In late February, Anthony Doerr came to Iowa State’s 8th Annual Symposium on Wildness, Wilderness, and the Creative Imagination. Doerr read from his newest collection Memory Wall. He is also the author of three other books: the story collection The Shell Collector, the novel About Grace, and the nonfiction account Four Seasons in Rome.
Anthony Doerr devotes his writing to the physical world and the miracles it provides. His nuanced observation deals in fascination—his characters’ obsessions become real in the worlds he constructs. Doerr’s writing spans times, examines memory, and takes on vastly different personae, but always, it inhabits an intense curiosity.
Doerr has received numerous prizes and accolades for his writing. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and two Pushcart Prizes. He won the 2010 Story Prize and the Rome Prize, and received the Barnes & Noble Discover Award and the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award.
Flyway blogger and Assistant Nonfiction Editor, Lindsay Tigue, spoke with Anthony Doerr about topics ranging from his writing process, to importance of place, and the possibilities of research.
Lindsay Tigue: Your stories are set all over the globe from the Lamu Archipelago in “The Shell Collector,” Lithuania in “The River Nemunas,” to Tanzania in “Mkondo.” What draws you to writing about such diverse places, and would you say you are more interested in writing about the unfamiliar place as opposed to someplace closer to home? Or is it an equal fascination?
Anthony Doerr: That’s a good way to feed me the answer (laughs). I think I am more interested in the unfamiliar. All of my work has to do with disrupting habitual patterns, whether it’s at the sentence level in terms of disrupting cliché, or in the shapes of stories in terms of resisting easy structures, or in terms of place. I suppose I could read a great story about a bald guy who shops at the supermarket in Idaho, but that’s not the sort of story I want to write. I’m drawn to reading because I want to learn about lives that are different than mine. Then you can also, of course, trace all sorts of commonalities between those lives and my own.
You know, when you read, more so than any other art form, you occupy the mind of somebody else and that’s what got me addicted to reading and writing. I’m drawn to different settings because I like to leave the familiar, no question. I think it’s easy to say, “Oh, they’re exotic,” and that kind of belittles the effort.
For me, I’m interested in transporting, too, in the way you disappear into books as a child. That’s what I want my stories to be—a place a reader can disappear into. And that hopefully they’re made carefully enough and plausibly enough that a reader will believe he or she is in this other world. Even if it’s not exactly an accurate, realistic version of Tanzania or Lithuania. It’s as much a product of the imagination and research as time spent there.
LT: So have you been to all of the places that you write about?
AD: I have been to just about all of them. In my very first book, The Shell Collector, there’s a story called, “The Caretaker,” and the first twelve pages are in Liberia and I had never been there. In this most recent collection, Memory Wall, there’s a story called “Village 113” and I had been to Hong Kong, but I had never been to mainland China and the whole story is set along the Yangtze. So that’s probably the two examples of places I hadn’t been.
Already when you’re writing about a place you’ve only spent a month in or something, you’re a little bit nervous. I get pretty anxious when I’m setting something entirely in a place I haven’t been. In some ways, you’re liberated because the real world is so real and it fills you with detail that can often be extraneous. If you want to go write about New York City and you go stand in Union Square for a day, you’ll get so much detail that really doesn’t necessarily belong in a piece of writing where you’re trying to convey a certain mood or atmosphere or motivation.
LT: But it fascinates you so much that it’s hard to let go of, even if it doesn’t belong?
AD: Totally. Exactly. I keep a journal and anytime I’m anywhere—right now, for example, I’m only in Iowa for forty hours—I’ll make as many entries as I can. I never know what I might see here that maybe five years from now I can thread back into a story. I’m always looking at the journal as raw material for something that I might need someday.
LT: It seems many of your characters have a particular skill or a very focused fascination like the blind conchologist’s ability to identify cone shells, or the hunter’s wife’s ability to see the whole life of a person or animal through touch. So, I was wondering what draws you to characters with rare, or even supernatural gifts?
AD: In some ways that’s two separate questions. A lot of my characters do have specific real-world passions. In the novel I’ve been working on for a while, this boy is in love with radios and loves to build and tinker around with radios. But you’re right, other elements of my stories are supernatural and I get that question all the time and I never have a good answer for it. I don’t think of myself as a mystical person. I wrote a whole novel (About Grace) about a guy whose dreams occasionally predict the future, but I don’t necessarily believe such a thing is actually possible. And the letters I get from readers—
LT: Oh gosh, I bet.
AD: (laughs) They’re like, “That happens to me!” I don’t necessarily believe in any of that stuff. In fact, I’m very skeptical of it. But I do love how supernatural events challenge people’s ability to believe. I mean, lots and lots of people right around us in this hotel lobby believe that two thousand years ago a dude was nailed to a cross and then put in a hole or a cave and got up three days later and walked around healing people. That is something that they build into part of every single day they’re on Earth.
LT: Without even thinking about it.
AD: Sometimes without recognizing the absurdity of it. But also, it’s kind of sweet and wonderful.
To a much sillier degree, I’m basically lying to my kids right now because they’re losing their teeth. They put a little piece of skeleton under their pillow and they honestly think that some little winged creature wants to give them money for that stuff (laughs).
LT: And it’s so lovely that they think that.
AD: Right. There’s something wonderful about it. I certainly don’t want to be the one to set them straight on the tooth fairy. Let the rest of the world destroy their innocence.
So you know, I am just interested in this type of belief. I’m trying not to make any judgments about it. I’m interested in putting characters in situations where everything they think is real falls into question in some way and they’re challenged. In “The River Nemunas,” which is not necessarily a supernatural story, I ask the reader and my character to consider: What if there was one last sturgeon in this river? What if they’re not all gone? Some people say that story is about faith and God and maybe that’s true; it was unintentional, or if it was, it was very subconscious. I just wanted to challenge the grandfather who thought he knew what his life was, what this river was, and to show him something that maybe upset his understanding of it. Or opened it up.
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.
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.
Check back soon for Part II!