Arts November 5, 2008

Anthony Doerr

Diverse & Unpredictable

We slide into the back row at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts where a reading is in progress. At the front stands the author, Anthony Doerr, a slight young man, reading his work to an attentive audience. He seems calm and reads with a firm voice. His is not the wistful, nervous (OK, often disappointing) person so often found behind wonderful books.

He is reading a story of his about an old woman in China who has decided to stay in her town, even though it is about to be permanently flooded by a government project. It is an amazing story, rich with detail of a culture in the throes of change.
This is one of a dozen readings Doerr is committed to as Idaho’s Writer-in-Residence, a three-years-with-small-stipend honor that he has accepted. He lives in Boise.

After the reading, the audience is permitted questions and the crowd is clearly in love with all Doerr’s work: his prize-winning first group of stories in The Shell Collector, his novel About Grace, and his recent memoir about spending a year in Rome, Four Seasons in Rome.

His short stories are inexplicably diverse and unpredictable and show an amazing understanding of humankind and of nature, by which Doerr is absorbed. The stories are set all over the world. About Grace is a compelling story about a weatherman convinced through a recurring dream that he has to leave his family or he’ll be the cause of his baby daughter’s death.

Doerr’s work has won him important prizes and copious praise. Reviewers call his work dazzling. He was named one of New York Public Library’s “Young Lions.” One honor he won is the Rome Prize, which provided him lovely housing and a place to write for a year in Rome. With very few doubts, he and his wife Shauna packed up their six-month-old twin sons and headed to Italy.

That’s the subject of his memoir. And, again, he is dazzling: A loving husband and father and tourist (where to get diapers?) and a writer at work. He records the new parent fatigue, along with the glories of the Eternal City. It is the sort of writing that elicits this kind of reaction from his readers:
When his reading is over in Ketchum, a young woman says, “His in-laws are here . . . and you just want to ask them, ‘What is he really like?’”

In an online Q&A session, we asked him about that.

Q: Rock star stuff at a reading. Do you get that a lot?
A: Oh, that’s very sweet. The truth is that I’m boring: I read and write a lot and I wander around outside a lot, which means I’m alone a lot. One nice thing, among many, about being a writer of literary fiction is that your ego can never get very large. It’s similar to being a parent, actually: both endeavors are pretty humbling. You never know, really, if you’re doing a good job as a dad, and you never know if you’re doing a good job as a writer. When you spend three years working on a few thousand sentences and they still somehow only approximate the truths you’re trying to represent, it’s hard to get too full of yourself.

Q: How old are you? As part of the MySpace generation, do you get into that?
A: I’m 34. I’m not a big MySpace person. But I do love and use the Internet. I write for now and then; I read lots of articles online, and execute plenty of simple research with the Web: what a certain tree looks like, say, or what folks call a certain part in a snowmobile engine. Yesterday I used Google Earth to get the name of an intersection in Paris. I believe the Internet is wildly powerful and that it can democratize publishing; that’s good. I also believe it is reducing our willingness to engage with long, sustained pieces of writing; I worry about that.

Q: So, tell me how you became a writer. At what age?
A: My mother read me the books in The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis, when I was six or seven. And I remember asking her: “How did they invent this part?” Or: “Why did they write it this way?” And she would say, “It’s not they, it’s he. One person wrote these books.” And I thought: One person? One person made all those places seem so real? And he only used words to do it? I think from then on I’ve been addicted to that magic, to trying to create, or recreate, worlds with the most common, most inexpensive elements of daily life: words.

Q: What kind of family did you grow up in? What did your parents do?
A: My father operates a small printing company and my mother is a science teacher. I have two older brothers. We spent our childhood outside: riding bikes, fishing, wandering through the woods, burning ants with a magnifying glass (sorry, ants). And reading.

Q: What is your educational background?
A: I went to Bowdoin College [in Maine] and got a degree in history and English. Later, I got an MFA in fiction writing.

Q: How did you come to do a lot of travel abroad?
A: I was the kid who had dozens of maps on his bedroom walls, and pictures of mountains and deserts I cut out of magazines. In high school I became seriously addicted to rock climbing and all I wanted to do was to travel the world and find places to climb. So I prioritized travel and as soon as I started working, I started saving money for trips. My first job was on a horse farm when I was 14: $5 an hour. Then a busboy. Then a cook. Then I worked in a salmon processing facility in Alaska—that sort of stuff. 
Africa, New Zealand, Alaska—mostly my travel came out of a desire, if not directly to go climbing, then to see places where the natural world was large, unruly, and dominant.
Travel is still a huge part of my life. When I’m traveling, two things help me pay attention: being alone, and being obsessive about keeping a journal. I sort of try to become one big eye, roaming across the bridges, peering between trees.

Q: Tell us about your wife, Shauna Eastland, a very key player in your Four Seasons in Rome. Where did you meet and what does she do (I know, twins are enough . . . but before the twins)?
A: I met Shauna at Bowdoin. She is a remarkable woman; funny, compassionate, intensely smart. She is the kind of person who knows why you’re feeling a certain way before you do, and cannot visit the Humane Society without trying to adopt multiple animals. Before having the babies, she worked at Hewlett-Packard in Boise. And she grew up in Idaho, introduced me to Idaho, and brought us here to live.

Q: You write about reviews coming in on your first book and your being disappointed at being “chided” for being too preoccupied with nature and science. Where DOES that come from—that interest in science?
A: I write a column on science books for the Boston Globe. The interest in science comes from my mom: she always had us examining caterpillars, snails, frogs. She was also my science teacher in school, and my math teacher, too. I’ve always been in love with being outside, trying to learn something about the lives of other living things.

The review you’re talking about was actually for my third book, and I can understand where the reviewer was coming from: I was writing a memoir in which I don’t pay a lot of attention to myself or Shauna, as much as to trees and light, to buildings and insects. But that’s not necessarily something I can change about my work; it’s always going to be located at the intersection between the human and the natural worlds.

Q: Your short story collection, in the title story, “The Shell Collector,” is an absorbing story with a lot of nature and science in it. Is that the result of research or one of your personal interests?
A: I was visiting my parents and dug an old tennis ball can out of a closet. When I pulled off the cap, a deeply familiar smell rose: the smell of dead snails. Inside the can were bits of coral and hundreds of tiny seashells: murexes, butterflies, olives. It wasn’t until I poured them out on the floor that I remembered that they were mine, that I had collected them on Sanibel Island during a family trip.

I think the character of the shell collector started there, with the tactile pleasure of holding shells and the associations and memories they fired in me. Then I did some research and found out that there is, actually, a real-life malacologist who happens to be blind. So the story came out of research and personal interest. It took a lot of drafts before I learned how to explore the metaphor of making the shell collector’s life like a shell itself, how he tries to retreat into it but cannot.

Q: Wiser people than I have already heaped praise on you for that collection; the stories are so amazingly diverse and there is no story with a predictable end. How do you decide when you have enough stories, each one fabulous enough, to make a book? Were you discovered?
A: I had a story called “The Hunter’s Wife” accepted by the Atlantic Monthly. Around the same time I sent eight stories to an agent in New York, and she said she wanted to represent it, and after that things sort of took off. I know that I got very, very lucky. I think it’s harder now for new writers to get a story collection published on a major press.

Q: Your novel, About Grace, is an icy story about diverse people, each mad in his own way and the “hero” is the maddest of all. He is driven by a bad dream, and the knowledge that his dreams have, at least once, come true. What inspired that story?
A: A book called Snow Crystals, by Wilson Bentley. For 50 years, Bentley, a Vermont farmer at the turn of the last century, caught snowflakes on a smooth black tray, transferred them to a glass slide, brushed them flat with a feather, centered them over a low-powered bulb, and took photomicrographs of them. His neighbors made fun of him; he never made any money from his prints. And he died of pneumonia, contracted while out in a snowstorm, collecting snowflakes!

Plus, this was back when taking photographs with a microscope was basically unheard of. In those 50 years of work, Bentley managed about 5,000 successful prints. Two thousand of them are collected in his 1931 book, Snow Crystals. To page through this graveyard of long-vanished crystals is to be astonished, once more, by the sheer inventive power of nature, and also by the man. What sort of person would dedicate his life to this sort of beauty? To ephemera? To awe? That’s where Winkler, the hero of About Grace, came from.

I like to think of Bentley as the little grain of dust at the nucleus, around which the whole structure of About Grace precipitated.

Q: At your reading, you read a story about a village in China destined to be flooded and destroyed as a result of some government improvement. You mentioned your technique of doing research after you have a firm idea and a specific setting. Did you travel to China at any point? Where did you do the research?
A: The story’s title is “Village 113.” The government improvement you mention, though it’s never named directly in the story, is the Three Gorges Dam. Yes, I do lots of research for all of my stories, some of which inevitably involves travel. “Village 113” is not a perfect example of this, though, since I did not travel up the Yangtze to visit a village for this story. I did harvest details from a trip to Hong Kong to help describe the city in which I place Li Qing, the son of the seed keeper in the story.

Setting is all-important in the fiction I love to read and try to write, but any place in its full-throated reality incessantly bombards you with so many details that you tend to get overwhelmed. I especially think of Manhattan like that; you see enough on one city block to fill a thousand-page novel, so how are you supposed to whittle that down into a couple of paragraphs?

That problem is present with every city: Nairobi, London, Rome. Your filter has to be extremely fine, always discarding sensory input, or you’d never make it through a day. So I agree with Hemingway, et al., that sometimes it’s easier to write about a place once you have some distance from it.

For example, I didn’t write “The Shell Collector” in Kenya, or “The Caretaker” in Liberia and Oregon. But as I wrote those stories, as I write any piece of fiction, I look back through my journals, which were written while I was in the grips of a place, and all its whirling details. That’s my raw material. Then I quarantine myself in some quiet place, a library or my office, and I’ll look at photos, or Web sites, or travel brochures, or naturalists’ accounts, or whatever else I can use to help me evoke the setting. In the end, my settings are products of memory and research, buttressed by imagination, and tinted by the psyche of the point-of-view character. They are places you could find in an atlas, sure, but they are as much products of imagination as anything else.

Q: You mention Rick Bass a lot in interviews, it seems. Do you know him? Who else is on your list of favorite writers?
A: I know Rick only through a couple of emails we exchanged a few years ago. But his book The Watch was hugely important to me; it sort of showed me how I might channel my interests in nature, in science, in mystery, into my fiction. Looking back on it, The Watch, along with Moby Dick, and Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, sort of gave me permission to write. So those three writers are certainly on my list. Also W.G Sebald, J.M. Coetzee, Andrea Barrett, Alice Munro, Barry Hannah, Edmund White. Tolstoy, of course.

Q: And how did you come to live in Boise? What are its perks, as far as you are concerned?
A: Shauna brought me here. Its perks are too numerous: four distinct seasons, beautiful people, access to raw, unpopulated places, a burgeoning literary scene. Lots of blue sky. Clouds like miracles. Biking and skiing. A well-located airport. And it’s still a reasonably inexpensive place to live.

Q: How do you work? An office, at home?
A: I rent a little office about a two-mile bike ride away from home.

Q: About those twins: showing any writerly habits yet?
A: Yesterday Henry wrote Owen’s name! And we read every night; their ability to remember events in their little chapter books and to act them out three days later is absolutely stupefying. It reminds me, all over again, of the power of language.

Martha Liebrum is a longtime journalist who also respects the power of language.

This article appears in the Winter 2009 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.