The author of “All the Light We Cannot See” has a new novel, “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” that seeks to tell a sprawling story linking past, present and future.
KETCHUM, Idaho — Anthony Doerr kept apologizing for the air.
And it’s true that a yellowish haze, which blotted out the sun and filled our noses with a campfire smell, hung over the Sawtooth Mountains last month as we hiked to Titus Lake, 9,050 feet above sea level. The fires on the West Coast were responsible.
My problem was not so much the air quality, but how little of the stuff there seemed to be. I’d flown to this ski-resort town to meet Doerr — best known as the author of the Pulitzer-winning 2014 novel, “All the Light We Cannot See” — to talk about his new book, “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” which will be released by Scribner on Sept. 28. He normally lives in Boise with his wife and twin teenage sons, but he has a second home in Ketchum, just a short walk away from the squat midcentury house where in 1961 Ernest Hemingway turned a shotgun on himself.
Doerr, 47, was making quick headway as I panted behind him. He felt bad about the air since our view of the mountains, covered with spiky pine trees, was less than pristine. But what bugged him wasn’t just the visibility: A fire a thousand miles away was putting smoke in our throats here, the kind of connection he wished people would spend more time thinking about.
“Take the salmon,” he said, stopping amid the blackened carcasses of fallen trees. These mountains were the headwaters for rivers that were once the endpoint of a 900-mile migration of wild salmon, but a few decades ago dams were built on the lower Snake River, making it near impossible for them to pass. Bears and eagles used to eat the fish, and the entrails they dropped enriched the soil, helping trees and shrubs grow. Without the salmon, the soil is diminished, and the trees are more susceptible to fires and invasive species.
“So four dams built in the 1970s are making it harder for the trees today,” he said, exasperated.
Doerr has a mission — alongside his craftsman’s commitment to assembling sentences and then stories from those sentences and then whole worlds from those stories. It is to put readers high above it all. There is certainly a desire to please, to offer the “drug” of plot, as he put it when we finally sat, breathless, by the shimmering lake. But there is something else, and it makes him an outlier among novelists, driven as so many are by the challenges of rendering interior life. Doerr hopes to give his readers perspective so they see their place on Earth, that “little mud-heap in a great vastness,” as a character in “Cloud Cuckoo Land” calls it.
Similar to “All the Light,” his new novel has short chapters and is propelled by disparate characters who must somehow intersect, but like a juggler adding three and then four more balls, he’s raised the level of difficulty. This book contains three story arcs — one set in the late 15th century at the fall of Constantinople, another in present-day Idaho and a third on a Noah’s ark-like spaceship heading toward a possibly inhabitable planet. Holding these pieces together is an ancient Greek text (one Doerr invented), the “Cloud Cuckoo Land” of the title, which passes through and affects the lives of the book’s five main characters. It was named to the National Book Awards fiction longlist on Friday.
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Nan Graham, his longtime editor, said that where other writers might live by the diktat “write what you know,” for Doerr, it’s “write what you want to know.” His interest was first sparked by the walls of Constantinople, which stood for nearly a thousand years before the Ottoman invasion. This then led him to the culture that existed within the city’s walls, its vast libraries, and all the books now lost to time. And that in turn to how books, especially when produced by scribes, were preserved over centuries, and this idea of stewardship, a chain of human effort to keep stories alive.
“I think art is another way to try to exercise your imagination at connecting incongruous things,” Doerr said. “It’s a way to say, hey, reader, let’s work together and practice and train our imagination to connect things that you don’t readily think of as connected. And then that maybe becomes a little bit political, because I think the solution going forward is we need to have a much more planetary perspective.”
The stories he tells are fable-like in the way fables lead a character through a treacherous situation toward light — a wolf slaughtered, an escape from an oven — with a moral emerging through the telling. Doerr didn’t fight this characterization. “I love fables!” he said. “I don’t take that as a critique.”
And as in many fables, his protagonists are usually children. “All the Light,” which was set during World War II, featured a blind French girl helping the resistance and a German boy conscripted into the Wehrmacht. In his new book they include two young people on either side of Constantinople’s walls and a girl on that mission through space. Writing from the perspective of a child allows him to defamiliarize the world, he said, “to see more nakedly some of the things that we’ve elided or erased in our minds because of age.”
Doerr’s bald head, smooth face and crystal eyes make him look almost otherworldly, even driving in his Toyota pickup through the very real landscape of rural Idaho, pointing out deer and trying to spot a moose. He has a soft-spoken Midwestern niceness — he grew up in Cleveland, the son of a science teacher. At least four times throughout the day he offered me chocolate chip cookies. There’s little evidence of a writer’s tortured soul besides what he admits is an “impostor complex” that has him work himself hard, never quite able to process his own success.
What he hopes to preserve for himself is a certain openness to the world. It’s a sensitivity that has him saying a prayer (“to God, maybe?”) whenever he passes roadkill (“that’s a dead raccoon or a fox and we’re just like, going to soccer practice, which seems totally wrong”). It’s hard not to crack a cynical smile listening to this, but it doesn’t seem contrived.
“I believe in awe, and I’m trying to put awe occasionally into my paragraphs, but particularly just in my life,” Doerr said. “And if I get kind of down, it’s because I haven’t gone outside yet. You don’t have to see an elk come stumbling through the grass. Sometimes it’s just a really cool pebble you found. Or just watching an ant do its job for a little while. Like man, there’s so much happening around us all the time. On micro and macro levels.”
Doerr’s one close writer friend is Jess Walter, the author, most recently, of “The Cold Millions.” The two met during a residency at Tin House. “His humility is genuine,” Walter said about Doerr.
What did it mean for his friend, despite this groundedness, to contend with the phenomenon his last book became? According to Scribner, “All the Light” spent more than 200 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. It sold more than 5.7 million copies in North America across print, e-book and audio formats and another 9.5 million copies worldwide.
“I can’t imagine any writer not getting a slight case of the bends when that success comes,” Walter said, “but whatever anxiety he had, all the expectation in the world can’t change the fact that you still have to write something else, and that’s what he did.”
After our trek down from Titus Lake, we stopped for dinner at Smiley Creek Lodge, a restaurant surrounded by acres of land and fronted by a wooden sculpture of a grizzly bear clutching a fish.
I wanted to understand more about the flip side of popularity, whether it ever made him regard his own work differently. After all, Doerr himself told me that literature has to be, at some level, “unsettling.” Can a book be unsettling and also massively popular? He did admit that the one critique of “All the Light” that landed a blow was that he had aestheticized the war, not really showing the suffering of the Holocaust.
Then there was the question of his signature short chapters. Doerr laughed off the possibility that these were an accommodation to the attention span of readers. “I know where you’re going with this,” he said with a smile, looking completely in his element with the sun heading down behind the mountains, the empty, purple vista all around us and a burger and fries on his plate.
He had hit upon this approach for the most practical of reasons. As a parent, he couldn’t hope to get more than an hour or two of solid work done before having to attend to shuttling the boys to swim practice or some other activity. “I might have stumbled accidentally into that,” he said.
It may have been by chance, and it may have had the side effect of being easy to read, but this way of putting a novel together offered a bridge between the miniaturist in Doerr and the seeker of world-spanning connections. He could focus on the details of every piece in the narrative, but there was pleasure, too, in placing them against each other. Sometimes he would lay out all these micro chapters on the floor so he could see them and discover the resonances between characters across space and time.
“That’s the real joy,” Doerr said, “the visceral pleasure that comes from taking these stories, these lives, and intersecting them, braiding them.”