How does an author follow up a success like 2014’s “All the Light We Cannot See,” which won the Pulitzer Prize and spent more than three years on the bestseller list? For Anthony Doerr, his new novel “Cloud Cuckoo Land” — longlisted for the 2021 National Book Award — began with a wall.
Much of “All the Light We Cannot See” takes place during World War II in the French coastal town of Saint-Malo, a city surrounded by a medieval wall. In researching that novel — which took Doerr 10 years to write — the author became fascinated by a much earlier history: that of the walls of Constantinople, built in the fourth and fifth centuries and finally besieged in 1453.
“Everything I would read [about] the history of defensive walls, medieval walls, would mention Constantinople,” Doerr said, in a telephone interview from his home in Boise, Idaho, a few weeks before he’ll open the Seattle Arts & Lectures’ in-person season at Benaroya Hall on Sept. 28. “I was just amazed to realize yet another enormous hole in my own education. The fact that there was this empire, this capital with walls that stood 1,100 years and withstood 23 sieges. I thought, I don’t know anything about this!” He printed out a copy of a 15th-century engraving of Constantinople and put it up next to his desk, thinking maybe there’d be a project in it, someday.
That day finally came, after “All the Light We Cannot See” was published and Doerr began thinking about a follow-up, something different and yet with similar themes. He began reading about the immense wealth amassed inside the walls of Constantinople before its fall, and how one of the things they accumulated was books, in private libraries, monastic libraries and even lending libraries. “As soon as I caught on to that,” he said, “I thought, I’ve got a story.”
That story began as one not too dissimilar from “All the Light We Cannot See”: a girl inside the walls with a book, a boy outside. But there was another story that he was simultaneously developing: one set in the future, about confinement, “maybe in outer space.” And he realized something was linking these two stories: books.
“I realized that the power of books, the technology that is the book, those little leaves stacked on top of each other and bound, is that it can outlive — it’s one of the most effective tools we have to propagate a person’s voice in time and space. They can outlive an individual person. So I started to think, the way to dramatize the power of somebody being a steward for a book in the 15th century is to show it land in somebody’s hands, first in the present — I started toying with that, and then I thought, what if I show it in the future, and show how a book moves between generations, and maybe that can help us feel more connection to the people before us and the people after.”
“Cloud Cuckoo Land,” over seven years of writing, emerged: an intricate love letter to books and libraries (its dedication is “For the librarians/ then, now, and in the years to come”) told through a variety of intertwined threads. Two of them take place in mid-15th-century Constantinople, one during and after the Korean War, one in present-day Lakeport, Idaho (a town Doerr invented), one in the future on a spaceship — and one is an ancient Greek manuscript by Diogenes, sharing the novel’s title. The author, a Greek philosopher, was real; the manuscript, a utopian tale of a shepherd’s journey, is a Doerr invention, inspired by existing fragments of Diogenes’ work.
“I chase things that I want to know about,” said Doerr, who said his knowledge of ancient Greek literature was “zero” before beginning this project. “I think writers often hear the advice, ‘write what you know.’ I think it’s better to say, ‘write what you want to know.’”
It’s been a long process — though not quite as long the 10-year saga that was “All the Light We Cannot See,” which he wrote while he was teaching, “trying to make a living” and parenting young children (his twin sons are now 17). The astonishing success of that book, he said, took him by surprise, and his reaction to it was complicated. “It kind of depends on how a person measures success,” he said. In some ways, “All the Light We Cannot See” felt like failure to him, “in that it totally overwhelmed my life … I used to answer every letter I got, I used to have my email address on my website. That started to feel like failure, like I wasn’t able to meet all the needs coming my way. … I’m just now beginning to understand what really happened with ‘All the Light.’”
Doerr’s excited by the prospect of speaking to a live audience when he comes to Seattle; it’s something he hasn’t done since February 2020. “I’m pretty sure I’ll cry,” he said, laughing. He’s putting together a slide show, with “lots of pictures of Constantinople,” and fondly remembers a previous visit to Seattle Arts & Lectures, for “All the Light We Cannot See.” “There’s just such warmth and energy in that amazing Benaroya Hall,” he said. “I’m close enough to Seattle I feel like the whole Northwest is home … I can’t imagine what it will feel like to go on stage and see readers in person again.”
And yes, he’s got an idea for his next novel, just a gleam in his eye at this point — or, maybe, several gleams. “I do have an idea, a couple of ideas,” he said. “You have to water them and see if they’ll grow.”