Anthony Doerr ’95 has been busy of late. His haunting novel All The Light We Cannot See set in Europe during the Second World War, was not only nominated for the National Book Award and was a #1 New York Times bestseller, but has gone through 30 re-printings with sales of over a million copies. But Anthony or Tony, as many of us know him, is not an overnight sensation. Before All the Light, he published story collections, a memoir, and one other novel, About Grace. His fiction has earned him four O. Henry Prizes, and been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Fiction and The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories.
In addition, he has garnered 20 awards and honors, including the Rome Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the 2010 Story Prize, which is considered the most prestigious prize in the U.S. for a collection of stories. After graduating from Bowdoin with a degree in history, he went on to earn his master’s degree in fiction writing at Bowling Green State University, and then worked as a cook in Colorado and on a sheep farm in New Zealand.
Doerr knows something about intestinal fortitude as well; originally from Ohio, he’s a long-suffering Cleveland sports fan. He and his wife Shauna Eastman (also a history major, who he met at Bowdoin) and their twin boys live in Boise, Idaho.
Doerr recently caught up with former prof Allen Wells, Bowdoin’s Roger Howell, Jr. Professor of History, and talked about writing historical fiction, the challenges of writing about a subject that has been so thoroughly documented, his time at Bowdoin, and how majoring in history has shaped him as a writer.
Allen Wells: What are some of the challenges of writing historical fiction? It’s clear that you did quite a bit of research to make All the Light come alive. How did you go about that?
Anthony Doerr: Actually, I do a lot of research for any fictional project, whether I’m setting a piece in 1945 or 2015 (or 2045, for that matter). I research by reading novels and memoirs and diaries, by looking at photographs, by traveling to various places, and by talking to people. And I try to buttress that research with imagination.
All the Light did present particular challenges because of the scope of places it moves between, from Paris to Ukraine to rural Germany to coastal France. Every time I had a character walk into a kitchen, or a field, or a paramilitary school, I needed to figure out what those places might have looked like in 1938 or 1942 or 1944. So I’d write three sentences, and then go scurrying back into an old Sears catalog, or into a prisoner’s memoir, and start hunting for details.
Practically that means you have to do a lot of work, of course, but there are so many benefits that come from research. You learn things, of course, which is a benefit in and of itself, but you also find thousands of ways to improve your book. While you’re looking for photos of Breton kitchens from the late ‘30s, for example, you might notice a girl in a corner of a photograph wearing a beret and carrying what might be a rifle. Or maybe it’s a clarinet? And suddenly you get an idea for a girl working in the Resistance. Or you’re trying to understand how keys worked in natural history museums before the automation of locks, and you come across a story about a cursed sapphire in the British museum. And suddenly your whole project gets injected with a new idea. So each bit of excavation you do offers a network of wormholes that might lead into new and potentially fertile possibilities.
AW: So much has been written about World War II and the Holocaust, yet you’ve come up with something entirely fresh and different. Take us through how and why you decided to focus on two adolescents, Marie-Laure and Werner, each saddled with their own hardships, coming of age in France and Germany during that time.
AD: Someone told me once that if you took all the pages of all the books written about WWII and dropped them on Germany, it’d cover the whole country! Who knows if that’s actually true, but I was acutely aware that there was a lot of writing about WWII already out there — much of it breathtakingly good, and written by people for whom the war was memory, not history. So for most of the 10 years I worked on All the Light, I was terrified that I’d settle into a pattern of narrative that had lost some of its power because it had been already done.
One strategy I tried was to mimic the language of fairy tale and allegory: the boy, the girl, the ogre, the cursed gemstone, the imaginary citadel. And another was to try balance that sense of otherworldliness against a hyper-realism; to detail everything as carefully as I could. I thought maybe the juxtaposition of those two techniques might help the novel feel different, in the way a Borges or a Calvino story always feels different, even when they’re describing our world.
Eventually I had to keep telling myself the old humanist dictum: the path to the universal runs through the individual. If you want to understand the larger movements of history, you read the diaries of (so-called) ordinary children like Anne Frank or Petr Ginz. Before I got to Bowdoin, I tended to believe history was about voiceovers and textbooks and pop quizzes, but as I began to study history, it became about individuals. The glory and genius of The Diary of Anne Frank, for example, is in the ordinary, quotidian detailing of her writing: the things they ate, the jokes they told. The horror comes through because of the mundanity. The lessons of that little diary have stayed with me: first, that through books, the memories of the dead can live; and second, that only through the smallest details, through the sights and smells and sounds of one person’s moment-by-moment experience, can a writer convey the immensity that is a human life.
AW: Given how much has been written about the Holocaust and the Third Reich I can imagine that Werner’s character, in particular, and how he internalizes and deals with becoming a part of the Nazi war machine must have presented certain challenges. Can you talk about that?
AD: There were all kinds of challenges. First of all, the research was so harrowing. What was happening to Jewish populations (and to other marginalized groups), especially in Eastern Europe, was so brutal, so horrifying, that I’d often had to take breaks from the project and go work on other things.
But once I started to focus on Goebbels’s propaganda machine and trying to imagine what it would be like for low-income German children, who may have had access to only ultra-nationalized radio stations (and ultra-nationalized grownups) for their information, I started to find a way to try to build an empathetic character.
AW: The book’s structure — pithy chapters that frequently alternate between the two protagonists—is unusual. Was that an outgrowth of your short story writing? Or were there other reasons for why you chose that approach?
AD: Yes, it grew out of the short stories and novellas I’d written for my previous book, Memory Wall. For the past decade or so, for reasons I can’t fully articulate, I’ve been trying to build narratives out of short, titled sections. They’re almost like modular buildings — you make a bunch of small pieces, and then one day you start laying them out on the carpet and trying to assemble them into something larger. Maybe it’s a way of tricking myself into writing longer books — each day you only have to tell yourself that you’re working on something small and manageable.
Or maybe it’s because I’ve had young children these past 10 years, and the smaller sections allow me to fit little bursts of writing into my day? Or maybe it’s because there are so many LEGOs in my life now?
AW: Were you thinking of being a writer while you were an undergraduate at Bowdoin? Did you take any classes in creative writing?
AD: I did dream of becoming a fiction writer, yes, but it was never a dream I articulated to anybody. To me, growing up in Ohio, with two older brothers who had already finished college and found jobs, that would have seemed an awfully precocious (and maybe even pretentious?) thing to announce. So I wrote little stories in notebooks during the summers and never showed them to anybody.
Growing up, I’d never met any novelists, or even seen any — I assumed they all lived in Paris, Brooklyn or Buenos Aires or were dead. So I didn’t really believe that becoming a fiction writer was a possibility for my life.
And besides, I was too busy falling in love with all kinds of subjects: I loved every class I took at Bowdoin — history and sociology and architecture and astronomy and nutrition — I wanted to study everything. So, no, I never took a creative writing class. I did apply for a poetry workshop once, even though I had never written any poems before. To apply for the class we had to submit some poems; I think I wrote mine all the night before the deadline. Let’s just say I didn’t get in.
AW: You chose to major in history at Bowdoin. Why? How did that experience prepare you for writing fiction?AD: I majored in history because the dean insisted that I choose a major — I would have taken all the classes in the catalog if they had let me. But in history I’d discovered two professors — Dan Levine and you — who not only made your subjects fascinating, but considered novels relevant parts of teaching history. That was an amazing gift — to study Latin American history and to read García Márquez and Borges at the same time. It was like getting two classes in one.
As for how it prepared me to be a fiction writer, it did so in a hundred ways. As a history major you learn to think critically, to synthesize lots of different sources, and to contemplate the ghosts that walk the quad beside you. And to do an honors project (note: Doerr’s thesis was on the radicalization of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the 1960s) was truly a seminal experience because it was self-directed and it was big. That was the best preparation I could have asked for to learn how to write a book: no one said that I was too young, too dumb, or that I had to wait till graduate school. Instead, you’re treated like a professional, almost like a colleague: you assemble all kinds of sources, you put in a bunch of hours, and eventually you see this stack of pages begin to accumulate.
To write something cohesive that’s 80 or 90 pages long when you’re only 20 or 21 years old — you think: maybe this is possible. Maybe writing books is something I can do when I grow up.