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Atlantic Unbound | January 30, 2002
The Science of Stories

Andrea Barrett, the author of Servants of the Map, on how she combines her love of storytelling and her fascination with scientific inquiry


Servants of the Map
by Andrea Barrett
W.W. Norton & Company
320 pages, $24.95

ndrea Barrett claims to have been a poor science student, but to read her recent fiction is to appreciate the allure that science and natural history have always held for her—and for those who have pursued it from the nineteenth century to the present. While the quest for scientific discovery incites her characters to board ships heading for the Arctic or to dig for fossils among the Lakota in the Bad Lands, Barrett's depiction of this pursuit is not a particularly romantic one. Men embark on voyages never to return. A lifetime of work goes unrecognized or—even more devastating—is proven false. Women hide their identities in order to be taken seriously as scientists and to challenge accepted theories. And relationships inevitably buckle under the weight of obsessive dedication to work.

In the title story of Barrett's new collection, Servants of the Map, Max Vigne, a surveyor and aspiring botanist, leaves his family in England for a surveying expedition in the Himalayas. The year is 1863. Letters from his wife Clara, lovingly dated and sorted, are his sole connection to the life he left behind "in service of the map." In his correspondence, he initially withholds from Clara the harsh details of his surroundings and a near-death fall into a crevasse. But as months pass, his letters to Clara begin to indulge in an honesty about the changes he sees in himself. "If I believed in the doctrine of the transmigration of souls," he writes, "I might suspect that the wind is blowing someone else's soul in through my nostrils, while my old soul flies out my ears." Soon after, presented with an envelope that instructs: To be Opened if You Know You Will Not Return to Me, he must decide between his family and his work.

In Barrett's fictional world this calling to pursue scientific discovery is often passed on from generation to generation like some stubborn gene—a trait that Barrett tracks by continually returning to certain families. Readers who are familiar with Barrett's recent books The Voyage of the Narwhal (her best-selling 1998 novel about an Arctic voyage) and Ship Fever and Other Stories (a short-story collection that won the National Book Award in 1996) will recognize certain links with the characters in her new collection. The young, rebellious Lavinia in Servants of the Map was the mother of the Narwhal's botanist. The Marburg sisters, Rose and Bianca from Ship Fever, reappear, respectively enthralled with and disillusioned by science. Nora Kynd, the child separated from her family in Ship Fever, continues her work with the sick and studies the "germ theory" of tuberculosis.

In a certain way, Barrett has made writing into her own science—a labor-intensive process by which she creates complex characters within a compelling historical backdrop. Only after a lengthy period of painstaking research—which includes reading every natural history text she can find on a particular topic—does she begin to write. Even then, she constantly returns to her historical sources to check facts before forging ahead. In her revisions she siphons off massive amounts of extraneous information until, as she says, only the "perfume" of the research and the period remain and a crystallized narrative and character emerge.

Andrea Barrett is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Lillian Fairchild Award. She is the author of five novels and two collections of short stories. She lives with her husband in Rochester, New York, and teaches at Warren Wilson College. She is currently a fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers of the New York Public Library.

I spoke with her by telephone on January 7.

—Jessica Murphy

Andrea Barrett
Andrea Barrett   

Your books are not necessarily a series, yet many of the characters recur time and again throughout all three of your most recent works, and several are even related to one another. I imagine you having an enormous wall-sized family tree in your study, from which you continue to find new material and new relationships. Why do you keep circling back to the same characters?

I want to know how you know about the tree! It's not as big as a wall, but at this point I do have a physically drawn out, messy thing over my desk. It's still very much in progress. I didn't know things were going to go this way. I didn't start off the stories in Ship Fever thinking all these people were related. They keep revealing themselves to me, and their relationships keep revealing themselves. I didn't make the tree until I was writing the stories of Servants of the Map, and I suddenly started to see how all the people were connected. Now it's grown very complex indeed.

A novel I'm trying to get started right now actually ties everybody together. When I'm done with this novel, I'll probably print the tree inside the cover. The tree really grew out of my preoccupation with the Marburg sisters, who are characters that first appeared in Ship Fever. Just about the day that book was published, I realized that I wanted to write a lot more about them, and they were very obdurate about that. It's through their stories that I began to discover relationships with all the others, many of whom are in fact their ancestors in one way or another. My sense of excitement about discovering these people's relationships to each other and about following those threads across centuries and across continents and through these very complicated families is the primary thing out of which the new novel is growing. I don't know where it comes from, but I feel lucky that it came.

Your writing is peppered with the names and theories of nineteenth-century scientists: Linnaeus, Darwin, Mendel. And your last three books are all concerned with history and the pursuit of scientific discovery. What is it about this pursuit and this time period that intrigues you?

All sorts of things. I've actually been interested in this time and in these people since I was a very small girl—ten, eleven, twelve years old. I wanted to be a scientist. My undergraduate degree is in biology, and I really did think I might go off and be some kind of a lady Darwin someplace. It turned out that I'm really awful at science and that I have no gift for actually doing science myself. But I'm very interested in others who practice science and in the stories of science. The thing I'm particularly interested in is natural history. In its heyday, the mid- and late-nineteenth century, when people were going out and gathering the first huge caches of data and trying to understand what was living and growing everywhere, there was such a sense of freshness to that pursuit. It's very exciting.

Ship Fever seems to have been a departure from your previous books both thematically (in that you were writing about history and the pursuit of scientific discovery) and stylistically (in that it was your first collection of short fiction). What led you to such a departure?

A couple of things. I think most fiction writers naturally start by writing short stories, but some of us don't. When I first started writing, I just started writing a novel. It's a hard way to learn to write. I don't recommend it to my students, but it just happens that way for some of us. Even after writing four novels, I had experimented very little with the story form—and I love stories. I love reading them. I love teaching them. But I had a very strong sense that I had no idea how to write one. The year I started writing the stories in Ship Fever, I was fortunate enough to get an NEA grant. And I was sort of burned out from writing a bunch of novels fairly quickly. I thought that with that grant I would, in effect, go back to school—that I would just try and live and write for a year and see if I could teach myself to write a story. I really had no intention of making a collection. I wasn't sure I'd even be able to publish the stories. As it turns out I love to write stories. Sometimes they do seem to me to be a novelist's stories. They're long and they tend to cover a lot of time. In some ways I think of them as condensed novels, and some of them certainly are novellas with a different arc than a typical story.

I'm aware that people always say that I changed the theme of my subject matter at the same time, but to me it didn't feel like such a big switch. I had relied a lot upon research of different kinds to make my earlier novels, too. I wrote one called The Middle Kingdom about people in China during the Cultural Revolution, which I actually knew very little about and had to go learn. And the central character of my fourth novel, The Forms of Water, is an eighty-year-old ex-monk, with very few connections to the details of my own life. So those things really had to be invented out of research in the same way that the stories of Ship Fever were invented out of research. But I do think that moving away from the novel form and going through the process of writing the stories may have somehow given me the courage or the impulse to go back to the material of science and history, which I had loved in my youth.

Journal entries, letters, and sections of science manual Q&As are seamlessly incorporated into the narrative of your stories, which has the effect of expanding the short-story form. Why is this so often a part of your "form"?

The fact is that I just like the texture of those materials, I like the sound, and I like the way the rhythm of those materials breaks up the rhythm of exposition and summary. But also those forms are an incredibly economical way to convey certain kinds of information. If I'm not writing a novel and I don't have much room to allow things to evolve in a scene, one way to get around that is to use techniques to let a character summarize, whether in letter or in journal entry form. So in some sense that's a technical decision. It allows me to move through space and time quite quickly.

Several of your female characters study and search and discover despite being held back by the constraints of society. Alexandra in The Voyage of the Narwhal says, "Why can't my life be larger?" In "Rare Bird" from Ship Fever Sarah Anne Billopp must furtively do experiments to challenge Linnaeus's theory that swallows hibernate underwater, and she must disguise her identity in her letters to him. In "The Cure" from Servants of the Map Nora Kynd researches "germ theory" with a local doctor. Why is it important to you to depict these women?

Many women didn't have the chance to go off and do active exploring or weren't allowed to work in universities or in laboratories. Women have always had the same scientific curiosity that men do. There's a long history of women doing science or thinking scientifically and writing scientifically on their own, even when their opportunities were constrained by culture and the time they lived in. When we think of sciences, we think of the many things that go on in departments in academia, in big institutions. But that isn't the only place where science gets done. There are men and women—both in this country and in many other countries—writing and thinking and doing experiments outside the confines of academia. They don't tend to get known and life doesn't always go so well for them, but that activity goes on, and I'm quite fascinated by it. So I try to remind myself and to remind readers that besides the people who go out and get famous for the work they do, there's also this parallel layer of people who do scientific work and have that curiosity and that intelligence, but don't have the same opportunities and don't get recognized.

Does the unrecognized work of the scientist have any correlation with the struggle for artists to be recognized?

Oh, of course it does. I'm sure that's part of what drew me to write about that in the first place. Art, science, and writing are very closely connected. The activities have a great deal in common, and of course on one level the struggles that scientists have are a not-very-disguised way for me to talk about the struggles of artists and writers.

In "The Behavior of the Hawkweeds" from Ship Fever you make a direct connection between the pursuit of science and storytelling. How did this story come about?

That was one of the early stories I wrote, and I do remember very palpably the sense that in the writing of that story I had discovered a different way of writing and access to new material. It was very exciting. That story was kind of the door to all the other work for me. In that story there's a contemporary plot in which the historical material about Mendel is buried, but it's still expressed very fully. As I let Antonia recount those stories of Mendel, I learned myself that it's possible to tell stories about these people whose lives I'd been so interested in. After I wrote that story I was able for the first time ever to write something that was set wholly in the past and that didn't have what for me was the crutch of the contemporary framework. In effect I let go of Antonia and just told the story. So that was a huge learning experience for me, and it was kind of a breakthrough.

Part of the complexity of your characters is what they don't reveal about themselves to those they know. Many of your characters withhold information about their pasts and their true desires. In "Servants of the Map" Max Vigne keeps the horrors of his discomfort and loneliness out of his letters home, and his wife leaves out the same in her letters to him. In "The Cure" when Nora and Ned Kynd reunite, "he kept to himself the harsher truth." What do you think this reveals about these characters?

I think for a lot of them they're in a constant tension (as most of us are) between the urge to confide and the urge to hide that which feels most essential to them. I think that tension about what to reveal about the emotional life is particularly high for people who are involved in science or some sort of academic pursuit where the intellectual and the cerebral are very highly valued. You're right. I do think I work with that a lot in many different characters. It tends to surface in various ways, but I think it's always there at some level. They're a secretive set of people.

You also have several stories that include an aging scientist, one who has accomplished much but who is struggling with a loss of memory or a loss of control. In "The English Pupil" from Ship Fever Linnaeus's memories are failing, and in your new collection there's a wonderful story in which an old biochemist is ignored at a function for the elite scientists. Only the young girl, Bianca, takes notice of him. Is human frailty especially hard for these particular characters to understand?

I think it is, again, especially for those who value their intellectual achievements over other parts of their personality, because those are exactly the things they're losing—memory and the content of their minds. I think that's a particularly painful situation to be in. When I was a younger woman I used to know a lot of elderly scientists and very smart people in other fields, and it really interests me to watch how people in that situation deal with the later years of their lives.

Your characters have a certain obsessiveness about them…

I would venture to say that they do. As does their maker. I am, as are most writers, just hugely obsessive, and so are many of my closest friends, who tend to be writers or scientists. It's a trait of human nature that I'm particularly in touch with. So I tend to project it on to my characters. I do think it's very hard to be a good scientist without that. It's not that scientists are necessarily fussy and detail-oriented, as they're often portrayed—although most of them do have some component of that. To be really good at science or writing or most other things you have to have the ability to think in a kind of tunnel vision, to focus on that which you're trying to make or discover or elucidate and nothing else. It can look pretty eccentric at times. But it feels accurate when I'm writing about scientists to project that on to them and then to imagine some of the consequences of that, not just for the work but for the life. What's it like to move through the world with that particular kind of obsessiveness? What does that mean in terms of our human relationships?

Science seems to offer endless metaphorical possibilities, but I'm sure there must be a risk of taking a metaphor too far. Is this something you struggle with?

I think about that a lot, because sometimes I read the work of other people where I do think that has happened. There is always a risk of romanticizing science and using the metaphors to go off in very goofy directions. This tends to happen more with physics than with biology because in large part non-physicists tend to understand physics less well than non-biologists understand biology. The language and the images of physics—especially quantum mechanics and particle physics—are so rich and messy that you can do a lot with them, but most of what writers do isn't accurate on any level. So when I use the language of natural science, which is so beautiful and rich, I try to keep it in its own province. Or at least when I'm not keeping it in its own province I try to keep it rooted in a character's imagination. If I want to make a wild metaphoric leap with the language of science, I have one of the characters do it.

The work of some other writers who base their fiction on research, I think, is too heavily researched, and that distances the readers from the characters. You seem to have struck the right balance. Is this a balance that you consciously seek? Do you find yourself having to whittle down a lot of the research that you do?

Yes, I throw out almost all of it. The way I write is just grotesque. If somebody saw me, they would be sick. It's awful. And in some sense very wasteful. My own particular obsessiveness and my own emotional make-up dictates to me that I have to research something in obsessive detail before I can write about it. And while I'm writing about it, I can't stand to get things wrong. I'm kind of crazily fussy, so I read and I read and I read and I read. Often for a story, I will do enough research to write a couple of novels, and for a novel I'll do enough research to have written an encyclopedia. I agree with you, it's very easy to succumb to the impulse to stuff all that research in the book. I do stuff too much into my early drafts, and a lot of the process of my later drafts is to take it out chunk by chunk, painfully and kicking and screaming the whole time, realizing I'm interested in this or that fact, but nobody else is. I do this until finally all that's left is a sort of whiff of the original or a kind of distilled particle of what was a great vat of research. But in the end fiction is about the characters, the image, the language, the poetry, the sound; it isn't about information. The information has to be distilled down to let us focus on what's really going on with the people.

Having said this, I'm not always successful. Sometimes it's my editor in the last drafts or one of my dear friends and readers who says, "You know, maybe these six pages about how dew is formed could be one page." And of course having started out with thirty pages on how dew is formed I'm very reluctant. But I always have to let it go in the end.

Is there any story in particular in which the research was particularly difficult—or intriguing?

The research for "Theories of Rain" (Servants of the Map) was the strongest case of what I'm talking about. There's probably still too much there. It's not a very long story, and I worked on it for a couple of years. It's set in the early nineteenth century, which was a very fertile time for science. Everything was changing. Since I don't know as much about the early nineteenth century as I do about the latter part, I had to learn from scratch. I was oddly fascinated by the early theories about precipitation and the winds and meteorology and the dew, and I just got lost in that. And then I got further sidetracked by a character named William Bartram who's a real person and a fascinating one. He and his father were the first really good American botanists and natural historians, and I spent entirely too much time learning entirely too much about Bartram, Bartram's friends, Bartram's correspondents in England, his artwork. And he's in there for a page. You don't really learn about all his learning or all the trips he made or all the plans he made, you learn about an old guy with a bird. It enriched my life to learn all that. I had a blast. And every once in a while someone will tell me they got interested in Bartrum because of the story and they went off and read all these things and then I feel really happy. I feel like I turned someone else on to a thing that fascinated me and sent them down that same path of discovery. I love when that happens. But that's what I mean by being an inefficient writer.

How did you get interested in Arctic history?

Sort of by accident. I always loved the snow and the high mountains. I learned to ski when I was very tiny—my father had been a ski racer. I'm actually named after an Olympic ski racer—Andrea Mead Lawrence. And he had hoped that my siblings and I would race in the Olympics. When I was older and couldn't afford to ski anymore, my husband, who did snow camping, climbing, and ice climbing, started to take me to the mountains in the winter. I got to be on glaciers and in crevasses. The first whiff of Arctic history is so compelling you fall headlong into it, and I had this kind of visceral connection to the snow and the ice and the cold—and then the history itself is completely interesting. So it was like falling in love and not being able to get out for a long time.

There were fifty or sixty prominent voyages in the middle of the nineteenth century, and I read all the accounts of all of them. The reason I didn't choose one of the actual accounts to base the Narwhal on is that they're all interesting, but they all were thwarted in one way or the other. There was no single actual voyage that incorporated the most interesting elements that showed up in all the voyages. And by making an invented voyage, I was trying to tie together the most interesting and characteristic elements of all the voyages of the middle of the century—the Northwest Passage, the search for Franklin, the encounters with Inuit, the mutinies or near mutinies that happened on some of the voyages, the anthropological things that happened once people got home, and the discussions about race and culture.

What is your writing process? When do you put down the history books and start writing fiction? Or does it happen all at once?

It kind of happens all at once in this big confusing muddle. I have to read very hard for some length of time. It's usually upwards of a year before I can begin to write, because at a certain level you just have to know the time and the background before you can start anything. With the example of the Narwhal I had to know enough Arctic history to know what were the crucial years and what might be the crucial backbone—in this case the search for Franklin—to even begin to be able to invent. I knew the most fruitful year was 1856, and if I set it between McClintock's voyage and the other voyage there was room there for an invented voyage. You can't really make those decisions without a certain familiarity, so that usually takes quite a while.

Once I know the period and the place well enough to invent the characters with some reasonable degree, then I can start writing. But then I have to stop every page or two. With The Voyage of the Narwhal I'd start writing about a guy on a dock who's looking at a ship and they're loading stuff and my hand goes to write a sentence and I realize: What stuff? What was on those voyages? And then I can find that out without too much trouble but then the question is: Well, where in the ship does it go? How is the ship built? And then you get the stuff on the ship and it's time for the guys to get on the ship and the question is: Where do the men sleep? What does the inside of a ship look like? What do the bunks look like? Where's the stove? Do they need a cook? Where's the cook working? They sail out of the harbor and I'm writing happily for awhile and I want one of them to see an iceberg and then I'm stopped by the fact that I don't know how far south icebergs go. So I have to research icebergs. Do they show up in Newfoundland? In New York City? There are answers to all these things, but I never know them until I go looking for them.

Your educational background is interesting. If I'm correct, you left high school before graduating but got accepted to Union College, where you were among those in the second class of women admitted. Could you talk a little bit about your education and how it affected the way you write?

My education was spotty and very untraditional. I was very, very lucky that Union took me at the end of my junior year of high school. I didn't do my senior year. That in retrospect seems to have been brave on their part. I don't know why they did that. I didn't have good grades. I skipped school a lot.

Union was a school that at that time offered a lot of independent study work if one chose. That happens to be a way of learning that suits me very well, and I took very large advantage. I would guess a third of my coursework if not more ended up being independent-study courses. I would work individually with a teacher. It actually seems to me now a process not so much different from what I do writing. I was young and I didn't know anything, but the feel of it was the same. I would ask a question or invent a project and then throw myself into the library and in a very naïve way just try and learn whatever I could and write a paper. So that was very good training for this. I was a biology major at Union. I went very briefly to graduate school. I entered a Ph.D. program in zoology and didn't even finish my first semester. I was completely incapable of doing the work or teaching the freshman zoology labs which we were supposed to be doing three times a week. I could not have been more lost. I dropped out very promptly. I also did a couple years of work in history, not history of science, unfortunately, but Reformation and Medieval theological history. I didn't finish that either. I think the truth is that school doesn't suit me very well. I've always been a great reader and very eager to learn, but I always want to learn what I want to learn. I am very self-directed, and that has downsides and upsides. It makes school hard and it makes writing easy.

You have said before that you are self taught, and that this is a "traditional way of learning to write." How was your self-education important to your writing?

I was self taught in my early years, but since around the time I published my first book, I've been lucky enough to have very good friends who are also writers who have effectively been my teachers. I share my work with other writers, and they've taught me an enormous amount about how to write. And my students have taught me since I started teaching at Warren Wilson. There's really nothing like teaching to throw you into a perfect panic about how much you don't know. And my students are very good and very smart and very well read. Scrambling to keep a half step ahead of them forced me to finally learn a lot of things I should've learned as a younger writer. And also I learn from their work and I learn from the questions they ask me. In a strange way that's really been my education.

What advice would you give a fledgling writer who decides to write a historical novel?

Just to be brave. A lot of what keeps people away from this is fear. And the fear is real—the sense that you never can know enough to do this right, that you can't absorb all the material, that you will get things wrong. There has to be some way to negotiate that fear and to plunge into the material. Beyond that, technically I guess I would advise that it is much more useful to read things of the period than to read things about the period. When I'm working on something about the 1880s, as with "The Cure," it's really of no use for me to read histories of tuberculosis or sanatoriums. What is useful to me is to read letters that people wrote then, to read medical books that were published in 1880. Through those sources I can get a sense of how people felt in that situation rather than how we feel now and how we judge it now with our further knowledge.

Your story "Two Rivers," in Servants of the Map, starts out seemingly focused on one set of characters, but then ends up centering more on a different set of characters. Does that happen often, where you begin writing a story, thinking it's about one character and then it ends up being about another?

It happens so often I can hardly bear it. It happens all the time. If it didn't happen where would the fun be? Part of the fun for us as readers when we read something we like is the essence of the unexpected, a sense of discovery, a sense that the weight of the story is shifting from where we might have predicted it. And part of the fun for me as the writer is not knowing where I'm going, being continually surprised after all these years that I can't control it, that I can't predict it, that I am almost invariably wrong about what or who I initially thought the story was about. That's why it's still fun for me—and it is extremely fun for me; I'm very happy when I'm writing.

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Jessica Murphy is an Atlantic Monthly staff editor. Her most recent interview was with Jonathan Franzen.

Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.