In his 2007 memoir, Four Seasons in Rome, American writer Anthony Doerr describes his desire to see snow falling through the oculus of the Pantheon. “If it ever begins to snow, we should run to the Pantheon, because to see snowflakes drifting through the hole at the top of the dome is to change your life forever.” At the time, Doerr is living in Rome with his wife and twin boys after winning the Rome Prize, a prestigious award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. The Academy has provided him with a fully funded year in Rome, a studio, a place in a community of artists, and uninterrupted time to write, travel, read and think. Winter passes without snow and spring arrives in Italy. Doerr’s wife, Shauna, comforts him over the missed opportunity: “Sometimes, she says, the things we don’t see are more beautiful than anything else.”
Those of who have had the good privilege to read Anthony Doerr are fortunate. Through his words, we have, indeed, seen the snow falling through the ancient dome. Crackling with beauty, intelligence, lyrical prose, heartbreaking characters and a rarefied wisdom, Doerr’s work challenges many of the basic traditions of contemporary fiction. His short stories often run unusually long, brushing up against such uneasy labels as novella. He writes about characters from other cultures, other races, other genders. His prose is dense, filled with science and history and more than an ample supply of the magical powders that make good fiction fly off the page. A reader might find herself in the Liberian civil war, on Caribbean beaches, inside memory (literal memory) stored on a computer disc. But it hardly matters. I’ve yet to begin a sentence of his and find myself disappointed.
I reach Doerr in December of 2011. Like in much of the nation, winter has yet to arrive to the Boise foothills. An uneasy tension seems to hang over the unusually dry, warm season. It is raining and chilly here in San Diego, where I am. We talk about the weather, about raising children, about Santa Claus and about trying to keep kids believing in magic and fat guys delivering gifts through chimneys without directly lying to those we love.
The fact that such an accomplished writer can be such a nice damned guy is very reassuring. Doerr retains the humility of a seeker, of a fellow traveler on the road to discovery, even if he is light years further down the path.
Doerr’s describes his process of writing this way (from Four Seasons In Rome): “…A story—a finished piece of writing—is for its reader; it should help its reader refine, perceive, and process the world—the one particular world of the story, which is an invention, a dream. A writer manufactures a dream. And each draft should present a version of that dream that is more precisely rendered and more consistently sustained than the last.”
Anthony Doerr’s short fiction has won four O. Henry Prizes and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, and The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Fiction. He has won the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, the Rome Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, the National Magazine Award for Fiction, two Pushcart Prizes, the Pacific Northwest Book Award, three Ohioana Book Awards, the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award and the 2010 Story Prize. His books have twice been a New York Times Notable Book, an American Library Association Book of the Year, and made lots of other year end “Best Of” lists. In 2007, the British literary magazine Granta placed Doerr on its list of 21 Best Young American novelists.
Manufacturing Dreams: An Interview with Anthony Doerr
by Richard Farrell
Richard Farrell (RF): The Paris Review once asked John Gardner this question: How do you name your characters? Is this something you think about as you write?
Anthony Doerr (AD): Names comes to me primarily through research. I’ve found last names on a gravestone and written on the back of a photograph and in the works cited at the end of a scientific paper. And I’ve found first names in the fiction of other writers or overheard them in conversations. For my short story “Village 113,” for example, I was reading lots of dry U.N. reports about the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, and whenever they would mention an engineer’s name, I would scribble it down. So for Li Qing I ended up simply mixing together two different names.
Right now, I’m writing a novel set in France and Germany during World War II, and am reading, among other things, a book called Voices From the Third Reich. I’ll pull Uwe from Uwe Köster, who lived through the Hamburg firebombings as a young messenger, and Kühn from Klaus Kühn, who was Hitler Youth flak auxiliary during those same raids—and suddenly I have Uwe Kühn, a new person with at least a remotely plausible name.
That’s got to be a pretty common technique, don’t you think? Once you have a name and you start spending months with a character, he or she begins to embody the name. It starts to feel right; it starts to feel as though the character could never have been called anything else. Like a child, probably.
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