Do you remember reading a mammoth mesmerizing book that transported you to other worlds and times so that all you cared about was turning the next page? If so, I give you another one: Anthony Doerr’s new novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land (Scribner), and I hope you have a comfy chair.
Doerr’s follow-up to his 2014 megaselling, Pulitzer Prize–winning All the Light You Cannot See is an immersive, ambitious epic with three major story lines, moving between 1453 Constantinople, an Idaho library in the present, and a spaceship decades into the future hurtling toward a new planet. The connecting piece is an ancient text, written by the Greek author Diogenes about Aethon, who wants to become a bird so he can fly to the paradise of Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Nan Graham, Doerr’s editor, says this about the book: “Tony soars over his own incredibly high bar.” She talks about the author’s empathy for his characters: “The three different sets of characters are so moving. You love them, one after another you fall in love with them.”
Early on, Cloud Cuckoo Land introduces Konstance, a young girl alone on an interstellar spaceship in the future. And in 15th-century Constantinople, under attack from Ottoman armies, another young girl, Anna, talks to Omeir, who is born with a “split that divides his upper lip from his gum all the way to the base of his nose,” on the other side of the city’s walls. At a library under siege in present-day Idaho, we meet Seymour, a socially conscious teenager whose T-shirt reads “I LIKE BIG BOOKS,” and Zeno, the achy old man who has devoted himself to translating the story of Aethon.
The book, Doerr says, is “a love letter to libraries and books—the book is dedicated to librarians. I thought about how to dramatize the power of books. Each character falls in love with this text as it moves through history, and each becomes a steward for the text.” Doerr also emphasizes the book culture of Constantinople, where copies were preserved and survived over generations. He tells me he got into books as a boy because of the library. “The library was practically a babysitter. You could leave yourself and enter worlds. It’s such a rich life when you get to be a reader. Books can give you multiple lives.”
It was when he won the Rome Prize and lived at the American Academy in Rome for a year with his family—documented in the 2007 memoir Four Seasons in Rome—that Doerr started thinking about walls, inspired by dinner conversations with a scholar at the academy who was researching walls as art. “I had never lived in a city that big or that old,” he says of Rome. “I started looking at the defensive walls around Rome, thinking about walls and tyrants. I saw pictures of the insane walls around Constantinople.”
Doerr describes them in Cloud Cuckoo: “Theodosius the Second began constructing these walls, four miles of them, to connect with the eight miles of sea walls the city already had. The Theodosian walls had an outer wall, two meters thick and nine high, and an inner one, five meters thick and twelve high—who can guess how many bodies were broken in their construction?”
And there’s the theme of technology that runs through Doerr’s work. “New technology is revolutionary,” he says. “All the Light was about radio and how Hitler used radio during World War II; until gunpowder was invented, walls were the preeminent defense.”
Doerr began working on Cloud Cuckoo in 2014, “but it was just notes. I started concentrating in 2015 and ironically we get this president talking about walls!”
Graham has been with Doerr from the beginning, ever since agent Wendy Weil sent the first book, a collection of short stories, The Shell Collector, which Scribner published in 2002. Graham says she remembers “dithering for three months” with her editorial assistant Gillian Blake (now publisher of Crown) about whether or not to buy the book. She paid little, and the book was a success; “11,000 copies in hardcover,” she tells me, adding, “I’ve been there for all of them.”
All the Light was Doerr’s first book represented by Amanda “Binky” Urban at ICM Partners. “Wendy Weil was my original agent,” he says. “It was very sad when she died.” Urban reached out months later with an email and Doerr went to her offices in New York City. “It was amazing,” he recalls, “to see the shelves with all my favorite writers. Binky saw Cloud Cuckoo first and Nan got it May 31, 2020.”
Graham says, “We’ve had maybe four meals over the last seven years in which he tells me something. I knew about the girl and the boy on either side of the wall, and then he said he was going into the future and I thought, what?”
Doerr doesn’t sell a book until it’s done. “I always finish a book before submitting it,” he says. “I’m too anxious to write a book that has a monetary value on it. When I write the whole idea of capitalism, New York—all of it falls away and what I do is solve the puzzle of my work.” He says Konstance was an early character and the one he was most nervous about, “because readers had to imagine space and the future.”
Graham lauds Doerr’s “range of humanity and his attempt to find reasonable hope,” noting, “Doerr so speaks to this moment of the need for compassion. He’s what we need now. I can’t gush enough.” She acquired North American and audio rights to Cloud Cuckoo Land, and it will be published September 28 simultaneously in the U.K. with 4th Estate. To date, rights have been sold in 18 other territories .
Doerr writes in a letter of introduction to the book, “I tried to pour all of my love for our astonishing, green, wounded world into this novel.... Primarily this is a book about our planet—in itself a vast library—and the stories that connect us.”
As for me, I don’t anticipate joining Konstance in space and I’m not planning a visit to Idaho, but you can bet I’m going to take a good look at those walls next time I’m in Istanbul!