The Salon Interview: Andrea Barrett

The author of "The Voyage of the Narwhal" talks about literary fame and the thrill of turning research into stories.

Published December 2, 1998 1:59PM (EST)

When Andrea Barrett won the National Book Award in 1996 for "Ship Fever and Other Stories," she remembered to bring the notes for her acceptance speech to the awards ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria but forgot her glasses, stepping on emcee Calvin Trillin's foot as she walked on the stage and thinking she might vomit when she got there. "I've never been to a black-tie thing in my life," Barrett remarked later. "I didn't even go to my prom." It was a year of intense controversy for the award and its judges, who had ignored what seemed to be the hands-down favorite that season, David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest," in favor of Barrett's calm, lucid, supremely intelligent fictions on the theme of science and the scientific mind. After years of writing in virtual obscurity, with four novels already behind her, Barrett suddenly found herself at the center of the literary map.

Two years later, with the publication of "The Voyage of the Narwhal," Barrett has confirmed the wisdom of the judges' decision and solidified her position as one of the most eloquent and thoughtful storytellers working today. Her tale of a 19th century Arctic expedition and its aftermath, solidly based in historical and scientific research, has won rave reviews and, for Barrett, spectacular sales, at a time when serious fiction is thought to remain outside the realm of mass appeal. Barrett spoke to Salon from her home in Rochester, N.Y., where she lives with a dog, three cats and her husband, biologist Barry Goldstein.

Let's start with literary fame. You've had two years of it since you won the National Book Award for "Ship Fever." How has success changed your life?

Well, the phone rings a lot more, and people are asking me to do more things. And my books are more available. That's surprising and wonderful. But it hasn't really changed things in the sense that I'm still at home writing most of the time, which is where I'm meant to be. I live in the same city. I'm married to the same guy. I've tried not to let it change things in the larger sense because I'm really happy at home writing. So that's what I'm trying to do.

Did the award take you by surprise?

It could not have taken me more by surprise. I mean, just the nomination. I don't think it's possible to be more startled on this earth than I was.

You've just finished a book tour for "The Voyage of the Narwhal." Have you found that audiences and interviewers are interested in more than just your books when they talk to you? That they want to find out what makes a literary lioness tick?

Yes, that was something I didn't really know about before I started doing this. There were two things I didn't expect. One was the interest in me as a person. There's actually nothing interesting about me except what I write. And the other is that people have an interest I didn't expect in the subject matter of "The Voyage of the Narwhal," as distinct from the book itself. People are just really curious about Arctic history and the Franklin expedition and the mid-19th century. So that has been interesting and curious, too, because I'm not really an authority on these things. I'm a novelist. I find myself having really fascinating conversations with people about all sorts of aspects of exploration and Arctic history and things like that.

"The Voyage of the Narwhal" seems an unlikely bestseller in many ways.

I'm not sure it is a bestseller. Or not yet anyway.

It's on the San Francisco bestseller list. My publisher says if you're on any list at all, you can call it a bestseller.

[Laughs] I guess we can call it that, then. But I do agree with you. I'm very startled by its success. I didn't think it would appeal to people in that way, or not that many people. It surprises me. I'm glad -- of course I'm glad. It's been an interesting education in a way and so has this whole tour business and talking to the people at readings. I think that in newspapers and things we all talk so much about how nobody's reading anymore and how the quality of writing has gone down and the quality of reading has gone down, blah, blah, blah. I start to believe it after a while. And then I go out and about and I see these people who are into reading, people who are into buying books, and I think, I just have not given people enough credit. Maybe it's still true that if you write what really interests you, other people will be interested in it, too, no matter how seemingly obscure or arcane it is. If you can make a narrative out of it.

Your interest in Arctic history goes back a long time, doesn't it?

Yes, I've been interested in it since I was a little girl. I grew up on Cape Cod. We didn't live right on the water, but I could walk to it and did every day. And that must have got this started in me somewhere. I was always within sniffing range of the ocean and usually within sight of it. I think the landscape you grow up in probably does mark you in ways you don't even understand.

Is it true you were a high school dropout?

Well, it's hard to explain, but I didn't finish high school, that's true. It was the early '70s and you could do things like that. And the fall of my junior year I just started applying to colleges hoping someone would take me. I really didn't want to be in high school anymore, so I left at the end of my junior year and just went right to Union College in Schenectady without a high school diploma.

Were you already writing?

Oh, no, that came late, way after college. I was going to be a biologist. My undergraduate degree is in biology, and I went briefly to graduate school in zoology. And I also went for a little longer but didn't finish in history. I studied medieval and reformation history and I didn't start writing until I was done with both those things.

Did you know where you were headed when you started?

I really didn't know anything, and for various reasons I couldn't go to writing school, so I was just wandering around trying to teach myself, which actually is a traditional way of learning to write. Although not here [in the United States], and not in the last 25 years. But it still works.

It seems to. You had four novels published before "Ship Fever."

Uh-huh. "Ship Fever" was my fifth book.

And do you see them all as part of a piece, or did you vary your form very much?

Well, it got considerably more complicated. I think when other people look at my books they see the first four as related and then these last two as related, and they see a big break in between them. It doesn't feel that way so much to me, even though the earlier ones are contemporary and the latter two are historical. I had always relied on lots of research for the stuff of my characters and their lives. In the earlier books, I wasn't moving them so far back in time, but one of the chief characters in my fourth novel, "The Forms of Water," is an 80-year-old ex-monk, which clearly I'm not. He has this long past in China, doing missionary work and living in a contemplative order. So I had to do the same kind of research to build and invent that character as I have had to do in these last couple of books. To me it all seems to have grown naturally, but I'm very aware that it doesn't look like that to other people.

You've been quoted as saying that "Ship Fever" was a departure for you.

In the sense that it was stories and not a novel, it was a departure. I had written very few stories before. I love short stories, and I had started to teach around the time of my fourth novel and was not only reading more stories but looking at them more intently and watching my students write them. I wanted to learn how to write them, and that's really how that book started. I never had in mind, "Oh, I'm going to make a book of stories about scientists." I just wrote some stories trying to teach myself to do certain things.

But science and scientists are central both in "Ship Fever" and "The Voyage of the Narwhal." Can you elaborate on that? You've said you're surprised that people are looking at "Narwhal" as an adventure story. What do you see it as?

I guess I thought of it more as a pure encounter of people with both the landscape and ideas. I was aware that there were adventure elements, but that wasn't what was driving the book for me. It was more a question of thinking about the characters and representing, through them, 19th century ideas of evolution, of species, of how the world works, of what human beings are, whether we're a different species, and letting those ideas work themselves out in the context of the Arctic, the trip up there. That sounds very funny, I guess.

Science itself is an adventure, though.

It is, or at least I perceive it that way. Maybe that's a false and romantic perception on my part, but I just conceive of it that way, in the same way that writing is an adventure. You know, that sense of starting out with a question and the haziest of ideas and just giving yourself over to the exploration and being willing to follow where that leads you and build something from what you find. That does seem to be how science works. I think that's part of why I was so drawn to the Arctic as a field for these ideas to work themselves out in, that sense of exploration. Physical exploration being a really good metaphor for the imaginative exploration of both science and writing. It really resonated with me.

And of course the source material you'd be using from that time was itself highly literary.

Yes, in that miraculous way that almost all 19th century material is. You know, all those scientists could write. At their worst, they wrote a clear, readable, understandable prose, and at their best it's really glorious. I think Darwin's not a great writer but he's very easy to read, and other people like [Alfred Russell] Wallace are also a good example. They were really splendid writers. From that sense it's very easy material to work with. The language itself is really exciting.

How do you keep the information straight? How do you synthesize this huge mass of historical and scientific material while developing fictional characters and narrative?

Well, that really is how I came to writing fiction. I still have this really clear memory of being in a tiny, tiny bedroom in a rented house in Belchertown, Mass. And I was supposed to be writing a very long paper about the early days of the Franciscan Order, about a schism that had come up in the order. And the sense of excitement of having a room just stacked with Xeroxed copies of articles and books and running, physically running from one to the other in a state of excitement, turning a page here and turning a page there and saying, "Oh, look, how this goes with that, and how these go together." At least for me, that excitement wasn't scholarly. It had to do with making narrative, making story, which all the best historians have always known, but somehow it took another form in me. That is where it came from.

You write very carefully.

Yes, I'm a fussy writer.

Do you do many drafts?

Many drafts. I used to alternate between longhand and typed drafts. I'd write it out in longhand and then keep appending and scribbling and crossing out. And it would get almost unreadable, and then I'd type the draft, and then I'd start scribbling on that. And that would get unreadable and I would write out a draft again because it would help to have it in my hands. I came late to using a computer, but I did use a computer to write both "Ship Fever" and "The Voyage of the Narwhal," and actually I think I probably couldn't have written them without it. I'm sort of reluctant to admit this, but it's true. Not because of the writing process, but because I had to manage so many sources. You know, that sense of needing to leave a trail for myself of where I'm plucking things from, so I can go back later. And if I write, "Oh, they set sail on a Hermaphrodite Brig" -- just being able to have a draft where I put parentheses: "Looks like this, has this many masts, learned this from book X, go back and look at the pictures." Just that mechanical ease of computers can make this possible in a way that I think I would have found hard if I could only use pen and paper.

What advice do you have for writers just starting out? Are people always asking you how they can get published?

I don't know what to tell them about getting things published. It's just really different for every person, and things are complicated in publishing right now. I know the thing that helped me the most and that usually helps other people the most is just trying to be patient. And that's the hardest thing that you can do. We all have such a drive to start publishing right away, but for a lot of us it takes a long while to get good at this. Writing isn't rocket science. It's not conversation either. It is an art, and there is a pile of stuff to learn, and it can take a long time to learn and if you can just be patient with yourself and with the time it can take and with your own working habits ...

And if everyone around you can also be patient ...

That's really hard, too. I was lucky. People were really patient with me for a really long time. It was almost a full decade from when I started writing hard to when I published anything, and, yeah, I think it's hard to get through those years.

Are you still teaching writing?

Well, it's very part time. But I teach in a low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College, which is the first and oldest and I think best of these. I usually do one semester a year. I missed two last year, but I'm actually doing it right now, so I go for 10 days at the start of the semester, and we have all these classes and workshops and lectures and we're matched up with students. I work with them through the mail for the next six months, and I just take three students at a time. It's heaven; they're really good writers and they write like crazy and send me all their stuff and I write all over it and write huge letters to them back. I fax and phone.

Are you encouraged by your students?

I am. They're wonderful writers and part of the reason I'm drawn to that program is that I like to teach one by one and by manuscript because that's what I'm good at. I'm not good in the classroom. But I also like it because it tends to draw people who came to writing later, the same way I did. You know, they're grown-ups, they have families, they have jobs. And they've also been trying very hard to write on their own for a long time, and by the time they make their way to the program they're very good and they're gigantically motivated. So they're a blast to teach and they write really beautiful things.

What's the state of the American novel at the end of the century?

Is that a real question?

Why not? People still dither over what the novel is or should be, or if it should be anything, or can be anything.

Well, perhaps insanely optimistically, at the moment the novel looks very good to me. It seems like more people are doing more various forms than I've ever seen before. Maybe the definition of the American novel has broadened and in a good way. I see an awful lot of good novels these days in such disparate categories, everything from people wrestling with history, as I'm doing, to people doing very contemporary and experimental things, people like Nicholson Baker doing "Vox." I'm reading W.G. Sebald's "The Rings of Saturn" right now. There are so many things a novel can be now and I love that. I love to pick up a novel and be completely surprised by both the shape and the subject matter and to think, oh, but it's still a novel, another kind of novel.

What's this I hear about your playing the drums?

Where did that come from?

I saw it on the Internet.

I do. I play African percussion music. I'm very fond of it. My teachers are largely from Senegal, some of them are from Guinea, and there's a group of people in Rochester and also Buffalo that I take lessons from and/or play with and it's actually a big part of my life. I really like it.

You're famous for keeping your works in progress quiet. I assume you're working on something new?

I'm writing some stories again. I don't know where they're going yet, but I'm always working. I'm miserable when I don't work.

By Peter Kurth

Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.

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