Andrea Barrett on what the past tells us today ‹ Literary Center

Acclaimed novelist Andrea Barrett joins Fiction/Non/Fiction Host VV Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell discuss her new collection of short stories, natural history. Barrett explains her approach to writing about women studying science in the 19th century, reflects on intimacy in correspondence, and considers whether online communication could make correspondence archives obsolete.she also from natural history And explained some of its connections to her previous work.

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Check out video excerpts from our interviews on Lithub’s Virtual Books channel, Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube channel, and on our website. This podcast was produced by Anne Kniggendorf.

From the plot:

VV Ganeshananthan: The way the story changes over time and the effect of time on memory seems to be one of the things you’re grappling with in all of these stories, not just this story, but over and over, people — and Connect with the people in the story, your readers – to discover surprising facts about their loved ones, or facts that look like facts but aren’t.

A key way this happens is that through writing, these revelations come quietly. That might be overkill, but in your novel about Henrietta, it feels like there’s a struggle between erasing so much of the story’s time and the writing that tries to preserve ours. Do you think it’s fair to say that?

Andrea Barrett: I do think that’s a fair statement. I feel that way all the time, especially now that no one writes anything anymore. You know, after we leave, after people who know us leave, that’s all we have left. If nothing is written, the time the last person who knew you died is the time the last story about you died. So I have an almost crazy feeling to write things down with my pen before everything is gone. I think Henrietta feels that way, and I think some of the other characters feel that way too. I think Ross in the last story felt very strongly.

Whitney Terrell: In that particular passage, one of the things about that story is that as Henrietta, and then Bernard – Mr. DeVrere’s son – tries to find the letter written by Izzy and Vic again, They found the one who should follow them. As it turns out, the story has changed, which is very familiar to me as a writer. “Well, I decided to put these two characters together so they would work better.” And I feel like having an author who understands how history is written, like you mentioned before, is not boring and hard work There is a balance between being accurate. I was wondering if you could talk about this.

Second: Yes, you know, I love history, I’ve read a lot of history. People who study history in their novels are in the midst of “I’m going to change how I feel because it’s my prerogative” and “I’m not going to change anything because I want to stay true to what I know. I’m on my way to part two.” I don’t change a date that I know has been recorded when something happens, I don’t put a person in a city where I know she’s not there for some reason that day. But I’ll do some minor cheating, soon Two people in one, especially if there is no record other than the one I’m making. So what happens, Izzy and Vic are fictional characters – so, when I have a third character, I’ll Combining the lives of these two characters into one. I feel like first, I hope I hadn’t distorted history. But second—

weight: You are commenting on how it happens sometimes.

Second: Yes, exactly. I try to make the reader understand, to make the reader a little doubt, how history came about. Because as naive readers of history, we often tend to think hard, and that’s what happened. But history is also written, just like fiction. Every minute we decide what to omit, what to add, what to emphasize, and when to combine two scenes into one for economy and elegance. It’s far from accurate, it’s written like anything else, and it’s useful to think about, especially now that we have an astonishing phrase “false truth” floating in the atmosphere. True facts, false facts.

weight: My goodness. I try to imagine how people will think about facts ten years from now.

Second: I know! Will there be?

weight: I can’t answer.

Second: OK I’ll get you out of trouble. I can’t answer either.

VVG: So we often end our interviews by asking for some predictions. In this case, we were curious what the future Andrea Barrett was going to do when she started writing about us and found out that we stopped writing and that all our correspondence (if any words) are stored on a computer whose software no longer works, or on a defunct social media site, or a computer that has turned into another kind of crumb.

Second: You know, this actually scares me because I can’t imagine what the answer is, even now. Writers have papers, or we used to have papers, we used to put them in college. We still do it sometimes, but what about things that are no longer on paper? What about all our email correspondence? What about everything in text messages only? Where is all this going? How would anyone change our lives and improve our lives without it? I guess the answer is that you keep updating software or hardware or something, but there’s nothing I can do about it. So I don’t know what’s going on here. I sometimes feel like we’re about to break up. Our lives will somehow melt and be erased. It gave me Willis.

VVG: As a kid, I would send elaborate postcards to my friends. I’ll keep them as small as possible to cram as much as possible since I’m making a file that can be saved. Now, when I write an email, I have a different feel for its archiving potential, right? I mean, do you think we speak and write differently now?

Second: Oh that’s so fun. If I understand correctly, do you mean differently that you are afraid it will be saved, so you are more careful?

VVG: We talk a lot – the phrase in the online world might be “keep the receipt” – that this type of communication makes it easier for people to be held accountable. But maybe it’s only short term. Maybe in the long run it’s actually a lot harder.

Second: I think it’s really interesting. I know how to text, but I really only do it with a few friends and I don’t do any business. And I don’t use social media. So actually I’ve never heard the phrase “keep the receipt” before. But, of course, I read about someone hanging up in court with all the text messages someone dug up. So I know it will happen. It’s also scary. But if you fought a battle in the Civil War and you were writing to your mother, we would self-censor, right?

Especially in the days when people read letters aloud to each other. There were examples in the 18th and 19th centuries of people writing a letter to a family group to read and then enclosing a second letter in it, you know, just to Chuck. They put gossip out there, or anything sexy and funny that they don’t want mom to read or kids to read. So we already have layers of openness and closure, and hidden layers of communication with other writing. Does online communication exist? You will know this better than me.

weight: Well, you can have a Facebook group where you only talk to certain people on Facebook instead of posting to the world. But people will find it anyway.

Second: So you’re saying there’s no secret text or secret Facebook stuff to keep people private?

weight: Text is encrypted, so if you send text from iPhone to iPhone, it’s mostly just between you and the other party, unless the other party chooses to take screenshots and put them on the Internet for others to see.

VVG: There are other messaging platforms, especially as people become more paranoid about surveillance. People use platforms like Signal, or have started to be more careful with things like Messenger, because it feels like someone might be watching over your shoulder. At the same time, I can’t imagine…imagine a novel involving a long Facebook Messenger chain. But in reality, a lot of the plot could happen on the Facebook Messenger chain. I don’t want to read it in that format. It seems to have lost its elegance in some way. Maybe I’m biased.

Second: No, I think it’s really interesting. I think there’s always been this war between our urge to blurt out and confess and our urge to hide and stay private. If you read a letter from an author hundreds of years ago, you would read anyone’s letter – letters are good reading – and you can almost feel that the author forgot that someone would read the letter, or that the other end might be more than Someone read it or someone might save it. Because you know, you start writing on the page, you just start saying something. Then you put it in the post and you forget what you said. So maybe it’s not that much different in some ways. Sometimes I can’t believe what people said in letters a hundred or three hundred years ago. It really appeals to me.

VVG: It’s amazing to think about. Whitney was the one who thought about my favorite question about letters. I think the letters in your story are a vehicle for intimacy, and then those time jumps in your story are a gesture of scope. One of the things that makes your novel so important and alive is the way it combines intimacy and scope.I’m thinking one of the first epistolary novels I read as a kid – I don’t know if you’ve read this one – was big daddy.

Second: Oh yes, I read that.

VVG: It also has the same contemporary feel that the person doesn’t censor herself because she doesn’t know who she’s writing to. For listeners unfamiliar with the novel, it’s the story of a young woman who grows up in an orphanage before being sent to college by a mysterious benefactor. Regardless, college is a very strange time. She was asked, as the only thing in return for her benefactor, to write these letters. The letters that make up this novel have stick figures, and it has this real intimacy.You feel a little bit like you’re spying on something, like Spy Harriet. There’s this question of, ‘Who’s going to read this later, well, I didn’t think about it when I wrote it,’ and it’s funny.

Second: I like that too. I love the feeling that the letters bring a real intimacy to the fictional text that you really can’t get any other way. When I was writing “History of the Legion” and a few other things, I read a lot of letters that soldiers wrote during the Civil War. Not so much the ones from Big Ken Burns, but there are many—whether self-published or by very small texts—Civil War accounts and Civil War letters. Very patient local historians in the town collected letters from two people who lived in that town. And maybe 250 copies were published. But when you find these, they have a power and a really amazing sense of selflessness that, to me, brings home some of the cost of war in a way that hardly anything else.

Optional reading:

Andrea Barrett:

Natural History • Ship Fever • Archangel • Servant of Maps • Narwal’s Voyage • The Air We Breathe


William Faulkner (via Nobel Prize) • Meet Rosalind Franklin, a fringe figure in the history of DNA science, PBS NewsHour • Daddy Long Legs Harriet Spy


Transcribed by Condensed and edited by Anne Kniggendorf. Photo by Barry Goldstein for Andrea Barrett.

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