Recent Reads

Two books, the second underscoring my thoughts on the first.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. The story follows a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and a young German soldier, Werner, both of whom land in Saint-Malo as WWII is ending and the English are securing the French coast. The chapters alternate time and character so we see Marie-Laure and Werner grow up. They are connected by a radio program Werner and his sister listened to as children, records broadcast by Marie-Laure’s uncle, Etienne. The wonder of words and music making their way from France to Germany fascinates Werner who learns to repair radios and later serves the German army by finding resistance broadcasters. Marie-Laure meets her uncle when she and her father flee Paris and find safety in Saint-Malo.

There is more: Marie-Laure’s father is the locksmith for the National Museum of Natural History and when the Germans enter Paris, he and three others are given one of the museum’s most guarded artifacts, a one hundred and thirty-three carat diamond called the Sea of Flames. The stone is so valuable, three replicas and the original are scattered over Europe. A Nazi sergeant is determined to find the genuine stone.

From the beginning of All The Light We Cannot See, we know Marie-Laure and Werner are in Saint-Malo. Their parallel stories leading to August 1944 show how and why, each chapter investing the reader equally in Marie-Laure and Werner. I love this kind of reaching narrative, bringing characters to a single point. Doerr carefully structures to the book to keep the pace even. There is no rush to the end, even at the end. I read Doerr trusting he will tell the whole story.

The last part of the book brings the read to 1974. Questions left in 1944 are answered, not completely, but with the same graceful narrative as the first three-quarters of the book, each chapter following remaining characters and their overlap in turn.

All The Light We Cannot See feels like a many-stranded braid. This is how I read the book as a writer: knowing that I do not yet have the ability to craft a story that tells so many stories at once, each strand adding to the whole. I read the book appreciating the time and research Doerr put into the story. He spent a decade on this book. So I read wondering if I’ve got the endurance to stay with a project, let it go, return to it, finish it, as he did.

That part of the story – the author’s heavy work – reminds me of another book, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Another long project, well-researched. Please, someday, let me find a project I want to keep at for a decade.

Which brings me to:

“The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing And Life” by Ann Patchett. I will reference this essay again (and again) in the coming months, but let me first say that if you write, you need to read this. Patchett’s advice to writers is direct. After years savoring Natalie Goldberg’s writing practice encouragement, I started reading other writers’ approaches to the writing life. Practice underlies it all. But for more, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions On Writing And Life by Anne Lamott and On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft by Stephen King are two of my favorites. I’m adding “The Getaway Car” to that list.

Since I’d just finished reading All The Light We Cannot See, I kept thinking how Patchett’s essay emphasized Doerr’s craft. (Except in this: Patchett doesn’t like short chapters. All The Light is crammed to the ceiling with short chapters). On the whole write-what-you-know idea, Patchett says no, go ahead and research something new. Allow your research to compost (à la Goldberg!) so that what you’ve just learned comes out in your fiction as needed, not referenced for the sake of showing how well versed you are in German radio technology. Doerr’s technical references / explanations do not feel separate from the character narrative. As per Lamott and King, Patchett shows her willingness to keep writing as it is just part of her life, even when it doesn’t pay bills. Knowing a little of Doerr’s biography, I am glad he did the same, adding up the hours of practicing his writing craft to reach his latest.

Patchett is plain about the effort necessary to be a good writer, admitting the small luck involved in finding our way too. Go read it.

Anthony Doerr

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.

Reading for Writing: Short Fiction

A year ago I signed up for a Stanford Continuing Studies online short fiction workshop. I loved it. I started a lot pieces and worked my way through a couple revisions. I decided to keep writing short fiction, and to more purposefully read short fiction. Just as the post I re-blogged explains, when you read for your writing, your reading is a little different. I still immerse myself in a story, but I am also aware of the craft.

Since that workshop, I returned to reading contemporary short fiction. I am already familiar with authors featured in recycled high school anthologies. I wanted to find authors new to me, known or not. Here are a few collections I’ve read recently:

The Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders. I read this collection after seeing an article in the NY Times about Saunders. I finished reading the book, downloaded his previous collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and overdosed on the man. In a good way. Even though some individual pieces disturbed me, the whole body of work reminded me of the first time I read Kurt Vonnegut: I didn’t know you could write like that.

The Best American Short Stories 2012 edited by Tom Perrota. This collection was great for my writing. I was writing these long wandering pieces with fifty characters too many. I’d received feedback about unnecessary characters in my drafts but was afraid to cut. This collection showed me the value of keeping a small cast.

Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr. Years ago in college, I read his first collection, The Shell Collector and it remains one of my favorite short fiction collections. I like his style. What I really like is that he writes pieces set around the world, speaking from wildly varying perspectives. The first time I read Doerr’s fiction, I sensed an almost reckless boldness, to write fiction from all over. I was stuck writing from my own experience. So when I read and reread The Shell Collector or Memory Wall, I think: why not write from places I’ve never been, physically, emotionally or spiritually?

I Want to Show You More: Stories by Jamie Quatro. An editor I work with recommended this collection after reading a couple of my fiction pieces. When I finally started reading Quatro, I felt two things. First, I was so glad I’d already written the particular pieces that prompted my editor to suggest the book.I was pleased to realize I’d managed difficult truth-telling on my own, in my own style. Second, as with Saunders, I read Quatro and thought: you can do that? Which I why I am now experimenting, taking what I’ve seen Saunders and Quatro do in their writing and seeing how it may fit into some of my own pieces.

If you have favorite short fiction authors or collections, please post in the comments. Next up on my short fiction reading is The Best American Short Fiction 2013. I am also reading pieces from The Story and Its Writer.