Slowly but steadily, Anthony Doerr conquered the bestseller lists with his historical novel ‘All the light we cannot see’. This story is about children who live during the Second World War. The blind Marie-Laure lives in France and is forced to deal with the invasion and occupation of the Germans. The young German Werner is one of those occupiers, but he has doubts about the intentions of his compatriots. ‘All the light we cannot see’ was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2014 and won a big prize in 2015: the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
How do you feel about your book being read by so many people?
“Every writer wants an audience and it’s lovely to have your book reaching people. It has changed my life a lot: first I got twenty mails a day and now I get a hundred. I hate saying no to things, but everything takes time away from your own writing, so I’m learning to politely say no. It takes me a while longer than it used to, but I try to answer all the emails. It’s amazing, this connection between reading and writing. I want to honor my readers, because they take about ten hours to read my book. I think I can afford to spend ten minutes writing back.”
The book was ten years in the making. How did you, as an American, feel writing about the Second World War from a non-American point of view?
“There’s no way I could ever fully understand what it would be like to be a girl in France in 1936, but I can try to understand what it would be like to be scared or to miss your father or to be hungry. So in some ways you’re relaying on the universality of human experience. In 1934 a character might be laughing for the same reason we are laughing now. And I think sometimes people cry for the same reasons all throughout human history. So it starts with some kind of commonality and then research tries to fill in the gap that remains after.”
‘All the light we cannot see’ is written from the point of view of children. How did you try to get into the mind of a child?
“For me, the book is about the difference between innocence and the loss of innocence. I didn’t so much read books with point of views from a child, but I remember my own childhood and I look at my children. I was a father for the whole time writing this book and I saw my boys growing up. I don’t think I would have been able to write these characters without having kids of my own.”
Did your children or other people in your personal life influence or inspire some of the characters?
“My mother had a skill that got you to think about the natural world and how everything is connected. Really there are pieces of my mother in a lot of the characters, like in Marie’s father or the people working at the museum. I think my brother is in some ways like Werner. He’s an electrical engineer and my mother always let him experiment. It takes a good parent to do that, because I’m too worried about my boys electrocuting themselves.
Marie-Laure is in a way inspired by my wife’s sister, who is disabled. It takes a lot of work, being around her, but it’s also wonderful, because she’s such a strong person. And there’s also my love of books. I love ‘Twenty thousand leagues under the sea’ by Jules Verne. I can vanish into books, so I kind of gave that to Marie. She gets a book for her birthday every year and she can vanish into that.”
All of these characters make an appearance in a book with a complicated structure, but everything only comes together in the end. How did you came up with this structure?
“I knew it was a big risk to have Marie at one end and Werner at the other and not having them in the same room until page 450. So I tried to break that chronology by reminding the reader that they are going to come together in the end. I hope the reader can feel this convergence throughout the story. And then I also tried to mimic puzzles, because I love puzzles. I was trying to structure the story so that it would feel like puzzle pieces to the reader.”
This interviewed was first published in Dutch at CLEEFT