Talking with Emily Barton

by Wendy Smith

Emily Barton lives in Brooklyn Heights, at the southern edge of an area whose 18th-century contours and customs she atmospherically recreates in her new novel, Brookland (Farrar Straus & Giroux). “That was the name for everything from the ferry landing at old Fulton Street to the foot of Clover Hill, which is where we are right now,“ the writer explains. “Brookland was never an official name, it was just something people called this area. I used it for the title because it was very close to the name as we know it, but not the same. It allowed me to say, ‘This is Brooklyn when it was a different place, with a different topography and different rules.’“

Prue Winship, the feisty heroine of Brookland, flouts her community’s rules by donning men’s britches and learning to run her beloved father’s distillery. Then she tries to build a bridge across the East River, a fictional project based on actual plans Barton found in the New York Public Library for a bridge that was proposed but never built. “It’s fun to research your own neighborhood,“ says the author, who moved to Brooklyn nine years ago. (She grew up in New Jersey, but three of her grandparents were native New Yorkers.) “Learning how the distilling process works was really interesting too. Writers tend to break down into those who believe that you write about what you know, and those who believe you write about what you don’t know; I’m one of the latter. The reason I write fiction is to understand other people’s lives. I’m far too intimate with my own already!“

Her first novel, The Testament of Yves Gundron, was also distanced from her personal experiences. It took place in what appeared to be a medieval village, where life was dramatically changed when the eponymous narrator invented a harness that enabled horses to pull larger carts. “Both of my books are about interacting with the natural world in new ways,“ the author comments. “I have a longstanding interest in the built environment, how we leave our mark on the landscape. I like stories about people who make things.“

Barton renders the process of building a bridge or inventing a harness as compelling as any romance, perhaps because she too is fascinated by the intricacies of technology and construction. “That socket blew yesterday,“ she says, gesturing to a nearby standing lamp. “So I went and got a new socket, read up on the Internet, and learned how to replace it and rewire the lamp. I told a friend, who said, ‘I pay people to do that!’ I said, ‘It’s a broken machine and it’s only got two moving parts. That’s fun to me!’ I got it from my dad, who taught me how to do everything: how to knit, how to drive, how to mix concrete, how to use tools—I have a desk and two night tables in my office that we built together. He saves up projects for when I go to visit him, because we both like to drive the stake for the new mailbox to go on.“

Looking at the small, slight author curled up in a ladder-backed chair, her bare feet sporting maroon toenail polish, it’s hard to imagine her pounding a mailbox post into the ground. But Barton’s pursuits have always ranged widely. “I was an only child and a weird kid,“ she remarks. “I was scribbling novels and plays, doing dress-up and starting small businesses, knitting and baking bread, acting and singing and dancing. My parents just let me be to read and imagine.“ Although she majored in English literature at Harvard and got an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, “I always thought writing was my weird hobby,“ she says. “Then I had the great good fortune to be laid off from my first fulltime job, working on a web site, when the Internet crashed in 1997. I got six months of unemployment and began The Testament of Yves Gundron.“

Published in 2000 by Farrar Straus & Giroux, the novel received excellent reviews and an unexpected boost from the normally uncommunicative Thomas Pynchon, who wrote an enthusiastic blurb that now graces the front cover of the paperback edition. Perhaps he was influenced, the author jokes, by the fact that while at Harvard she played in a band called Imipolex G, named after the super-plastic substance in Gravity’s Rainbow.

It’s slightly surprising to learn that Pynchon is one of Barton’s favorite authors. Both of her novels are relatively traditional in style and tone, and she freely admits that Brookland is essentially her version of The Mill on the Floss. (Her email address is “maggietulliver.“) But Victorian novels are only one of the literary traditions cherished by this eclectically enthusiastic writer. “I love George Eliot and Dickens and Balzac and Dumas,“ Barton says. “But I also really respect Richard Powers and Don DeLillo. I love this crazy Sesshu Foster novel, Atomik Aztex, which I’m teaching my students at the New School, and one of my favorite novels right now is Percival Everett’s Erasure; his appropriation of different narrative modes is thrilling to me.“

Nonetheless, she muses, “we fiction writers are in the business of verisimilitude. To the extent that you’re trying to create a structure that in some deep, resounding way resembles reality, you have to believe that it’s real, even though you made it all up. Fiction has its own rules that are not entirely dictated by you—or at least, they’re dictated by your subconscious.” •

from the July-August 2006 issue