Monday, Dec. 17 , 1 p.m. ET
Off the Page: Andrea Barrett
Monday, December 17, 2007; 1:00 PM
It's difficult not to talk about the mystery of science along with the magic of fiction when discussing the work of National Book Award winner Andrea Barrett. This is no less true with her new novel, The Air We Breathe
Yet Barrett also hints at a political message in this novel, set against the backdrop of World War I and subtly mirroring today's political scene.
Barrett joined Off the Page on Monday, Dec. 17 at 1 p.m. ET to talk about her new book and other writerly matters.
A transcript follows.
Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between, a book based on 41 Off the Page interviews by host and writer Carole Burns, was published Dec. 10 by W.W. Norton. It is available online at amazon, Barnes & Noble and Politics and Prose.
Carole Burns: Dear Booklovers, Welcome to Off the Page. We have with us today Andrea Barrett, who is here to talk about her new novel, The Air We Breathe, and all things literary. And so, we'll start.
Carole Burns: Andrea, can you start with a simple question: How did The Air We Breathe come about? Do you remember the germ of the idea?
Andrea Barrett: This one was pretty straight forward. It came out of the last story in Servants of the Map, which is "The Cure," which is about two women working with patients in private cure cottages during the 1880 and 1890s, and while I was doing the research on that I got very interested in the big public sanitoria and what was going on there, and the most active time for the sanitoria was the 1910s and 1920s, and that's how I chose the time.
The characters were partly determined by their links to characters I already invented in the area, and whose stories I wanted to continue. That's part of what shaped the story too. One of the young women in the story, Eudora, is the niece of a central character in The Cure, Elizabeth, and that's how she's first exposed to caring for patients with tuberculosis, working with her aunt. And also Leo Marburg, he's obviously a young man in this novel, but he's in a story within the book, Ship Fever, and in two different stores in Servants of the Map, we know him as the elderly grandfather of Rose and Bianca Marburg. So I knew before I started this novel where he'd come from, that he came from Russian Poland, and I also knew what had happened to him long before the confines of this novel.
Freising, Germany: While reading about WWI as the backdrop to your novel, I was surprised that the American Protective League persecuted labor unions and immigrants subversives.
I had once read that German speakers had a difficult time during WWI in the U.S. and that many rural German newspapers were shut down during the period. (Even young Lawrence Welk, with German as a mother-tongue, endeavored to learn English).
I thought that the persecution of the labor unions occurred later.
Andrea Barrett: German speakers really DID have a difficult time during WWI--and so did many labor unions. The worst persecutions came later, in the early 20s, but many unions were also pressured during the war because of the perceived need to increase armament production and supply the rapidly growing army.
Washington, DC: I was thrilled to see you coming back to some of the characters from Ship Fever. What made you decide to do that?
Andrea Barrett: It came about, at first, somewhat accidentally--Ned Kynd, Nora's brother in "Ship Fever," became the ship's cook in The Voyage of the Narwhal. For a while I didn't imagine any further connections, but as I was writing the stories of Servants of the Map, several pairs of stories linked themselves almost inadvertently in the writing, and at some point I began to see ALL the connections. Since then I've had a powerful sense of a sort of huge web in which a great many characters from the last four books, and perhaps more, are embedded. I think this stems, in part, from the fact that the characters are still very much alive for me long after the close of the novel or story in which they first appear. They don't disappear from my imagination; they simply walk offstage. But I always have the sense that they can walk back onstage, sometimes years later, just as easily.
Carole Burns: Have you always been interested in science? I'm curious about how that fascination came about.
Andrea Barrett: I've been interested in science since I was a little girl growing up on Cape Cod. I had a wonderful biology teacher in high school, and also the example of Wood's Hole not too far away, so marine biology of course had a special lure. When I went to Union College it was natural for me to major in biology, and again I had the good fortune to have wonderful professors. It was only when I entered a graduate program in Zoology that I realized I really had no gift for DOING science at all; it turned out that what I was really interested in were the stories of science, the lives of scientists, the movement of scientific ideas through time.
Centennial, Col.: I understand you didn't go to a writing school to learn to write fiction, but did it on your own. I am trying to do somewhat the same thing post-retirement. Obviously it worked for you. How long had you been writing when your first piece was published?
Andrea Barrett: I started writing after college, and after dropping out of graduate school several times; after some years of scribbling ideas and story fragments in various journals, I simply started a novel (without, I add, any idea of how to write one). I worked on that first one for about six years, and although in the end I had to throw it out, I learned a lot about writing in general as I fumbled through the various drafts. How to write a sentence, how to write a paragraph; what a chapter was; how a book might be shaped. Later I wrote another and then had to throw that one out too; then I wrote a few stories. My first story was published about 10 years after I started writing. I was, and am, a very slow learner....
Carole Burns: I was re-reading the first story in Ship Fever today ("The Behavior of the Hawkweeds") and was struck by the protagonist saying that she and her grandfather talked about Mendel and genetics because "we couldn't stand to talk about what we'd both lost." It seems that might be true for almost all fiction! But in your case, does science often play that role for you characters? What other role does science play?
Andrea Barrett: That's such an intriguing question--I've not really thought about that before, in those terms, but I think that science DOES play a role like that for many of my characters. It stands in for all that is lost; it becomes, variously, muse, lover, consolation, distraction, for some the center of their identity, for others a connection to the greater world.
Bethesda, MD: I have enjoyed both your collections of short stories- Servants and Ship Fever. My question is, how successful were TB sanatoriums? Were they better than staying at home?
Andrea Barrett: They were moderately successful--most successful for people who, in their home lives, were over-worked, underfed, stressed, and living in crowded conditions. Simply being in a place where you could rest, eat nourishing food, not work for 60 hours a week at a demanding job, not share a bed or a sleeping room with many other people: all those things helped some patients' immune systems to fight the disease.
Arlington, Va. : Can you talk about your writing routine? And, do you actually like writing? Or is it hard?
Andrea Barrett: I'm very lucky in that I actually LOVE writing. It is hard; in some ways it gets harder as I get older; but for all that I am actually happiest during the act of writing itself. And so that makes it easy to keep writing, and to strive to keep up a writing routine: if writing is the most pleasurable part of the day, who wouldn't try to do it as much as possible? I write in the mornings, when life permits. Any time I can, if things are more hectic.
Washington, D.C.: Please pardon the intrusion, but, knowing that you grew up on the Cape, I'm wondering if you attended Barnstable HS in 1971 before heading off to college. If that's the case, I'm particularly delighted to have been reading all this time the wonderful work of an old friend. Thanks.
Andrea Barrett: I did indeed go to Barnstable High School for a couple of years! And so hello to you...
Washington, DC : What books are you buying your friends and family for Christmas, and why? And are you asking for any?
Andrea Barrett: This Christmas, as is true most years, I've been buying a mixture of new and old books for my family and friends. An old copy of Keats' poems, for one friend; an illustrated history of North Adams, c. 1897, for another (both are writing books and these are related to their subjects). An early copy of a Willa Cather novel for another friend who's writing an historical novel. Several copies of Joan Silber's Ideas of Heaven, because it's beautiful and people I give it to always love it. Jim Shepard's new collection of stories, because they're so good, and so inspiring. Oh, and I just bought a used copy of G.H. Hardy's memoir, to give to a friend who's been reading David Leavitt's new novel (which is about Hardy, in part).
Carole Burns: If your characters are still alive in your mind, and evidently come back in your fiction as well, how do you know when a story or novel is finished? And as someone like Leo had a history you knew about, how do you know where a story or novel begins?
Andrea Barrett: That's the big question, isn't it? And if I had an easy answer, I would be a much faster writer than I am. In the end it has to do with shape, and with voice--it's very common for me to start a novel or a story either way too early, or way too late; and to initially conceive it as ending much later or much earlier than it actually does. But as I work on many drafts, over a long time, I begin to see what areas are most alive and interesting, and then I can prune away what seems extraneous before or after. Eventually, after multiple rounds of pruning and adding, pruning and adding, an almost palpable visual shape will start to appear in my mind's eye, and then I revise toward that. That means, in the end, that I leave a huge amount of material behind; often I will have written scores or even hundreds of pages about a character before or after what turns out to be the actual time frame of the fiction. So perhaps it's natural, then, that I should have a sense of knowing them beyond the edges of the frame.
Cape Cod, MA: A few years ago you published an essay that ends with a first draft of your latest book. When I read "Air We Breathe," I noticed at once that the opening paragraph in your essay bears no resemblance to the final, published opening paragraph. Can you describe what happened, from first version to the last? Did you learn something from that first draft that led you quickly to the last?
Andrea Barrett: It's funny how different those versions are; even funnier because, in the essay, I also mentioned what had turned out to be other false starts. I wrote quite a lot in the voice that appears in the essay, and eventually had to discard all of it. This too is the result of working without an outline, or a clear sense of where I'm going, but simply finding my way through many drafts, following what seem to be the moments of 'aliveness' I find on the page. I've learned, over time, to pay attention to a sentence or paragraph that leaps out from a mass of material and that seems, although perhaps directly contradicting what I thought I wanted to do, to have its own urgency. In the case of The Air We Breathe, I went through several very different interim drafts before the final shape appeared.
Washington, DC : I've always loved The Voyage of the Narwhal. Can you talk about how that book came about? And will you ever return to those characters?
Andrea Barrett: I'm so glad you enjoyed that! I was wildly interested in Arctic and Antarctic explorers when I was a little girl; I spent a lot of time reading about Scott and Peary and Amundson and all the rest, but then the interest went underground for a few years. When I was working on the title novella of Ship Fever, I read a passage about one of the emigrant ships from Ireland crashing into an iceberg off Newfoundland--and suddenly all that old material returned to me. I thought, at the time, that I would like to write a companion novella, set a few years after Ship Fever, which of course was the time of John Franklin's lost expedition. Before I'd written 20 pages I realized I had a novel on my hands, and a fairly substantial one at that. As far as the characters go: I have written about Ned Kynd, much later in his life, in a story called "The Cure" (in Servants of the Map). But I don't know whether or not I'll return to any of the other characters.
Carole Burns: Maureen Corrigan's review. in The Washington Post talked about you veering into politics this time around, mirroring the current political situation. Do you agree? Did you set out to do that, or did it just happen (was it just The Air You Breathe?)
Andrea Barrett: I do agree; the book has (for me) an uncharacteristically large interest in the political climate then and now. I didn't plan that at all, and in fact it took me by surprise. Partly this was due, I know, to having been in New York during the year of 2001-02, witnessing the events of Sept 11, and being immersed in the changing, very volatile moods of the city that year. Feeling for myself the fear, the paranoia, the dread--all of it. And partly it is the result of feeling myself completely estranged from, and at odds with, the policies of our current administration. It's hard for me to deal directly with current situations in my fiction; always, I've found a deeper way to examine what I perceive around me by finding an analogous situation in the past, and exploring that.
Washignton DC: Hi Andrea, Boring housekeeping questions--do you write every day? If you do, do you write a certain number of hours/day, or 'as the spirit moves you'? Thanks
Andrea Barrett: I did write every day for a long time, and I still feel that rhythm works best for me. It's harder for me to stick with that now, though: family demands, an aging and often ill parent, book-tours and other responsibilities get in the way. But my idea of a perfect week is still one in which I write for several hours every morning, and don't have to go anywhere.
Washington, DC : What authors do you love to read? New and classic...
Andrea Barrett: Not surprisingly, I like a lot of 19th and early 20th century novelists: Tolstoy, George Eliot, Turgenev, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann, Nabokov, Conrad, Crane, Forster and more. New writers I read with great pleasure include Margot Livesey, Joan Silber, Jim Crace, Ian McEwan, Alice Munro, William Trevor, and lots of others too. I read a lot!
Our time is up. Thanks so much, Andrea, for talking so intelligently and personally about your work. It was a real joy!
Off the Page is off for the holidays, but we'll return in January with a show from the AWP Conference in New York City ¿ possible guests include Charles Baxter and Alice McDermott.
Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.