This conversation took place on May 14 2014 at my one time favorite neighborhood place The Keltic Krust (gone now). Anthony Doerr’s most recent novel,All the Light We Cannot See was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award and (for what its worth) named one of the ten best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review. As is my way, Tony and I spent a pleasant and engaging hour chatting about this and that. The account of which you can read below:
(3 OR 4 MINUTES DISCUSSING KID SPORTS , COACHING AND UMPIRING)
RB: What do you want to talk about? Have you spoken with a lot of people?
AD: The book came out eight days ago—so yeah, I’ve been talking a lot. I usually am skilled enough to deflect conversation away from myself. I get tired of it. I am flattered. It’s a lot better than having no one interested your work.
RB: Is this the first time you have done a book tour?
AD: I came to Boston for the 3rd book—Four Seasons in Rome. For About Grace (my 2nd book) I went to a bunch of cities. The Shell Collector won a prize (Barnes & Noble) and so I went to 20 cities-or-so cities visiting B&Ns.
RB: Here’s a personal question—what’s it like living in Boise, Idaho?
AD: It’s not a personal question. I love it. It’s great. We always feel we need to crank up the drawbridge and not tell people how great it is. It’s a beautiful little town. I can ride my bike to work. 300 days of sunshine a year.
RB: Where is work?
AD: I’m just a writer as my work. But I rent an office for $150 a month, outside my house.
RB: You can’t write at home?
AD: Even before we had kids it was too difficult. My wife would be at work and I would just do things at the house. Productive procrastination—it’s not like I would lie down. I would clean the garage meticulously.Fold every piece of laundry very carefully. And as hours ratchet by, I start to get more and more upset with myself and anxious.
RB: Why wouldn’t you go to the public library?
AD: I did at first, before I could afford this office. My problem is I have to pee every few hours—
RB: —the library doesn’t have lavatory?
AD:They do but it’s more of a laptop issue. Especially when I am in a good place, the last thing I want to do is pack up everything in my carrel and go to the bathroom. Then I come back and the carrel is gone. For me, fiction is often this house of cards you are building and if the kids come in or my wife wants me to do something or someone interrupts me–the phone rings–the house of cards falls over.
RB: Do you put things on a wall as visual aids?
AD: I do. There were a lot of photographs that I used writing this book. I covered a couple of walls.
RB: Did you travel to Germany?
AD:I did. I went to Europe three times. Germany, France. Normandy—Saint Malo. I visited three different times.
RB: Lets get back to Boise— Gail Collins wrote a column on state legends and mentioned Idaho. Was the potato a part of the state motto?
AD:I don’t know. The potato I would understand. The university football team plays on blue turf.
RB: Yeah, what’s up with that?
AD: And then you get the white supremacists.
RB: Well, who can forget Ruby Ridge and its aftermath?
AD: That’s 9 hours north of our house—of course the reputation was earned.
RB: I met one other Idahoan, singer/songwriter Josh Ritter who is from Moscow Idaho.
AD: I’ve never met him but I like his work.
RB: I met him because he wrote a novel a few years back.
AD: You interviewed him—I read that. I hadn’t give him a chance as a novelist (which wasn’t fair because he is a wonderful songwriter) because I tend to be skeptical of someone who is really good at something and then they try to do something else. But his novel is good.
RB: Back to you—what determined the way you structured this story? Do you decide the form before you started the actual writing?
AD: : A lot of those decisions are not conscious. You are just kind of fumbling around, trying to figure out how this scaffolding will be built. But if I look back and start thinking about it critically, I realized that I’ve been building larger narratives our of little title pieces for a decade or so now. I think at least three of the stories in my last book, Memory Wall were long stories built with titled sections. “Memory Wall,” itself, the title novella is built from sections, each a little less than a page and each section has a title. What I liked about it was that it allowed me to move between points of view and employ a narrator who can go on little runs of lyricism and then you can give the reader a rest, some white space, between them.
RB: Janet Maslin commended you for doing that.
AD:Yes, she did. Which was surprising. She found an interview I had given at Powell’s and pulled that out. I was glad — I am getting a lot of questions about it. I didn’t think it was so unique or different; I’m certainly not the only contemporary writer to do it; Anne Carson, Jenny Offil, etc. I am getting a lot of questions like, ”Is it a response to short attentions spans?” Or Internet culture?
RB: That’s a reasonable question. Francine Prose’s recent book uses different forms —letters, book excerpts—to advance the narrative. You did the same—
AD: I wanted to make a symmetrical pattern and then occasionally disrupt it and see what that would do for a reader and try to keep in a reader’s head. See if she can keep both of these narratives—its almost as if I spat two lines straight up towards the sky and just inclined them slightly toward each other. . I want a reader to intuit that they are going to intersect and start anticipating that. And hopefully that builds some narrative momentum.
RB: And there are echoes of Rashoman — 2 people looking at the exact same thing…
AD: Yeah, thanks. I love that. Certainly that’s true for radio in the novel. Radio plays a different role in each of their lives. It’s both a curse and a gift.
RB: Philip Kerr, who has a novel series about a homicide detective in Nazi Germany says when he is finished with one of those novels, he feels like “he is climbing out of a dirty basement.”
AD: : I totally understand what he was saying. It felt so good to finally take those photos down. I had photos of the Hitler Youth in my office; I’d have friends come over and they’d emphatically ask, “What are you doing in here?” And I was beating myself up any time I read something that wasn’t about World War II or written in German around that time—something that I couldn’t qualify as research. For almost a decade, anything I was reading, I felt it should bend itself toward this project. So it felt so nice just really in the past three months to move into this Panama piece or start reading things about another time in history. Part of the reason that All the Light took so long was the psychic damage of reading incessantly about the destruction of human beings, especially when you read about the Eastern front and the Ukraine and this ravine called Babi Yar.
RB: ‘Killing fields’ before the term was coined.
AD: Unreal. The most destructive conflict you can imagine. And even forgetting what happened to Gypsies and disabled people and Jewish people, just what happened to soldiers on both sides —the level of violence and brutality in those two winters—‘42 and ’43 was obscene So sometimes reading those things I would have to stop. That’s why I wrote two other books. Partially as procrastination because this book was so difficult to put together. And partly because psychologically it was really difficult to live in the space for so many months..
RB: So, you first had the idea for this story and then you began to research? Or you began research about something and it got a little sharper and you researched more…
AD: Mostly the latter. You write yourself into these unknowns and you realize, ”I need to understand what a kitchen in 1939 would look like in Brittany.” So now I have to go figure that out. My problem there is you have to avoid letting that balloon into a kind of research/procrastination. Because after while I’m like, “Ooh maybe I ‘ll look at some more photos.” (laughs) It’s a lot easier than writing new sentences.
RB: Did you read all of [Joseph] Goebbels’s* writing?
AD: No, no, mostly his speeches in translation. Everything that is on Werner’s radio as a boy is real. I’m not making it up. All those slogans — that’s at that NAPOLA school (National Political Institute of Education at Schulpforta). Yea, that stuff is so sinister.
RB: You read memoirs of students who attended that school?
AD:: Yes, a lot of that is in German, which I cannot read, I had to punch them into some god-awful Google translator. But those schools were real and sometimes in the novel I am toning down the punishing nature of those environments—I don’t really want to shine the light so brightly just on violence. That’s true, too, in what happens to Jutta [Werner’s sister] very late in the novel. In all likelihood, in real life, that would have happened to her many, many more times.
RB: Were you relieved to finish this novel?
AD: Yeah. At some point I had so many colored note cards out on the floor and I felt like: If I get hit by a bus my poor wife is never going to be able to piece this thing together.
RB: You could have an editor like Michael Pietsch who put together David Foster Wallace’s post humus novel.
AD: I know. But for a couple years there, I don’t think anyone could have assembled that mess into something functional. But later there’s that amazing moment when you can print the thing off and you don’t have to worry about your computer crashing or a your auxiliary hard drive crashing. That feels good.
RB: So after you complete the writing part, how long does it stay with you?
AD: For me its kind of like painting. Maybe it’s a forced metaphor, but the paint starts to dry after a couple of weeks if your subconscious isn’t working on it. That’s true for really any project—even if you are halfway through it. For me even little things like Thanksgiving or a family vacation for a week —if I am away from the work for even that short of a time, the ice really starts to form over it. It takes a week of chopping away at the prose before you can get back into it Because for me the times I am most happy and working well is when I am getting 3, 4, 5 sometimes 9 hours a day of working and then you do something like this—you come to a coffee shop or you walk the dog or you go to your kid’s baseball game, and suddenly your subconscious solves one of those problems you’ve made for yourself. Or you read something in the newspaper that seems totally unrelated, but it’s not—when you’re working a lot, everything starts to become relevant. But if your brain moves on to something else, it takes a couple of weeks. And then it seals over.
RB: There is that oft-repeated truism that writers write even when they are not writing.
AD:Yeah, you interviewed David Mitchell once [actually 5 or 6 times]? He compared writing to farming “there are a lot of different activities that comprise farming,” he said, or something like that. I like that—writing is not just confronting a blank white page all the time. You’re reading through what you’ve got so far. Or you’re seeding the fields by looking for other ideas. Or you are polishing your tools, or flipping through the seed catalogs.
RB: It’s a total life experience —for some people. I was watching True Detective and I was thinking that that’s another occupation or calling that is total.
AD: That’s part of the reason I have that separate space. To my family when I am home I am home. I’m present. Even if that means I get up at one in the morning to work on a piece. When my kids are around and they need help, I try to be there. And if I am not at home I am at work.
RB: How do you get along with people?
AD: I love people! They’re fascinating. There are times—I don’t have a sign on my door and I wear headphones like a chain saw operator—so there are times when I am being anti-social probably, just because it takes so long to get something done. Some of the chapters in this book, I have probably combed over hundreds of times. So, you do spend hours away from your family and friends.
RB: Really when you think about it, writers are abnormal. I find it difficult to gauge to what people are paying attention. If your interests are literary or about narrative and thoughtful, how do you deal with people who follow the Kardashians or whatever the latest trivia dominates the news cycle? Or spend their time sending selfies?
AD: My wife helps me try to be a less judgmental person and to try to understand everybody’s following a story and even the Kardashians, for some people are some kind of narrative they are following. I can relate to it terms of sports—I follow the narrative arcs of games but also of seasons and players within a season, coming back from injuries. So for some people it might be movie stars or whatever—they’re still big narratives that are interesting to them. I try to appreciate that.
RB: Am old Jew, Philo of Alexandria offered, ”Be kind, everyone in life is in a great battle.”
AD: Dr. Sherman Nuland said that in one of your interviews. It’s a beautiful quote.
RB: Have there been any negative reviews of your new opus?
AD: There has been one so far. In the Sunday Times. It was painful—William Vollman wrote it. The rest have been really good. Vollman did not enjoy Werner’s trajectory as much as Marie’s. His argument is a little cluttered to me but that’s because I didn’t like it. He says that spend more empathetic effort making Marie an individual and relied more on stereotype for Werner. And the next review will say the exact opposite.
RB: I don’t see that as a criticism as much as statement of taste.
RB: But it still bothered you.
AD:I wish it didn’t. (pause)That is a really important thing for me to struggle with— I try to pretend, to myself, that I don’t care. But I am also skeptical of the writers who tell me they never read reviews of their own work and they don’t care how their books are received. You make this thing alone for so long and it goes into the world and the point of it is optimistic—to hope to connect with a stranger. To hope that somehow there is something inside this language that meets a reader and the reader has to meet you halfway. And so you’re curious to find out how readers will respond to it. At least I am.
RB: That’s an articulate way of saying we want to be acknowledged and liked.
AD: Another way of thinking about it is that you are an engineer and you are making this machine and you want to find out of the machine is working.
RB: Maybe your best hope is people read the whole book.
RB: I read a review of a biography of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee and it stated that there should be no 800-page book a bout a sports figure. So immediately I am wondering if the reviewer read the entire book. I thought the same thing — I don’t think anyone merits an 800-page biography. But having read entire book I thought Bradlee made it work.
AD: I think you can write 800 pages on weeds and the lawn if you are good enough at it. Nicholson Baker could probably do that. With that length you are announcing: I know a lot about this and it’s going to be really interesting. Your reader has to come into it with a lot of skepticism, and if you win you reader that’s an achievement.
RB. On the other hand you have the case of Robert Caro on LBJ.
AD: Yeah, amazing
RB: That’s good example of how much information is contained in many lives. We are so packed with all the stuff that happens and if you are world historical it has more valence.
AD: Of course, any life you can unspool a day for a thousand pages
RB: Mostly we don’t pay attention too much of it.
AD: That brings me back to your saying that writing is a way of living. I got into reading because I didn’t want to sleepwalk my way through life. But you can’t stay awake and alert to the majesty every day, every minute. Occasionally if you train you mind to pay attention, slowing down and looking at things very deeply, you do get to focus a little more. I don’t believe in reincarnation. You get one trip and if you are lucky you get 80 years — so why not pay attention to every thing that you can and learn as much as you can while you are here.
RB: True dat. You never know when you are going to come across a good story or storyteller. I marvel that there are people who claim to be bored and played out in life—essentially dead. I don’t know how that happens.
AD: Me neither. I feel like the world is way too interesting—just say yes. That’s what I tell young people, my students—somebody asks you to do something say yes, even if you are tired. If they want you to go mountain biking I in the middle of the night. Or they want you to scrape and paint a mural on a wall, go do it. You might learn something and you might run in to the storyteller you were talking about. And helps you recast everything I a bright and different light and help you re-see the world.
RB: Have you a prognosis or prediction for the world of literature?
AD: Oh man, no. (both laugh) No, I am so grateful that people read my work and I’m reading a lot of interesting and vital writers who are alive right now.
RB: That’s quite true—it seems that the people who are perpetually grousing about all the crap being published make too much noise. But so what— if there is a lot of good work being published?
AD: Maybe there is a greater need for gatekeepers, maybe curators is a better word. I like the ‘Readings’ section of Harper’s —anything that helps me find beautiful, important pieces that I have missed.
RB: Literature is not disappearing in the foreseeable future
AD: We still crave narrative. People maybe turning to True Detective instead of William Gass. And that may be something to mourn but I think True Detective is a really interesting piece of work.
RB: Yes, created by a novelist, Nic Pizzolatto.
(Brief interlude discussing the Wire) The cable channels have provided writes with great opportunities.
AD: Yeah, pretty nice. I didn’t know much about it but Nic Pizzolatto. He had two books with Scribner before he made True Detective.
RB: Galveston was one.
AD: [writer] Ben Percy told me he was a pretty good storywriter and just decided to try a screenplay. You can tell he’s read Faulkner and some Flannery O’Connor.
RB: The commercial imperative coming from publishers seems to be to keep grinding out series.
AD: I like the idea of each of the boards of the book closing,and that making its own universe.
RB: Have you read Alan Furst?
RB: His novels cover the WWII era in Europe and they are exceedingly well researched. And his rigor and conscientious commitment to get the fact right is because as he related to me, “Too much blood was shed not to be accurate.”
AD: I felt that too—very much so. For me in this novel the Holocaust is underneath the book all the time. Its kind of a silence between the sentences and there are times when I told myself, “Tony you have to do this with a lot of respect.” Especially because I am not shining a light directly upon the camps—they are just always in the background behind Werner’s childhood.The weight of responsibility to do a respectful reverent job was hopefully achieved.
RB: I came across Peter Matthiessen’s newest book [ After Paradise]which is set in Auschwitz— a group of Buddhists make a pilgrimage—
AD: Long after the fact, you mean?
RB: Yes, yes. It’s a very peculiar entry point to a touchy subject. I loved the first book I read by him back in 1967— At Play In the Fields of the Lord.
AD: He was important to me. The whole Shadow Country Trilogy —those books are amazing. He ability to be in love with the natural world and tell stories about it—he and Rick Bass and Andrea Barrett —those were really models for me, people who care deeply about the environment and use storytelling to communicate that.
RB: Cormac McCarthy also.
AD: Yes, he does have a love for landscape and it’s complicated. It comes, primarily though narrative. And that’s what I had to learn. For years I would just describe what I would see. I loved to backpack .I loved to be outside. It was really Rick and Andrea and reading Mattheissen who started me thinking that maybe I could make narratives out of it. I really infect my characters with interests that I have.
RB: You like to repair radios? [Werner does this in the novel]
AD: I like to play with radios. I am not very good at fixing them.
RB: Speaking of McCarthy, I caught a scene in No Country for Old Men with Tommy Lee Jones and Barry Corbin, which was elliptical but perfectly understandable. It was this gem of a conversation.
AD: You’re looking at the surface of the lake but there is the lake underneath…
RB: Did he write the screenplay?
AD: The Coen brothers did. I have been in love with McCarthy since I was in my teens. That’s maybe not his best novel but it’s probably the best film made from one of his novels. That’s because it was true to the essence of the book without being true to the actual material of the book.
RB: I didn’t recall the hit man[played by Javier Badem] being that dark and evil a character in the novel.
AD: Archetypal—the Devil. This makes me want to go watch it. I should watch the Counselor when I am on an airplane sometime; haven’t seen that one yet.
RB: Yeah, the Counselor is an odd movie—full of ponderous dialogue and speechifying but Ridley Scott always makes watchable movies.
AD: Interesting. I like it in his books—the Judge’s rant in Blood Meridian fascinate me. I am glad nobody has made that [in to a film]. I feel like that book is a book and should remain just a book.
RB: Garcia Marquez famously refused a million dollars for One Hundred Years of Solitude. I read somewhere that he agreed to someone’s offer with the following conditions—each chapter would be presented as 2 minutes in film and each of the chapters would be shown in sequence, each year, for 100 years.
AD: That’s funny (laughs)
RB: That book was important to me as was Pynchon’s— what about you?
AD:So many, although I think of Gravity’s Rainbow now that you mention Pynchon. To the Lighthouse, Blood Meridian, and Rick Bass’s the Watch (his first story collection). So much energy and movement in that book, especially the novella that names the collection. All these bicyclist’s whizzing through the dark. And in love with the magic of nature —fireflies in jars. He has a story called “The Hermit’s Story” about swamp gas erupting under the bottom of this lake, all this magic that is around us. I love that story.
RB: I can’t remember the last time I saw a firefly.
AD: Aw, Robert. We don’t have them in Idaho but when I visit my parents in Ohio, of course.
RB: Or monarch butterflies.
AD: That’s a problem—that’s real.
RB: The Panama Project you mentioned, is that novel?
AD: I don’t know yet. I finished the edits on this book in January . The published version of the novel is 110,000 words —the original was 170,000. We worked really hard on it. I can get a little verbose so my editor [Nan Graham] helped me trim and prune and gain a little more momentum. The great thing about her is I never feel like she is trying to make the book more commercial; she’s just trying to make the book better. So, I think it will take me about three months or so before I can really get the next thing off the ground.
RB: So while you try to decide what do you do?
AD: Y: You just keep trying to make things, and you see if they can stand up on their own.
RB: Do you do journalism?
AD: I say ‘yes’ to travel magazines sometimes. Often those things fuel my fiction. Especially when I review science books —that stuff funnels back in to my work. Also I go mountain biking a lot.
RB: Do you envision every leaving Boise?
AD: For the quality of life we have and the amount of work I can get done. I never sit in traffic. There are days that go by that I ever get in a car.
RB: I lived South Coastal New Hampshire for a while. I get that. A life where a car is an option not a necessity. Well, it’s been a real pleasure talking with you. Did we talk about everything you wanted to talk about?
AD: Sure. [A brief exchange about moi] Thanks.
Anthony Doerr Tony’s website
Literary Jackpot, Against the Odds NY Times article (not a review) on All the Light We Cannot See
Alan FurstOne of my conversations with Furst
Ben Bradlee My chat with Ben about The Kid.
Philip Kerr A conversation with the creator of a slew of Bernie Gunther novels and a bunch of stand alones.
Josh Ritter The singer songwriter tries his hand at fiction.
Sherman Nuland My chat with the author of How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter.