Rochester, N.Y., home to corporate headquarters for Eastman Kodak and for Xerox, styles itself "The World's Image Centre." It is a city much concerned with capturing the past and, indeed, a city that finds the past palpable in the present. Along the expressways that divide the town, Kodak billboards beam the golden-yellow hue indelibly associated with that firm's brands, and the city seems to draw energy from the timeless trademark. Beneath their patina of rust-belt obsolescence, aging factories are reminders of an industrial heyday, while well-preserved residential boulevards march towards the city limits, evoking a statelier era.
In her own way, Rochester resident Andrea Barrett has become a leading light of the image industry. She doesn't ply the trade of a scientist or an engineer; rather, she crafts powerfully vivid works of fiction, most recently The Voyage of the Narwhal (Norton), an epic of 19th-century polar exploration. In 1996, Barrett surprised the publishing world by winning the National Book Award for fiction, in a decision that startled many industry insiders. Since then, the powerful volume that garnered the prize, the story collection Ship Fever, has won additional acclaim. Yet Barrett herself remains something of an enigma. To understand Barrett, it helps to understand that if she seemed to come from nowhere to take home NBA laurels, she actually came from a place long devoted to the science of making memory tangible.
Memories both personal and historical saturate Barrett's shady, barn-red three-story home, which lies not far from The George Eastman House, Rochester's noted museum of photography and cinema. Photographs of China and the Arctic recall Barrett's travels. A 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica set -- the edition most treasured by historians -- fills several bookshelves, while the coffee table offers a volume titled Voices of the Spirit World, which contains communications from the great beyond transcribed by a spiritualist medium and published in Rochester in 1855. The collection's most striking figure is its curator, Barrett herself: a lanky woman whose animated face peers out from under a crown of long tresses. Barrett's own voice is tremulous; her long sentences emerge in the torrent characteristic of a shy person determined to be voluble.
Barrett has often sought to seclude herself with her work, and, when she has emerged, she has often eschewed the role of author. "Until recently," she confides, "hardly anybody here knew I was a writer -- they knew me as my dogs' mother, walking around the neighborhood." She is still adjusting to the attention brought by the success of Ship Fever. "The phone plagues me," she sighs. "I really can't make something new unless I feel that at least for a while it's completely secret," she says. "I can't work on it. I can't think about it. I don't sell books before they're done, and I don't show them to my agent or my editor."
Yet Barrett is poised to become a more public figure in the wake of The Narwhal's publication. Her new novel resembles many of the stories in Ship Fever in its 19th-century setting and in its choice of a scientist as its protagonist. But by unfurling a larger canvas with The Narwhal, Barrett extends into new territory her uncanny ability to make stories of science past illuminate today's world. The Narwhal imagines the travails of botanist Erasmus Darwin Wells, who signs on to a polar expedition led by his sister's dashing but dangerously immature suitor. The novel's drama eventually encompasses not only how they search for a previous, lost team of explorers, but also how they navigate the sea of publicity when they return to their native Philadelphia.
Barrett, too, has felt the allure of extreme climes. A year ago last June, with the support of a Guggenheim Foundation grant, she traveled to the northern coast of Baffin Island, where she gathered much "visceral detail" for the book. Still, Barrett expresses some bafflement at the prospect that The Narwhal might bring her a still larger public. "I thought I was writing a deeply obscure book," she avers, "about some mid-19th-century Arctic explorers and naturalists," about "material that ought not to be of interest to anyone but me." But people have likened The Narwhal, she says, to the adventure tales that have swept into the mainstream recently, from John Krakauer's Into Thin Air to fellow Norton author Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm and, of course, the ultimate iceberg saga, Titanic.
"The idea of this as an adventure story is very funny to me," Barrett says with a giddy laugh. "What I was after was much more ruminative. In fact, although the research I was drawing from is full of adventure, I think this book is much less full of adventure. Its people are painters and writers, they're thinking and mulling, they're seeing, they're looking. They're not going out and slashing polar bears to death."
Barrett shares the scientific bent and love of the outdoors characteristic of her protagonists. Born in Boston, she grew up largely on Cape Cod, where her childhood days on the beach instilled a deep feeling for the ocean and a passionate interest in natural history. By age 19, she had graduated from Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., with a degree in biology. On a first foray into graduate school -- at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst -- Barrett studied zoology, a discipline in which she remains enmeshed: on this day, her writing desk bears a textbook open to pages illustrating various jellyfish. " 'The Littoral Zone,' " a Ship Fever story, "is going in a Norton Anthology," Barrett explains, "and the editors asked me to write footnotes."
Barrett would later return to U. Mass to study medieval and Reformation theological history. It was during this second sojourn in graduate school that she became conscious of her true vocation. "Writing papers about the Inquisition or the early days of the Franciscan order, I was going through exactly the same process I use now to make my fiction," she recalls. "I'd go to the library and pull out everything, fill my room and become obsessed with the shape and the texture of the paper, and the way the words look, trying to make it all dramatic. At some point I realized: 'hey, this isn't history, and I'm not a scholar.' "
Subsequently, Barrett moved to Rochester, where her husband was doing an M.D./Ph.D. program. The couple lived a bleak, monastic existence, residing in a "crumbling graduate student housing tower." Barrett took secretarial jobs in science and medical labs, where, she recalls, "if it was slow, I could put paper in the typewriter and pretend I was typing notes -- and I just started writing this novel." Barrett characterizes her first effort -- never published -- as "unspeakably horrible. I'd go to the library and get other novels and read those, and books about how books are put together, and criticism, and then I'd write. It was an awful experience and the book was awful. And I spent forever doing it." This lonely apprenticeship stretched from the end of 1977 until Barrett's first visit to Breadloaf, in 1984.
Barrett first went to Breadloaf "as what they call a contributor, the lowest rank of what used to be an infinite hierarchy -- which is to say that I paid cash money. I'd written one or two little stories, and I brought them up for the workshop. But of course I had the novel in my purse, as does everyone who g s to a writers' conference." ,p.Barrett's first big break arose from a workshop with Nicholas Delbanco and Thomas Gavin. Delbanco, says Barrett, "did two incredibly generous things." First, "he offered to read my novel, and then he read it up there. Now that I teach [in the M.F.A. program at North Carolina's Warren Wilson College], I realize how improbable and impossible that is." Then, she continues, Delbanco "sat me down and said that I could probably be a writer if I wanted to be, that I had a voice, but that I had learned to write on this novel and could never save it, and that I should throw it out and move on. Which I also now realize is an incredibly difficult thing to say to a writer -- and it was exactly what I needed. It was the best thing anybody ever did for me. I cried for a day, and then I threw it out, and then I wrote Lucid Stars."
Through subsequent trips to Breadloaf, Barrett met Wendy Weil, who became her agent. Editor Jane Rosenman, then at Delacorte, bought Barrett's intergenerational saga, which traces how a family of strong women learn to rely on each other for help in life's crises. Barrett cherished Rosenman's nurturing support, and the editor and press so esteemed Lucid Stars that they chose it to launch its Delta imprint for paperback originals. Secret Harmonies, more tightly focused on a musically gifted woman's mixed experience of marriage, followed as a Delacorte hardcover.
Barrett finds her diverse work "strangely of a piece, in the sense that I've always relied quite heavily on research to provide both the plot of my novels and the stuff that is the background of the character's lives."
But one real transition, to Barrett's mind, came with The Middle Kingdom, a novel about an American who visits China with her biologist husband, published by Pocket after Rosenman moved to that press in 1990. (Like Secret Harmonies and The Forms of Water -- a novel that chronicles the twilight journey of an elderly ex-monk -- it is currently available as a Washington Square paperback.) Where her first two novels were "some uneasy fusion of research, perception of contemporary life and fragments taken from my own life or the lives of people I knew," The Middle Kingdom, Barrett says, "really bears no relation to my own life, and yet I was able to use the spine of my trip there in 1986 as a way to access through research a whole other set of lives. That was a kind of revelation."
The cerebral ambitions of The Middle Kingdom and, especially, of her subsequent novel, The Forms of Water, found Barrett departing from the mainstream at Pocket. The Ship Fever collection marked a still more radical departure. Funded by a NEA grant, and nearing despair over her novel's perceived lack of commercial viability, Barrett set out to experiment with the short story form. Intense research into the history of natural science and medicine bore fruit in a stunning series of vignettes of past and present scientists -- among them Linnaeus and Mendel -- culminating in the title novella, in which a young Canadian doctor becomes so consumed by his work saving sick Irish immigrants that he himself falls victim to their affliction.
Yet when Barrett submitted Ship Fever to Pocket, the outcome was a parting of the ways between author and publisher. Rosenman now says that she "felt that Andrea's luminous writing would be better served by a hardcover publisher more exclusively devoted to literary fare." Cast out of the world of conglomerate publishing, Barrett landed at Norton, where Ship Fever prospered under the solicitous wing of Carol Houck Smith. Barrett lauds Smith as an "amazing person. I don't think that Ship Fever was an easy book for her to buy, and then she was so solidly behind it; she fought for it like an archangel."
The attention to Ship Fever has opened up diverse new audiences for Barrett, and she is slowly learning to recognize signs of the public's appreciation. She tells, for example, of a visit this past spring to a Washington, D.C., high school, where "a gifted teacher" invited her to meet a class that had read her stories."They were such amazing students, so engaged and articulate," she says. What's more, as Barrett discovered to her delight, the students had an unexpected tribute up their sleeves. The whole class wore long white lab coats -- donned, it turned out, not for some preceding home economics class, as Barrett at first surmised, but rather as a humorous tribute to her and her scientific protagonists. Barrett will continue to win accolades. But she will long remember how these young readers so fittingly styled themselves her fellow workers in the endeavor to bring together the imaginative worlds of science and literature.