Author Interviews
5:22 pm
Sun May 25, 2014

World War II In A New 'Light': Empathy Found In Surprising Places

Originally published on Sun May 25, 2014 6:57 pm

In the world of fiction, World War II is well-trod territory. Author Anthony Doerr will freely admit that.

"There are so many books written about the war, supposedly if you drop them on Germany it would cover the whole country," he jokes. He even says that he worried about that as he was writing his new novel, All The Light We Cannot See.

His solution was to "dwell, very specifically" on two new, unfamiliar perspectives of war-ridden Europe. First, there's a young French girl named Marie-Laure, blind and led through the winding streets of coastal citadel Saint-Malo by her locksmith father. Some 500 miles to the east, a German orphan named Werner believes he's escaped to a better life when his talents with radio sweep him up into a Nazi education.

The result is an epic tale of two lives intertwining, as every chapter — each just a few pages long — jumps between viewpoints, countries and times.

Doerr spoke with NPR's Arun Rath about his inspiration for the novel and why it's still important to write and think about World War II.


Interview Highlights

On the very first source of inspiration for the novel

I was on a train heading into Penn Station from Princeton, N.J., and we started going underground. The man in front of me was on his cellphone call — this was in 2004 — and the call dropped. And he got kind of angry, a little embarrassingly angry, unreasonably angry.

And I just remember thinking, what he's forgetting — really what we're all forgetting all the time — is that this is a miracle. He's using this little receiver and transmitter, this little radio in his pocket, to send messages at the speed of light rebounding between towers to somebody maybe thousands of miles away. He might have been talking to someone in Madagascar for all I knew. For me, that's a miracle.

So ... originally, the real central motivation for the book was to try and conjure up a time when hearing the voice of a stranger in your home was a miracle.

On setting the book in Saint-Malo during World War II

For about a year after hearing that conversation on the train, I did not know where or yet quite when I was going to set the book. All I knew is that I had a blind girl reading a story to a boy over the radio. And it wasn't until a year later, I was on book tour in France and stopped in the seaside town of Saint-Malo. It's this walled citadel right on these aqua waters of the English channel. I'm walking on the ramparts after a whole day of exploring these granite mansions and walking the low-tide beaches. And I told my editor, "It's amazing to be in such an old city!" And he said, "Well, actually in August of 1944, this city was almost entirely destroyed by American bombs."

First, what compelled me so much was that in a decade of rebuilding, those kind of memories, that level of violence could be so written over that a foolish tourist like me couldn't necessarily even notice it. I thought that was dazzling. And then secondly, this idea that there were all these still-untold stories tucked within the D-Day story. I feel like, here this was two months after D-Day and the Allies had penetrated almost halfway to Paris. And yet here was this citadel where Germans were still holding out. Those things really drew me into the story.

On the origin of Werner, the German orphan character

There was a photograph in Life magazine of a boy who was 15 years old when the United States 9th Army took a town called Reichenbach. And the photo is of the boy, who's clearly in a uniform that's too large. He's 15 years old. His father had died in '38, and his mother had died in '44, and he had joined the Luftwaffe, the air force, to support himself.

And the photo was the first time really in my adulthood that I had thought to empathize with a German citizen. In the narratives growing up from the war, Germans were primarily evil. And I thought ... I'm gonna see if I can make this boy growing up in Germany try to understand how evil is something of degrees, step-by-step we go toward it.

On why it's important to still be writing about World War II

Right now we're at this incredible time. I feel really passionately about this. We're losing thousands of people for whom World War II is memory every day. In another decade, there will be nobody left — very very few people left — who can remember the war. And so history becomes something that becomes slightly more malleable.

And I worry about how my own sons, my 10-year-old sons, are learning about the war, whether it's through video games or the History Channel. Often, particularly politicians, they're often presenting the war as a very black-and-white narrative. I worry that that's dangerous. I think it's important to empathize with how citizens come to a certain point, and you know, that might be a more meaningful way to try and avoid what had happened.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Is there anything left to say about World War II?

ANTHONY DOERR: There are so many books written about the war. Supposedly if you dropped them on Germany, it would cover the whole country. I'm not sure if that's true but I thought, you know, why do I need to add one more? And for me, I just thought I would try to dwell very specifically on these two children as they move through the war.

RATH: That's writer Anthony Doerr, and the children he's talking about are the protagonists in his new novel "All the Light We Cannot See." Doerr is exploring familiar history through unfamiliar perspectives, hoping you can see the world from the view point of these two children. He admits that was a challenge for one of them, a young boy named Werner who becomes a Nazi. I asked Doerr to talk first about Werner's counterpart, the French girl Marie.

DOERR: She's a sightless girl. She loses her sight at the age of 6. Her father works at the natural history museum in Paris and is the master of the locks there, in charge of thousands upon thousands of locks. I like to think of him as a loving father. He helps her learn to see in all the ways she cannot see.

And in 1940, as I'm sure most folks know, is that Germans come pounding into Paris in June of 1940. Lots and lots of things change very quickly and he has to flee with his daughter Marie to the town in Brittany called Saint-Malo.

RATH: And let's talk about Werner 'cause we see the process of him becoming a Nazi but at the same time he's a boy.

DOERR: Yeah, I mean, he's an orphan. He grows up in a little coalmining town called Zollverein near Essen, Germany. And Werner is drawn - he finds a radio as a young boy and is drawn to electronics. He finds out that he's quite gifted at fixing and repairing them. And this turns out to be a ticket out of the mines. And in some ways he thinks maybe a ticket towards a larger life for himself.

But unfortunately, he goes to a an elite paramilitary school that really funnels boys into the elite of the Nazi Party. So while they may be teaching him quality engineering one hour, the next hour they're teaching him just awful things. You know, eugenics or just, you know, straight up military combat stuff. So he ends up making some difficult and poor choices. But I hope the reader stays with him and finds herself implicated morally even if, as she finds herself maybe cheering for Werner and realizing what that means to root for him.

RATH: Well, what you see with him and experience with him it's, in a way, what I think a lot of young Germans experienced in World War II. You have a generation of boys who are taught to turn off their humanity.

DOERR: You got it. Yes. And, yeah, part of the reason the book took me so long, you know, the book took me 10 years to make was all the research for that was harrowing, you know, trying to understand, you know, not just about the Holocaust and what's happening on the Eastern Front, but all these insidious ways that propaganda was worked into the minds of poor people in Germany. You know, particularly through radio; these people's receivers, these state subsidized receivers that really was the only radio a middle-income or a lower-income family could afford.

You know, those incapable of shortwave really could only receive two or three big national stations just hammering this nationalism into the heads of poorer people.

RATH: You're touching on an aspect of the book that appeals to a lot of us working here - this recognition, almost a celebration of the power of radio.

DOERR: Great. Hooray. I'm glad. Yeah, I mean, originally the whole idea for the book came for me, I was on a train heading into Penn Station from Princeton, New Jersey and we started going underground. And the man in front of me was on his cell phone call - this was in 2004 - and his call dropped. And he got kind of angry, he got a little embarrassingly angry, unreasonably angry.

And I just remember thinking, you know, what he's forgetting - really what we're all forgetting all the time is that this is a miracle. You know, he's using this little receiver and transmitter, this little radio in his pocket, to send messages at the speed of light, you know, rebounding between towers to somebody maybe thousands of miles away. He might have been talking to somebody in Madagascar, for all I knew. You know, for me, that's a miracle.

So I wanted to - originally, the real central motivation for the book was to try to conjure up a time when hearing the voice of a stranger in your home was a miracle.

RATH: I'm wondering where this novel came from because it seems what I know of you, far outside of your experience. You're a relatively young novelist. You're from the middle of America. You didn't grow up close to this history that you're writing about. What led you here?

DOERR: For about a year after hearing that conversation on the train, I did not know where or yet quite when I was going to set the book. All I knew is that I had a blind girl reading a story to a boy over the radio. And it wasn't until a year later, I was on book tour in France and stopped in the seaside town of Saint-Malo. It's this walled citadel right on these aqua waters of the English Channel.

RATH: You know, I'm walking on the ramparts after a whole day of exploring all these granite mansions and walking the low-tide beaches. And I told my editor, you know, it's amazing to be in such an old city. And he said, well, actually in August of 1944, this city was almost entirely destroyed by American bombs. And first, what compelled me so much was that in a decade of rebuilding, those kind of memories, that level of violence could be so written over that, you know, a foolish tourist like me couldn't necessarily even notice it. I thought that was dazzling.

DOERR: And then secondly, this idea that there were all these still-untold stories tucked within the D-Day story. I feel like, you know, here this was two months after D-Day and the Allies had penetrated almost halfway to Paris. And yet here was this citadel where Germans were still holding out. So, those things really drew me into the story. And before I knew it I thought, well, here's a time when radio was important and here's a place that I feel really connected to and vitally interested in.

RATH: And where did Werner come from then?

DOERR: Werner came really ultimate from a photograph. There was a photograph in Life magazine of a boy who was 15 years old when the United States 9th Army took a town called Reichenbach. And the photo is of the boy, who's clearly in a uniform that's too large. He's 15 years old. His father had died in '38, and his mother had died in '44, and he had joined the Luftwaffe, the air force, to support himself.

And the photo was the first time really in my adulthood that I had thought to empathize with a German citizen. In the narratives growing up from the war, Germans were primarily evil. And I thought, you know, here I've got this sympathetic girl. You know, I'm going to see if I can make this boy growing up in Germany try to understand how evil is something of degrees, step-by-step we go toward it. And it's not necessarily, you know - let me back up one second.

Right now we're at this incredible time - I feel really passionately about this - that we're losing thousands of people for whom World War II is memory every day. In another decade, there will be nobody left, very, very few people left who can remember the war. And so history becomes something that becomes slightly more malleable.

And I worry about how my own sons, my 10-year-old sons, are learning about the war, whether it's through video games or the History Channel. Often, particularly politicians, they're often presenting the war as a very black-and-white narrative. And I worry that that's dangerous. I think it's important to empathize with how citizens come to a certain point, and you know, that might be a more meaningful way to try and avoid what had happened.

RATH: That's author Anthony Doerr. His new book is called "All the Light We Cannot See." It's out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.