SCHENECTADY – Becoming a writer wasn’t part of the plan when Andrea Barrett started studying at Union College in 1971.
She was part of the second class of women to enter the Schenectady institution and her focus was on the sciences, particularly marine biology. However, years after graduating in 1974, Barrett went on to become an accomplished author, winning the National Book Award for “Ship Fever and Other Stories” and securing a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship.
Looking back, she credits Union for some of that success and recently donated her archives to the college.
“I’m very grateful to Union and it did a wonderful job, at least for me, of combining the sciences and the humanities. I do think that helped steer my later writing a great deal,” Barrett said.
Growing up on Cape Cod, exploring the beaches and surrounding ocean, she was naturally drawn to the sciences. After feeling that she wasn’t being challenged in high school, she dropped out at 16 years old and enrolled at Union.
“Still to this day, I don’t know why they accepted me but bless them for doing so,” Barrett said. “I was in the second class of women there and I was 16 when I entered . . . So it was weird in a lot of ways. I was still a girl in very much still a boys’ school, but it was fine. It was better than fine.”
There, she got to engage and further explore her curiosity about the natural world and, through various independent studies, learned how to do thorough research. Two professors, in particular, Carl George and Peter Tobiessen, were instrumental in her education.
After graduating, she soon realized that marine biology wasn’t the field for her. In the following decade, she worked more than a dozen different jobs, almost none of them in the same field.
“I didn’t know what I was good at. I started writing some poetry, clumsily. Then I just began trying to write a novel. I spent a long time working on that mostly by myself,” Barrett said.
After writing and publishing several novels, which were met with few reviews and sales, she decided to turn to short fiction.
“Usually, that’s what writers start with but because I didn’t go to graduate school in writing, and I wasn’t trained formally as a writer, somehow I just leaped into writing novels,” Barrett said.
Her short fiction layered the arts with science and history. Stories like “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds” and “The Littoral Zone,” first appeared in small literary magazines and eventually formed the basis of “Ship Fever.” With that book, she created a cast of characters that she’s woven into interconnected stories featured in several other books, including her most recent “Natural History,” which was released last month.
Manuscripts from her short stories and novels make up the bulk of the archives she donated to Union.
“I’m a writer that makes her work through many drafts, sometimes an embarrassing number of drafts,” Barrett said. “Over the years, I’ve learned a great deal and also been comforted in lots of ways by looking at other writers’ early drafts, just to get that sense that work doesn’t emerge full-blown and perfect from lots of writers’ brains. For many of us, it takes a long time and it helps me to see the work of someone who I cherish [and] to see that they struggle a little bit too.”
She hopes that her drafts will similarly help budding writers at the college.
“I thought maybe by giving it to Union, I might make accessible to some students what it looks like to go through a writer’s life, what it’s like to start and not have much success, and then be very lucky later on. It seemed to me like Union was a natural home for it,” Barrett said.
The archives also include rejection letters from various publications, including Esquire, The New Yorker and Good Housekeeping. Barrett considers rejection letters a rite of passage for just about any writer.
“It’s a normal part of a writer’s life,” Barrett said. “Unless you’re very fortunate when you’re young and unless things go very smoothly, the course of a beginning writer’s life is to write stuff and send it out and have it rejected, sometimes many times.”
Previously, Barrett’s manuscripts and letters were stored in a dozen boxes in the basement of her Champlain Valley home, which she shares with her husband Barry Goldstein, a fellow Union graduate.
Now they’ll be put to use. The college recently started the process of cataloging and organizing the materials.
“I’m ecstatic that Andrea Barrett has decided to entrust Union with her archive,” said Sarah Schmidt, director of Special Collections and Archives. “Andrea is a wonderful example of the strength of Union College: a biology major who went on to be an award-winning author. It is the perfect blend of science and humanities. I look forward to faculty and students engaging with her collection and can imagine these papers being used by students in a number of English classes.”
The college plans to make the collection available not only to students but also to the public.