Brunch recommends Anthony Doerr’s tale of two children connected by radio in war-torn Europe

  • Kanika Sharma, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Aug 22, 2015 21:50 IST

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.

We suggest you read it for the story of Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind girl whose walled French city of Saint-Malo will soon be bombed by Nazis during World War II. Or for Werner Pfennig, the German orphan stuck in a mining town who signs up for the Hitler Youth Academy, tinkering with the radio all along.

Seeing the light: Anthony Doerr’s book took 10 years to research and write, and has spent 33 consecutive weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

Read it to rediscover the radio, that magic box that carries voices across borders and brings the two characters together as war devastates their world. And to rediscover the beauty of Saint-Malo, which was almost destroyed in the war and built anew.

Read it to know how myth, history and science can be stirred into a sweeping story, and because Doerr, an Ohio writer married with twin sons, has woven his own thoughts, fascinations and personal stories into the narrative.

All The Light We Cannot See took Doerr 10 years to write. He told us why, and much more in an interview. Excerpts: So many novels have been written about World War II. What made you want to write 530 pages more?

I wanted to set a story in a time and place when radio was the dominant technology – when hearing the voice of someone far away was a miracle. And I wanted that to connect two children on different sides of a large conflict. 2006, on a book tour through France, and after dinner in Saint-Malo, I went for a stroll on top of the ramparts that surround the town. It was my first sight of the place, peering into lit windows, the sea glimmering in moonlight, the houses silent; I felt as if I was walking in through a town from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a place that was part fairy tale, part MC Escher lithograph, part mist and ocean wind and lamplight.

The next day I said to my French editor, "It’s spellbinding to walk through a city so old". And he told me the town was almost entirely destroyed at the end of World War II and what I saw was painstakingly rebuilt. That’s when I thought: What if I tried to set my radio project here?

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.

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From HT Brunch, August 23
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