Purging and bleeding
Taking calomel for a digestive disorder
Removing lung lobes and filling the empty spaces with ping-pong balls
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.
THE BELIEVER: Are you glad you never went to a creative-writing program?
ANDREA BARRETT: 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.
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