On Sept. 12, in the hustle and bustle of the University of Michigan Museum of Art Café, I sat down with acclaimed author Anthony Doerr. Doerr, whose novel, “All The Light We Cannot See,” won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is a DeRoy-Graff Memorial Visiting Professor teaching a half-term Honors Seminar at the University of Michigan this fall. I spoke with him to find out more about his course, titled “A World in a Grain of Sand: Examining the Formulaic and the Unfamiliar in Creative Work,” his journey and experience with writing, upcoming projects and more.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Michigan Daily: What brought you to the University? I see you are a DeRoy-Graff Memorial Visiting Professor; how did you find out about this? What made you want to take on the role?
Anthony Doerr: So, (my wife and I) have twin boys. Last year, they left for college in September — we live in Boise, Idaho. Our house was so fun and busy, and their friends would always come over and lots of times, we would be hanging out with the parents of their friends. So, for that first month after they went to school, I had to do a bunch of promotions, I had to go to France a couple of times — but the house just felt so quiet and empty. And I was like, “I think I need some more action; I just need life and youth around me.” So, I think it was probably October when (the University) reached out last year. It just sounded like a cool adventure. It’s just half the term, and I get access to the library — exciting! And I kind of wanted the challenge of designing a new class. I love the idea that I get to work with honors students who are majors, not just in writing, but in molecular biology — I think it’s about half science majors. You know, there is a Spanish major. So, I’m thrilled getting to design a class that’s not just for writers about fiction writing, that’s a great challenge. The whole class is kind of about breaking your habits and recognizing your habits in all kinds of different ways. So, in some ways, this whole adventure is an exercise in that. It’s like getting out of a town that I know really well and learning all the new systems here.
TMD: I was looking at your course description and, like you just said again, it’s on breaking habits. Do you want to expand more on what the class exactly is like? What are you hoping to achieve in it? What is the course covering?
AD: The really clumsy word that I’m using all the time is defamiliarization — you take the familiar, you take things that are the familiar or the habitual. The key is to try to recognize them with things in your life. Or, in your studies, what have you seen so many times you can no longer see them really clearly anymore? And then think, how can you renew and revitalize your sensations of life so that you can see them more clearly? The easiest examples — like the first time you’re in your dorm room versus the thousandth time you’re in there. Everything’s new the first time you show up at University. That’s when things are new and different. Versus today, you probably just walk to the café — you’ve been here before. You know how to do it.
I want my work to feel like you’re not sleepwalking through life or like you’re sleepwalking through sentences. And so I hope (the course) is useful for everybody. You really only get 70 or 80 years on earth, if you’re lucky, and I think it’s really important to make sure you find time in your life to wake up to all these astonishing things that are around you all the time.
TMD: I saw the William Blake quote you had, the one where it was like seeing a world and grain of sand, and it’s just like what you’re saying: recontextualizing the normal. What made you find that quote? Is it what you based the class around, or did you already have the concept for it?
AD: The concept I was thinking about was what I can title it. But of course, I was looking for all kinds of examples like that. Poetry, in particular, is so good at isolating something that we take for granted, something ordinary, and noticing the miraculous inside of it. In the eyes of the poet, nothing is normal — everything is interesting.
TMD: Of course. The class is seminar style, correct? How have you liked the small size for this class?
AD: Thirty-six (students) is enough there. My students have been so awesome because they’re so curious and creative. And they’re almost all willing to speak up. So, I think that’s it. I mean, I think learning is active. Of course, you can learn a lot in a lecture hall. But that’s more the sage on-stage kind of style of learning. I think it’s great when a student’s mind is active, even sometimes, if their bodies are active. Especially over a two-hour class, you can get blood flowing, and you get conversation going. I think they’re learning a little more actively when you’re at risk of being called on, and it is super fun! Like, last week, I had all these electron microscope slides up. I had them guess, because I was playing with scale, if it was a banana, or an ant, or a grain of pollen or a piece of chalk. Under an electron microscope, everything became totally strange and beautiful and weird. Like even a human eyebrow gets crazy and strange. So, it’s super fun to have them guess what everything is. I guess you could execute that in a larger class, but it’s much more fun (in a small seminar).
TMD: That’s great — everyone building off each other. What kind of stuff beyond that have you been doing in the class? Is it mainly writing?
AD: The final project is written, although I’ve told them they don’t have to. I am really interested to see if some will choose art projects or maybe even like some kind of data study. We’re analyzing lots and lots of pieces of writing. For me, the most comfortable place to talk about defamiliarization is when you look at sentences, and you ask what choices the writer is making word-by-word. What is she relying on? Habit? Are we able to predict what words are going to come next in a sequence of words? Do you get pleasure when the word that you don’t expect coming comes? Sometimes for me, the great joy of reading is when you realize the patterns of language are being changed a little bit and are played with, versus familiar expected language. It’s all about how much effort do you want to put into perception? I think that’s true of life itself. I want to make sure I’m paying attention when I’m in the world. I think that’s true in writing and reading, for sure. I’m drawn to writers who are breaking your expectations and resisting your expectations.
TMD: So, how do you try to apply that to your own writings?
AD: I’m sure you do the same thing. Every time you’re writing a sentence, you have to make a number of decisions that are based on habit. So, if you said, “I sat with Anthony outside, and the sun glinted off the table,” you’ll have probably seen “sun and glinted,” paired together a bunch of times before. And it’s up to your brain to decide — do I want to kind of resist that? Do I want to make this sentence maybe a little more interesting but harder to read, by saying “reflected” off the glass? I always think in terms of the huge, large scale of a narrative of a novel, and also at the micro scale of each sentence. What is the reader expecting? How can I either meet or frustrate those expected expectations?
TMD: Applying that to “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” your most recent work, where there are so many different and interconnected storylines, did you sort of develop each story individually, or was it more simultaneous?
AD: No, they kind of grew all at the same time because I’m trying to make them all reflect back and refer to each other in a way so that the central “Cloud Cuckoo Land” myth is somehow, as that unfolds, reflecting back on what’s going on in each of the characters’ lives at the time. It was this huge puzzle. I was trying to mimic the way in science, all these things that we think are unconnected actually are. For example, the Gulf Stream: It is this big current of warm water that flows through the Atlantic and keeps temperatures stable in places like London and Miami. We are just now learning that it’s slowing down, kind of suddenly, and that we think it’s tied to the melting of ice in Greenland. All this freshwater flooding into the ocean is changing densities in the ocean water, and that’s what’s slowing down the Gulf Stream. It’s just one of a trillion examples of how, like the weather in London is connected to the weather in Miami, which is connected to the ice in Greenland, which is connected to us using cars in Detroit and using air conditioners in Ann Arbor.
That’s what I’m trying to do. How are these characters connected? You may start, “I don’t get this, why is he telling these stories,” but hopefully, if you trust the book and keep going, you start to feel these connections between them. And I think that’s kind of what’s ailing us right now is all this polarization in our society. Sometimes we forget there are visible connections between us and people. Loving the neighbor we don’t understand and voting for a candidate we don’t like. It’s also through time. The grandchildren of our grandchildren that we will never meet — we’re connected to them. And our decisions that we make in our lives will affect them.
TMD: You were writing so many different characters, I was curious about the process of writing the voices for each character, and how you maintain your own creative voice in it, but at the same time, take on the different voices of characters? How do you do that? Does this tie in with defamiliarization and having to take yourself out of the picture?
AD: Step out of your own self. For me, research is a big part of it. Before coming to you, I just spent four hours in the library. I was reading journals from the 1700s of French sailors and just started getting into that world. In the class tomorrow, we’ll talk about electricity, and how hard it is to even imagine life before electricity. You have to forget that fire departments didn’t exist, candles were really hard to light, candles weren’t really made of wax — beeswax was really expensive, so you made it from fats. And they smell bad. Lots of times poor folks would eat the candles when they would run out of food. All those things get lost. So I guess, to get to the voice of a character, especially characters from the past, it’s a real exercise of forgetting the things you think. Trying to enter their worldview is like stepping across culture and stepping across time. For me, it’s like you get to live multiple lives.
TMD: You seem pretty inspired by connections, especially our connections to the past and future — how do you come up with a lot of your ideas and develop them? What processes do you go through to know which idea is one that’s worth writing about?
AD: Yes, that’s a great question. I want to make sure I disabuse students, at least in my case, of the notion that like a light bulb lights, and that’s the idea. For me, it’s just work, and trial and error and a lot of grinding. The project doesn’t really move unless you’re working on it.
So often, I don’t know if the idea will take hold until I write for a few days on it, sleep, go back, reread it. You’re like, “Is there energy here? Is this compelling?” It’s almost like defamiliarization because you try to come back as a reader. You think, “What does Randy, who I’ve never met, think of this piece?” When you’re drafting it, you can’t quite get there. So you sleep, read it again with new eyes, and you’re like, “Randy can understand what I’m talking about.” That’s the way to kind of say each step becomes more and more of a gift toward the reader because in the beginning, it’s so writer-based. It’s all only through trial and error. Eight out of ten times, there’s just not that energy there. You’re just like, “This isn’t quite working out.”
TMD: How have you dealt with the rejections and failures that have come with success? How do you keep going forward?
AD: Great question. Important question. I deal with it badly — you think as you get older, you’d be immune to criticism, but your heart always just gets broken a little when people don’t like the things you make. The key is to make sure that you take most of the pleasure in the actual creation of it, and detach yourself as much as you can from how it’s received. It’s a utopia, an impossible utopia, to get to a place where you don’t care. But if you keep reminding yourself that real joy is the creation of solving all the puzzles of making something, you can start to separate yourself from that reaction. Also, the nice thing about books is usually they’ll come out through all the editing, and marketing stuff will come about a year after you finish. So, if I’m into a new project, and reviews are coming up, I could usually say, “I don’t even care about it anymore. It’s an old project.”
TMD: Is there anything you have found to be particularly successful? Or that works for you when you’re writing? What advice would you give to people?
AD: First, my advice would be figure out how you define success — what are you looking for? Do you want to get famous writing poems? Because that’s pretty hard to do. But if you’re in it to play with language, and pay attention to the world, and be curious and be a lifelong learner — it’s a terrific profession. So for me, success is getting to tell stories for as long as I’m alive. My definition of success, in terms of daily work, is asking yourself if you can block out the internet, criticism, your bills and find a place to be joyful and playful and creative every day? And for advice — turn off your phone, and read as much as you can!
TMD: I was hoping we would get to this — on your writing in general, do you have anywhere specific you see yourself going with it right now? Any ongoing projects we can get a taste of?
AD: Yes! Remember I was just telling you about the 1700s? I think it’s gonna be about this arms race to build clocks, and how it was really tied in with colonialism. So, longitude lines, we’ve never really had an accurate way to measure that — until sea clocks. Once springs were invented, and we started making clocks that could tell the time in London and on the ship, and you can measure how far you are from London, that’s basically when the idea of the time zone started. So that was coming around the same time that we were basically violently ripping people out of their homes and moving them across the ocean to grow sugar and cotton and indigo. And so there’s colonialism, clocks, this confluence of new technologies — these kinds of periods really interest me. Like in the 1780s, the French Revolution was coming, and there’s something about that, and the idea of this hyper-attention to precision on clocks. The arms race people were talking about in the French court, they were annoyed that people kept pulling clocks out of their pockets. They said, “people swear by these devices.” Now it’s the same world, but like 200 years later. They were also complaining about how rich some people are getting, and there was a huge, angry population of poor people. So you see some of that in the disparity of wealth inequality right now, too. So yeah, I’m just playing around with those ideas.
Daily Arts Writer Kathryn Hemmila can be reached at email@example.com.