By JENNIFER K. BAUER
The novel, which took Doerr 10 years to write, weaves an epic tale of two young souls swept up in World War II: Marie-Laure, a blind French girl who can see more than anyone else; and Werner, an orphan and electrical engineering prodigy enrolled in a Hitler Youth academy. The novel has 187 chapters, many of them shorter than a single page, and became a New York Times best-seller.
Doerr, 40, lives in Boise with his wife and twin sons and will appear in Moscow tonight, where he’ll read and show pictures he used in research. Inland 360 caught up with him one afternoon last week. He’d just come from a pilates class where, he said, he prayed nobody was watching him. He’s trying to make exercise a regular habit to combat the time he spends sitting and writing.
360: Are you surprised by the success of “All the Light We Cannot See?”
Doerr: Yes, no question. … It’s kind of crazy. It’s sold so many more copies than my previous books. It came out in May, and it’s sold (something like) two copies a minute over 24 hours a day since then. An artist likes to believe he or she is getting better, but I don’t think it’s far superior than my other books.
360: Having a New York Times best-seller would be a dream come true for many writers. Is it a different experience than your other awards?
Doerr: The New York Times moniker is cool. The onslaught of requests you get — my agent told me I need to change my email. I get three or four invites a day to do things, it’s wonderful. I like primarily hearing from readers but I have to protect time for family. I could be on the road definitely 365 days a year, which is great, but I’m just not as young as I used to be. I’m tired after an event. I want to sit down and watch Netflix. I used to work.
360: “All the Light We Cannot See” took 10 years to write. What was it like spending that much time on a novel?
Doerr: I wrote two books in between working on it, but as for why it took so long there are three major reasons. One, it was my first real foray into historical fiction. Usually, if a character goes into her kitchen you can imagine it, but this was a kitchen in 1938, so I had to look at photos. Second, the book is two novels inside the novel. I had to grade together the trajectories of two children. The structure is really complicated. It took a long time to parse out what that would be. Third, the psychological nature of the material, particularly the boy’s story. (When it comes to World War II) the research is almost always harrowing. I had to take a break from reading all this stuff.
360: What kinds of hurdles do you encounter as a writer? Are there any places you get hung up or lost, like in researching?
Doerr: Totally, that can become a procrastination. Particularly when it comes to World War II. There are so many books about WWII you could cover Idaho with them. … (At a certain point you have to say) what I’m making is a project of the imagination. You can’t hide in the stacks all day. I read a story about Canadian paratroopers on D-Day parachuting to the ground with fold-up bicycles. I thought, ‘That’s amazing.’ I spent a day writing scenes and then thought, “Wait, I don’t have any Canadians in my book.” … You’ve got to tell a story with integrity. It’s got to be integral to itself; you can’t just show off all these things you learned along the way.
360: At what point does a character start to become real to you?
Doerr: That’s a great question. I try to dispel the idea in my students that they come on like light bulbs. For me it takes forever. They’re kind of like lumps of clay. It takes months to find out what’s in her pockets. … Maybe they start entering your dreams. When you’re working a lot, that’s a good sign.
360: After spending so long on a book, do you jump right into writing another?
Doerr: Yeah, I’m trying to. I don’t know if jump is the verb, maybe crawl or limp. I’m much healthier as a person if I’m working on something new, then I don’t focus on reviews. I’m really only happy if I’m reading a book I love, or writing something I’m interested in. If I’m depressed, one of those things is getting neglected.
Post script: Anthony Doerr is scheduled to return to the region next fall as the 2015 Everybody Reads author. This year’s author, Erin Saldin, will present her book “The Girls of No Return” Nov. 10-14 at regional events sponsored by area libraries.
What’s Anthony Doerr reading right now?
“Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures” by Mary Ruefle
if you go
Who: Author Anthony Doerr
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 18
Where: Kenworthy Performing Arts Centre, 508 S. Main St., Moscow
Cost: $8 general admission and $4 students/seniors in advance at BookPeople of Moscow. Doors will open at 7 p.m. and any remaining tickets will be for sale at that time.