by Andrea Barrett
Issue #114/115 • December 20, 2008•Sold Out!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
The first time she saw him, he was driving a sleigh. Not one of the boxy Red Cross ambulance sleighs, but a rough peasant sleigh with a frame of lashed saplings riding low between the runners. His chin rested on his chest; his hands lay loosely in his lap; the reins looped onto his knees, depriving the little pony of any instructions. The snow in the street was firmly packed, neither icy nor badly rutted, and the pony walked patiently, in a straight line, as if planning to continue past the hospital courtyard to the edge of the White Sea . A long bundle, half buried in hay, lay next to the driver—who must, Eudora realized, be sound asleep.
This was in North Russia, in March of 1919, four months after the war had ended for the rest of the world. Every day Eudora was surprised to find herself still here. A bell boomed from the cathedral and caused the pony, who had a particularly thick mane and lovely eyes, to look toward the blue domes. Still the driver let the reins lie slack. Eudora crossed the courtyard and waved, clicking her tongue softly against her teeth until the pony turned between the pillars and brought the sleigh to a stop at her feet.
Andrea Barrett is the author of the story collections Ship Fever, which received the National Book Award, and Servants of the Map, as well as of several novels: most recently, The Air We Breathe. She lives in North Adams, MA and teaches at Williams College.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
AB: While reading about World War I, as I was researching my last novel, The Air We Breathe, I found some brief mentions of the Allied Intervention in Russia. I kept staring at those paragraphs thinking: What? You mean American soldiers were fighting in Russia? And after the Armistice? For a while I thought I might continue that novel into 1919 or 1920, and somehow be able to use this material. As it turned out, I couldn’t, and so I put it aside—but I also couldn’t forget it, and it kept coming back to haunt me. Finally I decided it needed a story of its own. As I had a character, Eudora, still very much in mind, and whose story was entirely unresolved (in the novel, she exits near the end to volunteer overseas), she seemed like a possible carrier and actor.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
AB: Trying to set the context and the situation for readers as unfamiliar with the material as I had been, while at the same time not sinking into a sea of exposition. When I tried to explain to people what I was working on, I found that most had never heard about that strange little side-show of World War I—which meant I had to explain some of it, somehow. But I got so fascinated reading memoirs and letters and looking at photographs that I would keep trying to squeeze in far too much. In the end, of course, I had to cut almost everything.
HT: You’re famous for your thorough historical research and for integrating that research seamlessly into your fiction. How did you approach the research for this story? Did you start by reading about Archangel during the Russian Civil War? Or about the science of early 20th century X-rays?
AB: Oh, “seamlessly”—I wish! It’s typical for me to be delving into several apparently unrelated areas at once; our lives and our interests aren’t divided into the categories of academia or card-catalogs and so I try not to let my characters’ interests be shoe-horned into those boxes either. But that means I’m usually pursuing several lines of investigation simultaneously—which means there are long periods when I’m stupidly hazy and confused. In this case some of the things I knew little about, all at once, included the Russian Revolution, the natural history of that part of the world, the city of Archangel, the history of X-rays, nursing practice during WWI, Aylmer Maude’s translations of Tolstoy, and lots more. After a while I became a tiny bit less ignorant about all those things. Then a little more coherent...
HT: Have you ever been to Archangel? What made you choose this extraordinary setting?
AB: I haven’t been there, nor to any part of Russia. But I have visited other arctic and sub-arctic landscapes, and written about them, and so when the setting chose me—the story had to be set there, because that’s where the soldiers were sent—I felt able to respond to it and to grasp it by analogy.
HT: Eudora, the protagonist in this story, is an X-ray technician. And the story itself seems to act as an X-ray, seeing beneath the meticulously observed surface to expose the full story underneath. The writing has a delicate probing quality. Was this X-ray motif something you consciously worked into the piece?
AB: Usually I find that if I let the details work themselves out on the surface, and if I pay proper attention to them, the deeper resonances will emerge by themselves. In the final drafts I will sometimes, when I see that happening, make little adjustments to sharpen what’s trying to emerge.
HT: Eudora distracts herself by reading Russian literature and attending lectures on Tolstoy and Turgenev. But her work in the hospital requires her to piece together much more fractured narratives (“Stories arrived in Archangel in disjointed shards, incomplete”) She can examine a patient and deduce the path shrapnel took through his body. But in the course of the story, she is forced to shine her visionary light on much larger questions about Boyd, piecing together his story. Do you think she ever really knows the truth about him?
AB: My best guess is that she makes pretty good guesses—but does not ever really know. In weaving together these stories and novels into a sort of loose web in which some threads touch and some do not, some lightly cross each other and others are snarled together, I try to put the (attentive, investigative) reader in a position of discerning more about the overall pattern and meaning than does any single character.
HT: This story is set in Northern Russia in 1919, right after the end of World War I. But it’s hard not to think of the current war in Iraq while reading your descriptions of wounded soldiers. Were you influenced by coverage of the Iraq War while writing?
AB: I wrote this because of the war in Iraq; to me the analogies are striking and I’m sure that’s why the material seized me so firmly. My husband, Barry Goldstein, is a photographer who’s been working for the past few years on a book called “Gray Land: Soldiers on War,” for which he’s photographed and interviewed soldiers from a battalion based at Ft. Benning that’s been deployed three times to Iraq. I’ve been seeing a lot of images of soldiers involved in that conflict, and also hearing their voices by way of the transcribed interviews. What I’ve learned about their experiences resonated sharply with the memoirs and letters of soldiers stationed in Archangel in 1919.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
AB: A little less than two years.
HT: What are you working on now?
AB: Another long story—even longer than this one, I fear—set about six months after the end of “Archangel.”
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
AB: Apply butt to chair. Work. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.