An Interview with Anthony Doerr
Anthony Doerr has won numerous prizes for his fiction, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Carnegie Medal. His most recent novel, All the Light We Cannot See, was a #1 New York Times Bestseller and his new novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, will be published in September of 2021.
Cloud Cuckoo Land is spread over roughly three periods of history and three areas of geography. How did you go about selecting the times and places that would be tied together by Antonius Diogenes' novel?
The project started with Constantinople. When I was working on All the Light We Cannot See and looking into the fortifications of the Second World War, the histories of defensive walls routinely mentioned the incredible Theodosian walls that stood unbreached around Constantinople for 1,100 years. So I started by simply trying to tell the story of walls; for millennia, walls were the predominant defensive technology protecting civilisation and culture, before gunpowder appeared as a disruptive technology.
But soon enough, the story became about what those walls meant for books and book culture, and how the codex became predominant as such an efficient and long-lasting way to store information. Something like 75% of the Greek literature we have today has only reached us because of the walls of Constantinople – because the texts were preserved there and recopied every couple of centuries, in imperial, monastic, and private libraries. I began to think that the best way to tell a story about books and walls might be to sweep the narrative forward through history, and show how a book survives through time, both because of human technologies and because of human stewards.
Meanwhile, I came across a very interesting collection of essays called The Great Derangement, in which Amitav Ghosh suggests that climate change was a really difficult subject for literary fiction writers because of the time scales involved. “In novels,” he wrote, “…a setting usually requires a ‘period'; it is actualised within a certain time horizon.” Maybe, went his reasoning, novels couldn't encompass enough time to show the fundamental changes we're wreaking on planetary systems.
But certainly a few novels (I think of Annie Proulx's Barkskins) do sweep through multiple generations. So I started to try to combine those ideas of books and of a changing world over centuries, and see if I could describe the survival of a single manuscript from Constantinople, and show it slipping through the vicissitudes of time.
Finally, I was drawn to the thought of how we're living, right now, at this moment of technological intersections where we can carry the complete works of Shakespeare in an iPhone, and have instantaneous conversations with somebody in Madagascar or Montana. The promise of the internet was that democracy could be delivered everywhere, that information and knowledge would be available to all. The Internet is an amazing tool, but it has also not really delivered on all the promises we thought it might.
In the end, I wanted to play around with making a book of everything — how something like Wikipedia can be both miracle and failure — a deeply human creation, neither as comprehensive as it pretends to be, nor as foolproof as it aspires to be. Konstance's library in the future is asking: When we have access to everything, does it make us any wiser, does it add any meaning to our lives? Maybe that's what Aethon's ‘Book of Everything' in Cloud Cuckoo Land represents, and maybe that's what this whole novel represents, too.
Regarding those changes and developments, we see them all the way from the destructive force of the Turks' revolutionary new cannon to the Ilium organisation's whitewashing of reality on the world map, and there's quite a suspicion around new technologies throughout the book. What are your feelings about widespread 21st century technologies, and how they affect our interactions?
There is definitely a scepticism in me as I watch my kids use these tools. In our lifetimes technology companies have changed from plucky startups to juggernauts that I believe governments in the United States and Europe should be working to break apart. Google has something like 92% market share in search technology, and their customers aren't us, the users — their customers are the companies that buy ads. Is it Google's duty to guide us to the most meaningful, accurate information? Or is it to increase value for its shareholders?
There's immense possibility in these technologies, of course, but ultimately what makes us happy and gives meaning to our lives is our connection with each other, and our connection with stories, and our connection with species other than us. I don't know how much these technologies are enabling any of these three. I definitely don't want to say that my novel is an indictment of technology — I'm only interested in how it affects us, what it might mean when new technologies arrive and disrupt the way we think, and whether it removes us from what we have evolved to be.
I also don't want to become an old fuddy-duddy who doesn't try to understand the value of digital tools. For example, my boys turned far more frequently to their screens during the pandemic, but the way they could play video games in real time with friends, it was almost as if they were just hanging out in the same room, learning conflict resolution, laughing, talking smack to each other. I realise that if the coronavirus pandemic had happened thirty years ago, when I was their age, I would have felt much, much more isolated without this technology.
But going back to those human stewards, it's the human part that makes technology valuable. The more the algorithms are in charge, the less human stewardship there is and the less it feels like we can engage with it in a way that benefits us.
Absolutely, and those are the kinds of questions I'm playing around with Sybil: the promises of AI versus the realities. Sybil can be a mother and a teacher to Konstance, and she serves custodian to this incredible, possibly infinite library of information. But at the same time, it becomes necessary for Konstance to build a little library inside of her mind that's protected from Sybil, because the connections and proficiencies that Sybil can offer Konstance simply aren't enough.
When Konstance has the realisation Sybil doesn't actually know everything, I felt this wild fountain of hope and joy that she had her own library that Sybil didn't. It was a really delightful moment.
Oh, good! That's what I hope a reader will feel. Because Konstance is growing up in what's fundamentally a religion, being fed a narrative in which “Sybil will solve everything,” it takes immense courage for her to accept that Sybil is not omnipotent.
I worry that on a much, much larger scale, we're being told similar things. “It's OK, AI will be so powerful, it'll be able to diagnose your diseases, grow your crops more efficiently, drive your car safely, tell you your bedtime stories.” But nature always finds ways to surprise us. We're always going to be mortal, and the utopia in which technology solves all of our problems will always be a cloud cuckoo land. That's really Aethon's story, too, and maybe my own — maybe this novel was my way of trying to accept that my body will continue to fall apart, and eventually will fold itself back into the earth, that no magical technology is ever going to save me from death.
Culturally, our vision for the future in fiction has been quite overwhelmingly negative. There's a sense of impending disaster for all the characters in Cloud Cuckoo Land, but by the end of the novel, each of them seems to have discovered their journeys have brought them somewhere hopeful. How much do you think hope is an essential part of literature?
This book took me seven years to write, so my twin sons were ten years old when I started, and the films they watched during those years so often featured exploding Earths, or ice-covered Earths, or shattered Earths, or entire cities wiped out again and again. At the same time that they were downstairs taking in stories like that, I'd be upstairs reading scientific papers for the novel about climate change. And while climate scientists are often restrained in their predictions, when they do make predictions for how the Earth might look and feel by the end of this century, when my sons (God willing) will be old men, my heart would often rise into my throat.
But I feel hopeful every time I — and my sons — would turn back to books and reading. I'd feel better, more connected; I'd feel a good book was teaching my imagination compassion, and I'd be reminded that fictional characters from every culture, often feel the same ways as I do, even if they lived 100 years ago or maybe if they live 100 years from now. They've all felt alone, or they've felt that thrill of falling in love or that fear of being lost or their parents' disapproval.
I think maybe I've always derived hope from literature. In Homer, for example, no matter how violent a scene gets, there are these really beautiful moments always contrasted against death — a bright blooming poppy juxtaposed against a dying boy-soldier. There's always this cycle of regeneration that makes me feel hopeful. We individuals might die, Homer suggests, but stories — human cultures — live on. So I wanted, in a book that was a tribute to books, to turn the narrative each time towards hope, connection, and compassion.
It was interesting writing a book with a pandemic in it when this pandemic swept through. Long before 2020, I read Spillover by David Quammen, about how the more we infringe on habitats of other creatures, the more viruses are going to spill over from them into us. It's realistic to expect that there will be more pandemics, and a lot more challenges to our society with climate change coming. Our systems will just be made more fragile, and we've got to figure out a way through that: the next generations will need so much resilience. And for me, that path to resilience is compassion and story and hope. ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land' itself is a utopian idea, so I hope a reader somewhere in her mind is thinking about dystopias and utopias as she goes through the novel — maybe it's a little too Wizard of Oz to say “home is our utopia; the Earth we're living on right now, that's our cloud cuckoo land,” but that's where I usually find myself arriving. Being mortal is OK, and being on this incredibly fascinating, incredibly beautiful planet right now, today, is far better than whatever faraway cloud cuckoo land I'm lusting for when I think my life isn't good enough.
It's that hedonic treadmill — I'll be happier next time, next week, when I have this next thing. And actually you just need to go for a walk.
Exactly. Just lay on your back on the granite in the sun. More and more, we're taught through advertising and now social media that we need to go get more, buy more.
We've really needed hope and comfort over the last year or so, whether it's through comic novels or big picture non-fiction. Which books do you give to people or rely on yourself for that sense of optimism?
I turn to Anne Carson all the time; there's always some magic in her combination of words that gives these little zings of pleasure. Whether or not she's telling outright ‘hopeful' stories, I'm restored by how she uses language and the strangeness inside of her sentences and verses, the way she breaks down expected patterns and refashions them.
So many of the writers I love break down my expectations on a word-to-word level, where I think I know what word is coming next, and there's this great pleasure in the surprise of seeing a better, more apt choice. There's something almost humorous about it, working the way a joke does, building a little pattern that surprises you at the end. Virginia Woolf does that so well in her sentences: you never quite know where a Woolf sentence is going to go.
As a treat for finishing work on this novel, I read Piranesi by Susannah Clarke. The main character is so sweet, his innocence is a really beautiful thing, even though he's in quite a dark situation. That book made me feel optimistic. And the Russian paper-architects Brodsky and Utkin made these fantastical drawings that I sometimes give to people as a kind of hope. What Soviet architecture didn't allow for in real life, Brodsky and Utkin built on paper.
There's something just so beautiful about what humans can build in their minds, and any time I find that I'm struggling a bit, I cling to that. The exercising of human imagination makes you feel better, and removes anxiety. I really think for every 24 minutes I spend reading, I get maybe 24 hours of anxiety-free life.
Cloud Cuckoo Land celebrates the way words and stories can shape our choices and change our lives, from the pragmatic reality of how Anna's world looks completely different once she can read and write, to Zeno's sense of something unlocking in his brain when he discovers the Greek stories. Looking back, what are the stories that have opened a door for you?
Certainly the Odyssey. I was probably too young when I first read it, but I still fell in love with this idea of the journey as pattern, this pattern of enduring trials before a homecoming — that the world is in disorder and a hero has to overcome external obstacles (monsters) and internal obstacles (fear, grief) to get back to order. When you turn to the text as an older person, you keep remembering how old it is and yet how familiar some of those feelings are, homesickness, loss and fear.
The Chronicles of Narnia too; when I was a kid, the idea that a wardrobe contained another world was such a simple and easy metaphor for a book, that you open the door, and step into this really rich, magical place. It also ties in with Aethon's story, about seeking magic, and how you learn after everything that the simple pleasures of home are just as important, or more important, than the magical things you thought you were seeking. That's an old story, of course, and in telling Aethon's story, I'm just stealing from older stories.
A major theme in this book is nostos, the idea of returning home. Roger Ebert famously compared movies to ‘a machine that generates empathy' — do you think at this moment empathy is more important than ever, particularly around those who are having to leave their homes or trying to find homes?
The predictions for climate-induced migration and the way the population will be unsettled in the second half of this century are so scary. I mean, the way the British use the phrase ‘living in cloud cuckoo land,' in a kind of pejorative way, that's what we've been doing for decades in terms of the climate — we've been living in this cloud cuckoo land where we think we can burn petroleum and fly to Las Vegas for a weekend concert, then jump on a cruise the next month, and there will be no consequences to it. People all over the world will be displaced from their homes, particularly coastal places, there's going to be more people on the move, and the more people feel displaced from homes, the more likelihood conflict is.
If I can try to bend it towards positivity, I hope this novel maybe can have readers asking themselves, am I being a good ancestor? Remembering that I'm just one link in the chain of people, will my great-granddaughter thank me for some of the things I did, thinking a little bit less about my own importance now, and a little bit more of the importance of the lives of my great-grandkids? Will they get to live in stable environments where the ocean stays in one place and the forests don't burn every summer?
It was wonderful how you wove names and references from classical tales through the book: Seymour's cartoon character and owl being called Good Hope and Trustyfriend; Konstance being on the Argos, and Ethan's farm being named after Odysseus's last stop before home. How much were you immersed in that world of Greek language and stories to write this book?
I had no formal training in the classics during school. So the seven years of writing this novel offered a great chance to try to steep myself in ancient Greek and Roman literature and try to rectify yet another of my thousand fields of ignorance. I had some help from spending a year at the American Academy in Rome, where scholars would teach me a little ancient Greek here and there, which was fun because it's so foreign to us: we don't really even know how it sounded when it was spoken! And yet that those words survived means that you can at least glimpse the textures of their lives. We as Westerners have erased so many non-written cultures, but the fact that the Greeks and Romans engraved some things means that, right or wrong, their voices live on. So why not learn what you can from them? They're both alien and incredibly familiar.
Your final question: you're at a feast on Mount Olympus. Who are you hoping to be seated by, mythological or historical?
Hephaestus, for sure, the Smith God. He spends his days crafting little things of beauty, and that's what I've dedicated most of my waking hours to, building little ornate things that I hope will bring pleasure to a few people. To dedicate your life to something like that means you have to just love making things, and find pleasure in the process of doing it; hopefully Hephaestus could help me feel a little less crazy for wanting to do that with the few decades I get to be here on Earth.