Daily Bytes

Author Anthony Doerr: The Inverted Interview

Doerr and Book CoverIn celebration of the 6-week-long Utah Humanities Book Festival, 15 Bytes is featuring novelist Anthony Doerr who arrives in Utah September 23 for three days to read and discuss his latest work, the novel All The Light We Cannot See (Scribner, 2014). Everyone wants to know what an author thinks about his / her work, but what about readers? What do they think?  Should anyone care?

In an unprecedented move, 15 Bytes has asked the author to do the interviewing this time…that’s right,  interview his readers about his lyrical book of largely short chapters that the New York Times has called “surprisingly fresh and enveloping.”  This is a book about two young people, each caught on one side of WWII in Europe and the magic of radio–magic that most of us in this cell-phone-raged age have entirely forgotten, but that was more than magical during World War II. Radio was, perhaps, a key to how the war could be won.

What can we learn from this experiment of an inverted interview? Well, for starters, we are reminded that it takes two–author and reader–to tango, especially in a tale this sprawling and complex, nuanced but historical and, of course, freighted with the myths and immensity of a war that most Americans consider to be “the good” one.

It’s also an opportunity, in the spirit of the Utah Humanities Council, which is bringing Doerr to the Beehive State, to empower the reader.

We’ve tapped the King’s English Bookshop Book Club, directed by employee Margaret Brennan Neville, to answer the five questions Doerr posed earlier this month in preparation for his arrival in Logan and Salt Lake City. Says Brennan, “I have been leading the book group at the store for 15+ years. There are approximately 12-16 people each month, including my mom! We meet on the second Monday of the month, at the store. There is a core group of 8-10, and then we have the floaters. [Virtually all of us] are women, all ages, all professions. Because it is at the bookstore and they have to pay, it is book-centric; we stay on topic. I start with bio and critiques, and often include more info if it is relevant to the book, or if I think it is something to be aware of while discussing. We read mostly fiction, I try to stick to paper, but occasionally a book comes out that needs to be shared right away, like All the Light We Cannot See! We have read most of Tony’s books in this group.”

For Doerr the responses to his questions may raise more questions for him about his own work and the dynamic between his putting words-to-paper and what the reader brings to the exchange. Avid readers are more than accustomed to having trenchant questions raised by the initiator of the texts that in the end they co-create by reading. Now it’s time to turn the tables.

**Spoiler Alert throughout the interview** 


ANTHONY DOERR: For a year or two I considered titling the novel, “The Invisibles.” Would that have worked? 

Alice Steiner: Not nearly as well as All the Light We Cannot See.  For me, invisible is a negative term, while light is positive and hopeful.  Although the time in which the novel took place was sad and dreary, the basic message was one of hope.  

Margaret Brennan Neville: Seriously?! No.

Anonymous: I don’t think the title The Invisibles would have been nearly as good. Many in our book group said, “It sounds too much like a book about heroes, reminding one of [Disney animated film] The Incredibles and such.” For me, I think the symbolism of light within the book is a powerful one, and the current title of the book added to that metaphor. That light you cannot see can be the light within oneself. It also is reminiscent of the fact that although Marie-Laure was unable to see physical light, she was able to access light in other ways

ANTHONY DOERR: Does the possibility exist that the curse on the Sea of Flames was actually real?

Alice Steiner: Only to the extent that belief may result in actions that make the belief seem warranted.  

Margaret Brennan Neville: Seriously, again?! No but when he talks about, describes, the stone, it is not hard to see how it could take on more meaning. I think the stone is part of the “forever,” the piece that lives on, historically and personally. It did not need mythic qualities, but not hard to see that happening.

Anonymous: Of course I know that the curse on the Sea of Flames was not real–the book is clearly not a fantasy. Yet I have to admit that I felt a small but constant tension, wondering (and worrying) that the curse was going to have an impact in the lives of the people.

ANTHONY DOERR: A friend of mine read an early draft and said that he felt Werner was being too hard on himself after the tragic events in Vienna (the chapter titled “White City,” p 364). He said Werner was “just following orders.” What do you think? Incidentally, or perhaps not incidentally, this friend grew up LDS (Mormon)–did that have anything to do with his reaction?

Alice Steiner: Unfortunately, I do not have the book in front of me.  I am assuming the event referred to was the killing of the unarmed mother and child.  I do not think Werner was too hard on himself.  If he rationalized the horror of the event, it would have seemed like he had become hardened by the school and the war.  By being hard on himself, it was clear that he still retained some innocence and some moral compass.

Margaret Brennan Neville: The LDS piece of this [question]–not so relevant. From the very beginning, Werner shows very clearly that he is not amoral; his disgust, shame make perfect sense.

Anonymous: I’m puzzled by this question. It seems to me that the White City chapter was written specifically to demonstrate Werner’s internal conflict. It tracks his observation of the girl in the red cloak who represents to him a more beautiful time of innocence, ending with her unnecessary death in the darker days. Werner’s realization that his mistake brought about the circumstances of her death began to change him in a very important way. We as readers were meant to observe this.

I am amazed that anyone (such as your friend) would think that Werner would not be affected by the terrible impact of his work, especially after witnessing the girl singing, a girl who reminded him of his sister? Werner is contrasted by the seemingly careless way Neumann Two performed the murders, but we as readers don’t have any entry into Neumann’s thoughts. Perhaps he too became haunted by this and other similar actions he had performed.

Thus, I wonder why your friend had the reaction he did. Why did he not see the significance of this event in the progression of Werner’s character? Perhaps he read it too quickly; perhaps he has his own personal traits that affect his feelings.  But I definitely do not think his reaction has any connection to his LDS roots.  Certainly LDS people give allegiance to their leaders, whom they believe are spokesmen for God, but generally compassion is their main message. In addition, LDS people believe in their own personal inspiration and conscience. Hence, I don’t think one’s being LDS would in any way detract from one’s identification with Werner’s turmoil.

ANTHONY DOERR: In the chapter “Final Sentence” that begins on pg. 449, do you have any idea what’s going on? Why do you think I included that litany of phrases beginning with “For“? How does this section relate–if it does at all–to the chapter on 340 called “Stones”?

Alice Steiner: It seems to be punishment for all the silly little things that children get punished for in an effort to make them into pleasant adults–a worthwhile goal.  But, when applied to societal interactions, it all becomes very sinister and demeaning, much like the NAZI craziness.

Margaret Brennan Neville: That section made me think of prayers. Catholics have several prayers that are lists, and when they are being sung or chanted, [they are] mesmerizing. Isn’t Werner in that moment, somewhere else, remembering, wishing, longing? Werner keeps getting close to his own death, and this seems to be another foreshadowing of that. Why do you think these two chapters go together? I see a connection. Both men desire something so far out of their reach. One prays for what he wants and the other kills.

Anonymous: As for the relationship of this chapter to the Stones chapter, I would not have made an explicit connection were it not for your question. The stones came from the Jews, people like Frau Schwartzenberger. Perhaps Major von Rumpel also counted off reasons why the jewel’s owners didn’t deserve them. Perhaps it made him feel justified in his actions.

ANTHONY DOERR: Why do you think I included the coda (the very final chapter that begins on pg. 527) with Marie-Laure as an old woman?  

Alice Steiner:  Before seeing the Youtube video with a discussion of communications being the inspiration for the book, I thought that it showed us how Marie Laure survived the horrors of war and life went on–not in the same way it would have and not without scars and searing memories, but it did go on.  It also gave me a perspective on the old people amongst us today who have lived through times that I cannot even imagine.  

Margaret Brennan Neville: Do you know Ian McEwan’s book Atonement? I was reminded of that book when I read about Marie-Laure as an old woman. I did not need that ending to love the book, but I loved the idea that Marie-Laure lived long and well and isn’t that the point of surviving?

Anonymous: This coda chapter made my head fill with un-shed tears for what we have lost. It was quite jarring, as it juxtaposed our current world, where death is trivialized and the airwaves are used for inconsequential things, against the time of war, when what seemed important really was important. Of course, I didn’t want to go back to the harsh reality of the war years, but somehow today’s world seemed foreign, after what I had just read [in All the Light We Cannot See].


Anthony Doerr is the author of the short story collections The Shell Collector and Memory Wall, the memoir Four Seasons in Rome, and the novels About Grace and All the Light We Cannot See. Doerr’s fiction has won four 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 Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, the National Magazine Award for Fiction, three Pushcart Prizes, the Pacific Northwest Book Award, three Ohioana Book Awards, the 2010 Story Prize, which is considered the most prestigious prize in the U.S. for a collection of short stories, and the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, which is the largest prize in the world for a single short story. 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. Though he is often asked, as far as he knows he is not related to the late writer Harriet Doerr.

Doerr will read and discuss his book in Logan at Utah State University on Sept. 23 at 4pm, followed by another appearance at 7 pm at USU’s Merrill-Cazier Library. In Salt Lake Valley, Doerr will also appear at the Viridian Event Center, 8030 S. 1825 W. in West Jordan at 7 pm. Books will be available for sale and for Doerr to sign at all three Festival events.


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