Author Anthony Doerr gave an account of his experiences as a writer interspersed with droplets of sage comments about life to a crowded Campbell Hall Thursday.
“The lesson of every one of my favorite books,” he said, “is that the world is much more complicated than I thought.”
The event concluded this season of the UCSB Arts & Lectures series, “In Conversation with Pico.” Host and fellow writer Pico Iyer engaged Doerr in conversation about writing, mortality, and science, among other things. Iyer introduced Doerr as more than a writer, but also “a see-er, an explorer, and a telepath.”
The mostly older crowd of Santa Barbara book enthusiasts welcomed the Pulitzer Prize winner with a vigorous round of applause, to which he responded, “Thanks for clapping, wow.” Doerr’s modesty, however, did not mask his ability to amaze and inspire with his words. He elicited audible murmurs of agreement and admiration throughout the night.
Doerr is best known for his most recent novel, “All The Light We Cannot See,” which follows the lives of a blind French girl living in Paris and an orphaned German boy recruited by Nazi forces. They each navigate survival and preservation of their values during the devastation of World War II. His fragmented narrative and alternating perspectives, coupled with beautiful prose, result in a thrilling account of how people can become connected and interdependent in unexpected ways.
Many of Doerr’s novels and short stories tackle themes of memory and the fragility of life. “Memory Wall,” a collection of short stories, was Doerr’s attempt to “rectify [his] own ignorance” about his experience growing up in a household with his grandmother who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, which he could not fully comprehend as a child. The purpose of writing, he explained, is not to comment on what you already know but to “fill in the mysteries of life.”
Doerr conversed with Iyer about escapism through both reading and travel. Though he enjoys visiting new places, Doerr expressed his newfound appreciation for finding wonders in ordinary places, like one’s own backyard.
Doerr also spoke about his appreciation for science, a topic which has intrigued him since he grew up with a mother who was a science teacher. His love for science permeates much of his writing. While completing a fellowship in Rome, he chronicled his experience reading all 37 volumes of Roman scientist Pliny’s “Natural History“ in his memoir “Four Seasons in Rome.”
Research when writing fiction, he said, is necessary because “you’re building this dream for your readers and you don’t want to break it.” Doerr’s dedication to accuracy is impressive; he is currently reading “The Secret Life of Cows” in preparation for his latest novel. His new novel will feature a minor relationship between one of the characters and an ox.
He acknowledged that he often gets carried away with research because, after looking up a few facts, “suddenly the whole world starts rushing in.”
Doerr mentioned the challenges of adapting to the rapid spread of technology and what it means to be a writer in the digital age. New innovations, he noted, may disrupt the way people view and appreciate the world but they also provide for better accessibility to information and art.
On a lighter note, he described listening to an audiobook of one of his novels as “like watching another man kiss your wife,” drawing laughs from the audience.
Doerr is writing a novel about “the evolution of what a library is.” Without spilling too many details, he said the novel will have a non-linear narrative, jumping around from the 15th century to the present and the future. It will address issues such as the role of libraries in changing times and how information is controlled and spread.
After the talk, Doerr and Iyer stayed behind to sign copies of their books.