“Things You Can’t Predict Happen Here”: A Conversation with Anthony Doerr

Color portrait of Anthony Doerr from head to hips, wearing a gray sportscoat and folding his arms
Anthony Doerr at Macro Asilo in Rome, May 2019

Anthony Doerr, a writer based in Boise, Idaho, was the 2019 Writer in Residence at the American Academy in Rome from April 22 to May 27. His novels include About Grace (2004) and All the Light We Cannot See (2014), which won a Pulitzer Prize and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. In Rome he will work on a book set in fifteenth-century Constantinople, the present day, and the future. A 2005 Fellow, Doerr published a short memoir about his time at the Academy, titled Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World, when he shared Apartment 5B with his wife Shauna and two newborn twin sons.

Claudia Trezza interviewed Doerr a few days after his reading at Macro Asilo in Rome, where he shared an unpublished text exploring “Il domani dei classici” (“The Future of the Classics”), the theme for the eighteenth edition of the Rome International Literature Festival, taking place June 4 to July 3.

Each Fellow has a different experience at the Academy. You came here with infants in 2004 and were busy writing All the Light We Cannot See. Other than writing and parenting, what did you take from your experience as a Fellow fifteen years ago?

When you’re writing fiction, you can’t predict what experiences, memories, or research you’re going to draw on. It was here that, for the first time, I finally started to learn that you have to open yourself to a bunch of different experiences, because you can’t predict what’s going to be relevant to your work and when. Sometimes it’s okay to just say, “Yes, I’d like to go on a trip to Tarquinia and see Etruscan tombs,” even though you have no idea what Etruscan tombs are and you’re not writing a book about them. You just say, “You know, I’m just going to learn something today,” and maybe fifteen years later it percolates back—not just to your life, of course, but through your work in some way.

I used to think that writing a novel was like marching through a one-hundred-mile road from the beginning to the end. Instead it’s this garden of many forking paths. You take all these digressions. Sometimes you write thirty pages that end up getting erased or put in some file to be never used again. But you had to write those thirty pages to get to the end. It’s frustrating, because being an artist is not always the most efficient thing, but ultimately that’s the path you have to take. And you have to be happy with that, to say, “This is how I got here, and it’s okay that it took me longer than other people.”

Maybe it’s maturity, but the Academy helped me do that—being around so many other curious people who have so much to teach. You can’t say, “Well, that’s not relevant.” Someone is studying brass key holes from the eighteenth century and you’re like, “Well, that’s not going to help me with my novel.” But spending an hour with them, eventually it might. Even if a Fellow’s topic is not directly relevant to yours, it’s interesting to see how there might be something that you share, that one of my characters shares, that I share. A passion for the esoteric. I love that about this place.

I am starting to think that I don’t want my kids to learn in school. I want them to learn how to learn. Because, especially in their world, they’re going to have to be so flexible, so quickly. In our world of writing, you could say, “Okay, eighty years ago you could go into journalism, use a typewriter, know how to use it.” When you retired, the typewriter was the same machine. In our world, technology changes so fast that our kids must be flexible in their thinking. They have to be lifelong learners. There won’t even be truck drivers in fifteen years! And who knows what climate change will do to environments. The Academy is the kind of place that allows you not only to keep learning, but also to keep learning how to learn.

They say the classics are the bread of schoolmasters, but what you learn here are things like how the life of the Etruscans dancing on the walls of the tombs are still pulsing through the streets of Rome in a contemporary DJ’s performance. The Etruscans are painting those things because they’re afraid to die and want to believe that afterlife is this incredible place—and don’t we also? I’m terrified to die, and it might just be blackness when we die, but I’d sure would like to think it’s a big dance party where you’re like, “I feel great again, oh more wine!”

Things you can’t predict happen here. When you are at lunch and someone asks, “Have you been to Tivoli? And Villa D’Este?” and you’re like, “Oh, what’s that?” Two lunches later someone else brings it up and you think, “You know what, maybe I should take the kids there,” and you do that. It’s only because everyone here is like a really skilled tourist. They are all teaching you things at unexpected times. It’s a very special thing.

The Rome Sustainable Food Project [founded in 2007] has changed things. When I was a Fellow, the food wasn’t great. In some ways, poor food hampers the mission of incidental learning. Good food does, because you don’t want to miss a meal. You never know who you will sit next to. It might be a Fellow. It might be a visiting architect. It might be a classicist who you think, “Well, I don’t know how to read ancient Greek, so I have nothing in common with this person.” Five minutes later you’re talking about cave paintings in France and you’re all excited.

Has this happened to you anywhere else?

The Academy is a pretty unique place. Sure, I go to writers’ conferences. I’ll have dinner with a bunch of interesting writers. But often we’re all doing the same thing. It’s so unusual to say, “Here’s Helen, a visual artist, and here’s Michael, a really well-known architect, and here is Denise, who spends the entire day reading ancient Greek.” You’re having a conversation at the Academy and you don’t even realize—because you’re not in their field—how preeminent some of these people are until you go back to your computer and you’re like, “Oh my God!”

There is a mythology about where a writer writes his or her novel. How does it feel to be writing in the Casa Rustica?

I’ve dispelled that mythology. Of course, first, it’s daunting because Galileo had that astrolabe in 1611 where he said, “Hey, I invented the telescope!” Then you start thinking of all the people who have written here. It’s a little intimidating. But thankfully I put on these headphones with silence in them before I write so wherever I am—hopefully even train stations and airports—the sounds usually bleed away. The more beautiful the place, the more distracting it can be. As a writer, you’re trying to dive into the world of these black marks on the white page. Often the place filters in, but what I’m trying to do is find quiet. It doesn’t always have to be a fancy or amazing spot.

Your book Four Seasons in Rome had a recurrent theme about not understanding Rome, and that the longer you stayed the less you understood it. Is that true of any city in the world, or is that particularly true of Rome?

I suppose that’s true of life. When you are my sons’ age—at fifteen—you think you “get” life. I look at them and am like, “You guys think you know everything, and you don’t know anything yet.” And sometimes beginner writers, too. The less experience a writer has the more certain he or she is that they are doing it right, and the more shocked they are when they need edits. You gain experience with time, but you realize how complicated everything is. You can study the art of table-making and then you’re like, “Oh, now I can make a table.” But then you start studying it for your life and realize, “Oh, there are mysteries even in something like that.”

So, Rome? Of course. The saying is, “A lifetime is not nearly enough.” The centuries are all jumbled right on top of one another in Rome. It’s like a puzzle here—you can’t tease out all the tangles. It’s kind of majestic. You have to accept your own ignorance even when you fight back against it.

In your talk at Macro, you urged the current Rome Prize Fellows to take in their experience as much as possible as their time comes to an end. What tips do you have for incoming Fellows on how to juggle their time between seeing Rome, being part of this amazing community, doing their work, taking care of their family, et cetera?

As I get older I would say, make sure you pause from your work now and then and take this stuff in. Take advantage of these walks. The fact that Mary Beard gave a walk in the Forum, or that you can volunteer in the kitchen, a no-waste kitchen, and learn from the cooks, or that you go with Frank Snowden to Mussolini-built towns and study Fascist architecture. Often when you come here as a Fellow you are earlier in the career, so you are desperate to take advantage of this time to advance your career. Sometimes that stuff is not as important as taking advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn from people, to be in this city and realize all that will filter into one’s work and improve one’s thinking later in life. As long as you are not prioritizing standing in the Academy bar for two hours talking—which is fine, too—I would say, “Go on these walks, learn about the surrounding areas of Rome the way they allow you to, and keep grinding at the other things, go to the library.” It’s hard. That’s the tension every person here talks about. The city is always pulling you away. It’s like gravity.

Four Seasons in Rome talks about how Romans are more in touch with or more aware of death compared to Americans. Rome as a city is more dedicated to its past. Is there is a connection between a greater awareness of death and being surrounded by reminders of death?

Yes, probably. It might be too easy a circle to draw but see, Tarquinia is on my mind because we just went there. To go up and down on those tombs. You are like a rabbit. You go down in this dark warren and—it was a beautiful day—so you come up and the silver clouds are blowing and all the camomille, daisies are blooming, the asphodel stocks are up, and this is life! This is Spring! Then you drop down in these tombs which are celebrating life but also, it’s very easy to imagine when they laid out the bodies down there. There is something so antiseptic in the way Americans deal with death. The coffins are latched, and you don’t have to look in if you don’t want to. In America, we don’t wash the bodies of our loved ones and lay them down in the tombs we’ve designed for them. I think that separates you and fills you with anxiety. I try to remind myself that I am just a bunch of “stuff,” a bunch of matter. I have a microbiome in me that’s going to live after I’m dead. There is all this wilderness inside of our guts, and we’re just moving that microbiome around for a few decades and then we give it back to the world, and it becomes something else.

It doesn’t mean I’m not afraid of death, but I try to remind myself that every single person we know is going to be a corpse, and maybe being around tombs, being around reminders that empires rise and fall, disabuse you of the notion of “American exceptionalism.” There is this worship that America is different, that it’s the first democracy that’s really going to last. Now I feel like the limits of our democracy are already being tested, and the country is not even three hundred years old. That’s what history teaches you over and over and over again. Anytime you think something is going to last, it doesn’t. Change, that’s the only eternal thing. It’s change.

How does it feel to be back to the Academy after fifteen years?

Well, did you know Pina Pasquantonio? She died [in 2016]. That was super sad. She was, like, the mom of this place. So, you know, you feel wistful. Norm Roberson, the gatekeeper, who I got to know, has passed away [in 2008]. The librarian Christina Huemer passed away [in 2010]. There is this change, just like we are talking about, that makes you sad.

But the improvements here are crazy. John Ochsendorf is such a terrific director. Maybe the best example is—right before I got here was the Cinque Mostre exhibition. Did you see the work that Nicolás Leong and Joannie Bottkol did, where everybody contributed something? Even Peter Benson Miller, the arts director, and Lynne Lancaster, the humanities director. When you are in a position of leadership, you are so busy. It would be so easy to say, “I can’t write a paragraph about a site in Rome.” But they all did—some in Italian, some in English. That’s just a sign of how amazing the Academy is. This amazing willingness to cooperate and give time across fields and make those inner connections. John is just super good at fostering that stuff.

What was the community like when you were here?

There was plenty of collaboration among the fellows. I was busy with the babies and sometimes I missed that part. John, Mark Robbins, too, they are really about growing this place and not making it this “old all-white guys, all studying classics at Harvard,” the way it may have been fifty years ago. You can see in this current exhibition The Academic Body, where there is some crazy stuff. They’ve highlighted five African American portraits [by 2018 Fellow Beverly McIver] behind the bar. It’s nice to keep saying, “The Academy needs to keep growing. The world is changing.” Today there are fellows of different ages. We had that, too. I loved that. It’s so interesting when you have people in their twenties interacting with people in their sixties. That brings a lot of strength to an institution.

At Macro you mentioned that your next book, which is about two people in different times—one in the past, the other in the future—both reading the same text. Can you tell me more?

Yes. And I’m inventing the text. So many books were lost from antiquity. We have just a few fragments. We have a ninth-century summary of this one book, but I’m inventing pieces of it for my novel. It’s ambitious, but I’m into it right now. The thread of my book is a text that was lost but then fictionally rediscovered in the 1450s by a girl who is passionate about learning. The text is lost again, and fragments of it are found in the present. Then a guy translates and reassembles it, and someone in the future reads back the reassembled book. The text connects all these characters through time. We’ll see. Occasionally I’m putting direct invented fragments of the book into the book.

Have you been able to work on the book during your stint at the Academy these past few weeks? How has being in Rome affected your writing?

Yes, I’ve been working on it during my time here. Being here and using the library has been amazing. Not teaching is great for my work in that I have more time, but it also means I don’t have access to an academic library. I try to get stuff on JSTOR, but being able to walk into the Academy’s library has been great—especially since there are lots of collected fragments of ancient texts, some on papyrus, that have been founded and translated. That’s been really, really helpful.

I’m grateful to the Academy for giving me a second chance to come here. John has this metaphor: AAR’s administration is like the adults and the Fellows are like the kids, but as a Resident you get to be like a teenager. You get how expensive it is to run this place, and also how wonderful all these people are.

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