There are several reasons to pick up All The Light We Cannot See. Here are the wrong ones: It won the Pulitzer for fiction this year, in addition to several other awards. It’s written by Anthony Doerr, who was Granta’s Best Young American Novelist in 2007. It has captivated everyone from Reese Witherspoon to Barack Obama.
Some sections are only two pages long, like flashes of memory…
I’ve been trying to build narratives out of short, titled sections. Maybe it’s a way of tricking myself into writing big novels by working on very small things? Each day I only have to tell myself that I’m writing something manageable, a little thing that won’t hurt too much if I need to dispose of it.
Maybe it’s just because I like working on miniatures, trying to make little pieces of writing clean, functional and (hopefully) elegant. And then one day, you start laying them out on the carpet to assemble them into larger structures.
You spent 10 years on research. Were there times you thought this was a dead-end?
I research simultaneously with writing. But I always supplemented that research with imagination; reading or travel might supply various streams of details, but imagination supplies the direction in which to apply all those details.
For me, writing historical fiction is all about finding a balance between reading, travelling, looking, imagining, and dreaming. (And procrastinating.) And, yes, of course, there were times when I doubted the book would ever be finished. My wife is the biggest reason I never gave up. She read pieces of the book every few months, and every morning kept nudging me out the door and back to my desk. It’s amazing what you can get done when you have someone believe in, and count on, you.
Your book is from the perspective of a blind protagonist. How challenging was it to “see” the world on her behalf?
It was challenging. My instinct is usually to use visual details. So I had to focus more on tactile, olfactory, and auditory ways to transport a reader. I read memoirs by writers who had experienced blindness, observed visually-impaired people, even had my sons blindfold me and lead me around our hometown. All those things probably helped.
Werner pulls at your heartstrings. How did you conceive of a German orphan fascinated by science?
Inspiration for me comes from finding subjects which interest me very deeply. Usually these are things that simultaneously seem both simple and mysterious: snowflakes or seeds or seashells or radio waves. I read as much as I can about that subject, and sometimes, maybe three times of 10, I’m able to start constructing a successful narrative around that central curiosity.
I adored radios as a boy and would often stay up late listening to baseball games under my covers while my parents thought I was sleeping. So Werner originally came out of my fascination with radio. There are pieces of me in his character, but also pieces of my brother (who’s an electrical engineer), and pieces of lots of other children I read about while researching the book.
Fatherhood is a palpable theme in the novel. Was writing it as a new father helpful?
Having kids has certainly changed my relationship with my work –with everything, probably. When you watch your kids grow up, you cannot help but feel your impermanence more acutely; you cannot help but see how you are one link in a very long chain of parents and children, and that maybe the best thing you’ve done and ever will do is to extend that chain, to be a part of something greater than yourself. That’s something I try to understand through my writing.
Follow @kanika4444 on Twitter
From HT Brunch, August 23
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch