A year after winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2015 for his wildly successful novel All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr read Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement. In it, Ghosh ponders why contemporary literary writers aren’t addressing climate change and concludes that most novels don’t take place over a long enough period of time to show its deleterious effects.
At the time, Doerr says, “I was researching how the libraries of Constantinople protected the last remaining copies of so many ancient Greek and Roman texts, ushering them through the instability of the Middle Ages. So I thought, why not try to tell a story about how a single manuscript touches lives in the distant past, the present, and the future, and see what it can illuminate about our connections to the past and the future?” The resulting novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land (Scribner, Sept.), spans several centuries, from the 1400s to decades from now.
As for being intimidated by writing this novel after receiving so much attention for his last, Doerr says, “I find writing novels and short stories so absorbing and demanding that once I’m five or 10 minutes into my work day, everything else—expectations and deadlines—tends to fade. That All the Light reached more readers than my previous books was an incredible gift, and it made me want to pour as much effort and generosity as I could into my next project to reward their attention.”
Nor did the pandemic disrupt Doerr’s ability to write, as it did for many authors. “At first,” he says, “my anxiety about our kids and school—and just the general, glaring precariousness of everything—made long periods of concentration difficult. But over time, silver linings emerged. We’ve slowed down, and over the past 13 months I have felt such tenderness and gratitude for my little family—and for the gift of every minute that we get to be alive on this weird, dazzling planet. Hopefully, some of that renewed gratitude trickled into my writing.”
Doerr adds, “I hope readers are reminded of our myriad interconnections: with our ancestors, our neighbors, with species, with all the kids yet to be born. I believe that the more we can remember how much we’re all in the same boat, the more we can train ourselves to imagine, recognize, and remember our connections—with the bacteria in our guts, the birds outside our windows, the meals on our plates and the children in our futures—the better off we’ll be.”
Doerr will be in conversation with David Varno, a PW reviews editor, on Wednesday, May 26, 1:15–1:30 p.m. ET.
Hilary S. Kayle has been a freelancer for PW since 1997, writing fiction reviews as well as author and publishing industry interviews.