Anthony Doerr's three-year tenure as Idaho's writer-in-residence ends this month, and he'll mark the occasion with the publication of a new book.
Memory Wall--his first collection of short stories since his acclaimed The Shell Collector in 2002--is a feast of exotic locales and deftly created characters. The two novellas and four short stories are set on four different continents as Doerr explores the lives of people living in China, South Africa, Germany, Korea, Lithuania, Wyoming and Idaho.
"I often argue that a story collection's greatest strength is that it has the potential to roam more widely than a novel," Doerr explained one afternoon over lunch. "Between the covers of a single book, you'll find protagonists of all ages with different stories to tell. In a sense, you're getting more for your money in a short story collection: a dozen different windows into the world, rather than the single, sustained window of a novel."
Utilizing a tight, almost Hemingway-like approach to language, Doerr achieves clarity by pruning away excess, drawing the reader into a realm that is at once familiar and exotic.
"I never think of the potential power of my writing," Doerr said. "I never think of it in grand terms. I'm just trying to create something seamless and interesting. I work almost entirely by instinct and doubt. I doubt my work all the way through the process, and after it's published, I doubt it even more."
Doerr might be alone in that doubt. During the past eight years, he has emerged as a highly respected writer among readers, literary organizations and his peers. His short fiction won three O. Henry Prizes. He has been honored with the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, the Rome Prize, and the New York Public Library's Young Lions of Fiction Award. In 2007, Granta (a quarterly literary magazine) placed him on its list of the "21 Best Young American novelists" after the publication of his first novel, About Grace. Recently, Doerr was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which comes with a check for more than $40,000.
As Idaho's writer-in-residence, Doerr served as a literary ambassador for Idaho. Cort Conley, Idaho Commission on the Arts' literature program director, said Doerr will be missed when he steps down.
"So far, every former Idaho writer-in-residence has left a large pair of shoes to fill," Conley said. "After Doerr's amiable, graceful residency--what? Sasquatch?"
Being the writer-in-residence offered Doerr the opportunity to take giant footsteps toward learning more about Idaho and its citizens.
"I've read in towns like Coeur d'Alene, Moscow, Rexburg, Driggs and Twin Falls," Doerr said. "I've discovered there's a quiet hunger for books and literature throughout the state. I've gotten to meet hundreds of kids and hopefully, I've shown them that you don't have to be from Paris or New York to be a full-time writer."
As inspiring as cities like Paris, New York and the other locales Doerr writes about are, he didn't need to visit each one to give Memory Wall its vivid sense of place.
"In 'Village 113,' the exact location of where the story is set is never specified," Doerr explained. "I have been to Hong Kong, but never to mainland China. I used my journals from my travels to the Far East and combined them with research and imagination to create a sense of place. Sometimes I feel it's better to write a story away from the place you're writing about."
The title piece of Doerr's new collection is the story of 74-year-old Alma Konachek, a woman from Cape Town, South Africa, whose memories have been harvested and recorded on cartridges, which are commonly traded on the street like DVDs. Devious characters quickly discover that one of Alma's recollections might reveal the location of something hidden, priceless and extremely rare.
An exciting story full of visual possibilities, Memory Wall would be a perfect candidate for the movies. It comes as no surprise that someone else thought so, too.
"We've already optioned the film rights to that novella," Doerr acknowledged, "but I don't think I'm the screenwriter type. I'm too fond of being a narrator and controlling where a reader's attention goes.
"In a story or a novel, a writer gets to be director, actor, cinematographer and sound editor. Film is too collaborative. I prefer to work with language. You need $1 million to make a good movie. All you need to make a persuasive novel is a pencil and a ream of paper."
As the 36-year-old Doerr approaches mid-career, he suggests that his perspective on the writing life has changed.
"I know now that good work comes from a pure and truthful place inside," Doerr said. "That the best work is not guided by thoughts about what folks might like to see or what might sell. The best work comes from the love of an idea and spending thousands of hours seeing that idea to fruition."