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.
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.
RF: Can you talk about your earliest influences? Perhaps even the influences before you became a writer, such as the things that drew you toward reading?
AD: Sure. My earliest influence was maybe C.S. Lewis.? I remember my mother reading The Chronicles of Narnia to me and my brothers; I was probably eight. And I remember asking her: “How did they make this book? How did they invent Narnia?” And she’d always say, “It was just one person who wrote these books. And he’s dead now.”
Dead! What? Dead people could tell stories that still held power over the living? I had always had a sense that books were like oranges on a tree, that they pre-existed in the world, and humans came along and plucked them. But now my mother was saying people made them. One person, one book at a time. That was a revelation: One weird old guy could use language, the cheapest of materials, and conjure whole worlds with it? Then he could die and those worlds could still hold sway?
My childhood was very immersive. Very imaginary. I was making up pretty complicated narratives with my toys. Sometimes I’d write them down. My brothers were older than I was, often doing things without me, and so I learned to make up stories about my Lego guy or G.I. Joe or whatever, and that was probably good training to be a fiction writer.
My kids are seven now, and because they are twins, they very rarely play alone. Sometimes I worry about that; I feel like one of the best parenting strategies my mother had was to trust me to play by myself with my little toys out in the woods for hours.
I had the usual influences too, like writing for the high school newspaper. I was a history major in college, and wrote a silly column with a friend for the college paper. But I always had my eye on the English department. I would write long, lousy stories in notebooks about avalanches and keg parties and dogs that walked across Alaska and show them to nobody. It felt precocious and impertinent to say to my parents, “I want to be a writer.” It was hard to even say that to myself. But that’s what I wanted to do.
RF: You’ve been described by other writers as being ‘scary smart’. (I’m not naming names!) How do you balance the intellectual side of writing with the more artistic/emotional parts?
AD: (Laughs) I don’t feel very smart sometimes. I can feel like a failure all day long. Sometimes writing is like baseball, where you can hit .300 and be considered a good hitter. What I mean is that I feel lucky if 30% of my sentences end up working out, if 30% of my ideas wind up turning into finished projects, if 30% of my hours can be productive.
When I read, I try to learn as much as I can. Sure, I also read to escape, to enter other lives, but I also read to learn, and I don’t mean just to learn about extrasolar planets or conditions on slave ships. I mean to learn about the experiences of other people in other years, other eras, other climates. A book like Moby Dick, for example, is so formally risky because Melville has no problem disrupting his narrative momentum and cramming in whole chapters about the history and techniques of whaling. Often my students resist those chapters, but I love them: they have that classic duality of good writing: that it both teaches and entertains.
For me, writing fiction is often an excuse to explore curiosities. I get curious about venomous snails or hibernating ladybugs or the construction of dams or orphans during WWII; then I try to pull that information into a human story.
This is probably where I fail the most. I get carried away by the science sometimes, the information, the cool historical stuff, the wonders of the world, and I tend to lose sight of why a reader, in her guts, wants to turn the page: because she wants to learn what will happen next.
RF: I’m thinking of Steven Millhauser. He does this kind of writing, lots of cool, weird facts. Do you read him?
AD: Oh sure. I haven’t read him much since I was in grad school, but he’s great. I love when he’ll make a story spiral in on itself, building all these crazy, whimsical details until he’s lost sight of narrative altogether, and is just building tiny boxes within tinier boxes. Love that stuff.
I think of Calvino, too. He’s a writer who sometimes subverts narrative for the sheer glory of invention, playfulness, whimsy. He was a very important writer to me when I was trying to figure out how to translate my own interests to the page because he seemed to say: yes you can be silly, you could love science and fables at the same time, you can be an intellectual but you can also tell stories.
RF: In “The Caretaker,” which is one of my all-time favorite stories, you build a long story with a very unusual structure. There are so many distinct parts to it, so many disruptions. You have the Liberian civil war and the long trip to Oregon, the time with the family, the whale hearts, the garden, the survivalist section. I’ve noticed a lot of your stories tend this way. More than most writers, you blur the line between the short story and the novella. Sometimes, your work is almost indistinguishably close. Why do you write such long stories? Do you plan it out consciously or does it arise from the inner workings of the story itself.
AD: The latter. They just turn out that way. I probably do too much writing in my stories. Even for shorter stories that I do, I’m writing around a hundred pages, spiraling out long paragraphs that eventually get cut or severely trimmed. It takes time to learn how much you can get away with not saying. Once you understand what the reader needs to make sense of the story, a lot of the choreography–the “Then they got out of the car and walked up the sidewalk and turned the doorknob and went into the kitchen”—can go.
But the material has to determine the structure. Take “The Caretaker.” I felt like that section of the journey from Liberia to Oregon could have been a lot longer, and I wondered if the reader would forgive me the shortcuts I had to take, that I basically teleported Joseph to Oregon from Liberia.
One of the things I like to do is to open up spatial tensions in my work. Liberia versus Oregon in “The Caretaker,” for example, or the tension between the palace Joseph is caretaking and his subsistence in the woods around the property. I played with it a lot in About Grace, in the way I use Alaska and the Caribbean. The dialectic of those things interest me. Place a character far away from home and immediately there’s longing implicit in her story.
But it’s not planned that way. I can’t just sit down and write a 9,000 word story for a magazine for $500. It’s seven months of my life, and I never quite know how long it will be or what structure it will take. I guess I could say that I’m drawn to certain lengths, both in reading and writing. I’m not a big reader of short-short stories, for example, and I agree with Poe who said that undue brevity can fail a reader. Here’s Poe: “A poem too brief may produce a vivid, but never an intense or enduring impression. Without a certain continuity of effort–without a certain duration or repetition of purpose–the soul is never deeply moved. There must be the dropping of the water upon the rock.” I feel like, in a short story, I’m not dropping water on the rock unless I’m pushing past some sort of moveable threshold: maybe 3,000 words? You need time to establish a certain level of repetition, to establish a pattern, and then deviate from it.
RF: In the epigraph of Memory Wall, Luis Buñuel says “Life without memory is no life at all.” Clearly all of these stories deal with memory, many of them, like the title story, deal with it overtly. But so much of a character’s memory must happen off the page. How do you go about creating memories for your characters? Are you ruminating a long time before a character gets on the page or are you writing drafts and finding the memories that way?
AD: The latter. Characters are made and at the start of their lives they are lumpy and soft pieces of clay. I form them through trial and error. I ask myself: what could her life be if this happened in her past? Should I invent a situation in her past that made her how she is now? And do I need to present that in scene or summary to my reader? But you can paralyze yourself with too much of this. So often, the situation in a story will present the need for a memory, and then you spend a couple days inventing the memory. And then, more often than not, you realize you don’t need to include it at all.
What I love about reading a short story is that a writer can spend days and weeks and months ruminating on her characters and their places and problems. Maybe she spends years on it, honing them, trying to invent their pasts, guess at their futures. So a writer spends a year of her life on something and a reader gets to drink it down in an hour or two. That’s a great gift of concentrated time, the ultimate milkshake.
RF: You were quite successful while still a relatively young writer. Did you pass through a period of bad writing? If so, when was it?
AD: Writing can always be changed, improved, deepened, sharpened; that’s the beauty of what we do. So when I was first starting out, I don’t know if I was in a period of bad writing; it was more like I just didn’t yet know how to get my writing ready for a stranger to read it. In the beginning of a person’s attempts to write books, it’s more about learning to recognize what’s weak, what’s relying on false truths, what’s cliche, and repairing it before asking someone to be generous enough to read it.
RF: Another quirk of what I might call Anthony Doerr’s writing style is that you inhabit characters that are wildly different than you are. I assume from your author photos that you are a white, male American writer, yet your stories are filled with Liberian refugees, Chinese villagers, South African men and women, teenage girls, blind shell collectors. How did you learn to give yourself permission to be so versatile?
AD: When I get that question I usually ask myself why I read. I read to enter the life of someone else, to leave myself and enter other selves. I read to feel less alone–David Foster Wallace said something like that. So I believe that the human experience can be communicated, can be shared. I can go read Madame Bovary and in a couple of paragraphs I get to become a randy housewife in 1856. That’s a miracle, isn’t it?
So I think that some human commonalities are shared. Things like loss, heartbreak, love. These things happen everywhere. They happen in Iran, Vietnam, Ohio. So yes, it is a risk; I run the risk of not beginning to understand the subjects I’m interested in. But I’m not going to write about some bald white Idahoan in a supermarket all the time. There are things about being a bald white Idahoan in a supermarket that interest me too, but not all the time. I’m drawn to discovery.
This can often be confusing for a young writer. So often, they’re told to write what they know. Fundamentally, the things they want to write about they already know all too well: feeling lonely, feeling scared, feeling inadequate. That doesn’t mean they can’t write about a lonely, scared, inadequate person on a space station in 2641. The trappings of a person can be researched. If you want to write about a violin maker in 1743, you can do it with a lot of research and care.
RF: Could you talk about travelling and how it has influenced you as a writer? You make reference in Four Seasons in Rome to Viktor Shklovsky and the concept of defamiliarizaiton. Does living and writing abroad help you do this?
AD: Ah! Making the stones stony again! What Shklovsky is talking about is estrangement, right, the way our homes, our lives, become invisible to us over time, and that the role of art is to make those things strange to us again. When we become encrusted with habit, we stop noticing things. But art breaks through that encrustation. That’s what he’s saying, roughly. That’s why my favorite novels can do things like show me a bald white Idahoan, and show me him in a new way.
So by travelling, I’m forced to see things new again: even very simple things, like how people get water, how they get to work, how they think about ambition. But travel can also work against what I’m trying to do. I recently went to Ecuador for a New York Times piece I was writing. It was easy to take notes there, to come home and write 3,000 words from those notes. But it disrupted the work I was doing on my novel. In my fiction I was trying to conjure February and mist and gray oceans and hedgerows and instead I’m standing in primary forest in a plastic rain poncho with butterflies flapping past me. But here’s what I tell myself: it all goes into the pot. I take journals wherever I go and I fill them with crappy sentences I’ll never show anyone but I can still, maybe, use those sentences—or at least those memories—in the future. And who knows, maybe someday I’ll go back to them and write about Ecuador. The images will still be there.
RF: How are your twins?
AD: (Laughs) They’re great, Rich. Thanks for asking. They’re seven now.
(We proceed to talk about kids, Christmas and how fast they grow. I tell him a story about visiting the Sistine Chapel when my son was two. My wife was pushing him in a stroller and he screamed for the entire time. Doerr and his wife lived in Rome for a year just after their twin boys were born. We talk about Santa Claus.)
AD: Does your daughter still believe in Santa? (She says she does.) Did you ever have to tell a straight lie to your kids about it? (I answer that I’m not sure.) I love that children retain the power to want to believe.
RF: Is writing difficult for you? Is it hard work?
AD: I have great days sometimes, mornings or evenings when it’s going well. Sometimes when you’re writing well, you look up and it’s noon and your leg is asleep and you’re hungry because you forgot to eat. Those are great days, days that feel short because you’ve been dreaming all day.
But sure, it’s not easy. It’s like working out. I know that’s a trite analogy, but it’s effective. Sometimes the last thing you want to do is go outside and run, but then you do it, and you’re a few miles in and it’s snowing but your body is warm and you just feel alive.
RF: Was there a particular writer or artist or teacher who most influenced your writing?
AD: Andrea Barrett, who I didn’t meet until recently. Her collection, Ship Fever, had science and history and good writing, and I thought, “You can do this?” You can write short stories and novellas and be responsibly accurate about science and history and still be creative? Rick Bass, too. I still haven’t met him. His story collection, The Watch, blended magic and love and setting and the natural world and he got away with it and it rang a bell in my soul because those were all the things I wanted to do. Alice Munro, too, and how she deals with time; that she could take on time scales much larger than a single day in her stories showed me that I could try that too. You have to give yourself permission to try these things and when you see older, accomplished, hugely passionate writers doing it, it helps so much.
RF: You say that a writer manufactures dreams. What dreams can we look forward to next?
AD: I’m working a novel that’s seven years in the making. It’s about a German boy and a French girl in World War II and how their lives intersect, though that intersection happens very late in the book. It has to do with radio, too: how radio was employed both as a tool of control and resistance. Mostly I want to conjure a time when it was a miracle to hear the voice of a stranger in our homes, in our ears. Nowadays we’re bombarded by electronic messages, of course. It’s to the point where my house can seem too quiet if my kids are outside and my wife is away; I feel like I have to turn on the radio, just to keep me company.
Anyway, among the thousand challenges this book presents is this: Can I tell the story about how a boy got sucked into the Hitler Youth, made some bad decisions that led to terrible, unforgivable consequences, and still make the boy an empathetic character?
RF: In Four Seasons in Rome, you describe a writing this way: “But to write a story is to inch backward and forward along a series of planks you are cantilevering out into the darkness, plank by plank, inch by inch, and the best you can hope is that each day you find yourself a little bit farther out over the abyss.” It’s such a nice description. What gives you the confidence to take the next step?
AD: Some days, it’s not there. But here’s the thing: when those voices are loudest, those critical voices which are telling you not to do something, often that’s when the story is really about to takeoff. Because that means you’re standing on the edge of something dangerous.
Take “Memory Wall,” for example. I was writing a long story about whales and Alzheimer’s and it was a mess. And when McSweeney’s asked for a story set in the near future, I had the idea to put memories on cartridges. That was a ridiculous idea; that’s when the voices started getting loud, saying, “Don’t do that, that’s science fiction, that’s silly, that’s a gimmick.” Thankfully I had grown up enough to know that that was the sign that said, Try it.
So you have to train yourself to shut out the voices. Writing is tough. It’s easy to question what it is you’re doing. I have friends with a fair degree of stability in their life, in jobs they’ve had for maybe two decades now, mostly on autopilot, making good money. I have some good friends out on the golf course right now as we speak! You can get locked into that way of thinking, of worrying about what you don’t have. You have to come back down from that and tell yourself: I am doing what I love to do, I am blessed, my family is healthy, and I’m healthy, and I need to keep challenging myself because who knows how much time any of us has left on Earth?