Only through the smallest details, through the sights and smells and sounds of one person’s moment-by-moment experience, can a writer convey the immensity that is a human life

Interview of Anthony Doerr by Lara Touitou (June 10, 2015)

Anthony Doerr is the author of two short story collections and two novels. His latest novel All The Light We Cannot See won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He lives in Idaho.

From the second quote in the epigraph until the end of the novel, one of the main themes tackled is radio transmission and the way in which it is being used—and also by what kind of people it is being used. It echoed a recurrent duality in the novel, in which some things or concepts could serve two very different, if not opposite purposes. Nothing is ever as it seems: do you think it applies to the novel? 

Yes, very much so. Werner’s engineering skills, for example, might be considered something very praiseworthy now, but during the novel they are used to a terrible purpose. The same was true, of course, for the physicists who invented the hydrogen bomb—they were unlocking the mysteries of the building blocks of all creation, but they were also unleashing an incomprehensibly destructive force. Your question makes me think, too, about all the different purposes the Internet serves right now. The extremists we’re currently calling ISIS upload acts of horrifying violence to YouTube to wage psychological terror; governments and corporations use metadata from social media to monitor the behavior of their citizens. And yet, at the same time, the Internet can be an incredible tool for democracy and education. Someone in rural France can use the Internet to teach herself to speak Mandarin, or repair a car, or read ancient Greek. These sorts of conundrums fascinate me.
I am not sure if I counted right, but the word “war” appears less than thirty times throughout the course of the novel. Was it a conscious choice from the very start of the writing process to put this specific word aside, all the while Marie-Laure and Werner’s fates are shaped by the circumstances of history?
That’s interesting. No, that was not a conscious choice, but I was acutely aware that there was a lot of writing about WWII already out there—much of it breathtakingly good, and written by people for whom the war was memory. So for most of the 10 years I worked on All the Light We Cannot See, I was terrified that I’d settle into a pattern of narrative that had lost some of its power because it had been already done.

One strategy I tried was to mimic the language of fairy tale and allegory: the boy, the girl, the ogre, the cursed gemstone, the imaginary citadel. And another was to try to balance that sense of otherworldliness against a hyper-realism; to detail everything as carefully as I could. I thought maybe the juxtaposition of those two techniques might help the novel feel different, in the way a Borges or a Calvino story always feels different, even when they’re describing our world. Sometimes the best way to show a reader something is not to name it at all.

Could you tell us a few words about why you chose Saint-Malo as one of the main settings of the novel?

I first saw the city while on book tour in France in 2006. After a long dinner, I went for a stroll on top of the ramparts after dark, peering into the third floor windows of houses, the sea glimmering to my right, the city glowing on my left. It was deeply captivating: a place that seemed part fairy tale castle, part Escher drawing, part mist and ocean wind and lamplight. I felt as if I was walking in through an imaginary city from Calvino’s Invisible Cities. I had started a story about a girl who loved the sea, and a boy who loved radios, and as soon as I learned more about the city’s ordeal during WWII, I knew I wanted to try to set that piece of fiction there.
How did Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea find its way in the novel? How meaningful was it for you to have Marie-Laure read this book in particular? 

20,000 Leagues was a childhood favorite of my own. Verne’s novel is about wonder and technology, and he uses narrative to amplify a reader’s interest in the natural world. This is so similar to the kind of projects I try to make with my own fiction, that – one day, when I started re-reading it – I decided Verne’s text might serve as an effective book-within-a-book, and might be the right text to have Marie-Laure broadcast over her radio. To me, Marie-Laure’s most salient characteristic is her curiosity—she is a learner first and foremost. So giving her Verne, whose books celebrate the quest for knowledge, seemed like a good fit.
All The Light We Cannot See is a novel intrinsically linked to the five senses. Do you feel it is inseparable from your writing?

Yes. If a writer’s goal is to transport a reader into another human being’s life, the most important tool we have is detail. The American writer John Gardner called it “the moment-by-moment authenticating accumulation of detail.” How do you keep your reader in the dream of the fiction—how do you make your reader forget that he or she is reading sentences on a page? It’s through sensory detail, the smells of mango trees, the feel of sand beneath your heels, the clacking of scorpions as they skitter up out of the drain in the bathtub.

As I wrote All the Light We Cannot See, I kept telling myself the old humanist dictum: that the path to the universal runs through the individual. If you want to understand the larger movements of history, you read the diaries of (so-called) ordinary children like Anne Frank of Petr Ginz. The glory and genius of The Diary of Anne Frank, for example, is in the ordinary, quotidian day-to-day detailing of her writing: the things they ate, the jokes they told. The horror comes through because of the mundanity. The lessons of that little diary have stayed with me: first, that through books, the memories of the dead can live; and second, that only through the smallest details, through the sights and smells and sounds of one person’s moment-by-moment experience, can a writer convey the immensity that is a human life.

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