Author Anthony Doerr talks about his writing process, recent novels – The Arbiter
Anthony Doerr is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “All the Light We Can’t See.” His most recent novel, “Cloud Cuckoo Land”, was published in September 2021. He currently lives in Boise and worked briefly for Boise State in the creative writing department.
This spring, cultural journalist Julianne Gee sat down with Doerr to talk about her most recent work and the process of writing it as well as some tips for young writers. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Julianne Gee: How did you get to the point where you enjoy writing and also have serious things to discuss [in your writing]?
Anthony Doer: When you rely on writing to pay your mortgage, there are very few times when it’s always enjoyable. It may be artificial to say. It’s more like a three-dimensional field and at times you find joy, but there’s real pleasure in working. As you get older, you find that learning is a kind of fun, and struggling is a kind of fun, too. You really have to live with this uncertainty. You’re never convinced that you’re going to be able to finish the thing while you’re working on it. You never know if readers are going to pick up on it…if your publishers are going to want it. So you try to feel comfortable living in doubt and fear. You still go into some kind of fear every morning. Anyone who reads this and wants to become a songwriter or a filmmaker, they will have to face doubt all the time. Growing up, you always think that 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 here in Boise, it’s good to try to do something that people might read in Brazil or in Paris. You know, every day, with a bit of luck, you can find a way to overcome those doubts and try to create things.
JJ: I would love to hear your thoughts on this quote and some of the questions I have about it. Roland Barthes said that “All writing is itself a particular voice composed of several indistinguishable voices and that literature is precisely the invention of this voice to which one cannot attribute a specific origin”.
AD: Every book we read, every song we listen to, every movie we see, they all filter into our storytelling DNA. They inform our experience. What is rather beautiful in art is that it multiplies and complicates our experiences here on Earth. I think what Barthes is saying is that our specific DNA is very unique because there’s this incredible mix of influence, genetics and experience. How exciting that every human being born creates and combines language in a slightly different way and sees the world in a slightly different way. She will create something new. That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy for her, but that’s why you work. This is why it is said that the job is long and the life is short. You are always looking for the ineffable when you combine language. You use these clumsy, inarticulate things that are words – these human inventions try to transfer the meaning to another person. There will always be gaps in this transfer, but it’s fun to try.
JJ: Tell me about the relationship you have with the voices in your stories and the other voices that go through your head and come out in your writing.
AD: The voice is a really interesting question. In terms of craft language, I mostly write in third person, so I use a fairly stable voice. I try to have a voice that a reader will trust. Above all, I want a reader to feel incapable, in safe hands and in generous hands. When you walk into a bookstore, you think, “Oh my God, there are so many books here. A reader really gives you that gift of their time to hang out with any of your work. As soon as she gets into your sentences, you don’t want to have any errors, search slippages, syntactic thorns to get in her way. You want to start casting your spell as quickly as possible so she doesn’t go away. In terms of [the] voices of my narrators i think it’s capable and kind of bewitching to want them to cast the spell so the reader doesn’t wake up and realize it’s just black marks on a page white after all.
JJ: Yeah, so tell me about that process – the process of writing “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” specifically, since it’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 huge, sprawling thing. When I was 14, my grandmother came to live with us. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. I had never heard the word before. I’ve seen this disease chew away everything it was – all of its abilities, from being able to have conversations to even being able to feed, clothe and bathe. I’ve always had this sensitivity, because of this experience, [that] my abilities are temporary and erasure is coming for me. I started this when I was 40-41. I just thought I was going to try the hardest thing I can try now, while I still can. Synthesizing them into a whole was a huge project, and there are many, many days when you say to yourself, “I’m not going to put it all together. I have a drawing here. Just to give you an idea of the structure of the novel. It was my madness.
This is how I imagine the interdependence of all these characters. Once, I built the scaffolding, which is made up of 24 pieces of a lost book inside this book, and I use the Greek alphabet which contains 24 letters as a kind of scaffolding. Then I started to be able to build at least a sense of organization in my mind.
[Pointing to pictured drawing] It was a time of about two or three years [when I thought] I have an idea from the scaffolding of what the structure might look like. If I commit to it, I will have a way to organize my days.
JJ: I do that when I write essays and stuff. I draw maps and things to try to figure things out. It’s really cool to see that I’m not the only one doing this.
AD: You should always oscillate between the microwork of the language and what the sentence[s] say. Take a breath, shower, walk, step back, then try watching a macro and love what it is from start to finish. What is its form before diving back into the detail of the sentences of these little jewelers?
JJ: In “Cloud Cuckoo Land”, Aethon’s story binds everyone together. Is there anything in particular that inspires you to write in this distinctive way and is there perhaps something in life that you think binds everyone together?
AD: It’s storytelling, it’s a silly story about some jerk going off and having these silly ideas about finding magic in the world. He is frustrated thinking that home is boring. It’s kind of a “the grass is greener” story. It is something human. It’s still very western. This idea… has been pierced in you and me since our birth by advertisements, in particular. It can bring everyone 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 do not live independently of other creatures on earth. Everyone human and non-human is deeply, deeply interconnected, [and] I was really determined to see if I could build a way to mimic that interconnectedness that I feel in nature anyway, and then I feel like we ignore our peril.
JJ: Was the pandemic a factor you were thinking about while writing? It almost seems silly to ask, but is it something that’s present in your novel in your writing now that you feel more intensely than you perhaps had before?
AD: Once you get to page 200, there is a pandemic in the novel. The novel was written and completed in March 2020. As for the characters, [there’s a sense that] everyone is beleaguered in one way or another. In many ways it’s a story about how when you’re trapped a story can help you slip into the trap or escape, temporarily either way I think the stories did that for humans forever. They allow us to escape the limits of self and into other selves. This is what reading meant to me during the pandemic. Especially those early days when you’re like, ‘Is everyone going to die?’ a way of saying like whatever your anxieties, you feel less alone when you have a good story.
JJ: One last question, I read your introduction to the 2019 collection of America’s best short stories. In it you write, “Assessment turns eating a delicious piece of pie into homework,” which I love. As students, our writing is always graded, and that’s really our homework. What advice would you give to students who are faced with these assessments or need to assess their own writing?
AD: Remember this is temporary, you are not going to be an undergrad forever, you are going to end [eventually]. First of all, it’s a total giveaway to have anyone, professor or classmate, read your work. It’s like an incredible gift, and once you leave academia it’s a little more difficult. Finding readers who are willing to review is actually a kind of gift. Also, remember that what you really learn in college is how to learn. What you learn is that you must continue to be able to learn. Life is change, and we are undergoing such rapid changes in our society as with our democracy, with the climate. We need highly equipped young people to adapt and learn on the job. It’s about the friendships you’ve made and the skills you’ve learned that have allowed you to continue to be curious, because as you get older it’s easier to slip into accepted habits and thought patterns. It’s really important to continue to question yourself. As you wait for your grades, try to remember that things pass and the tough thing is: do you know how to learn, do you know how to ask yourself hard questions, push yourself, and try new things?