Interview with Anthony Doerr, 2014 National Book Award Finalist, Fiction
All the Light We Cannot See
Scribner/ Simon & Schuster
Courtney Maum: When you found out you won the Rome Prize, your wife Shauna had just given birth to your twin boys. Where were you when you found out you were nominated for the National Book Award?
Anthony Doerr: I was at my desk, grappling with some lousy paragraph. The kids were at school and the dogs were sleeping and my phone started buzzing. It said “Unknown,” so I didn’t pick up. Then it made its little voicemail chirp, and I noticed that the caller’s area code was 212, so I got curious. The voice on the recording said, “Hello, my name is Harold Augenbraum; I’m calling from the National Book Foundation. If you can please call me back, I’m at…” I thought: If you really are a steadfast, wholehearted writer, Tony, you’ll fix this paragraph before returning his call.
I didn’t fix the paragraph.
CM: Although the catalyst for this novel was the marvel of radio, over the ten years you spent working on it, you ended up crafting an extraordinarily compassionate novel about World War II. I’m seeing a lot of high profile artistic attention being paid to this same period recently. Specifically, I’m thinking of Martin Amis’ Zone of Interest, Jim Shepard’s forthcoming The Book of Aron, Patrick Modiano being awarded the Nobel Prize, even James Salter’s All That Is. Have you noticed this as well?
AD: Thanks, Courtney. Gosh, I don’t want to dismiss your question, but in order to protect myself, I try not to pay attention to where attention is being paid. All autumn, for instance, I’ve been messing around with a piece of fiction set in interstellar space. Then, a couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were watching TV when a movie trailer came on for Interstellar, a $165 million piece of fiction set in interstellar space.
I wanted to eat the cushions off the sofa, but Shauna eventually talked me down. The truth is that you can’t predict or control what subjects gather cultural momentum, so as an artist it’s probably best not to clutter your head with worries about that stuff. If lots of people are interested in World War II right now, or interstellar space (or zucchini, for that matter, or the manufacture of violins) that’s probably because those things are inherently interesting and, in the hands of the right storyteller, always will be.
CM: In reading through past interviews with you, I’ve been surprised to see All the Light We Cannot See described as a novel that oscillates between the viewpoints of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, a German orphan, because the truth is, although Marie-Laure and Werner are the books’ main protagonists, the novel is peopled with the voices of so many other characters: Etienne, Von Rumpel, Frau Elena, Dr. Hauptman—the evil Volkheimer is given an entire section near the end. To me, the degree to which you let tertiary characters come in to support the narrative felt almost experimental. Did you just follow your instincts as to who got passed the talking stick, or did you have a master plan? Did any other voices end up on the cutting room floor?
AD: Yes, lots of poor souls ended up on the floor. The perfumer, for example, had several more chapters from his point of view in earlier versions, as did Madame Ruelle, the baker’s wife. Did I have a master plan? Not really. Mostly I constructed and then cut lots of variations.
When I teach graduate writing workshops, I often see a severity regarding point of view—students like to point out sudden movements: “You broke POV here, you broke POV there.” Students are right, of course, to highlight moments when a narrator breaks into or out of another character’s thoughts, especially if the writer makes that shift unintentionally.
But when I started to worry that my book was becoming too rigidly adherent to the Marie/Werner/Marie/Werner back-and-forth structure (my editor, Nan Graham, used the adjective “ping-pong-y”) I started looking at POV in books that I admire and found that my favorite moments in those books often involved some level of disruption in point of view. A narrator’s privilege gets established and then, later in the book, it expands or frays. Ishmael assumes Ahab’s thoughts in Moby Dick, or Madame Bovary opens in first person, then promptly becomes a third person novel.
In Gatsby Fitzgerald establishes what appears to be a strict POV rule: “This novel will be narrated by Nick, who will have to guess at Gatsby’s thoughts.” Before long, though, Fitzgerald shatters that rule (“[Gatsby] knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath…”)
That kind of stuff would probably get picked on in workshops. So whenever I found All the Light getting too schematic, too rigidly obsessed with its own symmetry, I tried to remind myself that a novel can be a more organic, digressive, human thing, full of movement and departures and tertiary voices.
CM: Books don’t exist in a vacuum. What kinds of films, music, artwork and other creative forms did you draw inspiration from while you were working on this novel?
AD: So many. When you’re working lots every day, almost everything you read or hear or see outside of those hours becomes relevant to the book. That’s perhaps the best thing about being immersed in a project– the world starts to glow with pertinence.
I drew from walks around the city of Saint-Malo, and the Natural History museum in Paris, and the compositions of Debussy, but mostly I drew from books. I list several of the most prominent ones in the back of the novel, but there are dozens of others I could have included: Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier, Heimrad Bäcker’s amazing Transcript, Shirer’s Berlin Diary, Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction, Marguerite Duras’ The War, Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books, Mercè Rodoreda’s The Time of the Doves...
CM: I loved learning that upon reading one of your final drafts, your wife told you that you needed to prepare for your life to shift, that this book was going to change things. That she had the intuition to know that the decade you’d spent working on this book was going to see a huge payoff was immensely moving to me. Your twins were just born when you started All the Light We Cannot See—they’re ten now. Is there anything you’d like to add here about your family?
AD: Shauna is amazing. It takes incredible patience to be in a partnership with someone who disappears behind a closed door every day, only to emerge eight hours later and start complaining that we’re out of yogurt.
When I’m working hard on a story, I’ll turn my back on her in the middle of conversations to run downstairs and scribble a bunch of illegible notes on a pad. Or I’ll shake her awake at one in the morning to ask something ridiculous like, “Do you think someone in Brittany would have had a hair dryer in 1939?”
My family? They’re everything to me. The happiest hours of my life have little to do with writing. They come when I’m wrestling with my sons in the snow, or throwing a ball with them in the cul-de-sac, or peering through the oven window with them, watching a loaf of bread rise out of its pan.
Courtney Maum is the author of the debut novel, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, from Touchstone Books/Simon and Schuster. The humor columnist behind the “Celebrity Book Review” on Electric Literature and a satirical advice columnist for Tin House, she lives in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.