Andrea Barrett: “I think science and writing are the same thing. They are completely rooted in passion and desire.”

From The Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of author Andrea Barrett, born in 1954 in Boston. She describes her family as “unintellectual,” and when she developed a passion for reading as a child, her father would tell her to “put the book down and go outside, act like a normal person.” She would raid the Bookmobile on its weekly visits to her neighborhood; the driver let kids read from any shelf they could reach, and she was tall, so she was reading grown-up books at a young age.

She attended middle school and high school very sporadically, and didn’t graduate, but she had strong SAT scores and was accepted to Union College anyway; she was part of the second class of female students in what had previously been an all-male college. She earned a degree in Biology, and her novels and stories reflect her interest in science, particularly women in science.

She worked as a secretary in medical labs after college, and after years of struggling to finish her first novel, she showed it to a writer at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and he told her to throw it away. She was so upset that she cried for a day, but then she took his advice and wrote her novel Lucid Stars, which was published in 1988. Her collection of short stories Ship Fever (1996) became a best-seller after winning the National Book Award.

Because so many of Barrett’s books deal with scientists, she has to do research before she writes. She said: “I love research … I describe a [sailor] character who has to go belowdecks, and I think, ‘So what is belowdecks?’ … Then I have to get books about ship building, ship history, immigration history, so I can write a little more … I love learning that way — lurching from subject area to subject area. When you’re lit by your own purposes, it’s astonishing how easily you can leap into a new field and get to that center of passion.”

In order to finish her novel The Voyage of the Narwhal (1998), about a group of British scientists exploring the Arctic, Barrett traveled to the Arctic. Barrett said: “I think science and writing are utterly the same thing. They are completely rooted in passion and desire, if they’re any good at all. You can fall in love with the natural world in the same way you fall in love with a person. There’s that same sense of helplessness, of lacking control over how much of your life you want to devote to it.”

Barrett’s novel Servants of the Map (2003) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her newest novel, Archangel, came out in 2013.

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