On Meaning and Time: Andrea Barrett on What the Past Tells Us About Today
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Critically acclaimed fiction writer Andrea Barrett joins Fiction/Non/Fiction hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to 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 the layers of intimacy in letters, and considers if online exchanges will make archives of correspondence obsolete. She also reads from Natural History and explains some of its connections to her previous work.
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From the episode:
V.V. Ganeshananthan: The way that stories are altered over time and the effect that time has on memory seems to be one of the issues that you’re wrestling with in all of these stories, not just this one, and over and over, people—and alongside the people in the stories, your readers—discover surprising facts about people that they love or facts that seem like facts but weren’t.
And one crucial way that this happens is, through writing, there are these revelations that arrive quietly. And this is probably a little over the top, but it feels like there’s a struggle between time, which erases so many stories, and writing, which struggles to preserve our stories, in your fiction about Henrietta. Do you feel like that’s a fair thing to say?
Andrea Barrett: I do think that’s a fair thing to say. I feel that all the time, especially now when nobody’s writing down anything anymore. You know, all we have left after we go and after the people who knew us go, that’s it. If nothing is written down, the time the last person who knew you dies is the time the last story about you dies. So I feel an almost frantic sense to get things down with my pen before everything disappears. I think Henrietta feels that, too, and I think some of the other characters do. I think Rose in the last story feels that very strongly.
Whitney Terrell: In that particular passage, one of the things about that story is that as Henrietta, and then Bernard—who is Mr. Deverell’s son—are trying to find the letters again that were written by Izzy and Vic, and they find out the person who’s supposed to be keeping track of them. And it turns out that changes had been made to the story that sound very familiar to me as an author. ‘Well, I’ve decided to put these two characters together, they’ll work better that way.’ And I felt like there’s an author understanding how history is written, that there’s a balance between not being boring, as you were mentioning before, and trying to be accurate. I wondered if you could talk about that a little bit.
AB: Yeah, you know, I love history, I read a lot of history. People who work with history in their fiction lie at any place along the continuum between ‘I will change whatever I feel like because it’s my prerogative’ and ‘I will change nothing, because I want to be true to what I know to be to the facts.’ And I’m way towards the second part of that. I won’t change a date that I know to have been recorded when something happened, I won’t put a person in a city where I know that she wasn’t for some reason on that day. But I will do the smaller deceits, which is to combine two people into one, especially if there’s no other record of them besides the one I’m making. So what happens, Izzy and Vic are both fictional characters—so, when I have a third character, I combine the lives of those two into one. I feel like first of all, I’m not distorting history, I hope. But second of all—
WT: You’re commenting on the way that it sometimes happens.
AB: Yeah, exactly. I’m trying to make apparent for the reader, to make the reader question a little, how history does get made. Because often our tendency as a naive reader of history is to think well, that’s what happened. But history is written too, just like fiction. And every minute we’re making decisions about what to leave out, what to put in, what to emphasize, when to combine two scenes into one for economy and grace. It’s far from accurate, it’s as written as anything else, and it’s useful to think about that, especially now when we have that amazing phrase ‘false facts’ floating around the atmosphere. True facts, false facts.
WT: Oh, my God. I’m trying to imagine how people will even consider facts in ten years.
AB: I know! Are there going to be any?
WT: I can’t answer that.
AB: Okay. I’ll let you off the hook. I can’t answer it either.
VVG: So we often end our interviews by asking for a little bit of a forecast. And in this case, we’re curious what some future Andrea Barrett is going to do when she sets off to write about us and discovers that we no longer write letters and that all of our correspondence—if we have any—has been stored on computers whose software no longer works, or is on defunct social media sites, or has turned into a different kind of detritus.
AB: You know, this actually terrifies me because I can’t imagine what the answer to that is, even right now. Writers have papers or we used to have papers and we used to put them in universities. And we still do sometimes, but what about all the stuff that already isn’t on paper? What about all our email correspondence? What about everything that’s just in text messages? Where’s that all gonna go? And how is anyone going to make our lives over and make our lives up without that? I guess the answer is you keep updating the software or the hardware or something but I can’t do any of that. So I don’t know how that happens. I sometimes feel like we’re just going to dissolve. That our lives are just going to melt and be erased, somehow. It gives me the willies.
VVG: As a little kid, I would send elaborate postcards to sleepaway camp to my friends. And I would write them as small as possible to cram in as much as possible with the sense that I was making a document that might be kept. And now when I write an email, there’s a different sense of its archival potential, right? I mean, do you think that we talk and write to each other differently now?
AB: Oh, that’s so interesting. If I understand you correctly, do you mean differently in the sense that you’re afraid that it’s going to be preserved, so you’re more careful?
VVG: We often talk about how—the phrase of the online world might be ‘keeping receipts’—this sort of correspondence makes it easier to hold people accountable. But maybe that’s just in the short term. And maybe in the long term, it’s actually a lot harder.
AB: I think that’s really interesting. I know how to text, but I really only do with a couple of friends, I don’t do any business stuff on it. And I don’t use social media. So I actually never heard that phrase ‘keeping receipts’ before. But, of course, I read about people who’ve been hung in court by all the text messages that someone dug up. So I know it happens. And that’s terrifying, too. But if you were in a battle in the Civil War, and you’re writing back to your mother, we censored ourselves some, right?
Especially in the days when people read letters out loud to each other. There’s all those examples in the 18th and 19th centuries of people who wrote one letter to be read by a family group, and then would enclose in it a second letter, you know, just for Chuck. And they put the gossip in there, or whatever was sexy and interesting that they didn’t want mom to read, or the kids to read. So we’ve had those layers of openness and closedness and those layers of hiddenness with other written communication. Does that exist with online communication? You would know that better than I would.
WT: Well, you could have a Facebook group where you only talk to certain people on Facebook, but not posting to the whole world. But then people find out about those anyway.
AB: So are you saying there’s no secret text or secret Facebook thing that people can be private in?
WT: Texts are encrypted, so if you’re sending a text on an iPhone to an iPhone, mostly that’s just between you and the other person unless the other person chooses to screenshot them and put them on the internet for everyone else to see.
VVG: There are other texting platforms, especially as people have become more paranoid about surveillance. People use platforms like Signal or have started to be more careful about things like Messenger because of the sense that someone might be kind of watching over your shoulder. At the same time, I can’t think of… to imagine a novel that involves a long Facebook Messenger chain. But actually, a lot of plot can happen on a Facebook Messenger chain. I wouldn’t want to read it in that format. It seems denuded of elegance in some way. Maybe I’m biased.
AB: No, I think it’s really interesting. I think there’s always this war in us between our urge to blurt out and confess and our urge to hide and be private. And if you read writers’ letters from hundreds of years ago, you read anybody’s letters—books of letters are great reading—you can almost feel the writer forgetting that someone’s going to read this or forgetting that more than one person at the other end might read it or that someone might save it. Because you know, you start writing on the page, and you just start saying stuff. And then you put it in the post and you forget what you said. And so maybe it’s not so different in some ways. Sometimes I can’t believe what people said in letters a hundred years ago, or 300 years ago. It really intrigues me.
VVG: It’s amazing to think about. Whitney is the person who thought of that question about letters, which I loved. And I think of the letters in your stories as this vehicle of intimacy, and then those jumps in time in your stories as this gesture to scope. And one of the things that’s so important and alive about your fiction is the way that it unites intimacy and scope. I was thinking about one of the earliest epistolary novels I read as a kid—I don’t know if either of you read this—was Daddy Long Legs.
AB: Oh yeah, I read that.
VVG: And it has in it the same contemporary feel of this person who’s not censoring herself because she doesn’t know who she’s writing to. For those of our listeners who aren’t familiar with this novel, it’s about a young woman who grows up at an orphanage and then is sent by a mysterious benefactor to college. And college is a very weird time anyway. And she is asked, as the only thing to repay her benefactor, to write these letters. The letters that form this novel have stick figure drawings in them, and it has this real intimacy. And you feel a little bit like you’re spying on something, like Harriet the Spy. There’s this question of, ‘who will read this later, well, I wasn’t thinking about that when I wrote it,’ which is so fun.
AB: I love that too. And I love that sense that letters bring a real intimacy to a fictional text that you really can’t get any other way. When I was writing “The Regimental History,” and also some other stuff, I was reading a lot of letters that soldiers wrote during the Civil War. Not so much the big Ken Burns-y ones, but there’s a lot of—either self-published or published by very tiny texts—Civil War accounts and Civil War letters. Just really patient local historians in small towns have gathered together letters from two guys who lived in that town. And maybe 250 copies are published. But when you find those, there’s a power to them and an unselfconsciousness that’s very amazing and for me brings some of the costs of war home in ways that almost nothing else does.
William Faulkner (via the Nobel Prize) • Meet Rosalind Franklin, a sidelined figure in the history of DNA science, PBS NewsHour • Daddy Long-Legs • Harriet the Spy
Transcribed by Otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Anne Kniggendorf. Photograph of Andrea Barrett by Barry Goldstein.