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Interview: Globe-trekking with Anthony Doerr

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Anthony Doerr is the author of the novel About Grace and a debut collection of short stories, The Shell Collector, for which he won the Rome Prize of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. A memoir of his year in Italy, Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World, will be in bookstores this June.

LA: I note that your first book, The Shell Collector, begins with a description of a water taxi sloughing the tops off a coral reef, and that your most recent post at The Morning News contains a reference to coral reef devastation. What’s going on here? Why do you care about the coral reefs of the world? Have you seen any of them in person?

AD: I guess I look at it like this: To care about the ecology of coral reefs is not to care about some distant, isolated, irrelevant issue: Everything is connected, the world’s ecologies first and foremost. Perhaps the way I might ask the question is: How could someone NOT care about the health of tropical seas? Any single ecological issue is not worth caring about merely for the “benefits to humanity” (though reefs offer plenty), but to try to stay informed about coral bleaching, say, or wastewater, or oil consumption, or the war in Iraq, for that matter, is a part of being a responsible, curious adult.

We all share this one big clump of iron and magnesium and nickel whirling around the sun, and it is the one thing we will bequeath to our children. So why not be as deeply curious about it as we can? Why not try to understand what is happening to it in the pitifully brief time we’re here? I’ve been lucky enough to spend time on lots of reefs, and I hate to see them change for the worse over time — even as I’m aware, despite myself, that my own visits have added to the devastation in whatever small degree.

All that said, fiction is never quite the place for focusing energy for change: Fiction exists to transport a reader into another person’s life: her time, her place, her heart. But fiction that feels at all political usually falls apart. So I try to keep this in mind always in my own writing: that my first and most important job is only to persuade a reader to allow him or herself to be transported.

LA: I agree. I don’t think you made that mistake in The Shell Collector. To the contrary, the description of the coral reef isn’t there for the purpose of taking a momentary stand against coral reef devastation; rather, it effectively foreshadows the obliviously destructive mindset of the boat’s passengers. I think the way that nature exists as a respected backdrop in your stories, maybe even as a character itself, is what made me feel kinship with your writing. Still, it’s not that political topics — and by that I mean anything important enough to warrant public discourse — should be avoided in fiction, but if one sets out with only a political motive in mind, or even foremost in mind, the project usually fails. What do you think? I recently re-read George Orwell’s 1984. Highly political stuff — and brilliant. I also read a poem in an online magazine the other day that was just dreadful, the politics right on the poet’s sleeve.

AD: Sure, exactly. A writer asks a reader to believe in an imaginary world, a world made out of letters and words, and if the reader gets the slightest sense that the world is false, then the contract is broken.

LA: There seems to be a bookend quality to your first two published works. In About Grace, you are interested in the properties of water in extreme cold conditions; the protagonist, David Winkler, travels to the Alaskan tundra to photograph snowflakes. You organized the novel in six books in correspondence with the six corners of a snowflake. In The Shell Collector, you begin with the story of a man in self-exile in the tropics who is obsessed with exotic shells. Two men, two obsessions, two ends of the earth, two products of nature that seem to simultaneously possess both pattern and random properties. What is the story behind the twos?

AD: Thanks for noticing. It’s a hard question to answer, since, as you know, lots of decisions you make when you’re writing a story are subconscious. I try to write about, and research, the things I’m most passionate about, and for some reason or another, among lots of other things, I’m interested in shells and snowflakes. Spider’s egg cases, hummingbird’s nests, pebbles: little artifacts of the world. It’s hard to say why, though a lot of my fascination probably started in childhood. Every spring, growing up, my mom and dad used to drive my brothers and me back to Ohio from Florida in a big, rusty Suburban, and in the backseat we would have all sorts of stolen sea-bounty for our aquariums: anemones in gallon jugs of seawater, octopi in sloshing pails, murexes and stone crabs. And I’d usually have a tennis ball can stuffed with shells.

It was only after rediscovering one of those tennis ball cans, two decades later, that I got started on the story “The Shell Collector.” Likewise, when I was a kid, I had a copy of Wilson Bentley’s 1931 book, Snow Crystals (I give this book to Winkler in About Grace.) For fifty years Bentley, a Vermont farmer, 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. He never sold any of his prints; his neighbors made fun of him. Who would study something so ordinary and troublesome as snow? In all that time Bentley managed only about 5,000 successful prints.

Two thousand of them are collected in Snow Crystals, and 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, the unique kind of assiduousness Bentley possessed, his almost religious dedication to beauty. These are the things I’ve been drawn to for a long time: those miracles of the world that we sometimes need to be gently reminded to pay attention to, and the kinds of characters who are interested in them.

LA: Ah, that explains the origin of Winkler’s work in the story. You must have been quite taken with Bentley’s book, and it’s easy to see why. I know the appeal of patterning; my husband paints this way, playing with the idea of chance operations. ‘Who would study something so ordinary and troublesome as snow?’ you ask. That’s the kind of question that one answers by writing a novel! Yes, much of this is subconscious. I recently began writing about vegetarianism only to discover my real subject was meat—in all its connotations. Lately I’ve been taken with the word’s homonyms: meet, mete. Did you find as you wrote About Grace that you altered your original plan in the course of writing? How did the seed idea presented by Bentley’s snowflake plates grow as you wrote?

AD: Yes, yes, everything changes. Subjects morph; settings prove unreliable; first person becomes third; present tense needs to become past tense. About Grace started as long stretches of short story about a weatherman who is losing his sight and takes a prostitute down to Mexico and accidentally drowns her. I had to keep hammering away at the sections for several years; adding a mother for Sandy, taking her away, shuffling settings, introducing Naima, etc., and none of these things were part of my original plan for the novel. Probably the only constants through all the false starts and half-done drafts were that I wanted Winkler to wear thick glasses and own a copy of Bentley’s book as a boy.

Writing narrative is almost entirely trial and error for me, and the status of whatever I’m working on changes from day to day. I can envision what I think might be a skeleton for the story, but by the time I’m lumping flesh onto, say, the leg, both the arms have changed. Endings are rarely what I think they will be; middles often become beginnings. Sometimes someone I thought would be a minor character actually becomes the protagonist: This happened in a short story I wrote called “For a Long Time This Was Griselda’s Story.”

It’s not the most efficient way to work: I usually generate at least 100 pages of prose for a 20-page short story. I probably have a couple thousand pages of prose that I wrote for About Grace. But I wouldn’t want it any other way: It is the surprise, the joy of inventiveness, that keeps me coming back to the desk. I write because I never quite know what the finished product will be, because I never quite know how I feel about something until I start laying out sentences. In that sense, writing is a kind of thinking, really.

LA: Your stories are often set in unconventional locales — the Alaskan tundra; Lamu, Kenya and Liberia, West Africa; rural Montana and Idaho; Lithuania; an island in the Caribbean — not what one might expect from an Ohioan. One of your characters moves from Ohio to the East Coast to become a shipbuilder, a romantic venture that cannot be supported. Many of your characters move from one place to another that is very much unlike the first. What are your characters seeking, and what do they find? Why this emphasis on the journey, the extremes in setting?

AD: I think movement is a kind of narrative I’m preoccupied with. I like stories that establish two places and string a character out between them: Huck Finn, Madame Bovary, Disgrace. Pynchon’s new novel seems to be about movement more than anything else; places and times serve as poles, and characters serve as vehicles shuttling between them. (By “places,” I suppose this can be as figurative as it can be literal.) All of my favorite stories, I think, involve some kind of duality — that’s where tension comes from, and conflict. A character is in one place but wants to be elsewhere. A character is trapped somehow, and works to free him or herself. So these are the kinds of stories I try to write.

Even in my new book, which is non-fiction, I tried to build the narrative around the central idea of displacement: being an American in Rome, being a parent of brand new twins, living in an ancient city that is struggling to modernize. Storytelling itself is, maybe, the act of moving from one place to another, or leaving one place and returning to it once more, but changed somehow.

But, again, unfortunately, it’s hard to know exactly why I make certain decisions in my work. I’m sure the same must be true for your own work? Often structural decisions, in particular, are instinctual: you just try and try different ideas out until something feels interesting, and then you try pursuing it for a while.

Maybe the simple answer to your question is that I love to travel; I get stir crazy if I’m in one place for very long.

LA: Yes, I think that structural decisions are often instinctual, or maybe subconscious as well. My first manuscript, Nobody’s Brat, came out as a series of short stories with separate characters, and for years I fought the unification because I wanted to capture the fragmentary nature of military childhood. However, unifying the storylines was the easiest revision I’ve ever done. The threads were there, waiting to be threaded. By the way, I’m sure it is the nomadic quality of your stories that appeals to me as well. I have never lived in any one house longer than two years, so I have never become stir crazy. What are you writing now that you are ‘settled’ in Idaho?

AD: Now that my Rome book is at the printer, I’m working on a couple of short stories and am trying to resuscitate a novel about radio resistance in World War II that I have hundreds of pages of notes for, but still haven’t quite figured out.

LA: So, you’ve exhausted setting and are now going to play around with different time periods?

AD: Maybe — hopefully. Eventually. I certainly haven’t exhausted setting, but there’s something about the ability of prose to resurrect the past that amazes. It’s still about setting, of course—only now you’re walking through a city or the countryside and trying to imagine it as it once was, and render that into sentences.

LA: Any travel plans in your future?

AD: Some backpacking trips. A small book tour in June. Teaching in Taos and North Carolina. The Oregon Coast this fall. But not enough!

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About Lisa Albers