just for her class and then skip out afterwards. That’s actually when I started writing, although I didn’t think of it, then, as something I might someday do. Mrs. Williams’s way of teaching was to give us an extensive list of really good books to read, and then to have us write, as homework, about the books we chose in a little notebook. We were supposed to do a couple of these a month, but I was doing a half a dozen a week, and she put up with me. Amazing woman—she had her own life and other students, but she’d read whatever I wrote the same night I left it on her desk, and she’d respond in writing, so each notebook became a kind of dual book: a conversation on writing, one passage in my hand and then one in hers, another in mine, another in hers . . .

INTERVIEWER

Did you remain close to her after that class?

BARRETT

For a while, but to my great shame, I lost touch with her after I left the Cape. I didn’t actually finish high school—I went off to college young. I was in such a panic to get away that I went home very seldom for about twenty years, and as a result, I didn’t see her either. But Mrs. Williams was important to me in ways that I didn’t understand for years.

INTERVIEWER

What were some of the other books you read with her?

BARRETT

Lots of Dostoyevsky; lots of Tolstoy, including Anna Karenina. Way too much Kafka, not necessarily a good thing when you’re fifteen, but very seductive. She was very attached to Emerson and Thoreau. So good chunks of them; also some Margaret Fuller, because of the Emerson. Emily Dickinson, Steinbeck, a bit of Kant, more of Montaigne and Rousseau, but almost no English writers. I hardly even knew who the Brontë sisters or Jane Austen were. I had to catch up with all the English writers later, although she did give me a lot of utopian and dystopian literature—everything from Thomas More to Animal Farm and 1984. None of it really stuck, of course. I was too young.

INTERVIEWER

I think it did stick.

BARRETT

Well, I suppose it did, in a miasmatic way.