Anthony Doerr: “Rather than writing what I know, I write what I want to know” | Anthony doerr

AAnthony Doerr, 47, is the author of six books, including All the light that we can’t see, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2015. The story of a blind Frenchwoman and an orphaned German boy during the Second World War, this is the best-selling title in the history of its British publisher , Fourth Estate, home of Jonathan Franzen. and Hilary Mantel. His new novel, Cuckoo Earth Cloud, spans medieval Constantinople, a 22nd century spaceship and public library under siege by a teenage environmentalist in America today. Doerr, who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, spoke to me from his home in Boise, Idaho.

you described Cuckoo Earth Cloud as a “literary-science-fiction-mystery-young-adult-historical-morality novel”. Where did it start?
When I got a scholarship at the American Academy in Rome [in 2004], it was the first time that I had met classical scholars, who taught me how few ancient texts actually survive. I guess I always had the terror of erasure, when I was 12 or 13 watching Alzheimer’s disease devour my grandmother’s sense of self, and I found myself wanting to tell a story. story about the beauty of how culture endures. I had researched the history of defensive walls to write All the light that we can’t see, especially Hitler’s Trump-like dream of a wall from Sweden to Portugal, and everything I read mentions Constantinople, whose walls have withstood 23 sieges over 1,100 years. Was I like, Constantinople? We didn’t learn it for a second at school. But rather than write down what I know, I write down what I want to know, that’s how those walls protected the Byzantine book culture.

The novel takes place in part on February 20, 2020. Did the pandemic end up worrying you too?
For sure. I sent the book to my publisher on March 31 of last year, but I had tried to imagine what kind of future I might present to the reader and knew pandemics could be part of it. In 2016, I read David Quammen’s book Overflow, which explained that the more we encroach on natural habitats, the more likely it is that animal viruses will enter the human population. I had also read how, in 1453, so many people inside the walls of Constantinople truly believed it was the end of the world, an idea that has always interested me. book, American culture fed these dystopian tales to my twin sons, aged 10 to 17; every time I went down there was an Earth exploding on TV or a city disintegrating as Iron Man circled around it. I thought, what does this do to us? Why are we so obsessed with the end of things? And can I counter this even if I play with it?

A common thread involves an elderly war veteran trying to protect the children of Seymour, a young backpack bomber radicalized by climate change …
Environmentalists ask, what kind of ancestor am I? My wife’s father, for example, is an incredibly good person in every definition. I don’t think he lied in his whole life. He’s so kind and so morally sound, and yet in business he flew on planes all the time. How will our great-grandchildren measure good behavior? Maybe it’s just the number of resources we’ve used. I am still a meat eater. I try to eat a lot, a lot less, but maybe that is the only thing that will judge me badly – like, it doesn’t matter if you went to an Earth Day walk, because when you drove there, you drank from a plastic water bottle, you know? Seymour’s sensitivity makes him, I think, a new kind of hero, but I understand that his behavior turns off a lot of readers because he’s violent.

Imaginative storytelling is sometimes described as outdated or even ethically suspect amid rising self-fiction and concerns about cultural appropriation. Do you feel like you are defending its virtues?
I don’t live in New York; I live in Idaho, where a lot of us are really brilliant readers and people, but just aren’t in the literary fashion and so don’t deal with those anxieties. I took up reading to leave my own life – not to escape my own being, but to multiply it by exploring other experiences. That’s not to say that I don’t like a writer like Rachel Cusk, who is so exciting and good with sentences and comparisons, but in my own work I am drawn to experiences that are different from mine, and how I do. can do the same. learn as much as possible about them.

How involved are you in the upcoming Netflix adaptation of All the light that we can’t see?
Steven knight [of Peaky Blinders] writing; although I like to read drafts, I am not interested in writing something that I have already written. It’s fun to listen to, but it’s a reminder that as prose writers our materials are so democratic. Not once while writing All the light did I think about how much it costs to blow up a building; my budget was just the cost of a sandwich every day.

Listen to an excerpt from Anthony Cummins' new novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land - audio
Listen to an excerpt from Anthony Cummins’ new novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land – audio

What have you read lately?
that of Oliver Burkeman Four thousand weeks. It reframes our limited time on Earth: accept that you’ll never get everything you want to do, and maybe you’ll be more comfortable with death, something I’m still struggling with. And Sweetgrass braiding, these fantastic plant essays from Robin Wall Kimmerer, a scientist from the Potawatomi Nation. She approaches the subject from native wisdom as well as the latest science – it’s fascinating, and such a balm before bed.

What did you read as a child?

I have two older brothers and my mother read all of the Narnia books to us. I would ask, how did they do this? And she would say, he’s just a person, and he’s dead. I was like what? So I remember facing mortality in a way, at eight years old, when my mother was reading us Chronicles of Narnia, and I was thinking, wow, by participating in this thing called language, you can build another world that outlives you.

Cuckoo Earth Cloud is published by Fourth Estate (£ 20) on September 28. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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