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Off the Page: Anthony Doerr

Anthony Doerr
Winner of O'Henry Prizes
Thursday, October 14, 2004; 12:00 PM

Anthony Doerr, whose collection of short stories, The Shell Collector, received a stunning number of awards, will talk about his first novel, About Grace.

Doerr's stories won him two O. Henry Prizes, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the prestigious Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University. The collection was praised for its careful and beautiful writing.

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His novel carries many of the same characteristics, as it tells the story of a man plagued by dreams that come true. When he dreams he fails to rescue his infant daughter, Grace, from drowning, he leaves his wife and child without telling them, hoping to avert the dream.

He was online Thursday, Oct. 14 at 12 p.m. ET to answer questions about his work. A transcript follows.

Host Carole Burns is a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Carole Burns: Hello, and welcome to Off the Page! We are fortunate to have Anthony Doerr with us today, to talk about his new novel, About Grace. And we'll get started!!

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Carole Burns: I'm always interested in what inspires the ideas that become a book, but especially so in this case. Do remember the germ of the idea that became About Grace? Anthony Doerr: I do actually. I do remember, when I started taking notes about what to write I could write about, I was at my parents' house in Cleveland (where I am now! -- it's all full circle) and I had had the book, Snow Crystals, by Wilson Bentley, which Winkler has, with 2500 images of snow crystals. He was one of the first people to put a camera on top of a microscope, and he took pictures of snowflakes for about 50 years. (It's at wilsonbentley.com, if you want to look at it.) OFten, people buy the book for children, just image after image of snowflakes. It's so remarkable. The more I read about how he took these pictures. You have to capture them on a piece of black felt, if it's way too windy all the crystals break anyway, then you have to transfer it to a glass slide. He'd work outside with mittens on, build a little shed to work in, and then the lamp from the microscope had heat, and there'd be that hurdle to overcome as well. So anyway, he never made any money--the book was published after his death, after he died of pneumonia, taking photos. So just that dedication to beauty, to curiosity, to that inquiry, just interested me. I was so interested in that, and I shared that with him--I wanted to give a character that attribute. So in some ways, Winkler started with that.

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Los Angeles, CA: Would you say your book is more about taming fear or testing love?

Anthony Doerr: That's a good question--man! It's about both, but certainly more about taming fear. He has to overcome so much fear. He has this horrible thing happen to him when he's nine years old. He dreams a man's going to get hit by a bus, and then he sees it happen three days later. Almost the entireity of his journey is learning to not be afraid of what is around the corner, and to embrace the future. That's kind of a tidy phrase for hopefully a complicated feeling. I do feel at the end that grace I'm trying to bring him to, is some peace without having to live under this cloud of fear.

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Carole Burns: I just got an email today from a friend who saw the description of your novel, and wrote: I have to know--Does the baby drown? I'm not going to tell! But it prompts me to ask you: When did you know the ending? Anthony Doerr: That's complicated. I was probably two-thirds of the way through the book when I knew, so I knew what would happen to Grace early on, but how to execute the ending, I didn't know until I was closer to it. I feel like if you know the ending before you start--this isn't true for all writers, and it's also encouraging to my students when they hear some of their favorite writers didn't know the ending of their books--... it's easier to surprise yourself and be inventive if you allow yourself to room to do so, if you don't try to execute an outline. But then of course you reach a point where you have to say, I've got to figure out how this book's going to end. Otherwise, you're going to write yourself into so many dead-ends. About two-thirds, I'm going to have him get back to Alaska, and bring Herman back into play. Readers have asked me, Why was Herman so willing to take him on as a friend? Herman had moved on, and Winkler hadn't. Winkler lived kind of outside of time. Herman had stolen his life, but that was 23 years before.

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New York, NY: Do you find writing short stories or novels more fulfilling? I loved both books, but ABOUT GRACE has a richness to it that I think comes through only in novels. Do you feel that way?

Anthony Doerr: I do feel that way, yes. Short stories are wonderful and extremely challenging, and the joy of them, because it only takes me three or four months to write, I can take more risks with them. It's just less of your life invested. That's great. But the challenge of a novel is so rewarding--there's so much more you can cram into them. Maybe the metaphor, with a short story you're buliding a table, you have four legs, you're trying to make it as beautiful but as functional as you can. With a novel, you're building not just a table but a whole house--you're building all the furniture inside it. It's more challenging, and then when you finish, it's more rewarding. I do think it's a richer experience.

It took me about three years to write About Grace. I wasn't teaching two of those years, so I was working eight-hour days, five days a week. And it would include research and reading--it wasn't just a blank page, laying down words. I found my first novel difficult. I don't want to make it sound like it's any more difficult than driving a cab or going to any other job, but there are so many opportunities for self-doubt, that you just kind of need to soldier on. I had a big sign on my desk saying, No Failures of Nerve. It's so easy to get up and go downstairs and check your email. I just wanted to train myself to sit there and just think through the problem. It's really similar to working out. You just have to force yourself to do it, and it feels good when you do it. I've run a few marathons--the same thing as writing a novel, although not quite.

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Carole Burns: You're all of about 30, I believe--is that right?--and yet your books have the maturity of someone much older. Have you written all your life? Can you discuss your development as a writer? Anthony Doerr: Yes, I am 30 -- I turn 31 next week. I guess you could say I've been writing all my life. When I was nine I was writing storires, but you never think you're going to become a writer. I always told my dad I'd play professional football. You don't say, I'm going to be a writer when I grow up--at least I didn't. I guess whatever maturity is there may be there because I've been keeping a journal forever. In high school my friends would make fun of me--you're doing your man diary again. So I was always trying to translate experience into words. But I didn't start writing seriously until I was 22, writing at night after work. It wasn't until I was 26 or 25 when I started sending work out to magazines. I feel like it has gone very fast for me, but I feel like it wasn't instantaneous, at all. I was getting a lot of rejections. I just got very lucky and it happened quickly for me. I don't feel like I'm a prodigy or something.

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Carole Burns: A saying I like is, It takes ten years to make an overnight success. Anthony Doerr: That's a great phrase. My sister-in-law is a painter, and I'll say, how long did it take you to paint that painting. She'll say, It took me maybe three days, but it took me all my life to get the skills to paint that painting.

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Munich, Germany: There are some elements of your book that remind me of the film, "Don't Look Now", a psychic thriller with Donald Sutherland. In the film, there's also a clairvoyant vision of a drowning daughter, but it essentially serves as a prelude to the rest of the story.

Would you consider "About Grace" to be a Psychic Thriller, or any type of thriller for that matter?

Anthony Doerr: I've never seen that movie. I would certainly not be upset, or I would be perfectly content, if someone wanted to call it a thriller, a psychic thriller or any kind of thriller. At the same time, I never set out to write a thriller. In fact, the only bad review I've gotten so far is that the book is too long, and not enough happens in it. Reviewers have said some really nice things, but some are saying it's too long, and I would say that's the opposite of a thriller. I suppose I would not be surprised if someone called it a patient book... I've been on this reading tour and I've seen it shelved on the science fiction shelf, and it surprised me. I'm happy to see it there, especially if it gets me readers I wouldn't necessarily get. But it's not how I conceived of it. But I think those are more marketing terms. I never think of those when I'm trying to create a story.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm interested in how you use the outdoors and science in your fiction. Do you have a background in science? How do you think it informs your fiction?

Anthony Doerr: I don't have a formal background in science--I get asked that question all the time. I studied history and English in college, got a master's in writing, but I was always sort of an autodidact in science. My mom is a science teacher in high school, and one of my brothers works in optics at Bell Labs, and so I was always surrounded by it. Reading, and for example, when we were kids we would go to the beach. My parents would drive us to Florida every spring, in this big old rusy Suburban, and we'd collect stuff on the beach for our aquarium back in Ohio, we had this big saltwater aquarium back in Ohio. Everytime we found anything, any mollusk, my mom would bring out the guidebook and quiz us on what it was, so that stuff was built in early. I never played inside as a kid--even in the rain I'd go out. So I think that's where my attention still goes. I think that's why I love to write about that stuff. For this novel, I did tons of book research, everything from dreams to snow to the Yukon, history of the Grenadie islands, also travel. I had spent time in the Caribbean and in Alaska, but also went back, once the book was in progress. All that research--maybe a third research, a third experience and a third imagination.

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Washington, D.C.: Who are your favorite writers, both contemporary and classic? (I think I always ask this question--but I'm curious!;)

Anthony Doerr: Rick Bass--I always start him. Just the risks he'll take, the way he manages to build narratives around landscape and make them unconventional. I love that. Andrea Barrett. Her book, Ship's Fever, was really important to me when I was learning how to write. I just read a book called Hunger, by Elise Blackwell, it's excellent, about the siege of Leningrad. It's just a slim, beautiful, quick book--I highly recommend it.

The kind of obvious: Fitzgerald and Faulkner, I just devoured everything they wrote for a couple of years. Rachel Carson. Not only Silent Spring but, The Sea Around Us, is an awecome book. Even though she doesn't write narrative, she didn't write novels, her whole legacy that prose can change the world, that prose can affect people, was so powerful to me, and still is.

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Carole Burns: A related question: Are there any writers who are not so well know, whose work you adore? In other words, who are we missing? Anthony Doerr: Elise Blackwell--it's so good. Michael Byers--he has a novel in paperback called Long For This World. What I admire is he's young like me, but there's none of that self-conscious ironic urban fiction. It doesn't have that feel to it. It's fine, I enjoy that kind of work, like Eggers. I just feel that's it's a warmer, but still compelling story. It's less about the writer. Some young writers are writing novels but it's still somehow about themselves.

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Washington, D.C. : Do you believe in MFA programs? And did you go to one?

Anthony Doerr: I did go to an MFA program, at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. For me it worked perfectly. It was a small program, they only take five fiction writers a year, and they fund all of us--you don't go into debt to get an MFA. It's not like getting an MBA--you're not going to buy yourself out. For me it was perfect, because it wasn't a very competitive environment, and it was a studio program. They basically send you off, and say, bring us some work, and we'll help you improve it. It really rewarded self-discipline. So, I guess my answer is way too complicate to say, I believe in them in general. But when they work well, it's two years for someone to really work on their writing. But the problems with them are pretty obvious--people go in thinking they're going to meet an agent and get published instead of taking that time to write. And it is occasionally a refuge for people who don't know else to do with their lives. Every aspiring writer should evaluate that decision for him or herself.

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Carole Burns: I hate to push things, but... what are you working on now? Anthony Doerr: That's fine. I'm working on .. I think it's going to be set in France, in World War II. It's about radios, I think. The Nazis when they went into Paris took over all the radio, from what I understand, but the French Resistance would still, at the risk of their lives, broadcast covertly from apartments, they would hide transmitters in closets. And meanwhile the Nazis would drive around in these vehicles called radio vans, and look for transmissions, they'd try to locate transmission, and they'd break in and arrest everybody, or worse. What I'm trying to learn about it, some people just broadcast music. They just wanted control over what was on their radio. So the whole idea of risking your life to broadcast, you know, Bach, amazes me, that perseverence. So right now I have this character who is blind, and she's broadcasting from her apartment in occupied France. You research forever on World War II, and you have this great procrastination tool and I can just read and pretend I'm working... it'll change so much. My ideas go off at right angles a year after I've been working on them.

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Carole Burns: Thank you so much, Tony! That's all we have time for today. I hope everyone joins us in two weeks, when we have Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novelist, talking about his new book, In the Shadow of No Towers, about 9/11. And remember, you can sign up o get regular emails about upcoming "Off the Page" guests. Email me at offthepage2004@yahoo.com.

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