- An Interview with Emily Barton
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Emily Barton is an American novelist, essayist, and short story writer. She was born in 1969 and grew up in New Jersey, where she attended Kent Place School, in Summit. She went to Harvard College, from which she graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English literature, and went on to gain an M.F.A. in fiction writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Barton is the author of The Testament of Yves Gundron (2000), which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and won the Bard Fiction Prize, and Brookland (2006), which was also a New York Times Notable Book, as well as one of the twenty-five best works of fiction and poetry selected by the Los Angeles Times in 2006; it was a 2007 selection of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. Her third novel, The Book of Esther, is to be published by Tim Duggan Books, a Crown imprint, in 2016. Barton has been a fellow of the Guggenheim Foundation and has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. Her essays and short stories have appeared in Story magazine, American Short Fiction, Conjunctions, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Observer, Poetry magazine, Nextbook, The Three-penny Review, and The Massachusetts Review (which nominated her 2014 short story “The Once and Future Capital” for a Pushcart Prize). For five years Barton was a lecturer in the Department of English at Yale University, where she taught writing to undergraduates. She is currently Elizabeth Drew Professor of English at Smith College. [End Page 1]
Barton’s first two novels can be read as explorations of the complex relationship between human beings and the increasingly sophisticated technologies they invent, but which come to dominate their lives. In The Testament of Yves Gundron, life in the village of Mandragora, which has seemingly remained the same for centuries, begins to change when Yves invents a harness for his horse. Further, potentially more drastic transformations occur with the shocking arrival of Ruth Blum, a young academic intent on studying the culture of the Mandragorans. Ruth’s objectivity as observer is challenged when she develops a relationship with someone close to Yves. The novel is presented as Yves’s first-person account but includes footnotes which reveal that Ruth has acted as editor of his journal. Brookland mixes third-person omniscient narration with epistolary sections and is set in a late-eighteenth-century rural Brooklyn yet to be connected to Manhattan. Its protagonist is Prudence Winship, who, along with her sisters Temperance and Pearl, takes over the management of her father’s gin distillery and dreams of building a bridge between Brooklyn and “Mannahata,” the island she regards as “the City of the Dead” (9), somewhere mythical and mysterious.
What The Testament of Yves Gundron and Brookland have in common is a determination to interrogate our understanding of, and the consequences of, “progress.” How are human relationships, with their complex and contested concepts such as “family” and “community,” affected by the technological advances that ostensibly make our lives easier? What room remains in our lives for notions of the transcendent when increasingly sophisticated technologies and modes of production bring about new economic considerations? And to what extent is nostalgia for a supposedly simpler time an ideological by-product of technological progress itself? Such issues are addressed in Barton’s writing through a mode of inquiry one might characterize as historical or speculative (and the author has precise views on these terms), in which continuities and differences are held in productive tension and the reader is thus required to consider which human qualities are “timeless” or innate, and which historically and socially constructed. One of the more unfortunate continuities between past and present, Barton argues in the interview, is the suspicion shown toward women’s enterprise, ambition, [End Page 2] and creativity. Both Yves Gundron and Brookland evince fascination with the world of work in general, but especially the limits often placed on...