Writers conference keynote speaker considers time, setting and the control of information

  • Saint-Malo, France, in April 2018, as seen at low tide. The setting of Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See,” the town on the coast of Breton was heavily destroyed in the liberation of France in World War II. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)
  • Saint-Malo, France, in April 2018, as seen at low tide. The setting of Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See,” the town on the coast of Breton was heavily destroyed in the liberation of France in World War II. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)
  • Anthony Doerr, the 2018 keynote speaker for the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference. (Photo provided by Kachemak Bay Campus)
  • The book cover of Anthony Doerr’s novel, “All the Light we Cannot See.” (Photo provided by Kachemak Bay Campus)

In his novels and short stories, Anthony Doerr, this year’s keynote speaker at the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference, sometimes takes an unusual approach to setting and time.

His best-known novel, the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “All the Light We Cannot See,” breaks the standard straightforward chronology of the traditional novel and begins with what will be the end: the almost total destruction in August 1944 of Saint-Malo, France, on the English Channel during the Allied liberation of Europe. His current novel in progress is set in the past, present and future, and just as “All the Light We Cannot See” contemplates sounds flowing around us as the electromagnetic waves of radio, his next novel also considers data and the future of information.

In a phone interview on May 21 from his home in Boise, Idaho, Doerr, 44, talked about his writing, how he creates and what he will discuss in his keynote address next Friday at the start of the writers conference. Doerr also does a public reading and book signing at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 9, at the Mariner Theatre. He’s one of 16 faculty teaching at the conference running June 8 to 12 at Land’s End Resort.

“It’s about libraries,” Doerr said of his next book. “As we move through time, what is a library? We’re told to think of the Internet as an infinite repository of knowledge. Who controls that?”

In “All the Light We Cannot See,” the Nazi Germans seize radios and issue new radios that can only receive state sanctioned stations. In the Internet age, authoritarians try to control information, or stoke chaos about the reliability of information.

“One of the things that resonates about ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ is Germany tried to control the information … using the radio as a tool of oppression. … I see so many parallels,” Doerr said

There’s also a connection in Doerr’s work between setting and the structure of the book itself. “All the Light We Cannot See” begins with its world intact, like the Saint-Malo of today — except the city of the 21st century is in some way false. Restored after the war in a decades-long project, the modern Breton beach goer might not understand what it once had been.

“There’s something really figurative about that. We’re going to spend years putting all these granite blocks back together,” he said. “It’s almost an erasure — we’re going to pretend it never happened.”

That’s the same kind of erasure that happened with slavery in the U.S., Doerr said, where only now have Americans acknowledged the past by building memorials and museums that look at the history of slavery.

“All the Light We Cannot See” came about from a visit Doerr made to Saint-Malo in 2005 for Etonnants Voyageurs (Amazing Travellers), an annual literary festival held there. As he explains in a short video about the book on his website, http://anthonydoerr.com, he had been walking the ramparts of the walled city with his editor and noted how old the city must have been. His editor corrected him: the Allieds bombed most of the city while trying to destroy a Nazi German battalion holed up in a citadel. Doerr also wove in other threads of inspiration. On a subway he had seen a man go into a rage when his cell phone connection died. That made him think of the power of information flowing around us and how much we have taken it for granted.

The novel follows two characters, Marie-Laure, a blind girl who escapes from Paris to Saint-Malo with her father as the Nazis invade, and Werner, a Hitler Youth soldier enchanted with radios who tracks the Resistance from Russia to Saint-Malo. As everything falls in the bombing, their paths converge. Just as radio signals bounce around the atmosphere until finding a home in a receiver, the characters come together — but, as Doerr reveals, in a way they had been connected long before.

Doerr made two more visits to Saint-Malo while researching the novel, building it “in a basement in Boise, Idaho,” he said.

“Ultimately fiction writing is about selection. What details are you inventing to create atmosphere, movement, some kind of dynamism so that the reader feels trouble?” Doerr said. “… You can’t resurrect the past fully. You’re resurrecting the past as much as you can. It’s very much the Saint-Malo of my imagination as much as reality.”

Doerr’s keynote address is titled “Some Thoughts on the Importance of Artistic Failure.” A panel discussion at the conference, “Fail Better,” with faculty Rich Chiappone, Barbara Hurd, Erin Coughlin Hollowell and Joe Wilkins, builds on Doerr’s talk and looks at how writers and poets “use artistic failure and risk as a catalyst,” according to the conference program. “Failure is an inevitable part of the writing process, but how you frame it and what you do to move past it will constitute the arc of your writing.”

“I get paralyzed when I sit down,” Doerr said of his talk. “Every sentence is not quite as good as you hope it will be. … It’s for everybody who’s brave enough to show up. It’s a reminder to myself you have to swallow and go for it and embrace the breech between the possible and the impossible.”

Doerr was raised in rural Ohio in a fading steel town where he wanted out. At 14 he told his parents he was going to drive to Alaska.

They pointed out he couldn’t drive. He lied about his age, said he was 16, and entered the National Outdoors Leadership School, or NOLS, and spent a month in Southeast Alaska.

At 15 he returned again, and one more time at 21 when he worked at a fish cannery in Ketchikan.

“My lofty ideals of romantic labor went away in the first 12 hours,” he said.

He also returned in 2003. Part of his first novel, “About Grace,” is set in Anchorage. He’s never been to Homer and said he’s excited to come here.

Doerr said he’s not sure if his talk on artistic failure will work.

“It could totally cave in. It could be a failure in itself in a meta way,” he said. “I hope it’s the opposite of all those platitudes. Here I am. I’m just falling down along with all you guys. This is what life is about. If you let life keep on stopping you, it’s a bigger failure.”

Reach Michael Armstrong at marmstrong@homernews.com.

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