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Strollers, Language Barriers and the Pope

Local author Anthony Doerr talks about his new non-memoir

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Much of the press/preview material I receive here at Boise Weekly--especially from local writers--is nonfiction. I prefer the escapism that fiction offers, but by virtue of my job, I try to read everything that is sent in. On occasion, I'm lucky enough to come across a nonfiction book that is as captivating and consuming as fiction is for me.

Ironically, the latest such book to land on my desk was penned by Boisean Anthony Doerr, who is known as (and considers himself) a fiction writer. He's the author of The Shell Collector, a volume of short stories, and About Grace, a novel. He's also Idaho's newest Writer in Residence.

In early 2004, Doerr received a letter stating that he had been awarded a one-year fellowship to pursue whatever kind of writing he wanted at the American Academy in Rome. Doerr's wife Shauna had given birth to the couple's twins, Owen and Henry, just days before the letter arrived. In November, the Doerrs packed the twins, an English-to-Italian dictionary, a couple dozen Nutri-Grain bars, and headed off on their Roman adventure, where Doerr planned to use the inspiration he was sure the ancient city would provide to work on a new novel. What he discovered when he and his family arrived at the academy was that even the smallest tasks could become huge enterprises. On one occasion, while shopping, he wanted a jar of tomato sauce with mushrooms, but, due to his poor Italian, kept asking the shopkeeper for grapefruit sauce with basil. He also found that tiny moments could leave lasting impressions--he was able to snatch the briefest glimpse of Pope John Paul just months before the Pontiff died. And, most people, even old men in suits, are fascinated by twins.

With prose as intricate and beautiful as many of the works of art he stood before during his year in Rome, Doerr relates all of his experiences, big and small, in his newest project, Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World, due to hit shelves on June 12.

Recently, over lunch at a local pizzeria, Boise Weekly spoke with Doerr about his nonfiction novel.

Usually, here is where a basic Q&A would start, but meeting with Doerr was not conducive to a typical question-and-answer interview. He's an engaging man and, as a writer and observer, he was the one asking the questions more often than not. In just a few short minutes into the interview, I forgot I was there to gather material for an article, and we fell into the simple give-and-take of conversation. But in this comfortable getting-to-know-you exchange, plenty of interesting tidbits about Doerr's stay in Rome and the subsequent book did come up. I eventually managed to ask a handful of questions myself.

Boise Weekly: I see you're doing a reading at the Cabin on June 7, right?

Anthony Doerr: It's a benefit. The whole thing is for them. It's only $6 or $4 for members. [All the ticket proceeds] go to the Cabin. We'll have books for sale, and they'll get everything from each book sold.

And you'll do readings just from the new book?

Yeah. The publisher will send me around to some other cities to promote the book, too.

So this reading is part promotion, part Cabin benefit?

It's really just more of a party to launch the book. There will be beer and wine and chocolate. Obviously, I benefit because people get to know the book exists, but it helps the Cabin, too. Then my publisher will send me to Portland, Seattle and San Francisco, and that's it, which is nice.

So you're not traveling across the country or acrossthe world?

No! For About Grace, I did 20 cities in 21 days. The boys had just been born, I got back to Boise for two nights and then we moved to Rome. And, a friend of ours got married on one of those nights. So it's fun, but you get sick of going through security at airports [laughs].

Did you go to Rome planning to write a novel?

The award gives writers time to work on a new project.

Does it matter what kind of a writing project?

It's funny. You would think they would want to see pieces of it, but they're really more about giving you that one year of experience. The American Academy of Rome started in about 1890 for architects. Carnegie and Rockefeller, and tons of American money was behind it. These super-famous architects designed this unbelievable building. The idea was to send American architects to Europe to learn about classical and baroque architecture. Then, in maybe the '20s, [the academy] expanded to painters, and they started adding scholars, and now I think 30 people get the Rome prize; composers, sculptors and two writers. It's pretty cool. And all the other fields people apply for, but in writing, you just get nominated. I wrote about that a little bit [in Four Seasons]: We get this letter on the American Academy letterhead in the mailbox. I went on the Web to do a little research. And the committee's anonymous, too, so you never really know who nominated you.

That's kind of strange ...

It's really cool. It's like this shot of lighting that comes out of the dark.

Did you intend for this memoir to come out of that trip?

No. I'm a fiction writer. I keep a journal every day. Not a diary of my feelings or anything, just kind of the things I see. But when I travel, I'm always doing more in it just because there's so much more to look at. So, I kept that journal a lot [in Rome], and I wasn't sleeping, and we went from having no kids to having two kids. Eventually, the journal and Rome were consuming my attempts to write fiction. And I had just had my second book [About Grace] come out, so I was trying to get a new project off the ground.

Did you already have the idea for the new novel in your head?

I did. I'm still working on it. That's what I've been working on since I finished [Four Seasons]. It's set in Europe. It's set in France, but I was still thinking it would be perfect: I'd go over there and work on it, but immediately, Rome kind of consumed all that. It was such an interesting time, and I'd never lived in a [big] city before ... just the noises and the swirling history of the place and the food. And the new babies. The babies were like magnets! People kept coming up to us all the time ... old men and men in nice suits [were always] falling all over the babies. When I got back [to Boise], I started writing [Four Seasons] at night, trying to get those memories down, working from my journal. I wanted to get it down before I forgot it. I had written a few letters for a magazine and an editor asked if I'd considered turning all of it into a book, so that's where it all started.

Does it feel like you're letting people read your journal withthis book?

I'm not sure yet. It comes out June 12. A lot of galleys were sent out, but I haven't had many reviews. Kirkus Reviews reviewed it and that was nice, but I'll be interested to read newspaper reviews. At the same time, I think it's an anti-memoir memoir. It's not so much about me as it is about the things I saw.

It does seem external, more about your perception of everything around you. But I just wonder if being known as a fiction writer and more so a nature writer, if reviews will be harder to take because you do write about your twins and your wife?

That's a great question. I think I'll be able to answer it in a month or two. The short story collection was universally well received. It was such a shock; I had no expectations that anybody would even be interested. And even though the novel did quite well, anything less than the Pulitzer is suddenly disappointing [laughs].

Soon, Doerr and I were chatting about writing, food, raising children and other things two people who've only just met might cover. Suddenly, our time was up and as Doerr walked out of the restaurant, I realized I'd just met a man whose work I really enjoyed and admired, and who, in just a little over an hour, I'd also come to admire as a person. Now, I'm looking forward to hearing him read from Four Seasons. For me, it will be like seeing an old friend.

Anthony Doerr reads from Four Seasons in Rome to benefit the Cabin, June 7, 7:30 p.m., $6 general, $4 Cabin members, the Rose Room, 718 W. Idaho St. For more information, visit www.anthonydoerr.com.

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