Jude interviewed Anthony Doerr in March 2013 and we’re re-posting his interview here for 2016 entrants to read. He’s written some great tips on writing short stories and we highly recommend reading his wonderful prize-winning novel and his story collection,
Anthony Doerr is the author The Shell Collector, About Grace, Four Seasons in Rome, Memory Wall, He spent ten years writing his most recent book, ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ which was published by Scribner in early 2014 and became an instant New York Times bestseller. It was one of four finalists in the US National Book Awards, in November 2014 and went on to win the Pullitzer prize for fiction in the US in April, 2015.
Doerr’s short fiction has won four O. Henry Prizes and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, and The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Fiction. He has won the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, the Rome Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, the National Magazine Award for Fiction, two Pushcart Prizes, the Pacific Northwest Book Award, three Ohioana Book Awards, the 2010 Story Prize, which is considered the most prestigious prize in the U.S. for a collection of short stories, and the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, which is the largest prize in the world for a single short story. His books have twice been a New York Times Notable Book, an American Library Association Book of the Year, and made lots of other year end “Best Of” lists. In 2007, the British literary magazine Granta placed Doerr on its list of 21 Best Young American novelists.
- I was bowled over by your short story collection ‘Memory Wall’, which was recommended to me by UK short story writer Tania Hershman. Your stories range over a wide span of history and give the point of view of characters of different ages, genders and cultures. They focus on profound human dilemmas and experiences. Can you say more about how you came to write these stories?
When I was in high school, my grandmother developed Alzheimer’s disease and came to live with us. Over the course of months, we watched her mind disintegrate; she forgot who we were, where she was, where her bedroom was, even how to bathe herself. But she remembered curious things, too: her childhood telephone number, the date of her wedding, etc. She got to the point where she had no idea who I was, but could beat the pants off of me at gin rummy. So the readiest answer I have is that my own memories of my grandmother informed my work on the stories in Memory Wall—I had learned, at a young age, just how fragile our personal histories are. And I suppose, in a way, I was trying to rectify my own self-absorption when I was seventeen and eighteen, watching my grandmother lose her identity, and failing to understand the pain my parents were enduring.
As for imagining different places, histories, and individuals, I’d argue we write to learn what we don’t know; we write toward the mysteries, the things we can’t articulate but believe are there, feel are there. Maybe we start with what we know, but then we work in the opposite direction, away from the things that are comfortable, familiar known. Otherwise we’re not learning, and if we’re not learning, why bother? So that’s why I often choose subjects and characters whose experiences, on the surface at least, are quite different from my own.
- Your stories in ‘Memory Wall’ are long – the title story is 85 pages and still works very well as a short story, in my view. Do you think important themes can be developed in a much shorter text and do you have any thoughts or advice about writing to a word limit? The Bath Short Story Award is limited to 2200 words.
I love working on short stories for a lot of reasons, but one stands out: they’re short. When I’m working on a story, even an inordinately long one like “Memory Wall,” there are usually about 10,000 words I have to comb through before I start adding new material. So it’s short enough that I can read through the entire piece, make some revisions, and add new material in a single day. Here’s an easy metaphor: I’m able to keep the paint wet in all the corners of the canvasI really think that helps make a narrative feel whole to a reader. A novel, on the other hand, quickly gets too large and unwieldy. Sometimes there will be passages in your novel that you haven’t reread in a year. The canvas is so large that you are never able to visit all of it in one day (or several weeks) of work.
As for a word limit, I tend to prefer reading and writing stories that are longer than 2,200 words, but yes, of course, I think stories of that length can achieve a great deal. Look at Peter Orner’s work in Esther Stories, or many of Stuart Dybek’s short stories, or Jamaica Kinkaid’s “Girl” or Isaac Babel’s “My First Goose” or Joyce’s “Araby.” Look at Tobias Wolff’s “Say Yes.”
- Which other short story writers have influenced your writing? Can you say why?
Maybe two more than any others: Amy Hempel, because of her compression and playfulness with language. And Alice Munro because of what she can do with time. Munro can skim through a decade in a paragraph, or trawl through a single decision for several pages.
I also love story writers who pay attention to the natural world: Annie Dillard, Nadine Gordimer, Andrea Barrett, Sarah Orne Jewett… I’m an amateur naturalist at heart, a person who is most comfortable outdoors looking for creatures, looking for beauty, weather, light, water. And I love to render the things I see into language–only by writing it out, I think, can I make it real to myself.
- What editing advice would you give to writers who are considering entering our competition?
Reward the generosity of your reader! Try to examine every single word in your story and ask yourself: Is it a lazy choice? Does this adjective/article/noun/verb absolutely need to be there? If someone is nice enough to spend a half-hour reading something you’ve written, try to make your prose absolutely worthy of his or her time. Make the dream that unfolds inside your sentences so persuasive, seamless and compelling, that your reader won’t put it down.