An Interview with Anthony Doerr

  • By Joye Shepperd
  • June 25, 2014

Just when you think you’ve read enough war stories, a brilliant new tale comes along…

An Interview with Anthony Doerr

Marie-Laure, a blind young French girl, lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History where he works as the master locksmith. Werner, an orphaned German boy in a small mining town, tries to raise himself and his sister, along with Frau Elena, an Alsatian nun who sings them to sleep. Their lives are quiet and peaceful until the Nazis come, chasing Werner into a Hitler Youth academy and Marie-Laure out of Paris. As the German occupation takes hold, snatching the livelihoods of whole villages and spreading fear into the countryside, Werner and Marie-Laure eventually collide in tiny seaside Saint-Malo, France. Here, bestselling author Anthony Doerr discusses these and other characters from his latest critically acclaimed novel, All the Light We Cannot See.

I have to admit from the very start that this reader fell in love with Werner. His may be the most excruciating story because someone did recognize his superiority even if it mattered little in the end. Do you think Werner is a universal character? Do you believe there are thwarted geniuses all over the world? 

There are millions of children in the world right now whose promise won’t be realized because of economic, political, or religious reasons. I think of those 300 girls in Nigeria abducted [in early May]. As for whether Werner is a universal character, I feel like the path to the universal is through the individual. I tried to invest lots and lots of imaginative time in Werner’s individual, particular experience; I tried to suggest that there is no normal, universal character from World War II — that every existence warrants attention, no matter how humble, if the attention is paid carefully enough.

Does Germany win the prize for causing humans to disregard their own humanity? Is it a default characteristic of human beings that fear is so malleable and yet, so crippling?

I’m not so sure my own fears are so malleable; I wish I were in more control of them! But they certainly can be crippling, yes.

What made you decide not to tell the story chronologically?

WWII is something contemporary readers already know a lot about. If our schools are doing their jobs, they know about the invasion of Normandy, the Hitler Youth, the Holocaust, and some of the horrors of the Eastern Front. So most readers already feel and intuit what’s coming in this novel, at least in terms of the larger historical movement. They know the Germans will be driven out of Saint-Malo eventually, and they’ll presume (correctly) that it will cost a lot of human lives to do so.I wanted to acknowledge that foreknowledge as soon as the book started. So I begin the story in 1944, before backtracking into Werner’s and Marie’s childhoods, in order to say to a reader: we all know what’s coming. In a sense I tried to hang those American bombs, suspended, over the next three or four hundred pages of narrative.

Seems like a mine is as bad as a war for swallowing fathers?

Sure. The mine eats Werner’s father and the war eats Marie-Laure’s.

You transcribe many passages from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in the course of the story. The sea has always held a fascination for mankind. But maybe the sea has also given man a false sense of the world. The sea seems to figure into the human psyche as the great tide that can wash away all of man’s destruction, inhumanity. The sea is the great redeemer. But in this capacity, is the sea still large enough?

I love [the] notion that the sea was a refuge for Marie-Laure; this was a place she could leave the war for a while, and transport herself somewhere else, in much the way 20,000 Leagues also served as a refuge. Maybe the sea is still large enough as a metaphor. But I’m not sure the sea functions as the great redeemer in Verne’s novel, nor does it in mine. It is a sanctuary for Marie-Laure, a place where she can find solace and exercise her curiosity. For Werner, it exists as a different kind a metaphor: It’s the great mystery at the end of his journey, the last insuperable barrier.

Marie-Laure and Etienne “ride spirals of memory together.” Seems like the radio would be a particularly good device for riding spirals of memory. What do you think humanity lost, now that hardly anyone sits around and listens to radios together? [I listen to the radio every day in my car. But I actually meant the act of gathering around this sound and imagining together.]

You mean listening as a communal activity? I suppose my family and I still do it once in a while, on long road trips, when we listen to a book or a podcast. And of course lots of people still listen to radios and audiobooks and use their imaginations to put images to words, though I agree that this is primarily a solitary experience now. So maybe we have lost something — we certainly take the miracle of electromagnetic communication for granted. One of my agendas in the novel was to focus some attention on all the light we cannot see, to remind readers of the sorcery and magic of using invisible light to transmit messages, to say to a reader: that cell phone you’re using to check your email, that little receiver and transmitter in your hand — that thing is an amazement.

“Live before you die.” Madame Manec had enough courage to spare for everyone in this story. Maybe the saying should be “live after I die” which always seems to be the case. We all know that life is finite but why is it that loss is such a great catalyst?

Why is loss such a great catalyst? I think of Emily Dickinson — “That it will never come again/Is what makes life so sweet.” It’s when we’re hit with a reminder of the finite-ness of life that we usually spring into action. I think Werner would probably see Jutta’s life as a truer and purer life than his, a life to be proud of.

“Sad sinister Ukrainian static.” Even in a field of sunflowers, the Ukrainian static is sad. Is static the voice of incomprehension? 

In this novel, yes. Probably. I use static a lot in the book as a way to suggest that humans aren’t connecting, aren’t communicating effectively. Static is a barrier against meaning. Hopefully, when a voice does eventually emerge from the static, it takes on a sharper feel; it suggests that maybe a connection can be made after all.

Werner asks, “Why make music?” Can you answer his question?

He comes to an answer almost immediately after having that moment of despair, when he sees the little girl on the swing in Vienna, singing in her high voice. She’s why we make music, she’s the candle flame burning in the darkness.

You do an amazing job of describing her life and her father’s toys and tests and how he subtly teaches her, and on page 390, it is directly to the reader from Marie-Laure. She hears her world for us.  

Oh! I felt as if I was trying to describe her blindness all along! The questions other French children ask her about darkness, about whether she closes her eyes to sleep, And the passages about how she “sees” and experiences color, how famous scientists find her lost in the museum and escort her back to the key pound on their elbows, as well as all the frustrating exercises with her father trying to find her way home through her neighborhood streets — those all occur fairly early in the novel, and were my attempts to demonstrate how she experiences the world as a sightless person.

Werner describes his “ambition and shame becoming one and the same.” Could this be true far more often than we think? Why?

Maybe. If we work toward some goal so fiercely that we forget to be good to people along the way, then our ambition and our shame become inextricably linked.

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