Author Anthony Doerr speaks on his writing process, recent novels

Anthony Doerr
Photos courtesy of Anthony Doerr

Anthony Doerr is the Pulitzer-prize winning author of “All the Light We Cannot See.” His most recent novel, “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” was published Sept. 2021. He currently lives in Boise and has worked briefly for Boise State in the creative writing department. 

This spring, culture reporter Julianne Gee sat down with Doerr to talk about his most recent work, and the process of his writing as well as some advice for young writers. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Julianne Gee: How did you get to the point where you enjoy writing and also have serious things to talk about [in your writing]?

Anthony Doerr: When you rely on writing to pay your mortgage, there’s very few moments where it’s always enjoyable. It’s maybe artificial to say. It’s more like a three-dimensional field and some moments you are finding joy, but there’s real pleasure in work. As you get older you find learning is a kind of pleasure and struggle is a kind of pleasure too. You really have to live in this uncertainty. You’re never convinced that you’re going to be able to finish the thing, while you’re working on it. You’re never sure if readers are going to be interested in it … if your publishers are going to want it. So, you try to become comfortable living in doubt and fear. You’re always stepping into some kind of fear each morning. Anybody who’s reading this who wants to become a songwriter or a filmmaker, she’s gonna have to deal with doubt all the time. Growing up, you always think good novelists live in Brazil and Buenos Aires or Paris or they’re dead. Every day you have to give yourself permission and say, “You know, even though I live right here in Boise, it’s okay to try to make something that people might read in Brazil or in Paris.” You know each day, hopefully, you can find some way to overcome those doubts and try to make stuff.

JG: I want to get your opinion about this quote and some of the questions I have about it as well. Roland Barthes said that “All writing is itself a special voice consisting of several indiscernible voices and that literature is precisely the invention of this voice to which we cannot assign a specific origin.”

AD: Every book we read, every song we listen to, every movie we see they all filter into our DNA of storytelling. They inform our experience. What’s kind of beautiful about taking in art is that they multiply and complicate our experiences here on Earth. I think what Barthes is saying is that our specific DNA is utterly unique because there’s this amazing mixture of influence and genetics and experience. How exciting that each human who’s born will create and combine language in a slightly different way and will see the world in a slightly different way. She’ll create something new. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy for her but that’s why you work. That’s why they say the craft is long and life is short. You’re always fumbling after the ineffable when you’re combining language. You’re using these clumsy inarticulate things that are words – these human inventions try to transfer meaning to another person. There’s always going to be gaps in that transfer, but it’s fun to try.

JG: Tell me about the relationship you have with the voices in your stories and the other voices you find going through your head and coming out in your writing. 

AD: Voice is a really interesting question. In terms of craft language, I primarily write in third person, and so I use a fairly stable voice. I try to have a voice that a reader will trust. I want, first and foremost, to have a reader feel incapable, sure hands, and in generous hands. When you walk into a bookstore you’re like, “Oh my God there’s so many books out here.” A reader really gives you this gift of her time to spend any time at all with any of your work. As soon as she enters your sentences, you want to not have any mistakes, any research slip-ups, any syntactical thorns to get in her way. You want to start casting your spell as quickly as possible so that she won’t leave. In terms of [the] voice of my narrators, I think of capable and somehow spellbinding you want them to cast the spell so that the reader won’t wake up and realize it’s just black marks on a white page after all. 

Anthony Doerr
[Screenshot of a drawing of a rhizome, or underground root system.]

JG: Yes, so tell me about that process – the process of writing “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” specifically, since that’s your most recent novel. What was that research aspect like and how did you kind of piece it all together into this huge sprawling story?

AD: This book is a total nightmare — like a humongous, sprawling thing. When I was 14, my grandma came to live with us. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. I’d never heard the word before. I watched this disease chew away at everything she was — all of her capabilities from being able to have conversations to even being able to feed and clothe and bathe herself. I’ve always had this sensitivity, because of that experience, [that] my capabilities are temporary and erasure is coming for me. I started this when I was 40-41. I just thought I’m going to try the most complicated thing I can try right now, while I still can. Synthesizing them into a whole was a huge project, and there are many, many days you’re like, “I’m not going to pull it together.” I have a drawing here. Just to give you a sense of just the structure of the novel. This was my madness. 

That’s how I’m imagining the interconnectedness of all these characters. Once I built the scaffolding, which is 24 pieces of a lost book inside this book, and I use the Greek alphabet which has 24 letters in it as a kind of scaffolding. Then I started to be able to at least build some organizational sense in my mind. 

[Pointing to pictured drawing] That was a moment about two or three years [when I thought] I’ve got a sense of the scaffolding of what the structure could look like. If I commit to it, I’ll have a way to organize my days.

  • Anthony Doerr
  • Anthony Doerr

JG: I do that when I write essays and stuff. I draw maps and things to try and figure things out. That’s really cool to see that I’m not the only one who does that.

AD: You should always be moving between the microwork of language and what the sentence[s] say. Take a breath, take a shower, take a walk, step back and then try to look at a macro and like what is this thing from beginning to end. What is its shape before you dive back into those little tiny jewelers’ details of sentences?

JG: In “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” the story of Aethon ties everyone together. Is there anything in particular that inspires you to write in this distinctive way and is there something maybe in life that you feel ties everyone together?

AD: It’s storytelling, it’s a silly story about a fool who heads off and has these silly ideas about finding magic out in the world. He’s frustrated with thinking home is boring. It’s a kind of ‘grass is greener’ story. That is something human. It’s very Western anyway. This idea … is drilled into you and me from the time we’re born by ads, in particular. That may tie all people together, but I think with the map and the [rhizome image] this model really exists in nature. The pandemic is another reminder to humans that we don’t live independently of other creatures on earth. All the human and non-human world is deeply, deeply interconnected, [and] I was really determined to see if I could build a way to mimic that interconnectedness that I feel anyway in nature, and then I feel like we’re ignoring our peril.

JG: Was the pandemic a factor that you were thinking about as you were writing? It almost seems silly to ask, but is it something that is present in your novel in your writing now that you feel more acutely than you maybe had before?

AD: Once you get to page 200 there is a pandemic in the novel. The novel was drafted and finished by March of 2020. In terms of the characters, [there’s a sense that] each is under siege in some way. In many ways, it’s a story about how when you’re entrapped, a story can help you kind of slip the trap or escape, temporarily anyway, I think stories have done that for humans forever. They allow us to escape the confines of the self and into other selves. That’s what reading meant for me during the pandemic. Especially those early days when you’re like, ‘Is everybody going to die?’ a way to say like whatever anxieties you have going on, you feel less alone when you have a good story.

JG: One final question, I read your introduction to the 2019 Collection of the Best American Short Stories. In it you write, “Evaluating turns eating a delicious piece of pie into homework,” which I love. As students, our writing is always being evaluated, and it really is our homework. What advice would you give to students who are faced with those evaluations or are required to evaluate their own writing? 

AD: Just remember that that’s temporary, you’re not going to be an undergraduate forever you’re going to be done [eventually]. First, it’s a total gift to have anybody, professor or a fellow student, read your work. That’s like an incredible gift, and once you leave academia it’s a little harder. Finding readers who are willing to evaluate is actually kind of a gift. Also remember that what you’re really learning in college is how to learn. What you’re learning is that you have to continue to be capable of learning. Life is change, and we are undergoing such rapid change in our society like with our democracy, with the climate. We need young people who are highly equipped to adapt and to learn on the fly. It’s about what friendships you made, and what skills you got that allowed you to continue to be curious because as you get older it’s easier to slip into habits and accepted patterns of thought. It’s really important to keep challenging yourself. As you’re waiting for your grades, try to remember that stuff passes and what lasts is: do you know how to learn, do you know how to ask yourself challenging questions and push yourself and try new things?

Anthony Doerr
Photos courtesy of Anthony Doerr