November 8, 1996
Elizabeth Farnsworth talks with Andrea Barrett, recent winner of the National Book Award.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That award went to Andrea Barrett this week for her book Ship Fever and Other Stories. The National Book Awards, now 46 years old, recognize works of exceptional merit by American writers of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. The seven short stories and novella in Andrea Barrett's book all involve the obsessions and ambitions of science as a backdrop and metaphor for the more familiar obsessions of love. Thanks for being with us, Ms. Barrett, and congratulations!
ANDREA BARRETT, Author: (Rochester, NY) Thank you. I'm delighted to be here with you.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us a little bit about the background of this book. What led you to weave the history of science and some of the great men of science throughout this book?
ANDREA BARRETT: It was sort of a natural combination for me. I studied science as a young woman and believed for a long time I would become a zoologist, and I later studied history. It was only after I'd written a great deal of fiction that I began to see a way to weave together science and history with my love of fiction at the same time.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So these were two of your great loves that you got to bring together.
ANDREA BARRETT: Uh-huh. It was wonderful to be able to do that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You've remained very interested in science. You said once you wanted to be--you really wanted to be a naturalist in the 19th century sense.
ANDREA BARRETT: I think I really have the mind of a mid-Victorian naturalist. I really wanted to be Darwin in a skirt wandering through the Galapagos or the Amazon and naming birds and trees and palms and fishes, and I only left science because I realized that's not what we do as scientists anymore. I think I grew up in the wrong century.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Are scientists like artists, in your mind, like novelists?
ANDREA BARRETT: I think they share a great many things. There's a sort of stereotype of scientists that they're--they're dull or fussy or quiet or completely rational. And, in fact, they're just as passionate and creative and chaotic and intuitive as artists are. The links between these fields are very close, I think.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The novella in your collection is called Ship Fever. Tell us a little about it. Tell us about it--the background of it--and then read from it, please.
ANDREA BARRETT: Okay. Um, it takes place in 1847, which was the height of the Irish emigration from the great potato famine. Many Irish people came to North America then. We think of them as coming to New York largely, but, in fact, the largest group went to Canada. And, uh, they first entered the country at an immigration--a quarantine station there not dissimilar to Ellis Island. They traveled under terrible conditions, um, and they--many contracted a disease that was then called Ship Fever but which would now call Typhus. There was not any understanding then of how the disease was spread, and the protagonist of the novella is a young doctor who has a preoccupation with--with the scientific basis of disease, trying to understand how things are conveyed. For that reason and for personal reasons, he goes to the quarantine station to try and help these people. He's expecting something not very bad when he gets there, and, in fact, it turns out to be quite horrible. Um, this is an early scene just after the young doctor has arrived at the quarantine station. He's already boarded two ships that are packed with sick and helpless Irish immigrants. And in this scene he's boarding a third ship to find yet another surprise. "Into the hold again, again. Already Lockland felt as though he knew that place by heart. The darkness of course and the rotting food and the filth sloshing underfoot, the feted bedding alive with vermin and everywhere the sick. But, alas, surprise awaited him here. He inched up to a berth in which two people lay mashed side by side. He leaned over to separate them for comfort and found that both were dead."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He's there because--partly because the woman he loves has criticized him for not doing something worthwhile, right?
ANDREA BARRETT: It's true. As he comes to understand later, it's largely vanity that's driven him to the island. His practice is not going well. The woman with whom he's in love has married somebody else and thinks that he's wasting his life in a certain sense, that he ought to be doing something more significant. And, and in a fit of sort of anger and despair and confusion, he closes his practice and goes off to this quarantine station and meets there the people who will change and shape the rest of his life.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How did you learn to write fiction?
ANDREA BARRETT: I'm largely self-taught. I started very late, and I think of myself as a very slow learner. First Biology and then history engaged me. It took me a long time to understand that it was the stories of those two disciplines that were grasping me and that really what I wanted to do was tell stories, uh, and then I just started writing. I learned to write by writing a novel which I spent almost six years on and was really quite terrible, just unsalvageable. It's what I learned to make a paragraph and a sentence on. Later, I threw that out, and I threw out a second as well, and the third one--excuse me--was published as my first novel, which was called Lucid Stars.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you find important about fiction? It's clearly very important to you?
ANDREA BARRETT: I think it changes the way we see the world. Um, I think--as few of the other arts do--it allows us access into another person's inner life. It's really the only art form that makes us understand that other people's interior lives are as rich and complicated as our own, and I think anything that increases our empathy for other human beings and lets us see the world freshly in all its complexity is a useful thing.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Will this award change your life?
ANDREA BARRETT: It's hard to tell. It's a very recent thing for me. Um, I hope that it brings my books perhaps to a wider audience, but more than that, I hope it brings writing to a larger audience. I think that literary culture is in great danger of being marginalized and that it's so important that we read, that we continue to find life in books. It's not that they're necessarily better than art forms, but they are different, and they're not replaceable. There's nothing else that does what writing fiction does.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Susan Barrett, congratulations, and thanks for being with us.
ANDREA BARRETT: Thank you. It's a pleasure.