Writer Andrea Barrett has published five novels: Lucid Stars, Secret Harmonies, The Middle Kingdom, The Forms of Water and The Voyage of the Narwhal and two story collections, Ship Fever (for which she won a National Book Award for Fiction in 1996) and most recently Servants of the Map (Feb. 2002).
Andrea Barrett grew up on Cape Cod, Massachusetts and studied biology at Union College in Schenectady, New York. For the most part, Barrett makes her home in Rochester, New York, although she is currently a Fellow at the Center for Writers and Scholars at the New York Public Library. She has, for years, been teaching at the Warren Wilson College in North Carolina in the MFA Program for Writers and has been a visiting writer in numerous programs and writers conferences. She has been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and in October 2001, Andrea Barrett was awarded the highly esteemed MacArthur Fellowship.
In the six stories that comprise Servants of the Map, Barrett continues creating a rich fictional world and a variety of explorations that take her across the 19th and 20th centuries as well to distant and close points on the map.
Robert Birnbaum: Tell me about your tour?
Andrea Barrett: Actually, I have a very light schedule. I declined to do an actual book tour this time. The last one nearly killed me. I'm getting away with murder, as these things go. A lot of my friends are on much worse schedules. This hasn't been bad.
RB: Perhaps I was misled to thinking you traveled extensively by looking at the 26 plus pages about you on Google...
AB: 26 pages?
RB: At least... [there are a few references to a wedding photographer with the same name]
AB: Oh my God. I think a lot of it is from 1996 and the National Book Award.
RB: Sure. You are living in New York City currently because of your New York Public Library fellowship. I looked at the list of the fellows. Seems like an interesting group. Do you associate/interact with them?
AB: Of course. If you took the bottom floor of this house and you placed couches and a couple of big square tables in it and then you framed it with a horse shoe of little offices ...there are people in each of those 15 little offices. We are right on top of each other. There is no not associating; it's very intimate. There are 15 fellows and a director, and an assistant director and a helper. We are ringed around this common space. The offices are quite small but very pretty. The whole idea of the fellowship is that everybody is working on a book and doing research. We are really meant to be cross-pollinated pretty heavily.
RB: It's a two-year fellowship?
AB: One year and this is the third year of the program. We eat lunch together formally once a week, but a lot of us gather for lunch more informally on other days.
RB: It sounds utopian...in intention it sounds like the Bunting Institute [at Radcliffe].
AB: I think it is meant to be like that. It's a wonderful thing. There has been a lot of cross-pollination. The fellows turn out to have many more affinities than anyone would have thought, including the fellows...often in unexpected ways. This year there are ten scholars and five creative writers. On the whole I think it is utopian for the scholars because they are less solitary weirdos than we are.
RB: (Laughs) Right.
AB: I still find it hard to write when there are people near by. It's a great place to do research.
RB: Is that a requirement of the program? Do you put in something like office hours?
AB: That was the idea. Everyone has a computer and there are no phones. It's meant to be quiet and the idea is that people would actually do their "work " work there. In practice, it's turned out that creative writers tend to do their "writing" writing more at home although we do research there.
RB: Are you required to submit something at the end of your fellowship?
AB: You write a proposal at the beginning of a competitive application [process] of what you want to work on and then you largely work on that. But no, it's not like you have to give them a book. They do ask that whatever work you produce out of the program you acknowledge them.
RB: Is there a document, an anthology of the fellows' work?
AB: Not yet, it's still a pretty new program. It was funded by Dorothy and Lewis Coleman. They had this idea that there would be a retreat and common working space where people could gather.
RB: Most artist retreats and colonies are in more remote, rustic settings.
AB: Yes. The library is pretty idyllic, though. It's a beautiful building. It's really hard to grasp how much is there. They just have everything there. It's astonishing. It's a weird thing for someone who does a lot of research. Usually when I am on the track of something for a book...I start the way a lot of non-academic researchers do. I'll read a book and through the footnotes and the bibliography of that book, I'll keep going back in different layers and one set of sources that will lead me to another set of sources and the footnotes and sources in that will lead me to another layer and another. Often it's a very prolonged path because I can't get the books; I have the references but not the books. In The New York Public Library, I start a trail like that and I punch the button and they are all there, they are all in the catalogue and someone will bring them to my office after I fill out the slips. That's very cool.
RB: I noticed also Jeffrey Renard Allen is a fellow.
AB: A wonderful novelist who has written Rails Under my Back...
RB: I tried to read it.
AB: It's a difficult book. It's very challenging. I think he is really brilliant. But it is a hard read. I don't know anyone else who is working with that kind of black English. He may have really found a pathway that no one else has taken. He's a smart guy, shy. I haven't gotten to know him very well. I like him a lot.
RB: I would expect, more often than not, writers to be shy. It seems like writers have become much more public people in the past decade. These days it seems getting face time with writers is more competitive because they are more in demand and more is expected of them by their publishers.
AB: I always knew how lucky I was to be at Norton [Barrett's American publisher]. More and more I get a sense of how differently things run there than they do at other places. And how much it still is a literary culture there. I count on people there to be readers, and they are. I think I might be having a different experience elsewhere. I know...I did a real tour with the last book [The Voyage of the Narwhal] for all the obvious reasons and some unobvious, it was just really hard on me. It made me really sick. It made me unable to write for a while. It really wore me out.
RB: You are anticipating my next question. It would seem that it is as much the work of the writer today to go out and talk about the work they have done than to do the work, the writing?
AB: Well that can certainly happen if you don't seize some control over it. I think writers who live in Boston or New York are probably more savvy about the process and about what is happening to them. Living in Rochester and with the kind of early publication history that I have, I didn't know anything about that world. I didn't even know that world existed. It really took me by surprise. And part of being taken by surprise is...I didn't know what to say no to. I didn't know what was happening to me. I didn't know that a person could say no to certain things. At a place like Norton I could say, "I don't want to do a real tour again. It makes me sick and then I can't write." And they would say, "Okay." I don't know that I would get away with that at every place.
RB: I think you get away with that if you win major book awards and the MacArthur Fellowship. Do you still teach in North Carolina?
AB: I do, but it's a low-residency program.
RB: Like Bennington?
AB: This was (Warren Wilson College) actually the first one. Bennington is modeled after Warren Wilson. And that's the place I go to. It's outside of Asheville.
RB: Some people suggest that there is something in the drinking water in North Carolina that spawns so many good writers...
AB: No, I am quite sure that it's not the drinking water. I think it's the woman who founded it [the program], Ellen Voigt, the poet. North Carolina certainly helps. They have been wonderfully hospitable to the program at Warren Wilson, but the heart of that program is Ellen, and the reason it's so different is her ethos and the way she has been able to communicate that to so many writers. It's different from anyplace else I teach. One of the reasons it's different — I think it may be one of the only writing programs, there is at least an unwritten rule — nobody talks about publishing there. We don't have editors visit. We don't have agents visit. We don't have publishing workshops. We don't do that there. New people pick up on it very quickly — when we are there it's like being kids in summer camp again. People talk about books. We talk about stuff we've read. We talk about Mavis Gallant and is she better or worse than Alice Munro? And are they better or worse than William Maxwell? People don't talk about their movie deals or their book contracts or their prizes. All of that just disappears. It's about the work. It's about teaching. Some of the people who teach there have gotten very well known over the years. But still, when they come there, all that drops away. That's Ellen, I think. And she's passed that on to a lot of people. I love that.
RB: With so many great writers coming from North Carolina, I have gotten the impression that writing has a disproportionately greater weight...
AB: There is still that tradition of storytelling there and storytelling being honored there. They were very eager at Warren Wilson to have the MFA program down there and embrace it. And that is probably because of the hospitality that North Carolina always feels and shows to writers. A lot of their undergraduates are really good writers.
RB: I wonder about writing programs and the making of a career of writing, especially in what seems ostensibly like a non- and sometimes an anti-literary culture. How do people set aside their lives to pursue something that for most of them will offer nothing but hardship? You worked many years before you were given recognition...
AB: I was the slowest person in North America, I think.
RB: Why do people subject themselves to this, knowing what they must know about the odds?
AB: Some proportion of people don't know. They don't know on purpose. No one ever thinks that they are going to be in the 80% of the people that won't make it. We all think we are going to be in the 20%...that's being young, so that's part of it. But some of us do know. I knew. I started late. I knew with great conviction that I would never make it. I knew I would never be able to publish a story. I knew that I would never be able to publish a book. And then I knew that the books would never get reviewed [both laugh]...I'm a pessimist, I always knew all that. But I couldn't really stop myself. It was what I loved to do, and it was what I wanted to do. I have students like that now. Most of the people...I'd say the average age is late '30s. They are all grown ups, they have lives and jobs. A lot of them have kids and jobs. And they find the time to take ten days out their lives, twice a year — put their families and their jobs aside — blow all their vacation time at the residency. And we then we work them really hard during the semester. I don't know how they do it. It often comes at a huge sacrifice of their personal and family lives...and it costs money. They really want it. That's why I like teaching them. It's much more fun to teach someone who really wants it and in some sense knows the sacrifice they are making. It's also frightening because I know the sacrifices they are making and want so much for them to succeed. It's scary to think what will happen if they don't.
AB Those are real risks you take when you do this as a grownup. A real marriage and real kids you are not taking care of and a real job you are not showing up for. It's hard.
RB: Can you, in any way, quantify how much of the year you spend writing, researching, teaching...how do you divide your time?
AB: (Long pause)
RB: Or does it all flow together?
AB: It does all just juggle together. This year is such a mess, and I am so off my normal working habits, that I don't know anything, anymore.
RB: Why is that?
AB: Because I wrote all my books in the same room in Rochester and then I moved. And then I moved to New York City. I moved right before Sept. 11. It's been an odd year. And now I am working in a room with 15 other people. Everything is up in the air right now. Most of the years I was at home, it was more like each day contained all those things than that year was broke up. The 10 days I am at Warren Wilson I can't do anything else but do that. It's very intense. The routine that worked for me for a long time was to write in the morning, to write first. Get up, walk the dog, write, not answer the phone, just try not to let any of life into that room. And to write for three or four hours and sort of deal with everything else after lunch. If it was a semester I was doing teaching it meant reading manuscripts and writing back to the students. And whatever writing-business stuff came my way then that, too. Or if I was writing reviews or an essay or an introduction...all that to do in the afternoon. Or if I had to, in the evenings. And then usually to read in the evenings. When I am researching really hard — which is to say that I am in the thick of a story or a novel — there is a ton of research going on all the time. I can't do all that and write because I don't know where I am going. That's a great big wad of stuff that when I am writing — pushes a lot of stuff to the edges — and I can get bad about taking care of some of my other commitments because that takes all afternoon and evening, everyday just to stay ahead of myself so that I can write in the morning.
RB: After years of living in Rochester, New York, not exactly the center of the Universe — but you are writer, so much of your life is pretty self-contained — you moved to New York City. What is that like?
AB: It's made it impossible for me to write. It's no one's fault. It's not New York City's fault. I know really good writers who live in New York City and work, but I can't. If I stayed there for five or six years, would I find a way to carve out a ritual solitude? Probably, yes. I am a writer; I'd find a way to do it.
RB: It's that intrusive?
AB: It is for me. At 47 [years of age], I've never lived in a big city. Being so solitary for so long, it was a big shock to me. It's amazing to me that I got away with this for so long. I didn't have to deal with this. I really have a new respect for the people I know who live here in New York, in the thick of things and do maintain sufficient privacy and concentration to write. I'm not doing that. I'm really having a hard time with that. I'm learning a lot, and I bet I write out of this and I'm getting a lot of research done but very little writing. I'm going to need to get back home to get that.
RB: A lot is made of the fact that you continue to plumb science as an integral part of your fiction. Are you surprised by that?
AB: Uh huh.
RB: Why is it? Because people who read fiction don't want the content to have any direct connection with the physical world?
AB: Why is that so? Why have we lost those expectations? That was certainly not true in other times. Think how much science is stuffed into Middlemarch.
RB: You are asking the wrong person. My reading has been confined to the last 50 years and actually predominantly to the past 15 years...
AB: Let me see if I can find an example post-1950...
RB: Thomas Pynchon.
AB: Yes, his books are full of all sorts of things. When did it become the expectation that American writing began to be, that it would be content-free? When did the focus shift so "interiorly," that consciousness and movements of relationships and sexuality issue of gender and identity and...
RB: As if there was no external world?
AB: I don't know the answer to any of that. It doesn't seem so surprising to me that I should make books out of that matter. It's what I am interested in. It's what I know and in some sense that has always been the task of fiction, to bring the worlds that we know and are interested in to our readers in some shape that makes it possible for them to apprehend that and to be interested in that. It doesn't seem like such an odd task to me. And I am certainly not the only person who does it.
RB: Again, why the commentary and questioning about it?
AB: It might be a gender thing. People don't seem surprised when Richard Powers does it. Why are they surprised when I do it? Is it because I'm a woman and I am expected to write about family and love? It's not true in Britain. A.S. Byatt does it and nobody makes much of it. Iris Murdoch always did it. So it's not being a woman, it's being an American woman?
RB: Are you writing historical fiction?
RB: What is your obligation to historical fact? There are clearly references to things — in the case of the title story Servants of the Map — that seem like they might have happened.
AB: I feel obliged to stick very closely to the facts in so far as I know them. I don't feel that as an imperative that I would pass on to all my students or would say is a general obligation. It's more of a psychological and personal imperative. I went to graduate school, very briefly, in history. Something in me is very fussy about that.
RB: What is historical fiction?
AB: There is a certain kind of fiction that when I read it seems like its primary job is to give me history-lite, to bring the battle scene back before my eyes in a more lively way with a fictional character in it.
RB: Contrast that with a book like Thomas Mallon's Henry and Clara?
AB: Tom's work is the opposite of history-lite. His approach is always to work at the margins of history. To write fiction that touches, often very heavily and always very accurately on something like the Lincoln assassination. — Tom is more of a fussbudget than I am about getting the facts right — he will never pass on something that is factually wrong. But I don't believe his concern is to comment on the Lincoln assassination. I think he's trying to make a fiction about people on the edges at large events. He's chosen that time and that event because it's resonant metaphorically. Do you see these as two different things?
RB: Yes. I see Thomas Mallon as suggesting the possibilities that are present in every historical situation.
AB: I think that's right. He is suggesting by implication that there is always more to the story than we are presented with...however wide we open the ring or set of rings out around an event, we never open it wide enough that always affects more people in more ways than we understand. And that our private lives are always more affected by our public lives or by life in general than we understand. I think that's what he's trying to get at. I think what I am doing is related. I don't share his ability to merge the personal and the political at that level.
I think I feel trapped by the confines of what I can write about the life I see around me right now. It just makes a wider world for me to work in if I push open that door and say I don't have to write about what I can see and know right now. I write about what can be seen and known in the past. It just seems to make it more possible for me to find story that is resonant for me.
RB: In the story Servants of the Map, you refer to a mutiny and a massacre in India. Are these real incidents?
AB: Yes. The massacre is a very famous incident, actually.
RB: They were very powerful elements. I must say that I was very impressed by the transparency of your writing. The stories drew me in, but I never stopped to think about what the writer had done or how they did it or the language...
AB:That's the nicest thing you could say to me. I am very sensitive to a prose style and will often love even very ornate one in another writer. But for whatever set of reasons, I try to make the prose transparent in my own work. My early drafts tend to be...the prose is just worse...it's worse in all sorts of ways. It tends to be lumpier, there tend to be more compound complex sentences and long arrays of semi colons. It just sort of me showing off because I can. I do an awful lot of drafts of stuff, I do really terrible first drafts. When I go back, one thing that drops away is a lot of the research. I always stuff way too much in. Those two instances in Servants of the Map, about the mutiny and the men being punished ...there were several pages initially about each of those. It all had to go in the end. Except these little whiffs that are left. A whiff of this, a whiff of that...but that happens all the time. The other thing that happens is that I try not to simplify the language but to make it clean. To make it so that it's not about me but about the story. To make it resonant, to try and make it beautiful and austere. To make it so that if you read it out loud that it will sound good, there is a certain rhythm to it. Just to get rid of all the extra stuff so that whatever is there can speak for itself. So that characters can speak for themselves. I don't always succeed in that but I do try.
RB: I was quite moved by the scene where Max [Servants of the Map] falls into a crevasse, the ultimate eerie solitude of his peril which you had preceded in the story by the discovery of a body frozen in place...
AB: Frozen in a crevasse. That was something a guide told me. My husband and I used to do some winter climbing and camping out. While I was writing that story we went up to Banff, around Lake Louise. He went out with a guide to do a climb...one of the guide's specialties was crevasse rescue. He taught other guides how to haul people who fell out of crevasses. Once I learned that I started talking to him. Two things happened. He told me a sequence of really gory stories of what can happen to you if you get caught in a little crevasse. Which is this thing where you body heat melts you in deeper and deeper — which I use in the story. And the other thing is that I had him lower me into a crevasse — which was perfectly safe — I am by no means courageous. I am a huge weenie. If I don't get my coffee in the morning you don't want to talk to me. I do have a climbing harness and crampons and he was incredibly careful and skilled. There was a big open crevasse on the Athabasca Glacier near where we were. So he just dropped me down about 40 feet and let me dangle there for a while and check it out.
RB: 40 feet!
AB: It was completely safe.
RB: You were with someone. Part of the power of Max's plight is that he is alone. I recently read Gretel Ehrlich's This Cold Heaven. There is a place in her story where she falls through the ice with the dog sled and her companion...it was pretty touch-and-go. I was struck by her non-chalance in telling of this brush with death...
AB: That's a wonderful book. She really interests me. She really is actually physically courageous, which I'm not. She really goes to these places and really does these things for years and years at a time. I am an armchair traveler that occasionally flirts by a mountain. She's the real thing. It's amazing that she'll go back and back and back to Greenland and go off on these journeys. I really admire that. I like her writing very much, too. I think she is a terrific writer.
RB: I have only read The Voyage of the Narwhal and Servants of the Map. But in those books and what I have read in previous works, characters reappear. I also noted that the stories in the new book have appeared in various publications. How did you form this book...is there a methodology in the way you put together this collection?
AB: It's a collection, but it is also a piece of some multi-book thing I didn't really understand for a long time. The characters are lightly tied to each other in the stories here. But they also stand-alone. You might remember Ned Kind from The Voyage of the Narwhal, he was the cook. What you wouldn't know is that Ned and Nora [The Cure] are both in Ship Fever. And so are the Marburgh sisters, Bianca and Rose. In fact, though no one but me can see this yet, all these people in all these books are actually tied loosely or tightly to the Marburgh sisters. I have a big family tree at home, the point is Rose and Bianca and then it gets wider and wider and then it gets really wide at the top.
RB: They are the only characters who are contemporary.
AB: Yes, they're the end-point of all those families. There is a family in England, another in Ireland, there's someone in Germany, everybody is sort of funneling down in some way to them.
RB: Certainly the stories stand alone, but when one looks at a group of stories in a particular book and you the connections, it becomes a subsidiary activity to identify the sub-textual import or the mystical structure of those connections...
AB: No mystical structure.
RB: There is no greater meaning to be assigned to this element of your writing?
AB: Most of it is something that keeps me writing. I am not sure how important it is for readers. I chose not to say much about it on the flap copy or in the publicity stuff because for some people part of the fun is making those connections — realizing that the Clara that's in The Cure is Max's wife and that the grown-up Elizabeth is Max's daughter. But you don't need to know that to make the story work. I think the story is richer if you do know.
RB: Once I started to see these overlaps, or something like that, I found things in previous stories reverberating...
AB: The stories close as stories do if you don't know about those connections. If there is an idea behind this it's that by making these very loose connections, some of which hark back to other books, it forces the story to be open ended even when it looks closed. It means that you as a reader will, ideally, walk away and a day later think, "Oh but Elizabeth was Max's daughter...What did it mean that Max didn't come home?" It opens up both stories to you. It gives you a different sense of completion to Max's story which once stood on its own, once rounded off with him in the Himalayas. And it gives you a different sense of openness with Elizabeth, which is sort of how we know people. As we move through our lives, we make a friend and we move through a set of life with them and we know a certain thing. Then we lose touch and twenty years later we find out, "Oh, he wasn't in love with her. He was having an affair the whole time." Or, "Oh, he's gay. I thought he was straight." You know that way that our perceptions of people and of our own movements through our own lives are constantly being turned over as we aged and we find out new things about the people that we love. I was trying to bring back some of that in to fiction as well as into life.
RB: That is the rewarding and fun part for me as the reader...adding to the richness of the stories.
AB: The fun part for me is that I don't know these things. No, it's not like I woke up one morning and thought, "I want to write five books and they are going to..." I didn't know any of this when I started writing. When I wrote the stories in Ship Fever, they were just stories. When I wrote the Narwhal, I knew Ned was Nora's brother, but I didn't know any more than that. I just wanted to bring him along. It wasn't until I started writing these stories, that I began to see a way that these might fit together. It's been actually a wonderful jolt to the imagination for me. And that's the other reason I do it. It's huge fun for me. It's part of what keeps me writing. I wake up and I think I am done with something. And I think, "Oh but what if Bianca knew Grace Hoffmeyer?" (She's from another book you don't know.) It's very hard for me to let go of these characters once I've made them. Because of the structure now, I don't have to. I keep finding ways to link people to other people or to pick them up at different points in time. In a way it's made my imaginative world almost infinite. For a writer, that's a really good thing. There is no sense of truly finishing a project and having those screws tightened down...and thinking, "I'm really done with that I have to go someplace different." What it feels like for me is I get to go someplace entirely different — different century, different country — but I get to bring up a shard of the familiar along with me. And that helps me to write.
RB: This seems to be a variation on William Faulkner and William Kennedy.
AB: Yes, they both do that. So does Louise Erdrich in some degree. It's like Rosie [RB's dog] bringing her duck [the toy she tries to impress upon visitors]. I get to bring the duck with me...
RB: Those Williams seemed to have defined a geographical context...
AB: That's right, but this arrangement isn't geographically set. It's a different kind of relationship, more like watching a double helix tumble through time. It's like watching a little clump of DNA split and recombine. It's not entirely accidental that some of these people's traits are related but with variation to people in their past. You see certain traits pop up with mutations, if you will. Part of it is about that, the way that we are made by our families both biologically and emotionally. What is inherited? What is made? What is biology and what is culture? How much is predetermined in us? A structure like that gives me a chance to work out some of those ideas over time in a set of characters. With each set and each generation...I can ask "Well why is Bianca like Grace? What does that mean? How did that happen?" How do women separated by such a wide stretch of time and maybe bearing some resemblance to each other but in a very different culture, how do those traits play out?
RB: Is the master plan more apparent to you now?
AB: I can see more than I could three or four years ago. I can't see all of it by any means. But I can start to see certain things that I didn't know.
RB: What determines whether you write in a particular form? Short story, novella, long short story, novel?
AB: The material dictates it, but I don't know how. I usually do know when I start something...the one thing I was most spectacularly wrong with was the Voyage of the Narwhal. I meant it to be a companion novella to Ship Fever. Obviously that didn't work out. Generally I do know fairly soon when a character, a set of characters pops up...it feels like a story or it feels like a short novel, it feels like a novel, I don't know what that feeling comes from.
Traditionally people say that stories come from this kind of material and novels deal with that...if it covers more time it's going to have to be a novel or if it has more characters. It's actually not true for me. Sometimes I will cover a huge a mount of time in a story and not so much time in a novel.
RB: Are these definitions sacrosanct today?
AB: Not for me.
RB: For anyone?
AB: I don't think so. I would be very interested to see if someone could define the difference between a long story and a novella. I can't. Maybe someone else can.
RB: Richard Ford edited a long short story collection. I think he attempted that definition, but I didn't grasp it.
AB: I think that is very foggy territory.
RB: Tell me again what starting to write feels like?
AB: It isn't that the content determines the form because I don't know the content when I start. But I know, for instance, that something does feel like a story. The feel is different than the content. But what does it mean to say that it feels like a story? I truly don't understand that myself. But the feeling is very powerful.
RB: You didn't know The Narwhal would be a novel...
AB: But you know I did know in about thirty pages. I had imagined that I would write a thing about some guys on a ship going to the Arctic, but I wasn't very far into before I realized how spectacularly I had misunderstood the material. It's intuitive rather than conscious, but it's a pretty deep intuition. I think most writers have this. I don't know what it is but I think we have it...
RB: Is your sense of control when you begin a work more complete and confident as you have progressed in your career?
AB: I have more belief that I will finish.
RB: Not an indication of whether it's easier.
AB: I don't understand, really, much better than I used to where I'm going when I start. I write very inefficiently. I don't plot things out in advance, I don't know where I'm going. I don't often know why I am going where it is I think I am going. And anyway I am always wrong about where I think I am going. It's a good thing I don't know why I am going there...
RB: How do you do the research if you don't know?
AB: That's why I have to keep doing it throughout. When I know roughly what I want to do there is a certain level of background research. When I was writing The Voyage of the Narwhal, you have to do a fair bit of background reading, even to understand that, okay, there was a John Franklin and there were 60-odd expeditions that went to look for him. If I were to construct a fictional expedition this might be the most profitable year to put it in...I can't write without knowing that much. As I don't really know the chief problems or who the chief characters are going to be, I have to write a page and stop and research and so on. All the time I am researching just ahead of where I am going, it's only then that I know where I am going. I think it was Doctorow that made that metaphor about "writing...
RB: ...past the headlights"? It was Doctorow.
AB: I can research as far as the headlights show me, and I can't research anymore because I don't until I get around the corner where I am going next. It feels just as scary as driving on an icy road without headlights. Because the uncertainty is still the uncertainty. It is still a comfort to know that 8 or 18 times I have felt this certain and this sure that it wouldn't work out and this pissed off that I was writing so clumsily and that I did finish and that something did come of it. In that sense just getting older is a reassurance as it is about so many things. The chances are good that I will survive this and finish something. I didn't used to think I would get anything out of these expeditions.
RB: Awards and fellowships and the publicity attendant to them also place you further into the public realm more and seem to require a more public presence. How is your writing informed and /or affected, if it is?
AB: It hasn't informed my writing yet, but it does affect it. It makes it harder to write.
RB: And the contact with the reading public?
AB: I learn things from the way people read. I love that. Someone last night asked me about how I put a book together that I had truly never thought of. It wouldn't have occurred to me in a million years. It was a really interesting reading. And that can happen...someone can illuminate my fiction to me, show me things that I didn't know were there.
RB: Do you reread your work?
RB: Once you have written it...
AB: It's gone.
RB: Do you reread anything?
AB: Oh yeah, over and over, certain books. There are writers that I go back to very often, and there is a certain set of books that I go back to very often. I actually keep them on a separate shelf. It's a quite shelf of books...it's the emergency repair shelf, therapy shelf or fix-it shelf. It's where I go when I am subject — like a lot of writers are — to fairly bad depressions. They come and go at different times and they are very debilitating when they come and one of the things that goes when I am in one is — first of all I can't write and second of all I can't remember why a person would want to write.
RB: (Laughs) I'm sorry to laugh...
AB: It is funny. It's part of being depressed. It all seems pointless. Life seems pointless. Art seems pointless. Writing seems pointless. One of the things that shelf of books does is, pretty reliably — no matter how bad a state I am in or how impossible it seems to write or to do anything — I can turn to one of those books. Within a few paragraphs, "Oh well, life may feel like it sucks at this particular moment and art may feel impossible, but there's this...and here this book is." And those books are much to be cherished.
RB: What are some of those books?
AB: Some Virginia Woolf novels, predictably To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway but maybe less predictably her first novel, The Voyage Out. Howard's End, Passage to India. Two volumes of Isak Dinesen stories. I like her a lot. What else is there? There's some Conrad novels. A Rebecca West novel that I really like called The Fountain Overflows. It's kind of an idiosyncratic pile. They always work. That seems to me to be an amazing thing. People say, "Oh readers don't read anymore and we don't cherish books in the same way." But we do. Some of us do, and we still cherish the same books, and that that can still operate is an amazing thing. That we can still find that kind of solace in books. That the world can be made sense of again through books. That's a very cool thing. I read a book like that and it doesn't just make writing make sense to me again it makes the world make sense again.
RB: Without presuming to know your answer, let me ask is the work of writers important today?
AB: I think it is. Do I think my own work is important? No, of course not. Do I think writing is important? Yes I really do.
AB: For the people who are making the book, it makes us make sense of the world; it makes us make sense of the world while we are making the books. That's one of the reasons we write. While you are writing a book, while anyone who cares about it is doing it, the world makes sense. It brings order to our perception, to our feelings. It shapes and renders aesthetically pleasing that which is normally just chaos. That's a wonderful thing to have in your life. I don't know how people who don't write or don't do something like this; I don't know how they get through their lives. I don't know how they get up in the morning if they don't have this available to them. For people who read passionately and read in a participatory way where they really enter in to a contract with the writer I think they get that, too. When you read creatively you also get that sense of solace and bringing order from chaos and reshaping the world and making the world make sense again. So I have to think that's important. Do you think that's important?
RB: Of course.
Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing