Anthony Doerr: the crucible of hours

Anthony Doerr invokes his curiosity and love of “strange language” and pushes stories beyond the limits of self.
By Julie Krug | Published: September 18, 2014


DSC02590When I think of Anthony Doerr, I see a curious boy crouched on the seashore, carefully inspecting the sand just after a wave has retreated. His fingers poke into funnels that soon collapse. A fiddler crab scurries beyond his reach. Seagulls jockey overhead for the promise of incoming snacks. The boy stuffs his pockets with treasure: scraps of white shells, handfuls of pebbles, a chipped tooth of emerald sea glass and a broken sand dollar.

Flash forward to 2014. Doerr is now 40, a successful novelist and father of twin sons. He still uses his child-like curiosity and the found treasures of the natural world to build his award-winning short stories and novels.

All the Light We Cannot See, his newest book, follows the inevitable collision of two adolescents in World War II-ravaged Europe. As with all his works, Doerr delivers not only his trademark lyricism, but also his tendency for “making language strange and unfamiliar.” For him, that includes breaking down sentences and rearranging them so they don’t ring ordinary in the reader’s ear.

The Ohio native has been praised for his rich, dense descriptions. In a recent interview with The New York Times, he said of his latest novel, “I know this is going to be more lyrical than maybe 70 percent of American readers want to see.” But he has a solution for this. In the 530-page novel, many of the 187 chapters are only a page-and-a-half long.

“Because I’m a fairly lyrical and dense writer, I felt like it would be nice to give the reader these white spaces, these bursts of recovery time,” says Doerr. “Like a little bit of oxygen before diving back in again.”

M.L. Stedman, author of the best-selling novel The Light Between Oceans, described his style: “Doerr brings us meaning by pulling focus from the micro to the macro, from the atomic structure of diamonds to the physics of radio waves. Time and again I remember stopping and thinking, ‘How fascinating!’”

Stedman pointed out one of her favorite passages from All the Light.

Inside the key pound, inside six glass-fronted cabinets, thousands of iron keys hang from pegs. There are blanks and skeletons, barrel-stem keys and saturn-bow keys, elevator keys and cabinet keys. Keys as long as Marie-Laure’s forearm and keys shorter than her thumb.

“It’s so specific and wears its expertise lightly. I can see the keys vividly,” says Stedman. “And of course they set my mind running off to speculate on the locks they govern and the treasures that together they protect.”

Both authors share a love of rhythm: “He uses rhythm to keep us on our toes. For example: ‘The ground quakes. The organs inside his body shake. The beams groan. Then the slow trickle of dust and the shallow, defeated breaths of Volkheimer a meter away.’ Three arresting, drumbeat sentences that finally flow into a coda of melody.”

All the Light was a 10-year devotion. For Doerr, this included time for intense research, but also the everyday life of caring for a young family. Despite any lags in time, the Idaho author emphasized the need for writers to maintain the pulse of a project, no matter what the type.

“It’s important to keep projects on life support,” he said in an interview with a news station.

While working on the second novel, he was concurrently working on other projects. Even when he only worked on his book 10 to 15 minutes a day – calling the time slot a way to “keep the paint wet”– it was enough to keep the story alive.

“After a certain point, it accumulates so much inertia that you can’t give it up,” says Doerr. “You owe it to yourself and to your family to figure out how to solve these problems you’ve made for yourself.” He adds: “It’s important to find joy in your work. If you’re having fun, your reader will have fun.”

Beyond structure, the Boise novelist says writing is about stretching, about moving beyond our individual lives and into common human experience.

This evolution is borne out in his award-winning collection of short stories Memory Wall. The book idea emerged from Doerr’s teen memories of when his grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Because he was young at the time and focused on himself, his experience was limited. He didn’t consider how much the disease affected his grandmother or his family. But with adulthood and the writing of Memory Wall, he gained a deeper understanding about the pain his grandmother experienced from losing her memory, the pain his mother experienced at being among the forgotten.

“Writing stories is not, despite appearances, about spending lots of time with oneself,” he wrote as a judge for the 2009 Pen/O. Henry Prize collection. “It’s about learning to be able to look beyond the self, beyond the ego, to enter other lives and other worlds. It’s about honing one’s sense of empathy so that a story might bridge the gap between the personal and the communal.”

Good stories come from immersing ourselves in our projects, not just from working various angles, says Doerr.  The heart of a story comes from “…a thousand afternoons of its writer thinking on things, wrestling with problems… compressing all those tens of thousands of hours into a space that can be experienced by a reader in an hour or so,” he wrote in the same Pen/O. Henry essay.

Writers write “for love,” says Doerr, and to “figure things out, to practice going after the truth. To investigate hurt, guilt, complexity.” In the end, he says, we do it to bring people to life.

Anthony DoerrWhat do you mean when you say writers need to practice going after the truth?

It means you have to practice a lot. When you first conceive of a character, you don’t typically know her very well. So you start dreaming up a history for her. You start asking yourself: What’s in her pockets, in her purse, in her bedside drawer? What does she look like? Does she dye her hair? Does she do her laundry on time? Then you start asking yourself: What’s in her heart? What does she long for and why? Those truths aren’t there, exactly, waiting to be discovered; they have to be made, and the only way to make them is to forge them in the crucible of hours.

I think of writers as observers with big antennae, catching all kinds of objects, ideas and experiences. Before you wrote Memory Wall, you wanted to do something with fossils and memory, but didn’t know how you were going to make them coalesce. With all that comes across your radar, how do you know which things to let go of and which to hold on to?

If you’re working lots every day, suddenly the world starts glowing and crackling with little gifts you can harvest and plug into your projects. You see a woman in a gown get into a Pontiac and start to cry and you think: What is the story there? What if my protagonist sees a similar thing? Or you read a description of how the sea sounds in rocks, and you realize, I could use that same word – “soundings” – when my character goes to the sea and hears it gurgling through the pebbles. Or you see light bouncing down through the leaves of an oak, or a nun slip on ice, or a row of dead mosquitoes on a windowsill. And your mind starts translating these things into language.

So immersion in the project is essential.

The more hours a project is part of your day, the more it will be in your subconscious during the rest of the hours when you’re not working. Your antennae, to borrow your word, become more attenuated.

How do you make seemingly unrelated things harmonize and become a story?

Trial and error, for the most part. You mason a handful of details (invented or stolen or observed or remembered) into paragraphs, test them for how they sound, then go to sleep and wake up and re-read them and re-arrange them and re-test them again. Then you do it again and again, cutting some, introducing others. Weeks later, sometimes, you end up discarding something you had just right because it ends up delaying the narrative or feeling out of place musically in a paragraph.

You’ve been called a lyrical writer. What does lyrical writing mean to you?

Lyricism is primarily something readers, editors, critics, booksellers and publishers use to help each other understand what kind of book they have in their hands. It’s a useful description to them, but maybe not as much to us as writers. I never announce to my keyboard: “Now I will write lyrically!” I just make the thing I want to make. I love surprising language, and I like sentences that disrupt combinations of words readers are accustomed to seeing. If that’s what people call lyrical, that’s perfectly fine by me, but it doesn’t affect the way I work one way or another.

I love your phrase “surprising language.” It reminds both the writer and reader that language is always interactive and interdependent. How do you surprise language?

I often think of Heather McHugh’s line from Peter Turchi’s book Maps of the Imagination: “We are creatures of habit,” she says. “Given a blank we can’t help trying to fill it in along lines of customary seeing or saying. But the best poetic lines undermine those habits, break the pre- off the -dictable, unsettle the suburbs of your routine sentiments, and rattle the tracks of your trains of thoughts.”

Maybe that’s a good definition of lyricism? For me, it’s more interesting to think about language by its degree of strangeness: What I want to do is assemble language so that it carries a modicum of strangeness. I don’t want my work to be nonsensical, but I also don’t want the sentences to feel entirely familiar, either. If I find myself describing a character’s eyes, for example, I’m probably going to try to avoid verbs like “glint,” or “sparkle” because those are verbs a reader has seen paired beside “eyes” many times before – maybe so many times that they have lost some of their original power.

How are sentences made strange?

When McHugh says, “Rattling the tracks of your trains of thoughts,” for example, she’s making her sentence more interesting because she’s increasing the perceptive effort her reader has to make. We’re so used to seeing the phrase “trains of thoughts,” that we normally let the eye glide over it. But we’re not necessarily used to thinking of those thoughts literally rattling along train tracks. By awakening our awareness of the cliché, McHugh makes it feel new again; she makes it slightly strange. Because of that, we see the image more sharply.

Who are some of your favorite lyrical writers?

The writers who employ estrangement really well. There are so many: Gary Lutz. Anne Carson. Mary Ruefle. Ben Marcus. Cormac McCarthy.

Lyricism can be beautiful and strange, sure, but often lyricism is meant to signify prose that’s dulcet and lulling and even soporific. I’m privileging strangeness here because my favorite kind of prose is prose that wakes you up – that increases your awareness of the world – rather than puts you to sleep. There’s a challenge in the kind of prose that Lutz or Marcus or Faulkner occasionally writes that isn’t sweet or calming or fun to read. It’s not lyrical; it’s sharper and keener and more difficult. And difficult prose, to my mind, can be a very good thing, so long as it’s still carefully made, still generous to the reader.

When writing lyrically, what pitfalls should writers look out for? Do you see a lot of early writers trying for lyricism?

Sure, I see lots of early writers striving for lyricism, especially when they write about the natural world. But that’s OK. It’s important that writers at whatever stage of their careers play. We should play with lengths of sentences, with the sounds of them, with their efficiency and friction. Nabokov did that, Calvino did that, Millhauser does that. Karen Russell does it. Jess Walter definitely does it. There are times when a young writer might lay on the adjectives too thickly, or link way too many clauses together, but those are all things we can work out in revision; in the composing of stories, you just need to keep playing with the language, over and over again, and not fall so blindly in love with any paragraph you’re making that you can’t say goodbye to it six days or six months or six years later.

Your stories are rich with detail. In balancing description and plot, how does a writer stay committed to the forward momentum of the story? 

That’s a balance a writer has to settle on for herself. Narrative is a drug, and you have to decide how much of it you want to pump into your reader’s blood. Do you want to have it drip out very stingily, like an IV? Or do you want to spray it in your reader’s face like a fire hose?

Now that’s a visual. I can see how narrative would be a drug for the reader, but what about for the writer?

No, it’s not a drug for me when I’m writing. It is when I’m reading, that’s for sure. But when I’m making a narrative, I’m working at lots of different places along its chronology at any given time. I might be working on the ending one month, a bunch of connective material another month, the beginning during a third month. To extend the drug metaphor to the point of being ridiculous, you’re refining your “product” for months or years, then supplying it to your reader so she can mainline it and experience it for an hour or two.

Should style be kept as a handmaiden, always in service to the story, never allowing it to get too big?

As a reader, I don’t mind if style “gets too big.” Look at Lolita, for crying out loud. Look at The Sound and the Fury. I’ll read almost anything if it’s beautifully made; I don’t mind if Nicholson Baker or Virginia Woolf leave narrative behind for a few pages because they’re showing me their minds; they’re teaching me things; they’re fascinating me.

I do tend to lose patience with any writer who gets lazy with her sentences because she’s putting all of her effort into answering the question: What happens next? I think a skilled writer can still write clean, startling, functional sentences, even as she writes suspenseful, narrative-driven scenes. Look at J.M Coetzee, or Hilary Mantel, or so many of Faulkner’s short stories.

You refer to human intuition in a lot of your writing. Coincidences, precognition even. When I’m on the right path, I can feel it. But I’m not always sure why. How do you use your own intuition with writing?

Intuition is something you develop all your life as you experience stories. From the day my sons were born, we started reading to them from books; they’ve watched a hundred movies and television stories, heard a thousand anecdotes, heard ten thousand jokes. Each time, their brains process, internalize and incorporate those patterns. They’re at the point already where they can feel when a section of a book or a film is lagging; already they know when something strays from the tradition of hero’s journey stories they’ve been raised on – Cars, Percy Jackson, Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, Star Wars, Up. They know if a text feels unusual or strange or challenging or lazy, even though they might not be able to articulate why it’s lagging.

The same is true for a certain musicality; the more you read, and the more you work on your own sentences, the better trained your own ear will become, so that you begin to intuit, as you read through your sentences, which sound right and which sound off kilter.

Does your intuition guide you into making choices about which stories you’ll write? Which directions to take once in the story?

Sure, intuition can sometimes keep you from writing yourself into dead ends. But in the beginning, it’s important, I think, to chase dead ends. You never know what you’ll learn when you research something.

You said you initially got lots of rejections. But then things moved very quickly. What was the turning point? With diligence – that “crucible of hours,” as you say – did you think it was only a matter of time that your number would come up?

Has my number come up? That sounds scary. Maybe what changed for me, back in my mid 20s when I started taking writing seriously, was that I started showing my stories to people who weren’t related to me. I went to an MFA program, and suddenly I had peers reading the work and trying to help me understand it. I had professors reading it, people with real jobs and mortgages and plenty of better things to read.

So suddenly I had to keep it up; I had to make every paragraph as sound as I could; I had to get to the place where, by the time I printed it out and took it to the photocopier, it was as finished as I could make it. That didn’t mean the drafts were any good, really, but they were as far along as I could get them. I never wanted to be the person who handed something in to workshop and apologized for it. I felt like my name was on the line, my pride, and I didn’t want to waste people’s time.

So I’d stay awake the extra nine hours, or do that much more research, or read through a draft those last three or four times. That became a turning point for me, because through that process, I started understanding that I was making texts not for myself, but for other people. And the last thing I wanted was to unintentionally confuse them.

Julie Krug is a freelance writer in Washington state.

The Doerr File

  • Doerr is married, has twin sons and lives in Boise, Idaho. His family was spending a year in Rome when Doerr won the The Rome Prize.
  • Doerr has written two collections of short stories, one memoir and two bestselling novels.
  • He regularly writes a science column for The Boston Globe.
  • Has received both a Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.
  • Doerr’s fiction has won three Pushcart Prizes, four O. Henry Prizes and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories.
  • In 2007, Granta added Doerr to its list of 21 Best Young American Novelists.
  • Part of his inspiration for All the Light We Cannot See came from observing a grown man, upon losing cell reception, lapse into a rage on a train. Doerr then became curious about radio waves and all the forms of light we can’t see.

Excerpt

Image1ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

The Boy

Five streets to the north, a white-haired eighteen-year-old German private named Werner Pfennig wakes to a faint staccato hum. Little more than a purr. Flies tapping at a far-off windowpane.

Where is he? The sweet, slightly chemical scent of gun oil; the raw wood of newly constructed shell crates; the mothballed odor of old bedspreads—he’s in the hotel. Of course. L’hôtel des Abeilles, the Hotel of Bees.

Still night. Still early.

From the direction of the sea come whistles and booms; flak is going up.

An anti-air corporal hurries down the corridor, heading for the stairwell. “Get to the cellar,” he calls over his shoulder, and Werner switches on his field light, rolls his blanket into his duffel, and starts down the hall.

Not so long ago, the Hotel of Bees was a cheerful address, with bright blue shutters on its facade and oysters on ice in its café and Breton waiters in bow ties polishing glasses behind its bar. It offered twenty-one guest rooms, commanding sea views, and a lobby fireplace as big as a truck. Parisians on weekend holidays would drink aperitifs here, and before them the occasional emissary from the republic—ministers and vice ministers and abbots and admirals—and in the centuries before them, windburned corsairs: killers, plunderers, raiders, seamen.

Before that, before it was ever a hotel at all, five full centuries ago, it was the home of a wealthy privateer who gave up raiding ships to study bees in the pastures outside Saint-Malo, scribbling in notebooks and eating honey straight from combs. The crests above the door lintels still have bumblebees carved into the oak; the ivy-covered fountain in the courtyard is shaped like a hive. Werner’s favorites are five faded frescoes on the ceilings of the grandest upper rooms, where bees as big as children float against blue backdrops, big lazy drones and workers with diaphanous wings—where, above a hexagonal bathtub, a single nine-foot-long queen, with multiple eyes and a golden-furred abdomen, curls across the ceiling.

Over the past four weeks, the hotel has become something else: a fortress. A detachment of Austrian anti-airmen has boarded up every window, overturned every bed. They’ve reinforced the entrance, packed the stairwells with crates of artillery shells. The hotel’s fourth floor, where garden rooms with French balconies open directly onto the ramparts, has become home to an aging high-velocity anti-air gun called an 88 that can fire twenty-one-and-a-half-pound shells nine miles.

Her Majesty, the Austrians call their cannon, and for the past week these men have tended to it the way worker bees might tend to a queen. They’ve fed her oils, repainted her barrels, lubricated her wheels; they’ve arranged sandbags at her feet like offerings.

The royal acht acht, a deathly monarch meant to protect them all.

Werner is in the stairwell, halfway to the ground floor, when the 88 fires twice in quick succession. It’s the first time he’s heard the gun at such close range, and it sounds as if the top half of the hotel has torn off. He stumbles and throws his arms over his ears. The walls reverberate all the way down into the foundation, then back up.

Werner can hear the Austrians two floors up scrambling, reloading, and the receding screams of both shells as they hurtle above the ocean, already two or three miles away. One of the soldiers, he realizes, is singing. Or maybe it is more than one. Maybe they are all singing. Eight Luftwaffe men, none of whom will survive the hour, singing a love song to their queen.

Werner chases the beam of his field light through the lobby. The big gun detonates a third time, and glass shatters somewhere close by, and torrents of soot rattle down the chimney, and the walls of the hotel toll like a struck bell. Werner worries that the sound will knock the teeth from his gums.

He drags open the cellar door and pauses a moment, vision swimming. “This is it?” he asks. “They’re really coming?”

But who is there to answer?

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Anthony Doerr © 2014, Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster.

  • Sinibaldi

    A land of dreams.

    There’s a magical

    land where a

    whisper of life

    becomes the

    beginning to

    discover the light

    that appears in

    the youth.

    Francesco
    Sinibaldi