A Q&A with Anthony Doerr
Amazon.com: The title story in your collection grew out of an assignment from McSweeney's to "travel somewhere in the world and imagine life there in 2024" (as part of this special issue). I loved how your story dealt with the near future, with just a few small but fantastic details that seem like they could something of our time. How did you like writing fiction to an assignment like that?
Doerr: I loved it. It gave me permission to take a risk I had wanted to take, but worried I couldn’t pull off: namely, the idea that someone's memories could someday be harvested, stored, and traded. A couple of years ago, I reviewed a book for the Boston Globe called What We Believe but Cannot Prove in which a neuroscientist named Terrence Sejnowski speculates that someday soon we might be able to locate specific memories in the "extracellular machinery" of our heads and stain them. I had been fascinated by that idea for months, primarily because it reminded me of hunting fossils: looking for one record in a world that generally does not allow such records. I had simultaneously been writing some (lousy) essays about my own memories of my grandmother's descent into dementia. It wasn't until McSweeney's came calling that I gave myself permission to try to braid together a story all these enthusiasms: Alzheimer's and grandma and fossils and South Africa.
Amazon.com: South Africa isn't the only far-flung place you write about in this book, much like your previous collection, The Shell Collector: you also set stories in China, Korea, Germany, and Estonia (and, yes, Wyoming). Do you always have to visit a place to imagine a story there, and to imagine the memories its inhabitants might hold?
Doerr: Not always. Sometimes a place can be so real, so brimming-over with color and noise and detail, that trying to figure out which details to select for a piece of fiction can be overwhelming. Ultimately I'm trying to write stories inside which a reader is transported; I want readers to have an experience that allows them to enter the time and place and life of someone else. And I want that experience of empathy to be continuous; I don't want the dream of the fiction to be broken by any carelessness on my part. That's the most I can hope for: that a reader might leave his or her world for an hour or two and enter the world of one of my characters. And if a reader is going to be nice enough to read one of my stories, it's up to me to make that world as convincing and seamless as possible. So, certainly, travel can help bring a place to life: its smells, its skies, its birds, its light. In the best case scenario, I start a story set somewhere I have visited previously, and then, once the story is mostly drafted, I return to the place to harvest whatever last details I can find.
Amazon.com: Many of your stories are about very private and personal experiences of some of our most public and collective dramas: the Holocaust, the aftermath of apartheid, the flooding of the Yangtze. Is that gap between public and private memory one of the engines for your fiction?
Doerr: Yes, yes, yes. We tend to believe history is about collective memory, about voiceovers and textbooks and pop quizzes, but for me history is about individuals. The glory and genius of The Diary of Anne Frank, for example, is in the ordinary, quotidian day-to-day detailing of the writing: the things they eat, the jokes they tell. The horror comes through because of the mundanity. I read that book when I was fourteen, the same age as Anne, and the lessons of that little diary have stayed with me: first, that through books, the memories of the dead can live; and second, that the path to the universal is through the individual. Only through the smallest details, through the sights and smells and sounds of one person's moment-by-moment experience, can a writer convey the immensity that is a human life.
Amazon.com: Publishers don't quite know what to do with novellas, but many of my very favorite stories fall into that in-between length. What do you like about working within its boundaries? Are there novellas you love? Perhaps the great novella of the English language, Joyce's "The Dead," is also one of the great memory tales. Is there something about that size that suits storytelling about memory?
Doerr: I love long stories and novellas. They can manage to be bigger than slice-of-life short stories, stories that compress or truncate lives as so many contemporary short stories tend to. In a novella you can work with bigger scales, with a character's birth and death, and with his or her memories. And, yet, because of their relative brevity, because a reader can read a novella in a single day, on a single airplane flight, they can often be more intense, more involving, and more shattering than novels.
That said, you’re right, writing them can be scary, because only a very brave publisher is going to produce a book that's less than 150 pages long, and only a very brave magazine is going to run a story longer than 30 pages. So as a writer you feel yourself plunge off a small cliff when you hit about 10,000 words and realize you have 10,000 to go.
At first you might be scared, anyway, but soon afterward there's a certain release. You think: This thing I'm making is not going to sell for a pile of money, this is not my Big Novel; it's just a novella, and I'm going to take whatever risks I want to with it.
I'm actually very interested in how e-readers like the Kindle are going to change the way writers work and readers read. Theoretically, it could be much easier for a publishing house to take a chance on a novella if they don't have to pay for the production costs. Who knows, maybe short stories and novellas are tailor-made for the electronic medium?
Novellas I love? My absolute favorite is Katherine Anne Porter's "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" (though, interestingly, in her introduction to her collected stories, Porter insists that "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" be called a "long story"). And of course Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych, which everyone should read once every ten years. And of course, "The Dead", as you mentioned. As for living writers, I love Andrea Barrett's "Ship Fever" and "Servants of the Map" and a little known one by Denis Johnson called "Train Dreams" that I encountered in the 2003 O. Henry Prize Stories.