‘Books are the most amazing technology we’ve built to outlast death’

Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See, talks about winning the Pulitzer, environmental activism and his new book Cloud Cuckoo Land

 Anthony Doerr:  ‘If my books can be a gateway drug to Virginia Woolf, then, you know, okay.’ Photograph: Raphael Gaillarde/ Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Anthony Doerr: ‘If my books can be a gateway drug to Virginia Woolf, then, you know, okay.’ Photograph: Raphael Gaillarde/ Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

 

When Anthony Doerr was writing his last novel, 2014’s Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See, his researches encompassed Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, the immensely long series of coastal defences that German forces built from Scandinavia to Spain by way of the Channel Islands; one of the Nazis’ targets was the pre-war fortifications of the Brittany port of Saint-Malo, where part of the novel is set. But in the way that ideas often beget ideas, Doerr found himself captivated by the history of defensive walls and, in particular, unable to get the thought of Constantinople, with its 1,100-year-old Theodosian walls, out of his mind. He stuck a 15th-century sketch of the city on his study wall to remind him to return to them if ever he finished this novel. And now he has.

“I love to use my work as an excuse to rectify ignorances that I have – and I have millions,” Doerr tells me from his home in Boise, Idaho, when we chat over Zoom. And here was a satisfyingly large blank spot: “When we studied Western history in high school, we’d get to the fall of Rome, and then the teacher would clear his throat, and then we’d get to the Renaissance. And there was like, a thousand years just blipped past.”

The result is Cloud Cuckoo Land, a multilayered story told in at least four different time zones, from Ancient Greece to an interstellar space ship, a novel that boasts not only several protagonists but a book within a book inspired by the fragments of a lost work by the real-life classical writer Antonius Diogenes.

For all its structural and imaginative complexity, Cloud Cuckoo Land’s themes emerge clearly: how do we protect that which is most dear to us? What happens when utopian ideals clash with the juggernaut demands of progress? And how do we begin to find and to tell the stories that we fear have been lost? In the service of these ideas, Doerr presents us with an array of characters that include two children on opposite sides of the walls during the siege of Constantinople in 1453, an octogenarian helping a group of elementary schoolchildren put on a classical play on a winter’s afternoon, a teenage environmentalist with a bomb in his backpack and an enthusiastic young reader confined to the vaults of the Argos in Mission Year 65, bound for planets new.

As in All the Light We Cannot See, children are at the heart of Cloud Cuckoo Land. “I don’t know why, but I keep writing about kids,” Doerr laughs. “My only guess is that I think I’m trying to fight and failing to fight the scales of habit that form over our eyes as we get older and recapture awe, the way it comes to you when you’re young and everything feels new, and the world feels newly laid out for you.”

The novel also engages head-on with some of the contemporary world’s most pressing problems, especially through the figure of the militant activist Seymour, part of whose story was informed by Greta Thunberg.

And perhaps that state of mind relates even more closely to Doerr’s own experiences of the world becoming more complex than he had previously imagined. When he was 12 or 13, his grandmother came to live with his family: “It was the first time I’d heard the word Alzheimers, I think my mom also, maybe the first time she had heard the word Alzheimers. And over the course of the next few months, or maybe 20 months, I watched this disease kind of eat my grandmother’s self. And so I think, as I’ve gotten older, I’m trying to articulate what that experience meant to me.”

Key to that was the realisation that “everything we are depends on us being able to remember. And so I think I just maybe have had a more acute sense of the fragility of all that, the precarity of all of this stuff we do, this culture”.

Cloud Cuckoo Land is dedicated to librarians past, present and future and books, he believes, are “the most amazing technology we’ve built to outlast death”. And yet still, he says, all media fall apart – even the Peruvian knot language built to record taxes and harvests. Part of what fascinated him was what lasts, and the realisation that so little survives of the work of even the most famous names such as Plato, Aeschylus and Sappho: “Just one tiny corner of a tablecloth; the rest of the tablecloth is lost. There’s something really profound about that.”

But the novel also engages head-on with some of the contemporary world’s most pressing problems, especially through the figure of the militant activist Seymour, part of whose story was informed by Greta Thunberg. Doerr says he was especially interested in trying to capture how a younger generation feel about “the immense moral calculus of all these decisions all of us older people are making, and from our use of resources to flying on airplanes, to supporting governments that are spreading misinformation about fossil fuels, or at least allowing it”.

Seymour is prepared to use violence and Doerr explains that at times he felt his character to be braver than him, and that “any sensible person right now would behave with some militancy. If you just believe the statistics about air pollution and what the coming and current air pollution are doing to human lives, you would say, ‘Yeah, is it really that awful to take one or two human lives to save millions upon millions?’ I don’t know. I’m just asking questions about that kind of stuff. I’m probably too much of a coward to act myself to that degree to radically reinvent society. I can see why he might may have made those decisions.”

I ask him whether he believes writers are capable of effecting radical change through their books, and he answers with Tolstoy’s challenge that art should cause violence to be set aside. He doesn’t know whether that’s possible, he adds, but he does believe that art can foster connection, and can allow us to see how things that appear utterly incongruous are in fact inextricably linked. Even the slick and glossy interface of our conversation, he notes, conceals its infrastructure, the humming servers and the energy consumption that make it possible.

I was used to answering every letter I got and going to events where there might be 40 people in some Barnes and Noble somewhere and you just want to hug them all.

“Maybe literature can make a difference in that it helps us exercise our imaginations so that we can continue to look at things that we think aren’t connected and realise that they are.” He pauses. “What do you think? Is that crazy?”

Doerr has weathered the lack of connection that the pandemic has brought by juggling ideas for the next book – “I’m only right now finding about an hour a day to really chase them. But I find that happiness depends on that time” – and focusing on his family. His twin sons, whose early life he wrote about in his award-winning memoir Four Seasons in Rome, are now readying themselves to apply for university. And Doerr himself, a seasoned traveller, is set to leave Idaho and take his book into the wider world.

Winning the Pulitzer was, for a man who never dreamed he could be a writer but found himself drawn to the thrill of creating sentences, “this wonderful moment of joy”. What might he have been if not a writer? He considers for a moment. “Maybe a marine biologist. I just always wanted to be around creatures in the ocean. And that seemed like you could maybe make a paycheck and still be outside, that seemed kind of compelling.”

Instead, he stuck with words. But he found the commercial success of All the Light We Cannot See a touch overwhelming. “I was used to answering every letter I got and going to events where there might be 40 people in some Barnes and Noble somewhere and you just want to hug them all. You’re like, thank you so much for reading my weird stories and buying a book. I love you!” Suddenly, he was addressing ballrooms of 2,000 people who thought he was an expert on second World War radio operations.

“The only way you can truly try to understand it, or be really, truly grateful is to say, if my books can be a gateway drug to Virginia Woolf, then, you know, okay. If they can get a young person to say, this is the first 500-page book I’ve read since Harry Potter and now maybe they’re gonna go try Moby-Dick or something, then that’s amazing. That’s wonderful. If I can just be one little step in a continuum of a lifelong reader, a life of reading and investigating things, that’s a really amazing gift.”

Cloud Cuckoo Land is published by Fourth Estate

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