One Read author Andrea Barrett talks inspiration, craft with audience

Friday, September 18, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — After spending the earlier part of the day signing copies of her novel, “The Air We Breathe,” Andrea Barrett discussed the book with an audience Thursday night at Columbia College.

“The Air We Breathe” was published in October 2007 and is set in 1916. Barrett focuses on connections tuberculosis patients made while living in private cottages or in a public sanatorium. At the same time, World War I brings home feelings of both prejudice and protection.

The audience in Columbia College’s Launer Auditorium consisted mainly of an older generation, who expressed an interest in the history associated with World War I.

“We as writers don’t often get chances to interact with such large groups of devoted readers,” Barrett said.

Barrett said her grandmother had tuberculosis and lived in a sanatorium for more than a year. Children were not allowed in sanatoriums at the time, and Barrett's mother had to stand on a car and wave to communicate with her mother. Barrett's mother told her this memory, which inspired the novel, when Barrett was about 40 years old.

After Barrett read a brief excerpt from “Arch Angel,” a 50-page story that served as an epilogue to “The Air We Breathe,” she opened up the floor to questions from the audience.
Much of the question and answer period was consumed by discussion of Barrett’s peculiar first person plural omniscient narration.

An audience member commented that she felt as if she were being narrated to by a committee.

“I wanted to know exactly who the ‘we’ was,” audience member Leia Brooks said.

Barrett was also asked whether her characters came from her real life experiences, or if they were simply made up.

Barrett said she does not extract the characters from her own life, but spoke of them as if they were real.She said she probably gets to know them better than real people in her life.

“I get to know my characters very slowly,” she said.

Barrett downplayed her talent, saying that practice was more important than a natural gift. When asked what advice she would give to aspiring writers, she said they don’t have to be greatly gifted, but should be patient and persistent and know the kind of writer they are. 

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