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On November 17th, Literary Arts will host Anthony Doerr as the second event of our 2022-23 season of Portland Arts & Lectures.
Anthony Doerr is the author of All the Light We Cannot See, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence, the Alex Award, and a Finalist for the National Book Award. The New York Times Book Review has said that Doerr “writes about the big questions, the imponderables, the major metaphysical dreads, and he does it fearlessly.” His 2021 release, Cloud Cuckoo Land, spent nineteen weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and was a finalist for the National Book Award. His other works include the story collections Memory Wall and The Shell Collector; the novel About Grace; and the memoir Four Seasons in Rome. He has won five O. Henry Prizes, the Rome Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award, the National Magazine Award for fiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Story Prize. Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Doerr lives in Boise, Idaho, with his wife and two sons.
How much comfort should we ask for from fiction? What is the role of the unsettling in a novel?
Doerr gives his thoughts on the subject, talks about writing Cloud Cuckoo Land, and more in this interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land takes the reader back to medieval Constantinople, forward to a spaceship in the future, and to a library in present day Idaho. What is it like to braid these different time periods together?
Doerr talks about making connections in his work, the wonder he finds in the surrounding world, and making a novel made up of short chapters in this interview with The New York Times.
Doerr’s love of literature was sparked by his mother, a science teacher, while he was growing up in Cleveland, Ohio. What books inspire him?
He talks about what he read as a child, and what he has been reading more recently, in this interview with The Guardian.
Take a closer look at Doerr’s biography and writing below.
Anthony Doerr was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, where he recalls, “to call yourself a writer would be precocious. Or pretentious.” He credits his mother, a science teacher, with sparking his love of literature by reading books like C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia to him and his brothers. He grew up in a house full of books and remembers that on Wednesdays, he and his brothers were allowed to bring books to the dinner table to read while they ate. When he was eight years old, he wrote his “first book,” about mollusks, with a drawing of a whelk on the cover. Doerr’s mother also instilled in him a lifelong love for the natural world and the physical sciences. She showed him that the arts and sciences are interconnected; he has said, “I always felt it’s artificial that when you’re eighteen years old and go to college, you need to choose between the arts and the sciences. One end of campus is physics and chemistry, and the other end is Wordsworth and Hawthorne. Those are just ways to try to make sense of what it’s like to be on Earth. What’s wrong with being interested in both?”
Doerr attended Bowdoin College in Maine, majoring in history with an emphasis in post-1945 American history and graduating cum laude. He earned his MFA in writing from Bowling Green State University in 1999. He traveled widely as a young man, to New Zealand, Kenya, and the Windward Islands; and he worked on sheep ranches, as a cook in Telluride, and at a fish packing plant in Ketchikan, Alaska. In 2001, The Atlantic published his short story, “The Hunter’s Wife,” and that success led to a book deal with Scribner for his first story collection, The Shell Collector (2002).
Doerr’s curiosity about the natural world and his interest in the interplay between art and science that his mother encouraged in him influence all his work. Once, when discussing Memory Wall, he said, “For me, the natural world is always telling big stories about humongous scales of time. And I often feel simultaneously terrified and humbled by those scales and in awe, and delighted that I get to be here; that I’m lucky enough, that we are lucky enough to get to experience these things for the tiny finger snap of time that we get to be on Earth.”
To date, Doerr has published three novels: About Grace, All the Light We Cannot See, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and Cloud Cuckoo Land, which was a finalist for the 2021 National Book Award and Novel of the Year in the British Book Awards. He is the author of the memoir Four Seasons in Rome, along with the story collections The Shell Collector and Memory Wall, which was the winner of the 2010 Story Prize. He is the recipient of five PEN/O Henry Prizes, four Pushcart Prizes, the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the National Magazine Award for Fiction, an NEA Fellowship, and many other awards and prizes.
All the Light We Cannot See, published in 2014, tells the interconnected story of a blind French girl and a German boy in occupied France. The novel was released to wide critical acclaim, spending more than 200 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and selling more than 5.7 million copies in North America, and an additional 9.5 million worldwide. The book is soon to be adapted into a Netflix limited series.
In 2021, Doerr published Cloud Cuckoo Land, a work that brings together five people across three different time periods, around an Ancient Greek text. Doerr said in one interview that it was an attempt at a “big book of everything, where I try to cram all my interests and passions into this one novel.” In a New York Times review, Marcel Theroux called it “a wildly inventive novel that teems with life, straddles an enormous range of experience and learning, and embodies the storytelling gifts that it celebrates.”
Today, Doerr lives in Boise, Idaho, with his wife and twin sons. “I’m just so interested in why certain things last and what we can do as people to be stewards of—both of human culture and, of course, of the natural world, too,” he has said. “I like to kind of write into what I don’t know. I think it puts you on edge and makes you a little more alert, and you don’t take anything for granted.”
“I believe in awe, and I’m trying to put awe occasionally into my paragraphs, but particularly just in my life.”