Pulitzer winner Anthony Doerr discusses new book ahead of Winter Words event
Novelist to discuss new book ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’ Wednesday night at virtual Aspen Winter Words event
Anthony Doerr is among the few novelists who are equally embraced by critics and the masses – who can land a book atop the bestseller list and also on the longlist for the National Book Award, as he has with his epic new novel “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” the much-anticipated follow-up to his Pulitzer-winning “All the Light We Cannot See.”
His work is a throwback to a less stratified era when literary fiction was popular fiction and when the same books read in the ivory tower were dog-eared on beaches. But Doerr, who opens the 2021-22 Aspen Winter Words series with a virtual event on Wednesday night, said he doesn’t bother worrying about that broad readership while he’s writing.
Nov. 3 – Anthony Doerr in conversation with Mary Beth Keane (virtual)
Dec. 7 – Paula McLain
Jan. 12 –Heather Hansman
Feb. 15 – Ashley C. Ford; Eleanor Henderson; Michelle Zauner (virtual)
March 15 – Clint Smith
March 29 – Richard Powers
Tickets — $12/virtual events; $25/in-person tickets; $300/all-access season pass
“About five minutes into the workday, I stop thinking about that stuff and I’m just engrossed in solving the problems of lousy sentences and trying to get the whole thing to work,” he said last week in a phone interview from Boise.
The audience he thinks about is an audience of one: his wife, who is his first reader.
“I’m just thinking, ‘Will she be able to understand this? Will she be invested in these characters? Is she going to think this is too slow?'” he explained. “It’s always this big moment when I’m able to print the thing out and give it to her. And then of course, I’m like, wandering around the house anxious for 24 hours.”
The crossover embrace of “All the Light We Cannot See” and “Cloud Cuckoo Land” may have something to do with Doerr’s mastery of pacing. Working in short, rich chapters, these literary page-turners are somehow propulsive without going thin on characterization. They are complex and huge in scale. “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” for instance, runs on three timelines — in 15th century Constantinople, contemporary Boise and on a spaceship in the future — with five main characters, a book within the book, and clockwork plotting.
That signature style, arguably a good fit for 21st century readers’ internet-addled attention spans, developed out of necessity over the past 17 years, Doerr explained, as he parented young children and found himself writing only in short chunks of free time. He’s never concerned himself with accessibility or targeting a wide audience.
“Capitalism generally doesn’t impair my thoughts, thank goodness,” he said.
Doerr is unafraid to tackle thorny societal and moral questions. “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” for instance, while tracking a mythical text through the ages, is suffused with the climate and biodiversity crises and with issues of cultural erasure.
“I think, ‘How can I get people to use the drug of story to keep them turning pages, but also get people thinking about these larger questions?'” he explained.
Doerr had to research deeply for the new book, learning about the history of libraries, the sieges of Constantinople and about the many book lost to the ages (the Ancient Greek poet Sappho, he learned, wrote as many as 10,000 lines of poetry in her life, though just 650 survive today).
As he developed the character Seymour, a troubled teenager driven to extremes out of his concern for the environment, he delved into the latest findings and predictions on climate change and the impending global environmental chaos.
“I got very anxious reading this stuff, but I felt I had this moral imperative to thread it through the text,” Doerr explained.
The book is concerned largely with stories, how they’re preserved through time and how and why they survive — the miracle that any texts have been passed down thousands of years to us.
“The novel really explores questions of stewardship and conservation on one side and destruction and erasure on the other and ask questions about that, in terms of texts and human culture and books and how libraries perform a service of stewardship and conservation in terms of stories,” Doerr said. “But also in terms of the planet.”
What: Anthony Doerr at Aspen Winter Words
When: Wednesday, Nov. 3, 6 p.m.
How much: $12
Doerr’s pandemic book launch and tour has included mix of virtual events like Wednesday’s with Aspen Words — featuring Doerr in conversation with “Ask Again, Yes” author Mary Beth Keane — and about a dozen in-person events, mostly hosted by independent bookstores in theaters.
“It’s been kind of moving,” he said of meeting readers again and addressing crowds. “To hear human laughter collective in a space is so powerful. Humans bring energy into a room together that is hard to reproduce online.”
This virtual leg of the tour allows Doerr to stay home, where he is keeping an eye on snowpack in Sun Valley and looking forward to the coming ski season.
Doerr spent the pandemic in Idaho, finishing the tail end of seven-years’ work on “Cloud Cuckoo Land” and dealing — like parents across the U.S. — with concerns about his teen sons attending school online, while also experiencing the urban exodus’ effect on his mountain west community just like people in Aspen and ski country did.
Doerr, a longtime resident of Idaho, recalled dealing with new traffic, surprisingly full trailhead parking lots and inexperienced mountain bikers on trails he’d grown accustomed to having to himself. He tried to balance the anxiety of it with excitement that more Americans were embracing the outdoors during the pandemic.
“The pressure on trailheads was a little overwhelming, to be honest,” he said. “But you just had to say, like, ‘Welcome everybody!’ … Maybe more people are getting connected to nature in new ways. And that’s really important. I think that emotional connection to the natural world is so vital in terms of any conservation effort.”
While he’s lived in Idaho for two decades, Doerr’s first entrée into the mountains was here in Colorado. Doerr ski-bummed in the mid-1990s, working as a cook for a post-college year in Telluride, where he said he fantasized about road-tripping to Woody Creek to find Hunter S. Thompson and ask the gonzo journalist to teach him something about writing (“I was too chicken to do so,” Doerr recalled).
The Powers Art Center is opening its newest exhibit, “Wrapped,” curated by Melissa English and Sonya Taylor-Moore on Friday, December 1 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The exhibit will run through November 2, 2024.