Prof. fuses biology and fiction

September 11, 2013 by Kaitlin Macholz, Contributing Writer

Senior Lecturer in English Andrea Barrett incorporates her experience as a biologist into her writing.

As a child, Senior Lecturer in English Andrea Barrett never fathomed a future as a writer. “I didn’t really grasp for a long time that writing was something a person could do full-time,” Barrett, a novelist and short-story writer, said. The evolution of her interests means that Barrett has an impressive story to tell. Not only does she have a bachelor of arts in biology and brief experience in a zoology Ph.D program; but she was also the recipient of the 2001 MacArthur Fellowship, and her books won her the 1996 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction and finalist standing for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Despite such achievements, Barrett describes her background in writing modestly: “In high school, I wrote what a lot of us do: journal entries, bad poems, et cetera. I didn’t think of myself as a writer, though, or take seriously the idea of ‘being a writer,’ until some years after I graduated from college.”

Although she was an avid reader as a child, Barrett did not know many other literature lovers or writers that could act as role models. Barrett didn’t even study writing in college, since undergraduate writing classes were rare at the time, and the school she attended did not even offer them.

Instead, the childhood passions that would shape Barrett’s undergraduate experience were much like those of any curious child: exploration of the world around her.

Growing up in Cape Cod, her world consisted of swamps, beaches and oceans. Through wandering, fishing and spending time outdoors, she cultivated an interest in nature and biology. She formed an early connection to the natural world that provided a strong foundation for a growing interest in the natural sciences throughout her school years.

In high school, an exceptional biology teacher profoundly impacted Barrett, encouraging her to pursue the subject. She had an equally positive experience with the biology professors at Union, where she spent her undergraduate years.

Ultimately, the combination of her childhood and academic experiences made the choice to pursue a degree in biology the natural decision. She planned to continue school and earn a Ph.D in zoology. She did not stick with the program – or these plans – for long.

Instead, she began writing fiction. Her writing career took off with the publication of Ship Fever, a collection of novellas and short stories. She has written six novels, most recently The Air We Breathe and three collections of short stories (including Servants of the Map, a Pulitzer Prize finalist).

Although some colleagues describe her books as historical fiction, she says her work does not fit squarely into that genre. “To me, it seems like fiction that sometimes is set now, sometimes in the past, but is all of one piece,” she said, although the actual milieu of her works is usually in the past.

While she made the choice to pursue her love of literature, however, her lifelong passion for biology and the natural sciences is still apparent in her writing. Many of her early writings make references to science.

As she continued writing, ghosts of her previous pursuits appeared as scientist characters and the subject of biology began to feature heavily in her stories.

As her love of writing grew, she began working with other aspiring writers, teaching at writers’ conferences and at a masters of fine arts program for Writers at Warren Wilson.

Working with graduate students and older writers was an edifying experience. Barrett found herself inspired by the enthusiasm of budding authors and the excitement they found in reading, writing and discovering their own abilities.

This ultimately drew Barrett to consider professional teaching just as a spot at the College opened up.

“How lucky was I that my own changing interests coincided with an opening at Williams?” she said. “Way lucky.”

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