Andrea Barrett

2015 Rea Award Winner Andrea Barrett
Photo: Barry Goldstein

Andrea Barrett is the author of three short story collections and six novels. Her story collections include Ship Fever (1996), winner of the 1996 National Book Award; Servants of the Map (2002), a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; and most recently Archangel (2013), a finalist for The Story Prize and also featured in the New York Review of Books. Her novels include Lucid Stars (1988), Secret Harmonies (1989), The Middle Kingdom (1991), The Forms of Water (1993), The Voyage of the Narwhal (1998) and The Air We Breathe (2007). Among her numerous awards and grants Barrett won a 1992 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 1997 and in 2001 received a fellowship at the New York Public Library’s Center for Scholars and Writers. In 2001 Barrett was awarded the highly esteemed MacArthur Fellowship.

Andrea Barrett was born in Boston in 1954, grew up on Cape Cod, and graduated with a degree in biology from Union College. She is particularly well known as a writer of historical fiction. Her work reflects her lifelong interest in science, and women in science. “Scientific questions are very precise and very directed. A scientist poses problems that can be answered if one works hard enough,’’ Barrett observes. In contrast, writers “pose question after question, and none of them get answered. A lot of what I write about in science and history serves as a metaphor for the discoveries we make as writers.’’ In both areas, she said, “there is that sense of pushing at boundaries, of trying to discover new ways of looking at things.’’

As in the work of William Faulkner, some of Barrett’s characters have appeared in more than one story or novel. In an appendix to The Air We Breathe (2007), Barrett supplied a family tree, making clear the characters’ relationships that began in Ship Fever. The intertwining of these families has continued through the stories of Archangel (2013) and into her most recent work. Although each novel and story is self-contained, the reader comprehends an added dimension when familiar with the characters’ previous histories. “I’m trying to make a very quiet point,” she says, “I’m trying to make the reader feel the effects of genetic linkage, feel the molecules of DNA tumbling across time and space and continents, combining and recombining. Families and people from different cultures marry and have children, who move to other places and marry yet other people; I want to convey a palpable sense of those relationships over time. I want to bring that very lightly to the surface without having it dominate.”

Andrea Barrett’s stories have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies including A Public Space, The Paris Review, Tin House, Ploughshares, The Pushcart Prize, One Story, TriQuarterly, Salmagundi, The American Scholar, and the Kenyan Review. Her fiction and essays have been selected for Best American Short Stories, Best American Science Writing and Best American Essays. “The Particles” won a 2013 PEN/O. Henry Prize and a new story, “Wonders of the Shore,” will appear in Best American Short Stories, 2016.

Andrea Barrett teaches writing at Williams College and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She lives in North Adams, Massachusetts, with her husband, photographer Barry Goldstein.