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  • NYS Writers Institute

Author Andrea Barrett's advice: "Read, write, walk, repeat"

We caught up with Andrea Barrett, US National Book Award winner and Adirondack resident who visited SUNY Albany in 2007.

Andrea is renowned for historical fiction that explores the challenge and thrill of scientific discovery and -- appropriately for the present moment -- the experiences of characters coping with the pandemics of the past.

She received the 1996 National Book Award for Fiction for her story collection, Ship Fever. The title novella recounts the experiences of a young Canadian doctor at the center of one of history's worst epidemics-- The Typhus Epidemic of 1847. Known as "ship fever" and transmitted by lice, typhus killed tens of thousands of Irish immigrants to North America who arrived on crowded and unsanitary "coffin ships" during the Potato Famine.

Andrea visited Albany with The Air We Breathe, her acclaimed account of love, betrayal, and the advance of science during the tuberculosis pandemic of the early 20th century. The novel is set in a village called Tamarack Lake in the Adirondacks, a fictionalized Saranac Lake, NY, which was a world-renowned center for the treatment of TB.

Tourists today can visit a variety of sites in Saranac Lake associated with the pandemic, including the Trudeau Sanatorium, the Cure Cottage Museum and the Saranac Laboratory Museum. Sixty-four cure cottages remain standing and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Q: Where are you now?

A: My husband and I have been up in the Adirondacks since mid-February, at a small house about an hour east of the area where The Air We Breathe is set. Pine trees all around us, dirt road in front of us, lots of places to walk without seeing anyone at all: and sometimes we don’t see anyone all week. I shop for groceries once every two weeks, pick up the mail once a week… it’s pretty quiet. We’re very lucky.

Q: Is there anything you'd like us all to do?

A: Try to be kind—to everyone, all the time. Things are rough, we’re all on edge.

Q: Any fresh news?

A: Not really: all the days are like all the other days just now. The big excitement is hummingbirds coming to the feeders.

Q: Any writing you'd like to share with us?

A: If you have not already had enough of pandemics in all their forms, The Air We Breathe might resonate with you.

Q: Anything else you'd like us to read?

A: I’ve been re-reading Willa Cather, starting with O Pioneers and working through The Professor’s House, My Mortal Enemy, and the three long stories of Obscure Destinies; I'm just starting My Antonia, with The Song of the Lark on deck. I’m finding her calm, clear voice and brilliant character portraits the perfect antidote to the news I read too much of each day.

Q: What do you do to keep sane?

A: Read, write, walk, repeat. Re-reading older work I’m already familiar with has been a great way to concentrate, even if only for an hour a day, on what writing really is for, what it can do. And it helps me write (which is probably the most important thing I can do to stay sane).

Q: Any recipes you'd like us to try?

A: Melissa Clark’s “Sugared Shortbread” recipe is so easy, and so good. (If you can find flour.)

Q: Any skills we should try to perfect?

A: Anything—anything!—that helps you concentrate for a little while on something beyond the news. Garden, bake, knit, paint, play the banjo, learn a new language…..

A 2001 MacArthur "Genius Award" winner, Andrea is also the author of Servants of the Map, a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, and Archangel, a finalist for the 2013 Story Prize. A graduate of Union College, she is Senior Lecturer in English at Williams College.

"[Andrea Barrett's] work stands out for its sheer intelligence…The overall effect is quietly dazzling."

―New York Times Book Review

Visit Andrea's website at

"By junior high, I was a horrible student. But during my sophomore year of high school, I did have a fabulous English teacher, and I would go to school just for her class and then skip out afterwards." Andrea Barrett in The Paris Review, Winter 2003

"Weaving Science Into Fiction", by Janet Maslin, New York Times review of Archangel, September, 2013

On our YouTube page, Andrea talks about why she couldn't become a scientist, despite her deep love of science:


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