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What Was Anthony Doerr's Writing Process in the Pulitzer Prize Winner “All the Light We Cannot See”
Pulitzer book All the Light We Cannot See
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a New York Times bestseller that has won several prizes, including the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. In this article we want to not only review the book, but also talk of the writer’s process, which we culled by reviewing several interviews he did in educational institutions.
All the Light We Cannot See is only 544 pages long, and the chapters are very short. Some are less than a page, and the longest chapter is five pages. It took Doerr 10 years to complete this novel. Some paragraphs in the book required 30 hours of research, which included museum visits, riffling through period photos and reading original documents, among others.
Here is the unfolding of how Doerr wrote this bestseller in 10 years:
- The seed began in 2004 (the book was published in 2014) in Penn Station, New York City. A man was talking on his phone about Keanu Reeves and The Matrix, when suddenly the phone fell and broke. The man complained loudly and lengthily. Doerr found it ironic that they were 80 ft. underground, traveling 40 miles an hour. He marveled that the man couldn't see that talking to somebody on a little device is a beautiful miracle, and all around, radiation is carrying messages. And so he decided to write a book about the magic of communication.
- Later that night Doerr decided to write about a boy who is trapped somewhere, and a blind girl who is reading a story to him on the radio.
- In 2005 Doerr went to Saint Malo in Brittany, France. He was being interviewed for a previous book he'd written. Afterwards, he went outside the restaurant to a rampart, and was awestruck at the beauty of the old buildings. He was told that the entire city was bombed during WW2, and what he saw was a replica of all that was before. Doerr decided that Saint Malo would be the scene of his story, and it would take place in WW2.
- Doerr decided that his main character, Marie, would lose her eyesight at age six. Her father, a master locksmith of the National Museum of Paris, finds ways to stimulate her mind, building a miniature wooden copy of her neighborhood so she can travel independently; carving puzzle boxes for her, and when she learns to read braille, he buys her many books. These books open Marie to vast worlds of magnificent possibilities.
- In 2006, Doerr read about the 1940 German invasion in Paris. The information helped him form his second main character, Werner Pfennig, an 8-year-old orphan boy with a younger sister, Jutte age 6. They live in the coal mining town of Zollverein, Germany. Their father died from an accident in the mines.
- One day Werner and his sister discovered a broken radio on the ground. Werner figures out a way to fix it, and he and Jutta use the radio to listen to programs from France, including a science lesson that is told in a way that is understandable to the young children. In this way, Werner discovers a passion for science, and his special gift for radio circuitry. These gifts land him into a Nazi Military elite school – an escape ticket for him from the mines (where all boys at age 15 are obligated to work).
Continuation, How Doerr Wrote the Book in 10 Years
- But the elite school is a double-edged sword. He is taught military skills, proper engineering courses and science -- but an hour later he is taught racism, genocide and propaganda such as, “You will all surge in the same direction at the same pace toward the same cause ... You will eat country and breathe nation.”
- Werner is later transferred to Wehrmacht, where he is tasked to find illegal radio transmissions. He loses heart when he sees that a child hiding in a closet was killed in their search for an illegal radio, perhaps reflective of himself and Jutte when they first enjoyed listening to the radio together.
- Meanwhile, in Paris, treasures from the National Museum in Paris are hidden in various locations. Marie and her father hide a precious gemstone and go to Saint Malo to live with an agoraphobic granduncle in his tall, slim house with an attic.
Doerr takes a lot of risks in this award winning book. For example, in this 544 page tome, the main characters only intersect at the 400th page. Also, he hopes that readers can sympathize with a Nazi, Werner.
Although the book is quite slim, there are single paragraphs in the book which required up to 30 hours of research, including visits to museums and libraries, and looking through old photographs. One photograph that helped him to form Werner’s character appeared in an old issue of Life Magazine, of a 15-year-old Nazi soldier crying because he learned that the war was over. The boy in the photo, Hans-Georg Henke’s father died in 1938 and his mother died in 1944. Doerr noted that the boy’s uniform was too big, and it was as if someone had put a dead man’s uniform on him.
Some issues are tackled in this book:
- Is it right to be doing something, only because somebody else is doing it? This is the question that Jutta, at the age of 12, asked Werner who was about to leave for school. The discussion arose because by 1937-1938 it was illegal in Germany to listen to foreign broadcasts, a crime punishable initially by hard labor and later, death. Werner caught Jutta listening to the radio, and he destroyed it to save her, but for her and in a way for him, it was a betrayal.
- Moral Choices. Jutta’s question also deals with moral choices. Doerr, in one interview said that the issue of moral choices is something that can apply to anything, such as bullying, or whether to sip water from a plastic bottle. He noted that he wasn’t sure if he would do the right thing, if he were in Werner’s situation. However, there is a minor character, Frederick, a German boy who does not capitulate. To the question, ‘is it right to do something because everybody else is doing it?” Frederick says no, it’s right to make your own decisions. Werner, at that point in the novel, isn’t strong enough to do the same, and the school is constructed to winnow out all children who think differently.
I really appreciated the Doer's book. It is so easy to read, and you end up with your heart dancing. Because it's a short book and easy to read, your heart can dance as long as you want it to by reading it over and over again, so that your heart can dance over and over again.
Here are more pointers on Doerr’s writing process:
- Hard research, hard choices. Doerr said that among others, one reason it took him 10 years to write the book was because reading the eyewitness accounts and narratives of survivors was, for him, psychologically difficult and even damaging. He chose to honor the holocaust but let it live beneath his sentences. He had to trust that readers were educated enough to know the surrounding circumstances.
- Characters. Doerr said it takes years for him to figure out his characters, to figure out what lies deep in their hearts, to know their parents, their bedrooms, and what they keep in their pockets. He says aside from looking at photographs and reading books, he has to dream a lot about his characters.
- Writing blind. Doerr said writing sometimes requires you to be a character actor. He writes like a blind person, then he transfers to Werner and suddenly realizes that he can see what Marie looks like.
- Revisions. He will revise a chapter at least twice.
- Doing a book for 10 years. Doerr said some books need “life support” over time. He wrote books in between and magazine articles and short stories. Sometimes he would just spend 10 or 15 minutes a day on All the Light We Cannot See. Then there comes a point when so much has accumulated and this is a book he can’t give up.
- Telling stories responsibly. Doerr said you can’t just say all Nazis are evil, nor that all Americans are good. You must tell stories responsibly, and focus on individuals.
All The Light We Cannot See is written during perhaps one of the darkest times in global history, when Hitler deigned to rule the world and the Holocaust was its end result. Amid such horror, Doerr irradiates pathways; the love between Marie and her father, the love of Werner for his sister, ways under difficult circumstances that people display innumerable dimensions of the heart. He shows how, against all odds, people are good to each other.
Note: Aside from the actual book, the author’s points of view are taken from interviews he did with Marcia Franklin of Idaho Television Network and a talk that Doerr did at The John Adams Institute.