Anthony Doerr enlightens readers about “All the Light We Cannot See”

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anthony Doerr, right, signs copies of his books at the Loveland Loves to Read author talk Sept. 24 in Loveland, Colo. With him is Carol Morganti, member of the Loveland Loves to Read Committee, who hands over copies of books for signing.

By Shelley Widhalm

Boise, Idaho, author Anthony Doerr starts with the eyes of a housefly to describe his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “All the Light We Cannot See.”

Flies have two compound eyes, each made up of 3,000 to 6,000 simple eyes, enabling them to see elements of light invisible to the human eye.

Doerr presented an image of a fly’s eye during a slideshow he gave as part of his author talk Sept. 24 for the 15th annual Loveland Loves to Read event, presented by the Friends of the Loveland Public Library Foundation at the Roberta Price Auditorium in Loveland, Colo. His 2014 novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction a year after publication, as well as the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.

“I’m sure you’ve heard Loveland loves artists … we’re here to tell you Loveland loves readers and writers as well,” said Peg Isaakson, chairwoman of the Loveland Loves to Read committee to introduce “An Evening with Anthony Doerr.” “The art of painting a story or documentary involves using words well, and that’s what we’re here to celebrate.”

The Story’s Inspiration

Doerr talked about his inspiration for the novel, the unseen light waves that make up technology. This includes the radio power serving as the center of the story of a blind French girl and a German orphan in occupied France during World War II.

“I want my reader to re-see things we take for granted or no longer see,” Doerr said.

Doerr began his presentation with his childhood, saying he was a dilettante or dabbler with many interests but no real commitment to any one thing. He couldn’t figure out what he wanted to be when he grew up but it was often based on his current reading. By the time he was in college, he treated it like an “all-you-can-eat buffet college course catalog,” not wanting to declare a major before having to pick something—for him, it was history.

“Sometimes we get stuck in our own lives, and we forget our own perceptions,” Doerr said as he presented close-up images of his fascinations that included blood cells, Velcro, flecks of salt and pepper, a banana and the eye of housefly at 1,000 times magnification. As he dabbled in multiple subjects, he recorded things he found to be interesting, allowing him to see ordinary things in extraordinary ways, he said.

Doerr threw out some extraordinary facts, such as the most common form of communication is light and that 80 percent of deep sea animals create their own light. He wondered about other things, too, such as “why snow crystals bother to be so beautiful” and why only some memories remain intact and others are lost.

The Structure of the Story

Doerr built his novels and short stories and developed the identities of his characters around the facts he collected, relating what he learned through story to help the reader enjoy his sense of awe. “About Grace,” his first novel published in 2004, relayed his fascination with snow, while “All the Light We Cannot See” focuses on his love of the many aspects of light and how light is perceived.

“I had a sense she could see things he could not,” Doerr said, referring to Marie-Laure and Werner.

For “All the Light We Cannot See,” Doerr started with his title and on a book tour in France in 2005 tumbled on his setting—and then he had to do more research for a year on the place and time of war, getting yet another college education, he said. Once he began to write, sometimes he’d make it only three sentences before he’d have to stop and do more research.

An Old Story Becomes ‘New’

Doerr took an old story and oft-written subject and made it new, shaping the story’s structure to mimic a labyrinth.

“I want it to feel like a labyrinth, where the reader feels their way through it,” Doerr said.

He spent a decade solving the puzzle of the structure, which employs the use of short chapters and alternating storylines, and how best to relay the history, His approach to writing was reflective of how he hopped around in his many interests, with the book taking its initial shape out of chronology before he strung it back together into a sense of order for the reader, he said.

“Sometimes it’s good for the mind to make things no matter how well they’re received. For me it’s almost a prayer,” Doerr said. “It’s good for the mind, the soul and the people around you.”

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2 thoughts on “Anthony Doerr enlightens readers about “All the Light We Cannot See””

  1. I like it. I think you were kind in the way you described his mannerisms and deliver!!
    I’ll try and call tonight or Wednesday night. Book group here tomorrow night
    Sending it on to others.

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