“One Berry at a Time, You Fill the Jug”: A Conversation with Anthony Doerr




AUTHOR OF a half-dozen books now, Anthony Doerr is both a winner of prestigious awards and a fixture on the best-seller lists. The highly anticipated follow-up to his 2014 novel, the Pulitzer Prize–winning All the Light We Cannot See, is Cloud Cuckoo Land, which was released in September by Scribner. It joins his 2004 novel, About Grace; his 2007 memoir, Four Seasons in Rome; and two story collections — The Shell Collector (2002) and Memory Wall (2010) — to form a steadily growing body of significant work.

Doerr was born and raised in Ohio, studied history at Bowdoin College, and earned his MFA in fiction from Bowling Green. On top of the Pulitzer, he’s also received the Story Prize, the Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, the National Magazine Award for Fiction, a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. We emailed back and forth, me from Los Angeles and Anthony from Boise, Idaho, where he lives with his wife and children.

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SEAN HOOKS: You’re an author, humanist, family man, and lover of the natural world. You’ve documented your travels, you’ve published everything from award-winning stories to science writing to essays on photography and earthworks, and you also became a major literary phenomenon, with financial success and critical acclaim for your novel All the Light We Cannot See. This new novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, is your first book after winning a Pulitzer Prize. Some might see that as an enormous amount of pressure, others might frame it as free rein to do whatever you please. The truth, I’m guessing, is somewhere in between. How have you digested this stratospheric status boost, and how did it tie into your choice to make Cloud Cuckoo Land your next project?

ANTHONY DOERR: Hmm, I’m not sure I have digested what happened with All the Light, or that it would even be all that healthy for me to do so. The truth is that most days before that novel was published found me picking up dirty socks around the house and telling my kids to put the milk back in the fridge, and most days after found me picking up dirty socks around the house and telling my kids to put the milk back in the fridge. The main difference seems to be that the kids’ socks have gotten larger.

Some days working on Cloud Cuckoo Land I did feel an almost insane joy that I had the liberty to make something weird on my computer instead of driving six hours across Oregon to teach another workshop to help pay the mortgage. And other days I felt overly aware that I had more readers than before looking at whatever I’d make, and that I wanted to both challenge and please those folks.

In the end, though, I write for the pleasure and the challenge of making stuff. Success for me is figuring out a way to spend most of my days doing something so engaging that I don’t feel as though I’m wasting my brief stay on Earth by paying attention to the wrong things.

I was extremely fortunate to have published four books before All the Light, two of them short story collections with small (but lovely!) readerships, so I’ve long been acutely aware that readers have heaps of wonderful books to choose from. Why should anyone read what I’m making when there are such dazzling writers — Virginia Woolf, Mary Ruefle, Maggie Nelson, Rachel Cusk — out there?

So I guess I’ve always felt that any reader willing to invest a few of her precious hours reading something I’ve made is giving me an amazing gift. I want to try to reward her attention by being as diligent as I can. Most hours, that’s plenty of pressure as it is.

Cloud Cuckoo Land takes a history-spanning approach, which results in a capacious and globalist work of literature. The novel abuts categories like “speculative fiction” and the “cosmopolitan novel” while connecting with ancient and universal storytelling strategies. It features characteristics of cross-speciesism, intergenerationality, and posthumanism while also conveying the importance of libraries, archives, and preservation. It blends research and imagination, and while it isn’t blindly utopianist and optimistic, neither is it cynical, defeatist, and doom-mongering. By the story’s end, it’s quite clear, to this reader anyway, that its author values balance. Is balance the greatest value? Or is my presentation of balance as this text’s ur-value an oversimplification?

No, that’s not an oversimplification at all — it makes me so happy that you saw all of that in the novel. I wanted this book to send dendrites into all sorts of different places, and balance was indeed my preoccupation. Maybe, as I push deeper into middle age, it has become my preoccupation in all things: balance in art, in consumption, in life.

Ever since I was a kid working on timelines in elementary school, I’ve been fascinated and frightened by time, and especially by the tiny footprint a human life makes on the expanse of Deep Time. When you’re drawing up timelines of the Ordovician and Cambrian periods in Montessori school one hour, then trying to make friends the next, it’s hard not to feel how a single life is both hugely important and utterly insignificant, and I love how fiction helps me continue to try to both understand and represent that.

The writer Tony Hiss helped me understand it in these terms: over 500 humans have traveled to outer space now, and when they gaze back at the whole of our little blue planet whirling through the black — the thin, ever-changing ballet of atmosphere and continent whisking past every 90 minutes — many report that they experience a profound shift of mind. National borders become invisible; conflicts, lifespans, and even whole eras shrink. Everything seems connected to everything else.

The philosopher Frank White has named this the Overview Effect. In Cloud Cuckoo Land, I wondered how I might embrace the paradoxes of storytelling: how a storyteller employs the tiniest details — the sights, smells, and sounds of a character’s moment-by-moment experience (airborne seeds blowing down a city street; the taste of a roll of rabbit meat seasoned with sage and roasted fennel seeds) to convey the enormity of a single life. I wondered if I could show how five different characters stewarded a single story through time — if I could move through eras, through walls, through lives to suggest the ways we are all connected to our ancestors, to the people who will come after us, and to the other animals with which we share this planet.

The goal was to help a reader not just to know interconnectedness intellectually, but to feel it. Who knows if I was successful, but my desire was to try to offer readers the sense of the Overview Effect that I felt staring into the timelines we made in Montessori school.

Your demeanor and oeuvre do not scream “provocateur.” I doubt the words “enfant terrible” have ever appeared next to the name Anthony Doerr. Yet there are aspects of this text that provoke and challenge. You smuggle subversive and provocative ideas into this novel, especially in future-looking sections about ecoterrorism and artificial intelligence that dive into dark and dirty corners of dystopia. And while your last novel was set during World War II, readers and reviewers often commented on its fantastical/fairy-tale side, its young adult characters, or its abiding warmth. Is it fair to say that your affable affect cloaks an agitator, or to call your fiction less bucolic than it might appear at first glance?

Ha! Well, yes, just because I try to be an agreeable person doesn’t mean I want to write agreeable fiction. I think it was Emerson who said, “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” I am drawn to work like W. G. Sebald’s or Julio Cortázar’s because it unsettles me.

We’ve talked about defamiliarization before, Sean, and how I prefer sentences and narrative structures that — in ways small or large — challenge and unsettle the reader’s expectations. I’m not sure I ever get all the way there in my own work, not even with a single sentence, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to try.

There are times, of course, at the end of a long day, when we all want comfort. We all want to feel safe. I’ll watch a superhero movie with my kids because I’m tired and I like being able to predict pretty much every major plot event that’s coming. A mega-studio superhero movie is not going to challenge any of my fundamental cultural beliefs, and it’s okay to take comfort in that stuff once in a while.

But at other moments I want to be challenged by art; I want to be reminded of the horrors humans can commit, or to be reminded that other human cultures value material possessions totally differently than we do. I want art that reawakens in me the sensation of being alive. I read an interview with Jhumpa Lahiri a little while ago where she said, “I am perplexed by the notion that literature should not distress the reader.” I wholeheartedly agree.

That said, I recognize that, for pretty much every day of my life, I have had a halfway decent roof over my head and a halfway decent meal to look forward to. It’s an immense privilege to be comfortable enough to occasionally seek out discomfort through literature.

And I also want to say that, in the ongoing and recently invigorated cross-disciplinary debate about whether homo sapiens has darkness (William Golding’s Lord of the Flies) or decency (Rutger Bregman’s Humankind) in its heart, I come down on the side of decency. This can sometimes mean I risk my work being dismissed as too warm, too rosy, too naïve. Again, I’m looking for balance.

There’s a group of historico-scientific fiction authors that rose to mind as I read Cloud Cuckoo Land, with David Mitchell, Richard Powers, Andrea Barrett, George Saunders, and Annie Dillard being most prominent. Another writer who stood out as an influence is Anne Carson, particularly in your book’s obsession with plays, translation, fragmentation, and the ancient world. I’m not sure if filmmaker Terrence Malick is someone you’d cite as a conscious inspiration, but the consistent appearances of flora and fauna in your texts seem similar to his films. He’s a little more philosophical and you’re a little more metaphysical but there’s an uncanny kinship. Formally, he’s more languid, but there are definitely elements of pastiche and collage in his cinematographical “catch it as it happens” approach to the natural world, in his famously unscripted/barely scripted shoots. You’re certainly one whose words raise a glass To the Wonder, and if I were asked to answer the “What are Terry’s films about?” question, my keenest response might be the title of your first novel, About Grace. Care to weigh in on the architectonics of influence regarding Cloud Cuckoo Land and the Doerr canon as a whole?

Barrett, Saunders, Dillard, Powers, and Mitchell have, for sure, injected some base pairs into my DNA. And absolutely Anne Carson. Rick Bass, too, and Rachel Carson, Barry Lopez, and the poet John Haines — all four write about wonder and the land as well as anyone I’ve read.

I couldn’t get enough of Annie Proulx when I was in my early 20s, and Melville, and Katherine Anne Porter. Then I got into Sebald, Shirley Hazzard, Eleanor Clark, Marguerite Yourcenar. And yes, I cried multiple times during Malick’s The Thin Red Line without understanding why, and I wept on an airplane while watching The Tree of Life.

What might be missing from your literary-DNA analysis are artists who play with intertextuality. Right after college, I borrowed Lost in the Funhouse from the library, and John Barth blew my mind. In my mid-20s, I couldn’t get enough of Borges and I still can’t get enough of Italo Calvino. In “Memory Wall,” I played with Treasure Island as a story-within-a-story, and in All the Light, I played with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea as my under-text, but I really went for it in Cloud Cuckoo Land.

Perhaps the biggest influence on the new novel is a writer who died almost two millennia ago and whose work no longer exists: Antonius Diogenes. Fittingly for a writer who was also apparently fascinated by intertextuality, we only know about Diogenes’s work from the things readers wrote about it — most saliently a summary in the ninth-century Bibliotecha by the Byzantine patriarch Photios. From Photios’s abstract of Diogenes’s 24-part book The Wonders Beyond Thule, it’s clear that Diogenes was interested in mashing up existing genres: myths, travel narratives, natural histories, romances, ghost stories, historical treatises. According to Photios, Diogenes, in a double-preface to The Wonders, claimed to have “laboriously compiled” his tale (a series of nested narratives about a journey around the world, and possibly even to outer space) from “a library of ancient testimonials.” Immediately, Photios makes clear, Diogenes’s reader is aware that this is not true.

I wanted my book to embrace that sense of pseudo-documentary playfulness, so I invented Cloud Cuckoo Land, the novel Diogenes could have written, and installed it inside my own novel with the same title. I wanted to continually rotate the story around the running theme of sieges-inside-sieges, libraries-inside-libraries, novels-inside-novels, worlds-inside-worlds. Because what is a book if not a self-contained universe that you get to hold in your hands?

You seem fundamentally averse to large chunks of prose. Your six books, regardless of genre, deploy short bursts of text, small chapters and terse paragraphs, the regular use of page breaks and section breaks, plentiful title cards and white space. Segmentation reigns. I don’t see this as inherently good or bad, although it may be at the root of a certain criticism of your work that I’ve noticed. To streamline this position (stated rather blatantly by William T. Vollmann in his New York Times review of your last book): He’s a helluva storyteller, that Doerr fellow, but I’m not sure his work qualifies as capital-L Literature. Can you explain why you take this structural approach? And/or delve into its particular benefits and limitations?

Ha! I love reading large chunks of prose, but when it comes to writing, I’m more of a miniaturist at heart (I know that that’s a weird thing for a writer to say in an interview about his new 600-page novel). But I sort of have to trick myself into writing big things by stringing together small things. Does this limit my work? Make it more staccato? Maybe. I can’t let myself worry too much over that stuff.

One of the things I love to do most in the summer is pick huckleberries. Huckleberries are delicious, tart blueberry-like berries that can’t be cultivated, so the only way to get them is to wander up into the mountains and find them. They’re tiny things, and when you climb a hill with an empty half-gallon plastic jug and squat down in the bushes to start picking, you think, It’ll take me a month to fill this thing. But over the course of a good afternoon of picking, you fill it. There’s something meditative about that kind of incremental work, and it’s a kind of work I associate very much with the writing of novels.

The only way I know how to work is to try to make small things — a page of prose, or just a few paragraphs — as bright and integrated as I can, then start laying them out, one after another, sometimes on the carpet, sometimes on a bulletin board, and see how they work together. One berry at a time, you fill the jug.

Some of my favorite “novels” are books like The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, Platero and I by Juan Ramón Jiménez, or Ted Hughes’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. To read them cover-to-cover sends you on a big, looping narrative journey. But they’re also constructed from linked vignettes that function on their own as things of profound beauty. If you want, you can open any of them at random, read a single passage during lunch, and feel immediately moved and transported.

Wasn’t it you, Sean, who first told me about Olga Tokarczuk’s amazing Nobel lecture? I adore that piece of writing and especially what she has to say about fragmentation — how constellations of fragments allow (maybe) for more complexity because of the gaps between them. I’m not sure I’m doing it well, but that’s the kind of writing I strive to make, in essays, in short stories, and in longer works like All the Light and Cloud Cuckoo Land.

Terrorism is afoot in Cloud Cuckoo Land and one of its perpetrators is a masked individual (or individuals) named Bishop. This character largely remains “off the page” but is integral to the novel. Bishop reminded me of Sam Esmail’s iconoclastic televised narrative Mr. Robot: hackers, digital radicalism, the tentacular reach of the internet, and the blurry regions between propaganda and inconvenient truths. A bishop moves diagonally on the chessboard, and your books have a cerebral, puzzles-and-games quality to them. In Catholic politics, as alluded to in your 2007 nonfiction book, Four Seasons in Rome, bishops are often seen as bureaucrats, if not downright Machiavels. Bishop is the name of the android in James Cameron’s Aliens, a film partially set (as is your novel) onboard a vessel navigating outer space, full of pioneers who spent a long time in sleep hibernation — part of a larger sci-fi/horror franchise that expresses extreme wariness toward AI and highly evolved entities that are alien to humanity, much like the ship’s supercomputer, Sybil, in your new book. The question I want to ask then is about intentionality, without stepping into the famous fallacy, because I’m a reader who can’t help but think of the totemic owls in Cloud Cuckoo Land as evocative of David Lynch, or to be reminded of Kurt Cobain and J. D. Salinger when reading about Seymour, your alienated-young-man character. So let’s just phrase it this way: How deliberate are you in parsing the postmodernity of your own work?

Oh, fun — I only intended about 14 percent of those allusions when I decided to name Bishop Bishop. But that’s the magic of writing — that the writer and reader are collaborators, and a writer can never predict or control all of his or her reader’s interpretations. In Cloud Cuckoo Land, I probably got a little more playful than I normally do in layering in some postmodern winks. The name of Konstance’s ship, The Argos, for example, is also the name of Odysseus’ dog, waiting at home for him all these years; the name of Trustyfriend the owl is one way to translate Pisthetaerus, one of the protagonists in Aristophanes’s comedy The Birds, which is where the phrase “Cloud Cuckoo Land” comes from.

If a reader finds some extra pleasure in discovering a little Easter egg, then I feel some extra pleasure too. But I absolutely don’t want a reader to have to carry any specific knowledge into the text in order to enjoy it. The novel’s title is perhaps the best illustration. For many British and Irish readers, “Cloud Cuckoo Land” is a very familiar phrase. But I was so worried that American readers wouldn’t have heard the phrase before (or would only associate it with The Lego Movie) that I made sure to quote from The Birds in the epigraph, just to try to give the reader a sense that this phrase has been more or less in use for 2,400 years, and that it’s perfectly okay if this is the first time she’s encountering it.

Three brief questions for closure. First, what’s the most underrated Van Morrison album? I bring this up, firstly, because you’ve alluded to your affinity for his sprawlier moments and, secondly, for All the Light We Cannot See’s many fans, as Van’s discography is one of the few things as fully radio-obsessed as that novel.

Common One (1980).

Next, what was your potent potable of choice during the pandemic?

My wife bought a Nespresso machine just before coffee shops closed. It was only because of the performance-enhancing magic of this machine that I was able to finish and edit this book.

Finally, you’re one of those well-traveled, globetrotter, boho kind of cats, and this new novel’s partly about layering the exact same places but at very different times; therefore, allow me to ask — what is the international locale you think has probably changed the most since you were there, and would you like to return and compare its current incarnation to its previous one?

When I was 19, I spent some time on the island of Lamu off the coast of Kenya (the setting for “The Shell Collector”), and it felt like every single hour there was full of magic, light, and beauty. The sea, the marine life, the culture, the kindness of the people — I have only happy memories from my time there. In 2020, I read that Lamu was becoming a kind of secret playground for rich Europeans escaping the pandemic, and it made me a little sad. But I’d like to go back one of these days, and see for myself what has changed, and what magic still abides.

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Sean Hooks resides in Dallas and his website is www.seanhooks.com.

 

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