After the success of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See in 2014, Anthony Doerr could have written anything he wanted. A mystery novel, a suspense thriller, a sequel, or a prequel.
Instead, he wrote a book rooted in Greek mythology featuring three amazingly disparate plot threads, spanning more than 700 years.
Doerr admits the scope of Cloud Cuckoo Land (Scribner) might be challenging.
“I think I am asking a lot of readers,” says Doerr, who appears Oct. 3 as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lecture Ten Evening series. “I’m so grateful that people persevere.”
Avid readers of the Cleveland native’s work realize Doerr is one of best and most ingenious storytellers working today. To read Anthony Doerr is to become enmeshed in worlds that are hidden, forgotten by history. And in the case of Cloud Cuckoo Land, to be part of at least one future world.
While his books are challenging, he is grateful that readers have embraced his work. “I find this appetite for narrative in humans so interesting, and it's continuous across cultures and across time,” Doerr says. “You just feel that anytime someone says, `Rege, the other day here’s what happened to me.’ And your ears just perk up. If it’s a good storyteller who uses detail well, she can just totally capture our interest.”
Doerr has a dogged belief in the importance of storytelling that informs his new novel. His cast — Konstance, a young girl hurtling through space on an expeditionary spaceship; Omeir, a boy with a cleft palate, and Anna, an orphaned girl with a thirst for learning in 15th century Constantinople; and Seymour, a teenager threatened by the destruction of the natural habitat in Idaho — are in thrall to the wonders of how stories work. Konstance, who writes notes on scraps of paper with homemade ink, and Anna, gifted with copies of rare manuscripts by a teacher, are especially intrigued by the importance of stories.
“There’s this interesting argument that stories have helped us in our evolution,” Doerr says. “Tell a compelling story about the crocodiles down by the river and the kids will steer clear of the river. And those kids will have that little evolutionary manager, at least the kids who were interested in that story.”
As his storytelling palette has expanded, so have Doerr’s novels. The Shell Collector, his first book, was a mere 256 pages. Since that debut, he’s progressed to 432 pages in About Grace, 544 in All the Light …, and Cloud Cuckoo Land is 640 pages.
His writing reflects his love of big books — Doerr was taking one of Patrick O’Brian’s epic novels on a trip to Paris — and a recognition that he only has so much time to accomplish his goals.
Noting that he has “death anxiety” that stems from watching his grandmother suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, there’s an urgency in every one of his projects.
“Watching that disease kind of chew away at her intellectual capabilities has given me this anxiety of 'do your big, complicated projects now because you never go when you might not be able to.' I have a couple more years my forties and hopefully I can be productive throughout my fifties, so I want to keep trying to be experimental and try big audacious projects while I still can.”
Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures' Ten Evenings with Anthony Doerr. 7:30 p.m. Mon., Oct. 3. Carnegie Music Hall. 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. In-person tickets, $18; Virtual tickets, $15. pittsburghlectures.org