Living the writing way in the face of potential fame Author: The National Book Award put change on the horizon for previously unsung novelist Andrea Barrett.

February 05, 1997|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

"I'm stupid in a lot of ways. I'm a slow learner I'm a really slow writer. I write terrible first drafts. My cats could write better first drafts. It's not uncommon for me to write 15 or 18 drafts. For me, [the creative process] is like going outside with a camera and taking a picture with my eyes shut I wish I could do this better, but I can't."

Andrea Barrett's self-effacing words initially are a great comfort to anyone who yearns to write. Then one realizes that virtually no one else seems willing to say such rude things about the latest National Book Award winner. Instead, Barrett's collection of stories, "Ship Fever," has collected phrases like "quietly dazzling," "seductively stylish" and "increasingly assured."

Something about Barrett and her work invites this

adverb-adjective pairing. Tall, with a cloud of prematurely gray hair, she is herself quietly dazzling, at once elegant and down-to-earth. At 42, on a book tour for the first time, she is unabashed in her delight at the attention, but serious and thoughtful in her comments on the writing life. Her only complaint about her five-city trip is that she keeps picking up new books she wants to read, so her luggage grows ever-heavier.

The National Book Award has a track record for taking challenging writers -- such as E. Annie Proulx, who won the prize for "Shipping News" in 1993 -- and transforming them into best-sellers. It isn't clear yet if the prize will do the same for Barrett, although this tour, an appearance on several regional best-seller lists and the 75,000-paperback first printing by W. W. Norton, are signs that her publishing fortunes have progressed somewhat. The book has already gone back for a second printing of about 30,000, a Norton spokesman said.

"Sometimes I think only my mother has read the book, or heard about the award," says Barrett, who professes amazement at seeing stacks of "Ship Fever" in stores, where once she felt fortunate to find even one copy of one of her books.

Yet she considers herself to have been extraordinarily lucky throughout her writing career. When she was not quite 30, she set off for the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference with a novel on which she had worked and tinkered for six years, supporting herself with a variety of jobs.

At the famed Vermont writers' retreat, she found an agent and two mentors -- one of whom told her she was a talented, promising writer, who needed to do only one thing: Throw that novel away and start over.

"I threw it out and I wrote 'Lucid Stars,' " she says. "That's why, when I feel hopeful, it's because I know it's possible to write when one is self-taught. But I also feel frightened for people I meet, because I know how important it is to have people help you."

Over the next decade, she produced three more novels, all contemporary stories about relationships -- "Secret Harmonies," "The Middle Kingdom" and "The Forms of Water." Then she won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and decided to take advantage of the time it provided by learning how to write short stories. She also wanted to learn how to work with historical material for the first time.

She trained herself to work in shorter forms in the same way she has always trained: "Reading everything all the time." A biology major in college, Barrett never studied writing formally, although she now teaches creative writing in her hometown of Rochester, N.Y.

The stories she produced ended up drawing on her background in science -- from Carl Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, to Gregor Mendel and "The Littoral Zone." "That space between high and low watermarks," as Barrett describes it in a story of that name, "where organisms struggled to adapt to the daily fTC rhythm of immersion and exposure."

It is tempting to borrow that metaphor for Barrett's current state: Now that she has won an important prize, she is likely to be subjected to a similar rhythm. She will immerse herself in her work -- she is in the middle of her next book, a historical novel, and still teaches writing. The exposure will come from the increased requests to speak, review and provide blurbs for other books. Proulx reportedly warned her, via a journalist, to be vigilant of her time and her privacy, to learn to say no.

What sustains a literary writer? Is it the thought of prizes, a tenured teaching position, the long-shot of commercial success and critical adoration? None of the above, Barrett replies.

"It's hard to explain how much one can love writing," she says. "If people knew how happy it can make you, we would all be writing all the time. It's the greatest secret of the world."

Pub Date: 2/05/97

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