Anthony Doerr is that rare writer who has the most unusual penchant for transforming the most commonplace of occurrences in Nature into a vision of awe, inspiring overwhelming wonder and even gratitude. In all likelihood, he’d probably distance himself from the phrase ‘most commonplace of occurrences in Nature’.
In his new novel, All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr wields this talent like the perfect craftsman—etching out the details of his characters (a lot of them, children) in a world that’s coming apart (it’s set during the World War II) to staggering effect. The result is a novel that questions and celebrates human will and choice and the power of family and love.
Interviewer: All the Light We Cannot See is, unarguably, the most definitive of reading experiences from your body of work, so far—in its mere scope. It’s an experience that demands a lot from the reader as well. Would you agree?
Anthony Doerr: It is certainly my most involved piece of writing, in that it took me a decade to dream it up and solve the puzzles of its structure. As for difficulty, I’m usually a poor predictor of whether or not my work feels demanding to a reader. I’ve been surprised, actually, that many people find the novel very suspenseful, and tell me that they raced to the ending. So perhaps because it has a strong narrative momentum, and because it contains so much white space, it may not be the most demanding of my books: a reader can read it fairly quickly. But it does demand that a reader surrender herself to the structure—to swinging back and forth between Marie-Laure and Werner in fairly rapid oscillations for 500 pages.
And there are other, more emotional demands, too. Part of the reason the book took me so long to write was that the subject matter was distressing: what happens to children during wartime? What happens to children without any economic means in a totalitarian society? Werner’s journey, in particular, involved reading about so many ugly episodes during WWII that I’d have to take breaks from research because it was too harrowing.
Interviewer: A writer once told me, “Write about what disturbs you,” and I was thinking about how as a writer, you’ve always privileged a state of wonderment about the world and its workings. I’m curious to know how this affects your writing on a day-to-day basis?
Anthony Doerr: Well, I’d probably revise that particular writer’s advice to, “Write about what amazes you.” I’m drawn most to writing (and film and visual art) that reminds me of the dazzling wonders of the world.
That said, of course, I feel cynicism about many things. It’s hard to reach 40 in a tehcno-capitalist society and not become cynical about humanity’s attitude toward resources, or about the way capitalism rewards the profit motive above all else. But I’m not interested in writing cynical fiction, or in spreading cyncism in any other way. There’re plenty of great ironists out there, writers who can express cynicism without making their work souless: I think of George Saunders or Dostoevesky or even Gary Shtyengart. But I’m not one of those writers; I’m more of a humanist than a cynicist, and I prefer to use my work to try to share wonder, rather than frustration.
Interviewer: Are you viewed as an optimist?
Anthony Doerr: Oh, I don’t know. If a few readers find All the Light too optimistic, I don’t mind. There are plenty of episodes, particularly late in the novel, where I wanted to save a character but knew it would be historically inaccurate and wholly untruthful to do so. And there is plenty of bleakness in the novel. The deepest obligation I feel toward the work is to invest utterly in the singularity of my characters, to not assume that any one experience is “normal.”
Wislawa Szymborska said it far better than I can; this is from her Nobel address: “We all use phrases such as ‘the ordinary world,’ ‘ordinary life,’ ‘the ordinary course of events.’ But in the language of poetry, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.”
Interviewer: Could you describe your first visit to Saint Malo, where much of the novel is located?
Anthony Doerr: I first saw the city while on book tour in France in 2005. After a very long dinner, we went for a stroll on top of the ramparts after dark, peering into the third floor windows of houses, the sea glimmering in moonlight, the city silent: I felt as if I was walking in through an imaginary city from Calvino’s Invisible Cities. It was deeply captivating: a city out that was part fairy tale castle, part Escher drawing, part mist and ocean wind and lamplight. I fell under the spell of all those old granite mansions, centuries-old houses of former corsairs and I said to my editor, “It’s amazing to walk through a city so old.” He said, “Actually, Saint-Malo was almost entirely destroyed in 1944 at the end of the war. Mostly by American bombs.” That’s when I knew I had my setting for my next project.
Interviewer: Was there a character you were drawn to, more than the others?
Anthony Doerr: Yes, the character of Frederick, who is a friend of Werner’s at the Napola school they attend for much of the novel. Frederick is a version of me, and perhaps even more so, a version of one of my sons. He’s a very sensitive person who pays attention to things others don’t (birds, the sky), which is a great strength, but a social weakness. Frederick finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. There’s a line in the novel: “What the war did to dreamers.” That’s what I’d think about when I was writing Frederick. I’d look at my son and think, but for the grace of God, that could be you.
Interviewer: Were you ever daunted by writing as Marie-Laure, a blind girl, and how she would experience the world around her?
Anthony Doerr: I was definitely daunted, but not anymore than by the character of Von Rumpel, or Werner, or Madame Manec. Imagining the life of a blind girl is challenging, but quite honestly I found it more challenging to try to render other aspects of her life: that she is French, that her father goes missing, how she would think and speak. That said, there were hours when I was working hard on Marie-Laure’s chapters and I’d look up from the desk and forget that I could see.
Interviewer: Could you tell us about the structure of the novel, how it came together as separate sections, chapters, etc.
Anthony Doerr: The novel has 187 chapters, many of them shorter than a single page. I color coded them by point-of-view (red for Werner, orange for Von Rumpel’s, gray for Etienne, etc.) and then I’d lay them out on cards on a bulletin board. It was a process that took years of tweaking, of trying to nudge all these narrative trajectories forward simultaneously.
Interviewer: So many voices give All the Light We Cannot See its music and its meaning. What was the writing process like, in this context—did you consciously enter a persona and write large chunks? How did you shift between their different planets?
Anthony Doerr: All I did was work every morning on whatever sections I felt the most interest in. I didn’t write the chapters in the order a reader will read them; I’d worked on the ending, for example, for years before I got to much of the middle stuff. But, yes, there were weeks and even months when all I would work on was Werner’s sections, or Marie-Laure’s sections. I’d be reading about the invasion of Paris in 1940, or about the Breton coast, and all my ideas and language and subconscious thought would be centering around M-L’s experience, so I would work on those sections. Then I’d switch.
The nice thing writing short chapters is that there is always something to work on. Even if I just had a couple of hours between other obligations, even if I was just on a short airplane flight, I could read through a chapter or two and try to improve them.
Interviewer: The miniature models that Marie Laure’s father constructs works as such a brilliant conceit all through—was there a particular spark for this idea?
Anthony Doerr: Oh, I love miniatures; playing with scale fascinates me. That first night in Saint-Malo, I felt as if I was walking inside some incredibly detailed diorama. But here’s the real spark: When I was maybe eight or nine, a family friend returned from a trip to Tokyo and gave me a Japanese puzzle box. He said it opened, but he didn’t show me how. The box was a beautiful thing, totally inlaid, and seemingly impenetrable. The whole thing seemed impossibly sealed—there was no way in. And yet there was.
It took me weeks to even believe it opened; various panels had to be pushed aside. So early on I fell in love with the idea that something that looked seamless actually had seams all over it. It wasn’t until much later in life, while working on this book, and trying to imagine where Marie-Laure’s father might hide a stone that he had become convinced was either very dangerous or very precious or both, that I started to concieve of the idea of miniature houses that were also puzzle boxes.
Interviewer: Your experiences shape your own writing of course, but how does it get seamless? For instance, was Frederick born out of your visit to the World Center for Birds of Prey & the fascination you felt there? Or did you give Frederick that gift, as his creator, after the visit?
Anthony Doerr: Great question. Writing fiction for me starts with personal experiences, but it soon transfers into imagination and language and some middle ground between conscious and subconcious. Sure, I had a pretty amazing moment seeing a passenger pigeon at Birds of Prey. But I’ve always been fascinated by creatures, by Audobon, by sky and clouds and migration, and it’s easy enough to give those interests to a character, to take pieces of one’s own worldview and use them as seeds around which to build an imaginary character.