Peter Wild (PW): I remember reading an interview with Michael Ondaatje years ago in which he was talking about The English Patient and he said that book began (as the book in fact begins) with a lady hanging washing on a washing line. Ondaatje was curious about her and the book grew from there. Where did All the Light We Cannot See start?
Anthony Doerr (AD):One afternoon, ten years ago, I took a train from Princeton, New Jersey into New York City. I had just completed a novel and was searching around for a new idea, and had my notebook in my lap. The man in the seat in front of me was talking to someone on his cell phone about the sequel to The Matrix, I remember that very clearly, and as we pulled into Penn Station, and sixty feet of steel and concrete started flowing above us, his call dropped.
And he got angry! He started swearing, and rapping his phone with his knuckles, and after briefly worrying for my safety, I said to myself: What he’s forgetting, what we’re all forgetting, is that what he was just doing is a miracle. He’s using two little radios– a receiver and a transmitter — crammed into something no bigger than a deck of cards, to send and receive little packets of light between hundreds of radio towers, one after the next, miles apart, each connecting to the next at the speed of light, and he’s using this magic to have a conversation about Keanu Reeves.
Because we’re habitualised to it, we’ve stopped seeing the grandeur of this breath-taking act. The magic of it has bled away. So I decided to try to write something that would help me and my reader feel that power again, to feel the strangeness and sorcery of hearing the voice of a stranger, or a distant loved one, in our heads.
That very afternoon, ten years ago, I wrote a title into my notebook: All the Light We Cannot See. And that night, I started a piece of fiction in which a girl reads a story to a boy over the radio. I conceived of her as blind, and him as trapped in darkness, and the sound of her voice, carried by radio waves – light we cannot see – through walls, as his salvation.
PW: There are a couple of notes in the acknowledgements of All the Light We Cannot See that let the reader know how long this project has been buzzing around in your head.
AD: Yes, yes, the novel took me ten years to complete. A quarter of my life! Whole weeks would go by when I was working on other projects, of course – short stories or magazine pieces – but this novel was always in the background, haunting me. For a full decade I had photos of radios and bombers and Braille novels and Saint-Malo all over my office, and books about WWII stacked a yard high on my nightstand. It is such a pleasure now to give myself permission to read whatever I please.
PW: The flyleaf compares the book to Birdsong and Atonement but I found it had more in common with Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (the book not the musical) – in that it’s epic in scope and his people driven by obsession and people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time and, of course, assiduous historical detail. Was Hugo an influence?
AD: Wow, that’s interesting. Hugo was an influence, but it wasn’t Les Miserables – I read The Toilers of the Sea during final year I was working on the book, and there’s no doubt that Hugo’s love for Brittany, his exuberant detailing, and his attention to the sea impacted my own prose.
PW: Another novel that All the Light We Cannot See reminded me of was Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch – in that, on top of it being epic, you also care a great deal about the characters. One of the truly remarkable things about the book, as with The Goldfinch, is that certain things (the meeting of Werner and Marie-Laure, for instance) feel inexorable and yet when they happen they are anything but predictable. Was the book fully plotted in your head by the time you came to write your first draft or did it evolve as you wrote?
AD: I’m so glad you cared about the characters, and that you felt their intersection looming. My narratives don’t arrive fully-formed to me, not even close. My process involves a lot of trial and error. I write hundreds of paragraphs trying to figure out where the story is going, and I usually end up cutting most of them. I knew early on that I wanted the two narratives to feel like two almost parallel lines that inclined toward each other very gently.
So I suppose I knew early on — and wanted a reader to intuit — that Marie’s and Werner’s lives would intersect, but it took me a long time to figure out exactly how that would happen.
PW: I’d like to go back to that assiduous historical detail for a moment. Reading All the Light We Cannot See and, indeed, your last book, Memory Wall – there are details that leap out and stick in your mind. I’m interested in whether you learn things and retain them to use when necessary or whether you have an inkling of a detail you need and research until you find the right detail for the moment you’re writing.
AD: Both. Sometimes your memory or your imagination supplies details for you – like the wallop of static on an old radio, or the chimes a bunch of metal keys on pegs make as you run your fingers over them. But other times you write a sentence and know that you don’t quite have the image sharp enough in your mind, that you need to start digging around in someone’s memoir, or paging through old photographs, or maybe you even need to travel someplace and see the way light hits a certain wall in the morning, or hear the gulls crying over a beach. Eventually you find it, and plug it, and read it over a few dozen times to make sure it sounds right.
PW: You seem to be drawn to people who are frozen in some way, afraid to find out the answers to the questions they have – Winkler in About Grace springs to mind and, of course, Etienne here. Would you say that there are things about the world, about people, that snag your imagination and recur from book to book?
AD: Yes, that’s probably true. Blindness, for example, is a theme of The Shell Collector and recurs here in the new novel. And orphans, too – Werner is not the first orphan I’ve written about. Indeed I almost titled Memory Wall“Orphans.”
That said, it’s hard to identify why, as any kind of artist, you’re drawn to certain motifs, images, colors, moods – you just are. Sometimes it’s best not to examine those things too closely.
PW: It’s a strange thing but after I finished reading I was a little bereft because I’d been in the world of the novel for a couple of weeks and All the Light We Cannot See is one of those books that you miss reading when you’re not reading it. Was the act of writing the book equally immersive? Did you find yourself disappearing into the book and then emerging after a bout of writing (in much the same way you emerge into the light, blinking and eyesore, after you’ve been to the movies in the afternoon)?
AD: I’m gratified that you found the novel immersive. Yes, on good days, when the writing was going well, the act of imagining myself into my characters’ lives was very engrossing. There were times when I’d be so involved in writing Marie-Laure’s sections that I’d look up and realise several hours had passed – I’d forgotten to each lunch and my leg would be asleep and I’d forget for a moment that I could see.
PW: All the Light We Cannot See is also one of those novels I’ve been going on about to my friends as I read. What books have you felt that way about? What are the books you give as gifts? Any you find yourself giving over and over?
AD: Sure, I feel that way about lots of books. I can vanish into Moby Dick in two or three sentences, chosen at random. I love Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, and I love turning students onto it. Both of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels were deeply immersive for me; I loved being halfway through them, and having them on my nightstand waiting for me at the end of the day. (Or in the middle of the day!)
I’ve given away a lot of David Mitchell, too, usually to young people. Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is another favourite, a book I can read a single paragraph of and disappear into another world.
PW: You’re one of – for me – a handful of writers who are as reliable in the short story form as the novel. Do you switch from one to the other (ie finished a novel, will write a bunch of short stories) or do you have a number of projects on the go at any one time?
AD: I usually have multiple projects unfurling at different speeds. I love writing fiction – I’m only happy when I’m working on something for at least a part of every day – and I often don’t exactly know what form my next piece will take until I’m well into it. I don’t usually sit down and think: Now I’ll write a short story, or a novella, or an essay. It’s more along the lines of: I’ve found this little scrap of ground that I’m interested in, and I want to try digging in it for a while, maybe for a week or two, to get a sense for how much is there, how deeply I can dig, what kinds of human relationships I can find there.
PW: Do you have any idea yet as to what your next project might be? Anything you can share with us?
AD: I’m working on three different projects right now, but they’re all so frail that I’m worried if talk about any of them, they’ll wilt. So I’ll keep nursing them in the dark for a bit longer, until I see which of them can stand up on its own.
Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is published by 4th Estate and should be bought at all good independent book stores.