A Brief Interview With Anthony Doerr

Brief Interviews is a series in which writers discuss language, literature, and a handful of Proustian personality questions.

Anthony Doerr's short stories have been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. He's a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize. His latest novel, All the Light We Cannot See [Scribner, $27.00], was published this month.

Where do you like to read?
Doctor’s waiting rooms, hotel lobbies, airplanes, trains. On a big blue chair in my office. In tents. Next to tents. At the table during meals, though my wife says that means I’m not paying enough attention to what goes in my mouth.

What did you want to be when you grew up (besides an author)?
A marine biologist who spent weekends returning punts for the Cleveland Browns.

What's the best thing about being a writer?
I get to pursue any subject I’m curious about: whale strandings, seashells, radios, sieges, memory formation, butterfly migration...

What are the most important elements of a good story?
The sentences.

If you could have any 5 dinner guests, dead or alive, fictional or non-, who would they be?
I would definitely invite the Buhl Woman, a young Paleo-Indian woman who lived and died not all that far from my house about 11,000 years ago. I’d want to see how much she knew about what plants to eat in the yard, if she brought any weapons, what she was wearing. Would she have shoes? Would she freak out if I gave her a Dorito? I’d invite the Athenian general Pericles, too, because he could play us a song, settle any disputes, sketch the Parthenon, tell us funny stories that happened during the Peloponnesian War, etc. I’d invite the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu, because he had such a curious, critical mind, and because I’d like to find out if he really did stay in his mother’s womb for 62 years as the myths suggest. We’d need a super-skilled translator to handle those three guests, so that’d be #4. Last but not least, I’d want my wife there, because she is smarter than I am, and because we could recap the dinner together in the backyard while our kids shattered our guests’ minds by showing them the Xbox.

What is your most prized possession?
My camera. It helps me pay attention to the world.

Which books are currently in your to-read pile?
Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey, and Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams.

Do you prefer print or e-books?
I subscribe to the theory that reading a book is similar to walking a trail, and I’m most comfortable walking when I can see where I’m going and where I’ve been. When I’m reading a printed book, the weight of the pages I’ve turned gives me a sense of how far I’ve come. I can easily make scribbles (tracks) of my passage, and the pages I have yet to turn give me a clear sense of how far I have to go.

But when I’m reading long-form prose on a screen, I tend to feel like I’m walking through fog, with no clear guideposts for how far I’ve come or how far I’m going. I often start feel a bit lost, and I wonder if I might not be walking in circles.

So I prefer print. Plus, with a printed book, you don’t get alerts blooming across the page announcing that it’s your turn in Words With Friends.

Do you have a favorite sentence from a book? What is it?
Well, I have lots of favorite sentences, but a line from Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree has stayed with me for the past couple of decades: “Wrap me in the weathers of the earth, I will be hard and hard. My face will turn rain like the stones.” I used to recite this to myself in New Zealand when I’d be backpacking in terrible weather. And I still catch myself murmuring it when I’m far from a road, and the sky is darkening, and I’m getting a bit unnerved. It’s a way of exhorting yourself to be stronger, and Lord knows we all need a reminder once in awhile to be stronger.