An interview with Anthony Doerr
In April, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anthony Doerr will be in Wenatchee to talk about his bestselling book All the Light We Cannot See.
If you didn’t get tickets to see him live at the Numerica Performing Arts Center, you can still get them here for the live stream of his talk at the Wenatchee Convention Center. The event will also be streamed live to our libraries in Ephrata, Moses Lake, Okanogan, Royal City, Tonasket, and Twisp.
More information about the event and Anthony Doerr can be found on our NCRL Reads page.
Earlier this month, Mr. Doerr took some time out of his busy schedule and family life in Boise, Idaho, to talk with our communications specialist, Michelle McNiel, about his inspiration for the book, what he’s up to these days, and what he’ll be talking about in Wenatchee.
Here are some of the things he had to say:
Have you ever been to Wenatchee or North Central Washington before?
AD: No. I think Ellensburg is the closest I’ve been. But I’m really looking forward to seeing the area. I think it’s very similar to Boise. It’s 55 degrees here today and sunny!
What do you plan to talk about when you come?
AD: I’m going to show pictures, talk about how I got interested in writing. I had a pretty unconventional mom and childhood…In college, it was impossible for me to settle on a subject. I thought it was ridiculous to choose one major. I went to the assistant dean and protested. I think that scatterbrained curiosity is present in a lot of my work.
I also plan to show pictures of Saint-Malo and early radios and talk about how the book came together. I usually have to work so hard for my (book) titles, but I had the title for this book decided early on.
What does the book title mean to you?
AD: What are all the things we aren’t paying attention to, things that are present but we don’t see…I think it’s important to look closely at those things we pay attention to and the things we are ignoring. What stories right now are happening to children in Syria that you and I aren’t paying attention to? That’s the kind of light we cannot see.
How did the initial idea for the story come to you?
AD: It was doing a fellowship at Princeton. I had just finished my second book, About Grace. I had been playing around with different ideas for a new book but didn’t have it started. It was 2004, and one day I was riding on a train, going about 60 mph, and there was a guy talking on a cell phone. They were new-ish at the time. Anyway, he was talking to someone about a movie, The Matrix Reloaded — really important stuff. The train went into a tunnel and the call was lost. He got really angry. I mean really angry. And I started thinking about how we got to this point where we expect that we can communicate with people at any time and distance. Throughout most of history, people had to be in the same place to communicate. Radio was the first time that you could hear people that were not right there with you. Long-distance communication is very, very powerful.
I really wanted to set a book in a place and time when radio was still something new and miraculous.
Where did you go with the story idea after that?
AD: I knew I wanted to have a blind girl reading a story over the radio to a boy who needed the story. But I didn’t know what the story was yet. I hadn’t settled on a time frame. I hadn’t really settled on anything yet. I went to Saint-Malo for a book festival and I was so enchanted by the place. One night I went for a walk and was looking at the buildings and thinking they were so old. The next day, I talked to my French editor about how enchanted I was walking through the city. And he said that actually the city was 87 percent destroyed at the end of World War II by American bombers. It was the first time that napalm was used in war. The Americans, believing there were a lot more Germans there than there actually were, pounded the city into powder. It was an incredibly painstaking rebuilding process to create a city where tourists can go and not know that the city was in ruins 70-80 years ago. I started thinking maybe this was the kind of place I can set my book in.
How long did it take to develop the whole story?
AD: It took me 10 years to write the book. There were so many challenges I didn’t think were possible to overcome. I was trying to get readers to empathize with a boy growing up in Nazi Germany. I was trying to keep them interested through time — it was almost like writing two novels. I wanted to make the structure of the book feel like one of those miniatures, like the puzzles her [Marie-Laure's] father made for her. It felt too tricky, too impossible. It was a very slow process. I also became a dad during that time. I think I needed to grow up, in some ways, to finish the book.
What are some of the bigger themes of the book?
AD: Radio can be an instrument of oppression and of resistance. Are people evil or good or is it more complicated than that? The story is also about connection and how little gestures of kindness can make a huge impact.
What’s the story with seashells, which are present in all your books?
AD: I grew up in Cleveland. My mom was a school teacher, and we had two-week spring breaks. We would load up our big Chevy Suburban and drive to Sanibel Island, Florida, every year. It’s a shellers paradise. We’d rent a condo and we were on the beach all day, every day…I just had this very visceral childhood love of hunting these things on the beach. They were beautiful. I didn’t understand how a so-called dumb creature like a snail could make something so beautiful and polished…Once I had the blind character for my book, I knew I wanted to infect her with the same blind passion for shells that I had.
When you finished it, did you have any idea that the book would become this big of a success?
AD: No! It was my fifth book. I had thought my book, About Grace, was going to be more popular than it was. So I didn’t trust my own judgement. I thought maybe nobody would want to wait 400-plus pages for these two characters to intersect. Plus the short chapters, the lyricism. The success of the book was really overwhelming, all the press, all the attention. I didn’t get into writing to do interviews. I just wanted to tell stories…One thing that has been so wonderful and surprising is how many young people are reading this book. For them to read a nearly 500-page book that has a literary reputation — if that can be a gateway drug for them to read other harder, cooler books than mine, well, that’s a highlight of my life.
What are you working on right now?
AD: Another big mess. All the Light follows two characters. This next one has five characters in different times. One is all the way back to the 15th century, and one is in the future. It’s following all of them, and it all revolves in some way around Homer.
What are you reading right now?
AD: I just finished Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I loved it! Now I’m reading The Great Derangement by Imitav Ghosh. It’s about
how fiction is failing to address climate change and how we’re not making compelling art about climate change.
Boise is making plans to build a new public library. What is your connection to the library?
I’m serving as honorary chair of the fundraising committee. I’ve met with the fancy architect hired to build the new branch. I wrote a bunch of my very first book in the library. I still go and do my research there.