This week’s interview is with Anthony Doerr, whose new book Memory Wall arrives in bookstores on July 13. The book has been named one of Amazon.com's Best Books of the Month for July. It is already garnering substantial critical buzz.
Memory Wall is Doerr’s fourth book; the others are The Shell Collector, About Grace, and Four Seasons in Rome. He’s won many awards for his writing, so many that I am going to just blatantly lift this paragraph from his website:
Doerr’s short fiction has won three O. Henry Prizes and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, and The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Fiction. He has won the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, the Rome Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, the National Magazine Award for Fiction, and the Ohioana Book Award twice. His books have been a New York Times Notable Book, an American Library Association Book of the Year, a ‘Book of the Year’ in the Washington Post, and a finalist for the PEN USA fiction award. In 2007, the British literary magazine Granta placed Doerr on its list of 21 Best Young American novelists.
Doerr lives in Boise, Idaho with his wife and two sons. He currently teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College. His book reviews have appeared in the New York Times and Der Spiegel, and he writes a regular column on science books for the Boston Globe. From 2007 to 2010, he will be the Writer-in-Residence for the State of Idaho. Fancy proclamation here.
One of the things that impresses me about Doerr’s writing is that he is a master of so many genres: short story, novel, essay, memoir, book review. As you could imagine, I was very happy when he agreed to the interview. And even happier when I read that the quirky part of his writing process is that he wears “chainsaw ear protection muffs” when he writes. As we would expect from a great writer, even his answers employ great metaphors.
Talk about your invention process. What do you do to come up with ideas? What about your revision process?
Practically, writing doesn’t really break out for me in terms of invention, composition, and revision. I often sit down with only the ghost of an idea, a few things I’m interested in, and from that point I am always revising, eternally revising. I suppose once I’ve finished something there must be a first draft in there, engraved invisibly beneath all the revisions, but really the first draft is just a single sentence I’ve written down and immediately begun altering. Before adding a second sentence, I’m already revising the first one.
Do you have a regular routine? As a professional writer, do you set goals each day for how much you are going to write?
Yep: when I’m working on fiction, I try to write in the mornings, when my brain is fairly clean and untrammeled by all the email and news of the day. Get up with the kids, set them up with a waffle or something, then tag out with my wife and start working. My brain is too tired in the evenings.
And I only drink caffeine when I’m working; I try to save its power, because it is an incredibly useful drug. I try to get into some caffeine, read through everything I’ve written so far on a project, if that’s possible, and then start trying to make it fuller, better, richer, etc...
Are there any quirky parts of your writing process that help you write?
I wear a pair of chainsaw ear protection muffs when I write. Is that quirky? I’m so used to them I forget how ridiculous I look if I get up with them and go to the restroom in our building with them on.
My office isn’t particularly noisy or anything, but when I clamp those big muffs on, for some reason I give myself permission to concentrate. Sometimes I’ve got them on for six or seven hour stints and when I take them off I feel kind of dizzy and the world seems too loud.
What do you do when you get writer's block? What advice would you give people who have it?
I'm not sure I believe in writer's block. I believe in failures of courage. I have plenty of them everyday. (I'm having one right now, for example, answering interview questions, rather than writing fiction). It's always easier to answer email or fold laundry or pull weeds or lie face down on the floor than it is to confront the problems in whatever piece of writing you're working on. So it's not necessarily that I get blocked as much as I get too afraid of facing whatever dead-end I've written myself into. Sometimes the courage isn't there, and that's okay, but you can't let yourself have too many failures because then a piece of writing tends to freeze over, like a big lake, and then you'll need even more energy just to chop through the ice and get back to where you started.
You work among several genres: short stories, novels, essays, memoirs, even book reviews. What kind of awareness of a genre do you have when you are writing in that particular genre?
Fiction is what makes me happiest: it's the most intellectually challenging, and the most involving. For me, newspaper pieces, book reviews, and short essays are all a nice relief. They give you a contained space in which to explore a prescribed subject. Writing a novel or a story collection is like transporting fifty gallons of pancake batter from one corner of a warehouse to another using only your hands. It's messy, it's overwhelming; you can only manage it when you break it over a huge number of steps. But writing a 750-word piece for a newspaper is manageable; you can read through everything you've written so far in ten minutes; you're just making a single pancake, and you want the pancake to look good and taste good. But in the end someone is going to eat the pancake and move on; it's not your life's work.
You've lived in several places. How does your environment affect your writing process?
I think movement is a kind of narrative I’m preoccupied with. I like stories that establish two places and string a character out between them, stories in which places and times serve as poles and characters serve as vehicles shuttling between them. Huck Finn, Madame Bovary, Disgrace, etc. All of my favorite stories, I think, involve some kind of duality—that’s where tension comes from, and conflict. A character is in Alaska but in love with a woman in the Caribbean. A character is trapped somehow, and works to free him or herself. So these are the kinds of stories I try to write. And environment is a huge part of that. Storytelling itself is, maybe, the act of moving from one place to another, or leaving one place and returning to it once more, but changed somehow.
That said, any place in its full-throated reality incessantly bombards you with so many details that you tend to get overwhelmed when you’re trying to write about it. I especially think of Manhattan like that; you see enough on one city block to fill a thousand page novel so how are you supposed to whittle that down into a couple of paragraphs?
That problem is present with every city: Nairobi, London, Rome. Your filter has to be extremely fine, always discarding sensory input, or you’d never make it through a day. So I agree with Hemingway, et. al, the writers who say it’s easier to write about a place once you have some distance from it.
For example, I didn’t write “The Shell Collector” in Kenya, or “The Caretaker” in Liberia and Oregon. But as I wrote those stories, as I write any piece of fiction, I look back through my journals, which were written while I was in the grips of a place, and all its whirling details. That’s my raw material. Then I quarantine myself in some quiet place, a library or my office, and I’ll look at photos, or Web sites, or travel brochures, or naturalists’ accounts, or whatever else I can use to help me evoke the setting.
In the end, the environments of my work are products of memory and research, buttressed by imagination, and tinted by the psyche of the point-of-view character. They are places you could find in an atlas, true, but they are as much products of imagination as anything else.
Boy, that’s a long answer. Maybe the simplest answer is to say that I love to travel; I get stir crazy if I’m in one place for very long. And, more importantly, travel helps break up the habitual screen that tends to grow over one’s eyes; leave home and get somewhere you’ve never been before and soon both the familiar places and the unfamiliar ones look somehow new to your eyes.
If you could construct your perfect writing environment, what would it be?
I think I may already have it: a little, two-windowed office about two miles from my house. I can ride my bike there, and once in it, I’m surrounded by lots of books. I suppose I wish it were on a cliff above the ocean or something, rather than a block from a supermarket, but I’m not one to complain.
Is exercise a part of your writing process? If so, do you find that it makes you more creative or helps in your invention stage?
Yes. Exercise tends to rinse my brain of lots of detritus. Walking, in particular, helps me sort through problems in my work.
What are the two or three most valuable practical editing/revising tips you would give writers?
Work harder than everybody else. Test every word, every sentence, and cut anything you think isn’t absolutely necessary. And be generous. In Rome a few years ago, in a little library inside the Villa Farnese, I got to hold a couple Dürer etchings and look at them with a magnifying glass. It’s not his confidence or his choice of subject that appeals to me as much as his breathtaking level of hyper-precision. I mean, there’s a tiny billy goat in the upper right hand corner of “Adam and Eve”, peering off a cliff, no bigger than the nail of your pinkie finger, and you look at that goat with a loupe and realize Dürer has etched fur into its coat, cracks into its horns. And he’s doing this in 1504, with handmade tools and no electrical lights. That’s what I mean by generosity.
For people who want to write clear, direct prose, what authors would you recommend they read?
Clear and direct prose.? J.M. Coetzee comes to mind. He writes books full of sparkling, straightforward, crystalline sentences. And E.B. White. But, really, why write clear, direct prose? If you want to write fiction, write lavish, spiraling, strange prose: write prose that shows people the world in a way they’ve never seen it before.
For some people, writing on deadline can be stressful. The more they think about the deadline, the less they are able to write. Any advice you can give?
All I can say is that I can relate. Here’s Poe from “The Imp Of The Perverse”--he says it better than I can. “We have a task before us which must be speedily performed. We know that it will be ruinous to make delay. The most important crisis of our life calls, trumpet-tongued, for immediate energy and action. We glow, we are consumed with eagerness to commence the work, with the anticipation of whose glorious result our whole souls are on fire. It must, it shall be undertaken to-day, and yet we put it off until to-morrow; and why? There is no answer, except that we feel perverse, using the word with no comprehension of the principle. To-morrow arrives, and with it a more impatient anxiety to do our duty, but with this very increase of anxiety arrives, also, a nameless, a positively fearful, because unfathomable, craving for delay. This craving gathers strength as the moments fly. The last hour for action is at hand. We tremble with the violence of the conflict within us, – of the definite with the indefinite – of the substance with the shadow. But, if the contest has proceeded thus far, it is the shadow which prevails, – we struggle in vain. The clock strikes, and is the knell of our welfare. At the same time, it is the chanticleer-note to the ghost that has so long over-awed us. It flies – it disappears – we are free. The old energy returns. We will labour now. Alas, it is too late!” (link here: http://www.kingkong.demon.co.uk/gsr/impperve.htm)