Disease, Politics Permeate 'The Air We Breathe' Once a biology student, Andrea Barrett now weaves science through her fiction. In The Air We Breathe, Barrett writes about poor immigrants at a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Adirondacks on the eve of World War I.
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Disease, Politics Permeate 'The Air We Breathe'

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Disease, Politics Permeate 'The Air We Breathe'

Disease, Politics Permeate 'The Air We Breathe'

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Infectious disease holds a fascination for the novelist Andrea Barrett. She's the first to admit it.

ANDREA BARRETT: Infectious disease exists at this intersection between real science, medicine, public health, social policy, and human conflict. There's a tendency of people to try and make a group out of those who have the disease. It makes people who don't have the disease feel safer. So I think it's that moment that really interests me.

BLOCK: Andrea Barrett was once a biology student. Now, she weaves science through her fiction and stories about an Arctic expedition, a typhus epidemic, and in her latest novel, about tuberculosis.

The book titled, "The Air We Breathe," begins in 1916. The United States is on the brink of entering World War I. Poor immigrant TB patients are sent to a sanatorium in a bracing air of the Adirondacks for a rest cure.

BARRETT: The cure until the late 1940s, when there was an antibiotic discovered for tuberculosis, was basically rest. It was fresh cold air, lots of food - five meals a day, lots of sleep, not very much talking, and for some people, complete stillness. Many people weren't even allowed to read. If you were strong, anyway, and you had a functioning immune system, there was some chance that just the sleep, the good food, the rest, might allow your own body to fight off the disease and that did work for some people.

BLOCK: In this novel, in "The Air We Breathe," there are two classes of tuberculosis patients who are sent to Upstate New York for a rest cure. They're the wealthy patients...

BARRETT: Right.

BLOCK: ...who hang in cottages and well tended to. And then there are the indigent, mostly immigrant patients who are well tended, too, but in this large institution called Tamarack State.

BARRETT: I had actually written about tuberculosis before in the 1880s, in the upper Adirondacks. I was then interested in people staying in those cure cottages. But as I did the research for that, I started to see these large buildings tucked away from the villages in the woods, and to think about what it must have been like to be confined to one of those. And then I started to read a lot about immigrants in New York City in the early part of the 20th century who had been sent there. There really was no choice for most of those people. They didn't have the money to afford proper medical care. They really had to go if they were given the option.

Then there is a situation where you have a large group of people bound together not because they like each other or necessarily have things in common, but simply because they're all caught in one place. And that, too, was always a really interesting situation for a novelist.

BLOCK: The climate here is that the United States is on the cusp of and it enters World War I, and there is, sort of, vigilante...

BARRETT: Mm-hmm.

BLOCK: ...committee that springs up in the town, and there's a character who's involved in this league that springs up to sniff out saboteurs and spies in their midst.

BARRETT: Yeah. He's based not on a real person but the group is real. There were many, many people like that just as America was about to enter the war. There were a number of incidents of industrial sabotage especially along the East Coast. There were ammunition plants that were blown up. Those were all blamed on German spies and saboteurs, and probably that was correct.

But those incidence were in turn used to whip up a really savage, kind of, war hysteria and anti-immigrant hysteria. What I really was more interested in though was once he starts that motion, the passage of the other patients in the sanatorium who thinks that they are against him, who slowly become frightened enough to, if not, act against their fellow patient, to close their eyes to the actions taken against their fellow patient.

BLOCK: I've read that you really started diving into the research of this book in New York City on September 10, 2001.

BARRETT: Yeah. I had the good fortune to have a fellowship at the New York Public Library for that year. On September 11th I got up to - go to work and brought the dog to the dog sitters, and I heard a big noise and turned around, and that was the first plane hitting the first tower. And that inevitably changed the book, which then was just an idea in my head. It had been more of about tuberculosis purely before then. I had not thought I would bring the war into the book.

But the atmosphere in New York that year became very dark very fast, and that was of great interest to me too to see how quickly, we, as a city and as a country, begin to search for someone to blame, how quickly we got involved in a war. Almost everyone got on board about the war for fear of being labeled unpatriotic. And that's a situation that was very similar to what was going on in World War I, and that was very horrifying to me. And my response is to simply hurl myself into the bellows of the library and into the newspapers from 1916 and 1917, and to look for those things that have been going on in the city than it what seem to be to be an analogous time.

BLOCK: So when you started digging back, what were the parallels that you'd found or were there points of which you felt this is a completely different time and there really is now analogy.

BARRETT: I wish I felt an analogy. But for me, maybe because I was very sensitive right then, the analogy seemed overwhelming. There - in the months before America entered World War I, there were gigantic preparedness parades marching down Fifth Avenue carrying giant banners. There were training camps all over the country in the woods where bankers and lawyers and doctors would go off for two weeks and be trained by someone who once had been in the military for a short period of time. They would march around really carrying sticks as pretend rifles learning how to march. And there was an enormous amount of anti-German sentiment in particular, anti-immigrant sentiment more generally. The feeling that people were spying on Americans and they were sending special messages back overseas. That resonated with me quite strongly.

BLOCK: Do you think of yourself as a political writer?

BARRETT: I don't and I think most of my friends would be horrified to think that I would do something like this. I've always written about people who have very abstracted in a certain way. I write about scientists and artists and musicians. I write about people who live in their heads who are very obsessed about a certain set of details in the physical world. I think my work until this book has actually been notable for its lack of politics. So it's quite strange for me, too, to be writing something that was so caught up even at a distance of 90 years. With my current world, I'm still startled by it.

BLOCK: Is it uncomfortable?

BARRETT: Yes it is. Because I don't have not yet really participated actively politically. I send money to this group and that group like everyone does. I write the occasional letter to the newspaper. But I have never really been engaged bodily, politically, and I seem to be at a point in my life or may be the country's at a point in its life where that's coming a lot closer to me.

BLOCK: Andrea Barrett, thanks very much for coming in.

BARRETT: Thank you. It's my pleasure.

BLOCK: Andrea Barrett's latest novel is called "The Air We Breathe." You can read an excerpt at our Web site, npr.org.

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