Journal of Writing & Environment

Interview with Anthony Doerr: Part 2

Last week, we posted Part 1 of Flyway’s interview with Anthony Doerr. Below, Flyway’s nonfiction editor, Lindsay Tigue, asks one of her favorite writers about research, authenticity, short-story length, and more.

LT: In an interview with Christopher Mohar for Fiction Writers Review, you said about research, “I very much use writing as an excuse to research, and research as an excuse to procrastinate. The world is so fundamentally interesting and it makes me fall in love with it a dozen times a day.” How much research goes into a typical story, or novel, and what types of “sources” do you seek out?

AD: Right. Lindsay, do you do research for your work?

LT: I love research.

AD: Yeah, I love it, too. Often, my students kind of groan when I say, “Let’s talk about research.” They say, “We got into creative writing so we can make shit up!” But yes, for me, it really is an excuse to learn more about the world, to find some subject, whether it’s poisonous snails or sturgeon or the early construction of radios. In “The Hunter’s Wife,” I just got interested in hibernation, how animals’ heart rate slows way down. Do you call that dreaming? Do you even call that life? There’s this huge gray area between life and death. So often, I start by reading a lot about a subject with no real idea of how to build narrative up out of it except that I’m very interested in it. I think that’s the key for young writers—of whatever age, but young in their career—is to find those things that you’re vitally interested in, even if you don’t want to, or are unable to articulate why you’re interested in those things. Whether it’s violin-making or horse racing, or how dry cleaners work—the more you learn about it the more you realize, first, how ignorant you are and second, how interesting it is. Like that incinerator you showed me yesterday; I’ve never even really thought about an incinerator, what a job in an incinerator would be like. And how maybe in there, there’s some engineer who is probably really passionate about making garbage burning more efficient. And maybe there isn’t necessarily a story in that and you’ve spent a day learning about something you won’t be able to build characters out of.

LT: But you’ve still learned something.

AD: Totally. In terms of a vehicle, the Internet is an incredible tool for procrastination, but it’s still an amazing tool for research—particularly for images. And you’re right, by the way, there’s a lot more research in a novel. Certainly, the longer the work, the more research there is, but being able to look at images, especially historical images in twelve seconds, it’s unparalleled. We have access to information like no humans have had before us.

LT: And videos, too.

AD: And videos, no question. For me, it helps looking at something like a Sears, Roebuck catalog from 1940. You can look at that stuff almost immediately. Maps, even Google Earth is sort of an incredible tool for writers.

LT: Sure, like do you turn left or right at this street?

AD: I do try to alienate the fewest number of readers possible, so I do try and get the streets right, the intersections right, even bus routes. I remember in my novel, I went back to Anchorage just to make sure that this character Winkler was riding the right buses at the right time. Some of that can qualify as procrastination, but you never know what you’re going to learn when you do that.

LT: You just want to make the true true.

AD: Exactly.

LT: In that same interview, you said your “work comes from hundreds or thousands of hours of working through things, from pouring lots and lots of observation and thought into every paragraph, every dead-end, every false start.” I was just wondering, how long do you typically spend on a short story, for instance? A lot of your stories are quite long.

AD: Yeah, the stories themselves are long. I don’t necessarily think of myself as a particularly slow writer, but I work a lot more than some of my friends do (laughs). I’m jealous of poets who are like, “My work day’s done; it’s 9:45a.m.!” I mean that in a funny way, not to dismiss the work they do.

The story, “Memory Wall”—which maybe is a novella—that took me around seven months of straight work. I had had knee surgery at the time and some of those days were ten-hour days where I wasn’t doing much else. So yes, lots of hours.

LT: Do they vary—do some stories come together more quickly than others?

AD: Very occasionally. If I’m being really playful and I don’t feel like it’s going into a book, I can write a story in maybe two or three weeks. But those are typically two or three-thousand word pieces. Very, very rarely does it go that quickly. Even essays. Even book reviews. Book reviews end up taking me a whole week usually. A little essay for the New York Times that’s around eight hundred words—I’ll agree to do it because I’ll think, “Oh I can write that this weekend,” but it ends up taking me probably six days of work to do it.

I revise all the time. I’m just always reading through what I have and trying to make it better, and more musical, and cleaner. More true.

LT: Are you typically working on several projects at the same time or do you like to focus on one?

AD: Usually multiple projects. It depends what sort of deadlines I’m under. This novel is probably now seven years in the making and I’ve written two whole books in between and lots and lots of different essays and magazine pieces. I think, eventually, to be a professional writer, you have to be able to juggle small and large-scale projects all at once. I like that today, maybe I’ll spend two hours on this and tomorrow, I’m in Iowa so who knows what I’ll get to? How about you?

LT: I’m mostly just working on short stories and poems right now.

AD: But one at a time?

LT: Yes, but I know I need to shift away from that.

AD: No, not necessarily. So you’ll have a story and you’ll finish it before you’ll start even a poem?

LT: No, not with poetry, but I usually focus on one story that I’m really in because I have trouble breaking away from that cast of characters to work on another.

AD: Yeah, that’s good. If you’re feeling the energy for any project you’re in, I think you just need to pursue that. That will change a little bit as you get toward your thesis and you start thinking about a book-length project. For me, it’s like once you start understanding what might fit between the covers of this book, you start trying to tailor everything so that it will all kind of mesh.

LT: So, for Memory Wall, did you know you wanted this thread of memory and time to appear throughout?

AD: I did, but it didn’t come until later. I had finished “Village 113” and I had finished “Procreate, Generate” and, I started to think—I was about halfway through “Memory Wall”—“If I start building a whole book out of this, how can I engineer all of these things to work in harmony?” In some ways a writer can be lucky because your fascinations align themselves subconsciously, so that it might still fit inside a book. But then, I started to try to overtly and consciously manipulate these stories so that they all revolved around similar questions. It began to feel as though memory was like a courtyard, and the stories all were windows, different kind of windows, into the same courtyard.

LT: And with The Shell Collector, was it the same process, or was that different?

AD: Similar. I started some of those stories in graduate school and, after leaving, I tried to recognize which stories were weaker and pull those out and write stronger ones. You do start to ask yourself, as you generate new stories: How will this complement the other, already-completed pieces in the collection? That’s something I think about a lot. I think e-readers might eventually demolish the collection the way iTunes has demolished the album, but right now I do love the idea of Dubliners or Winesburg, Ohio, any book that is a collection, where it’s an experience to read each story in succession.

LT: They accumulate in a way.

AD: Yeah, yeah. That’s a great verb for it.


LT: This is the typical interview question, but I was wondering what writers have influenced you? What contemporary writers are you excited about right now?

AD: No, that’s a good question. What contemporary writers are you excited about?

LT: Well, I really like Jim Shepard.

AD: I love Jim. There’s a researcher.

LT: In Ben Percy’s class, we also just read Lauren Groff’s collection Delicate, Edible, Birds and I really liked that a lot. I’ve been reading a lot of debut collections, I suppose. I really liked Laura van den Berg’s What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.

AD: Oh yeah, that’s great. She’s reaching readers. That’s exciting.

Let me see, living writers? I’m still kind of in love with Ondaatje. He has a new book that came out last year, The Cat’s Table. It’s beautiful; it just kind of fills you with hope that you can still be generating excellent work into your seventies.

I’m reading a book right now called Solo by Rana DasGupta. It’s gorgeous. Man, it’s really gorgeous. Really, it’s the whole twentieth century distilled inside one 100-year-old man’s life. He’s gone blind now and a huge proportion of it is threaded through memories, which I suppose makes sense for me, that I would like it. But it’s also got tons of chemistry in it and the second half is more of him thinking about these children he never had moving out into the world and imagining their lives. And you think that would be really nebulous, but it’s really beautiful writing.

Sebald—he’s dead, so it may not fit your question, but still a contemporary writer. Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz, which is such a beautiful book. In terms of the musicality of his language and blending this kind of curiosity and memory and imagination, those are things that have taught me so much just by reading him.

Andrea Barrett. She’s another writer who uses research really well and who really taught me how to use science, that you can be interested in science and write stories about it, that the science building and the English building don’t have to be four miles apart on campus. You can lead a life in which you’re interested in both things. She has been a real model to me.

LT: I think you’ve said before that you were really influenced by Alice Munro, too.

AD: Yes. Especially when I was younger. In my early twenties, I started reading her and it was a weird thing to be a young man in his twenties and reading the kind of fiction that my mom would read, because it was often about the lives of women, older women in Canada. She has this reputation of being the classic living short story writer, but for me she was really experimental in the way she used time, really disruptive of the Ray Carver, Tobias Wolff stories that we had been reading and those the New Yorker was publishing. They were stories I loved also, but that often just took place in the course of one drive, one conversation, or one afternoon. I loved that Alice would try to encompass whole lives. Often she’d show this really important and powerful understanding of time, in terms of geologic time. That’s something I’m always trying to work with, you know, suggest that the lives of your characters are quite small in terms of the life of the place that they’re in without being preachy or making your work too sciencey so that readers fall out of it.

Moby Dick, too. Moby Dick has been so important to me because there are all these chapters that are like: Here are how harpoons are made. My students usually say, “This is so boring!” but I like the idea that you can write this ripping, playful yarn and still teach your reader practical things about the world.

LT: This is related to my next questions. You write about science books for the Boston Globe. Have you always been interested in science? Have any of the topics you’ve written about served as inspiration for stories?

AD: Yes. My mom was a science teacher and my oldest brother is a very accomplished optics scientist. So we were just surrounded by science. Growing up, our shelves were full of Aldo Leopold. The most literary books were Rachel Carson and Annie Dillard and even Rick Bass as I got older. I’ve just always been interested in the natural world and being outside and trying to understand it as a naturalist might.

And yeah, the column has fed my fiction in lots of different ways. The story, “Memory Wall,” the central conceit of it—which I didn’t arrive at until about halfway through—that memories could be harvested and stored, came out of a book I reviewed for the Globe. A neuroscientist was suggesting that that may be possible in the near future. Even then, I was like, “Really, should I try this? It seems so science fiction.” I read a lot of books about fossils, too. I read first about the gorgon in a book for the Boston Globe, this fossil that the characters are looking for in “Memory Wall.”

LT: That’s great that your research is kind of built into your career.

AD: It is. It’s great. Even if nine of the ten books I read don’t necessarily filter into my fiction. The other nice thing about the column is that I get twenty books every month all about the latest issues in science in the mail. So it’s almost just the perfect job to keep your fiction growing. You always have more than you could possibly read anyway.

LT: So, at Flyway we’re concerned with environment and place in writing, and we kind of talked about the different settings for your stories, but I’m wondering, where does place come in your process, do you start with that first or do you start with a character?

AD: Surprisingly not always first. It’s not always like, “Okay, I’m going to set a story in Tanzania and I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen.” Often, you have a character’s desire for something, or just some curiosity like we mentioned for a venomous snail, and then you start threading and spiraling different conflicts out of it and occasionally the whole thing will pivot to a different place maybe two months into the process. But you do need to obviously settle on your place before you’re, say, a fifth of the way through a story (laughs).

LT: The MFA program here at Iowa State has a focus on environment, which allows students to explore interdisciplinary subjects relating to environmental subjects. We also read “environmental” writers in some classes and I was wondering how you would define an environmental writer, what that term really means to you?

AD: I don’t know how I would describe an environmental writer. I think it’s so important to understand where the comforts in your life come from and the costs that they have and how remote those things can be—you know, that your bowl of cereal did not just materialize and that the heat coming out of your furnace registers is fuel that is burning somewhere. That it’s our responsibility, not to feel guilty necessarily, but to try to comprehend our lives in context both with what the world’s going to look like in fifty years and what it looked like fifty years ago. I think storytelling can help do that.

I think there is room for morality in fiction writing and that’s something I grapple with all the time. I get frustrated when people say American writers are apolitical and American writers aren’t taking on moral issues the way writers of other nationalities might because I feel like that’s something I’m very concerned with, trying to display characters’ lives in the context of their times and maybe not judge them, but to just ask the reader questions about things like the Three Gorges Dam for example, in the story “Village 113.”  What does that thing mean to those villagers? Not to condemn it, but to show that it’s erasing centuries and centuries of history and question if progress is something that we should be worshipping all the time?

LT: My last question: What is your favorite animal?

AD: My favorite animal. What I want to say is dog because I just love dogs, but that’s a little easy. Lately, I’ve been really interested in watching herons. You always think they’re very regal and grand, but when you start looking at them really closely they’re always kind of tattered and often they’ve got mud and snails on their feathers and they’re always probing around in mucky places. I think of them as deposed kings. Like tattered old royals who have gotten dirty somehow. I love their patience. They’re such a good lesson in patience. They can just stand there waiting, waiting, waiting for a riffle, looking for some little minnow to come past. There’s something amazing about that. I so rarely even eat without reading or doing something else that to think that eating is all you do. All day, this one thing, this one great project: feeding yourself. It’s a good reminder that we don’t always have to be rushing around.


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