When you’ve written one of the biggest books in recent memory – in terms of sales, accolades and word-of-mouth love – what do you do to follow it up? If you’re Anthony Doerr, you go even bigger. Doerr’s 2014 novel All the Light We Cannot See was an enormous success – it was on the New York Times bestsellers list for more than 200 weeks, won a Pulitzer Prize and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and was shortlisted for the National Book Award. It is now being adapted for a Netflix series.
Set during the Second World War, it told two stories that ultimately intertwined: one focused on the young blind daughter of a museum employee who escapes Paris for Brittany during the Occupation of France. The other was about a young German boy who is a genius with radios and joins the Nazi campaign, to the disapproval of his beloved sister.
The expectations for Doerr’s next book were immense. But all of that success also allowed Doerr, who lives in Boise, Idaho with his wife and their twin sons, some breathing room. He could turn down some work that used to help pay the bills, but forced him to take time away from his writing. It also gave him some creative leverage.
“There are moments you think now’s my chance to try things,” Doerr said during a recent interview. “Now I can tell my publisher I’m setting a novel in space and Constantinople and London and Korea and she’s going to say okay.”
If All the Light was a sort of love letter to museums, Doerr’s new novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, is most definitely a love letter to libraries. And this planet.
The novel, published on Tuesday , covers a wide swath of time and story. Two young people are caught up on either side of the wall during the siege and ultimate fall of Constantinople, in the years leading up to 1453. Skipping ahead a few centuries, a young European immigrant tries to find his way in the U.S. and ends up going to war for his new country in Korea. In the next century, a neurodiverse boy finds solace in the wildlife around his Idaho home – until a new housing development invades. Later, children practicing a play at a library get caught up in a hostage drama. And finally, in scenes set in the future, a girl is travelling with her parents and others to a distant planet, now that Earth has become uninhabitable.
Throughout are segments of an ancient Greek fable called Cloud Cuckoo Land by Antonius Diogenes (Diogenes was real; the fable is made up by Doerr). How this manuscript and these disparate stories fit together is explained quite late in the book.
The seed for Doerr was Constantinople: the walled city, once the capital of the Roman Empire, was lost to the Ottomans in 1453. It was officially renamed Istanbul in 1930.
For All the Light, Doerr had been researching the French city Saint-Malo, where much of the action takes place. Saint-Malo is a walled city and Constantinople kept coming up. Doerr was intrigued. In 2014, he started making notes. And got down to writing.
“I knew I wanted to try to tell this story, but it wasn’t until I latched onto books; books inside Constantinople – this immense literary history of libraries. Something like 75 per cent of the ancient Greek and Roman texts that you and I can get out of the library today exist only because of copies, some of them whittled down to very few copies, that survived inside the walls of Constantinople. So that’s when I thought okay I’ve got this electric energy that I feel and I think I can make this a long-term project.”
Meanwhile, walls started becoming part of the news cycle.
“At the same time I’m writing and researching walls all the time, in 2015 we have this presidential candidate leading crowds in chants ‘build that wall’ – and then you’re thinking oh my gosh this is getting more relevant,” says Doerr.
The book is dedicated to librarians, who, in various iterations, play a crucial role in these young characters’ lives. Librarians are guardians of books– and they can also be guardian angels for lost souls, as they are in Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Libraries have been important to Doerr since he was growing up in Cleveland, where his mother was a busy high school science teacher. “I think she used the library as a de facto daycare for us,” says Doerr, who would spend time there with his two older brothers. “And I just felt such freedom there.”
He was drawn to books that might not have been considered age-appropriate, but he read them anyway: Stephen King novels, Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky – along with Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes.
Doerr, 47, published his first book, the short story collection The Shell Collector, in 2002. It won a number of awards, including the Barnes & Noble Discover Award. His first novel, About Grace, was published two years later. In 2007, he published a second story collection, Memory Wall, and a memoir, Four Seasons in Rome.
He spent 10 years writing All the Light We Cannot See.; seven on Cloud Cuckoo Land – writing that was often interrupted by the smash success of his Second World War novel.
“There were weeks and whole months when I would feel resentful of what was going on with All the Light because there were days when my inbox was so full I just couldn’t find time to do creative work and you feel like your life is kind of skewing out of balance,” he says. “Even then, on my best days or at least my days with the most stamina, I would at least try to work on this project for a half-hour or so. Just because I think my happiness kind of depends on it.”
His happiness, he adds, mostly depends on reading. He says he’s happiest if he’s reading a novel, a book of non-fiction and working on his own book too. That way, he says, “you’ve got these three different parts of your day and you’re dreaming through someone else’s world, you’re dreaming in your own world and then you’re living in your own world.”
The architectural work of putting Cloud Cuckoo Land together was a massive project: fitting those stories together, weaving the ancient Greek manuscript in and out, keeping everything on theme. As a reader it feels effortless. As a writer, it was not.
“There were days and weeks when I thought I’m never going to be able to solve this huge puzzle I made for myself,” says Doerr. He doesn’t write things in the order a reader will experience it – not even his short stories, he says. “In early drafts, often I’m just writing scenes that interest me and trying to understand these people and what’s in their pockets and their dressers and in their hearts. So it’s weeks and weeks and months of trying out, trial and error, trying different scenes, working in that micro level. And then often in the evening, I’ll print sections and lay them out on the carpet and just try to start understanding how this mosaic might be pieced together.”
That’s the evening work: stepping back and contemplating the structure while walking the dog or doing the dishes.
The story’s timeline was adjusted as a result of the pandemic; the contemporary section of the book is set in February 2020 instead of fall 2021, as had been the plan. There’s a scene that takes place afterward where a character is wearing a mask and there’s a brief mention of physical isolation, but that storyline is not otherwise affected by COVID-19.
The pandemic, of course, has had an impact on Doerr’s life. For a long time, he wasn’t going anywhere beyond home and his nearby office; he couldn’t even go to the library. Halting all of his travel and being at home for so long has fed into his concern and love for the environment, which is also a major theme in the book.
“I used to race around so much for these events. To see the seasons flow into our yard day after day has been such a gift,” says Doerr, from Boise. “How many springs do we get? How many falls do we get? If we’re lucky, 75. I want to pay attention to them before I don’t get to see one anymore.”
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