Last week, Anthony Doerr ’95 was named a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction for his 2014 novel “All the Light We Cannot See.” The novel follows the converging stories of a blind French girl and a German boy who gets recruited into an academy for Hitler Youth during World War II.

“It was an effort for me to try to humanize all sides of the floor,” said Doerr in a phone interview with the Orient.  “I realize that…horrific things were happening done by some German citizens, but it’s a little too simplistic to say all Germans were evil and all the Allies were good.”

Doerr said he struggles to succintly summarize his work.

“For me it takes every word of a book to tell that story," he said.

Doerr's time at Bowdoin—during which he dabbled in science, film, and Russian classes in addition to English and History—sparked a lifelong curiosity for learning about people and the world around him.

“Bowdoin taught me how to be a lifelong learner…using inquiry, using questions, following your curiosity, positioning you to be a curious person for the rest of your life,” he said.

Although Doerr majored in history, he was always secretly writing stories and keeping a private journal during his time at Bowdoin. Unable to imagine a financially secure future as a fiction writer, Doerr studied history as a more “legitimate” option.

“I felt like fiction writing wasn’t something you could make money in,” said Doerr. “My parents were paying for me to go to school…and I thought I should at least pursue something I might be able to teach.”

“I just didn’t know any novelists. I didn’t understand that that was a path that was really readily available to me,” said Doerr.

However, Doerr’s academic pursuit of history allowed him to explore various forms of research while honing his writing skills. He “fell in love” with the Civil Rights Movement, World War II and post-World War II history.

“All my research was mostly books, reading transcripts of interviews, learning to research on paper…now I do most of my research on screen,” he said. But to Doerr these skills “become really relevant as a fiction writer.”

Doerr is grateful for his professors at Bowdoin, who he describes as “world-class, brilliant people.”

Doerr took Latin American history courses with Roger Howell, Jr. Professor of History Allen Wells, who remembers him fondly.

“He was a wonderful student,” said Wells. “I would always save his [essays] for the very bottom of the pile. It would be my reward to get to—sort of like a bowl of ice cream,” said Wells, who knew Doerr as Tony.

“It was because he wrote so well, he was very analytical, he came at the topics and the readings in a different way than most students, so I always liked that,” Wells added.

Wells thoroughly enjoyed “All the Light We Cannot See,” which he read at the end of the summer and into the school year.

“It took me to a different place and a different time,” he said. “It wasn’t the kind of heavy depressing story that I have come to associate with...that period. I think the characterizations are just beautiful.”

Although Wells acknowledges that he is “not an English professor,” he said, “it is just beautiful writing…he really made that period come alive for me.”

Brock Clarke, a professor of English and fiction writer himself, also gave high praise to Doerr.
“The book is terrific—swift, uniquely able to handle Big Subjects, but to do so intelligently, idiosyncratically, movingly. I’m not at all surprised that the book has gotten such acclaim, such wide readership. It deserves it,” wrote Clarke in an email to the Orient.

Doerr said he is excited to go with his wife, fellow Bowdoin alum Shauna Eastman ’94, to the National Book Award event in New York City on November 16, where he will get to mingle with other finalists. He is especially excited to meet two-time finalist Marilynne Robinson, who Doerr said, “has always been an icon to me.”

“Everybody’s interesting if you ask them the right questions and focus deeply enough on their lives," he said. “The world inspires me.” 

Doerr is currently working on projects ranging in subject from the Panama Canal to Constantinople to space travel.

“My problem is almost that there’s too much inspiration in the world sometimes, he said.