I was a senior in college when I found The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr, a short story collection I started reading standing next to the new fiction shelf before finding a bench to finish the first couple of stories. I later bought the book and bought it again as gifts. And since reading The Shell Collector, I’ve read Doerr’s other work.
But The Shell Collector remains important to my writer self. Sitting in the library reading the first couple of stories, I found something I wanted to do. His stories travel. I love that. I want my writing to travel.
So when Doerr published another book, I’d buy it and save it a bit before reading. I didn’t want it all over at once. I’d read it and think I could take this route as a writer. Put a book together every few years. A good book. An overlooked book. I could do that and be pleased with my art. (I still could do that, and be very pleased). But I also read Doerr and wondered why no one was noticing him.
I haven’t read All the Light We Cannot See yet. But I’m so happy this author is getting a little (lot) light. He’s deserved the wider recognition for a long time. From the NYTimes:
Perhaps no one has been more stunned by the novel’s success than Mr. Doerr, who lives in Boise, Idaho, with his wife, Shauna Eastman, and their 10-year-old twin boys. “This book has trigonometric equations in it — it’s really dense,” he said. “The kinds of readers I’m writing for, I thought they would like it, but I didn’t think that Aunt Judy would read it.”
It’s not as though Mr. Doerr, 41, has been laboring in obscurity. His previous four books were met with largely positive reviews, and he’s won around 20 literary awards and honors.
Mr. Doerr started writing when he was 8. Growing up in Cleveland, he would play around on his mother’s typewriter, writing stories about his Legos and Playmobil pirates. He studied history at Bowdoin College, then took odd jobs to support himself while he wrote, working as a cook in Colorado and on a sheep farm in New Zealand.
He got his masters in fiction at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and wrote a few of the stories that would appear in his first book of short stories, “The Shell Collector” (2002), which Scribner bought for $15,000.
Though he’s gained a devoted following, Mr. Doerr has struggled to support himself with his fiction. During the decade he spent researching and writing “All the Light We Cannot See,” he patched together a living by teaching writing at Boise State University and other programs, writing for travel and science magazines. While he was writing “All the Light,” he also published two other books with Scribner — a memoir about living in Rome and another story collection; they sold around 70,000 copies combined.
“Tony has been scrappy for 12 years,” Ms. Graham said. “He would drive 10 hours to teach some workshop for a weekend, for $2,500.”
The narrative threads in “All the Light We Cannot See” took years to assemble. Mr. Doerr started with a single scene: A trapped boy listens to a girl tell him a story over the radio. He eventually developed the two main characters, Werner, a German orphan who gets swept up in the Nazi movement, and Marie-Laure, a blind French girl who flees Paris with her father, a museum locksmith who’s hiding a diamond from Nazi looters. Mr. Doerr studied diaries and letters written during the war and traveled to Germany, Paris and St.-Malo, the port city in Brittany where much of the story is set.
The story unfolds in short chapters that switch between the two young characters’ perspectives. Weaving together the parallel story lines was tricky, but it injected the narrative with suspense and gave it the feel of a page-turner.
“There’d be moments where I’d be like, why am I being so ambitious, why can’t I just tell one of their stories?” Mr. Doerr said. He said he felt free to experiment because he was expecting a limited audience of literary fiction readers. It may be harder to indulge those impulses when writing his next novel under the weight of expectations that come with being a best-selling novelist.
On that last comment, I hope not. I hope Doerr continues to work out his art, unburdened.
For the full article, go here.