Published: May 13th, 2015
Anthony Doerr is an American novelist whose book All The Light We Cannot See earned him the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This novel was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction and on the New York Times bestseller list.
Howl: How would you describe your writing process, i.e. preferred time of day, ritual, computer vs handwriting...?
Doerr: I work in the mornings—on a computer—and I wear a pair of chainsaw operator’s ear muffs. My office isn’t particularly noisy or anything, but when I clamp those big muffs on, for some reason I can give myself permission to concentrate. Sometimes I’ve got them on for six or seven hour stints and when I take them off I feel kind of dizzy and the world seems too loud.
Howl: When you’re writing, how do you edit your work?
Doerr: I revise all the time. I have to compose, revise, and re-revise scenes just to understand what should happen in them. So my process involves a lot of trial and error. I write hundreds of paragraphs trying to figure out where the story is going, and I usually end up cutting most of them. At first a story is just like a big gray glob of clay, and it's only with each pass over it that I'm able to start carving out features, understanding what it's about. At first you describe, say, a bedroom, but you don't know what is on the walls yet; or you describe a person, but you don't quite know what's in her heart yet...it's only through revision, and time, that those things start to become clear.
Howl: What makes writing your creative medium of choice?
Doerr: I remember reading C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia as a young boy and falling in love with it, with the idea of transporting—that simple black markings on a white page could transport me to such an amazing and rich environment. That’s probably where the initial impulse to be a writer came from, from the magic of trying to create lush, intricate experiences out of very inexpensive materials: words on a page.
Howl: Some writers can always look back on their work and find things they’d want to change. How do you know when what you’re writing is finished to your liking?
Doerr: Oh, even after a book is published and printed, I still want to change all sorts of things. Language is an imprecise vehicle, and you never stop wanting to fix and improve and clarify it. The only thing you can do is try to move on to something new, and leave the old, imperfect project behind.
Howl: Do you ever get writer’s block, and if so how do you overcome it?
Doerr: I'm not sure I believe in writer's block. I believe in failures of courage. I have plenty of them every day. (I'm having one right now, for example, answering your questions instead of writing fiction). It's always easier to answer email or fold laundry or pull weeds or lie face down on the floor than it is to confront the problems in whatever piece of writing you're working on. So it's not necessarily that I get blocked as much as I get too afraid of facing down whatever dead-end I've written myself into. Sometimes the courage isn't there, and that's okay, but you can't let yourself have too many failures because then a piece of writing tends to freeze over, like a big lake, and then you'll need even more energy just to chop through the ice and get back to where you started.
Howl: What are some of the joys and challenges of being a writer as a profession?
Doerr: Challenge #1? Sitting inside on a gorgeous day and trying to make some complicated project work when it feels like every other human is outdoors enjoying life. Challenge #2? Trying not to be wounded by the criticism of your work in magazines, newspapers, and on the internet. Perks? I have no boss; no fixed schedule; I don’t have to sit through interminable meetings. Being a writer is a way of living and looking at things, a way of staying a curious and challenged person, and I'm deeply, deeply grateful every day that I'm able to do it.
Howl: Whose work do you currently admire and encourage people to read?
Doerr: I think Karen Russell is amazing. I think Anne Carson is amazing. I’m drawn to writers like Annie Dillard, or Bruce Chatwin, or Nabokov, or W.G. Sebald, who display extremely fine sensory perception, who look at the world with such precision.
Howl: What advice do you have for budding writers?
Doerr: Read, read, read, read. Books are my inspiration. Anytime I start wondering why in the heck I'm spending three hours on two sentences, I return to the books I love, the writers I love, or I try to find new books – there are always more discoveries to be made, always more voices to find that I never dreamed existed. And I love that– the intoxication of getting lost in a narrative is what initially made me want to write, and it still makes me want to write.