The water is crystal-clear this high up in the Idaho mountains. Payette Lake is a glacial wonder that turned the town of McCall into a resort. It’s a place known more for boating that books, but its small public library is thriving. It’s been here almost a half a century, filled with the works of faraway authors – and some local ones, too, including Idaho’s Anthony Doerr.
He used to sneak in here and write back when he and his family would drive up from his home in Boise for vacation, and he could blend in with the tourists. But that all changed in 2015, when Doerr’s anonymity was shattered after winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Meg, one of the librarians, said, “We went to the shelf and got his book, ‘All the Light We Cannot See,’ and looked at the picture, and we were trying to be casual!”
Doerr said, “That’s the only place an author is famous, is in a library!”
“All the Light We Cannot See” is an epic work of historical fiction. It spent almost four years on The New York Times Bestseller List. It sold more than 15 million copies worldwide. Netflix is turning it into a series.
Correspondent Lee Cowan asked, “Was it overwhelming?”
“Utterly overwhelming, yes,” said Doerr. “I still haven’t totally processed, I think, what happened with that novel.”
Doerr had been writing for years – essays, short stories, even a memoir – and all got largely positive reviews, but nothing had that kind of commercial success. In fact, it wasn’t all that long ago, said his wife, Shauna, that “struggling writer” pretty much summed him up: “Tony was writing a lot of different short stories, and he was getting a lot of rejections, and going through this process where, ‘Do you think this is ever going to happen? You know, do you think I’m ever going to be able to do this?'”
The Pulitzer proved he could … but could he do it again? The expectations for his next novel were set pretty high as he sat down to write it, surrounded by boxes of research.
Doerr said, “I remember the day I came home to my family and said, ‘What do you guys think of this ridiculous title?'”
It’s called “Cloud Cuckoo Land” (published by Simon & Schuster, a ViacomCBS company). As the name might imply, you’d be a fool to try and describe it in a single sentence.
It is every bit as expansive as his last novel, even more so, spanning more than 700 years, from 15th century Constantinople through present-day Idaho, and far into the future of the 22nd century.
Doerr said, “I’m gonna try this big book of everything where I try to cram all my interests and passions into this one novel.”
Cowan asked, “Did you ever sit down and think, Why did I do this to myself?“
“Yes, it’s crazy! Almost every day. It’s got 400 almost little chapterettes, little short chapters. I’ve got 105 characters with names in the novel.”
So many, he drew a diagram to help visualize his literary labyrinth.
“I tried, just for my own mind, to braid their intersections all together. Spinning plates on poles. I’m trying to spin all five of these plates in the readers’ mind all the time and keep touching them, so the reader doesn’t forget what’s happening.”
Shauna said, “There were at least five times where he’s like, ‘I can’t do it, and I’m gonna trash it.’ And I said, ‘You can’t! I need to find out what happens! You gotta keep going!'”
Across hundreds of pages, jumping from one century to the next, one character to the next, the novel’s path is intricate, and yet Doerr’s thousands of tiny details are dependable breadcrumbs that keep the reader from being lost.
Doerr said, “I don’t think of myself as all that good, yet. I like to think I’m getting better at my work.”
“Come on, really, though? You gotta think you’re pretty good?”
“No. I genuinely don’t. Language is just this system all the time of failing; you’re almost expressing what you wanna express, but you can’t quite get there. And so, writing itself has this humility built into it, almost, for me.”
Growing up in Cleveland, Doerr started humbling himself with writing at an age when most of us were just starting to read books with more words than pictures: “I had spiral notebooks and I wrote stories into them. And even at a younger age, I would commandeer Mom’s typewriter and type stories about my toys.”
“How old were you when you were writing these little stories?” Cowan asked.
“Probably eight and nine. I remember the power of dialogue, I remember really clearly, like, you can hit quotation marks and then your characters can say swear words and stuff! That seemed really powerful.”
His mom was a science teacher, who went to great lengths to show him the wonders of the natural world, a fascination that has never left him or his writing. “Your problems seem a little less important when you’re in the woods,” he said. “I think we all need that sometimes.”
Much of the setting for “Cloud Cuckoo Land” was inspired by the wild landscapes around McCall – bristling with ponderosa pines that seem as old as time but, as he hints in the novel, are no longer as ageless as we once thought.
He said, “The big headline on climate change is, it’s happening faster than scientists predicted. These are real issues that we are dealing with in our lifetimes. And our kids are really gonna have to deal with. So, I feel like it’s really a novelist’s responsibility. If this is the largest issue of our time, then it would be irresponsible of me not to represent it in the novel in some way.”
It’s not overt – the vanishing of nature is a lot more subtle in his novel than the vanishing of books, his other big worry.
The spine of his tale is an ancient Greek text that somehow manages to survive through the centuries by those who nurture it. Perhaps that’s why Doerr dedicated the novel to librarians everywhere, those he calls the caretakers of human knowledge.
Doerr said, “A library is this series of portals, really. This idea that you could live multiple lives through books is so powerful that, you don’t just have to live through your own experience; you can live through the experiences of others in really intimate and deep ways, by reading.”
On the page he comes off as serious; in person, not so much. He rarely tells people he’s a novelist – it sounds too “high and mighty,” he says, especially to his twin boys about to head off to college.
Cowan asked, “What do your kids think of it all?”
“We don’t talk about all this stuff that much,” he replied.
“Have they read your books?”
“I don’t think so! I want to be the dad that shoots hoops with them after dinner, not the dad who’s like, ‘I have to work on my sentences now!'”
Anthony Doerr is what you’d hope a novelist would be, capable of linking past with future, the mundane with the grand, reminding us all of our very temporary place in a story, we hope, is neverending.
“Our lives are limited,” he said, “but hopefully the species is not. And so that, if we can continue to carry and transmit culture and this place to the next generations, that’s the best we can do.”
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Story produced by Alan Golds. Editor: Ed Givnish.